The title of this blog being lifted from Lyle's thoughts on photography in his book "The Photographs of Lyle Bongé" best describes his explorations into the specular quality of light and concomitant dark. His course in photography and printing at The New School in the early 1980's was titled "Light on Dark Corners" and had as much to do with the quality of light and how the photographer sees it, uses it and bends it to his will through technical manipulation of his equipment and in the alchemy of the darkroom, as it did to the final photograph; which, may be less identified with the more concrete interpretation of light on dark corners.
The "Cosmos Series" which had begun some 20 years prior to this particular photograph, did not earn that moniker until he began to seriously explore eroded street lines in New York City in 1980. His initial problem was that when correctly exposed of course, asphalt is medium gray and often light gray and rarely an absolute black even when fresh. Thus a correctly exposed image would not allow the contrast and clarity seen in the "Cosmos Series" and would come cloudy or muddy, not crystalline and bottomless black. So the basic approach was to underexpose, giving the more assertive light, that of specular reflections, and light objects and fields greater impact on the film, and darker objects less impact. Then developing in a brew of his own that was engineered for contrast, a "Hot" developer was used and even more of the silver was removed from darker regions of the exposure, hence the inky, stygian, cosmic blacks that Lyle obtained.
In the digital age there is more we can do in "post" and adapting, say the Zone System or a technique as simple as Lyle's that bridges both the manipulation of light as it's transformed by the camera through settings by the photographer, and the many possibilities allowed by the professional's editing software. As the greater part of my photographic life has been dominated by a jealous clinging to "traditional" photography as somehow more pure than digital, I came to realize this to be a specious argument and that we inexorably move forward through technological evolution. How many photographers are using glass plates, ferrotype, or daguerreotype processes these days? It is admirable there are a few who do and it's grand there are film photographers still working feverishly but in time all that will also pass into antiquity. My intent was not to champion digital here, this is an intermediary musing of mine.
The single most important thought on photography:
"Magic is in form too and in texture. It is in the tremendous strength of a shape crowded by the picture's edge and strengthened by the play of light on its surface. An Ordinary thing, cleaned of its context, can have strength of form, exquisiteness of texture, and hanging in space, become magical." --Lyle Bongé
One has to pay attention, but when one does, one sees "magic" as it always surrounds us. The photographer "sees" and thereby gives all of us viewers a chance to see magic. We're often criticized for being artists who don't actually "create" anything and are further insulted by being called simple "documentarians" of the world we inhabit. What is lost on the detractors is "seeing" and not theirs but ours.
First, yes we document the world we "see" not particularly the one we inhabit. Once, and when we are lucky enough, we press the shutter release at that one perfect moment and freeze it, we have already altered its inherent reality. This involves our usually considered and thoughtful composition (sometimes meticulous) and is the first instance of altering something's inherent reality. The perfect moment of exposure is bound by that but informed first by the photographer's "seeing" and recognition of magic.
Then either in the way we manipulate our technology (the camera settings/exposure/focal length/aperture) and further the aforementioned darkroom alchemy, we can again alter an inherent reality and in some cases drastically, creating an altogether new reality. There is also when photographing people, a shared moment in both subject and photographer that often subtly alters the reality. So either by the photographer's individual sensitivity, set of preconceptions, desire to create an emotional response, composition, and everything that makes us human, or by the interaction with subjects, the interpretation of what our "seeing" means at the particular moment, and factors not even calculable we are not simply documentarians and I contest the cavalier assumption that we don't "create" anything.
If I were to wrap this up coming back to magic and what the photographer sees when looking for it and often finding it, I would have to say that the thing that separates a wonderful image from a mundane one is more often than not an infinitesimal distance. In a non-objective approach it's all on the photographer to bridge the chasm between the wonderful and mundane, and there are "hits" and "misses" without question. In objective photography, people & portraiture, street photography and all its other forms there's sometimes the happy accident. Inaptly named accident as the photographer is required to be paying absolute attention to capture the right moment, the moment that is the wonderful image.
An example would be say you are photographing a playground of children. One exposure may tell a story of happy and cheerful children playing and I'd ask how many damned pictures of happy children playing do we see and are taken by anyone holding a camera? Paying attention to this mundane scene of cheerful children playing, the photographer may be given something more significant. Say you linger and pay attention and for whatever reason there is one child, standing alone among all that cheerful play of cavorting children, somewhat separated but surrounded by all that mirth, and mouth agape, tears streaming, bawling, their visage a picture of contorted sadness, you press the shutter release after quickly composing within the frame. Bang there you may have the exposure among many that has the quality of a fine image. Then you must choose how to print it, color or black & white, dark, high contrast, low contrast, cropping... ...all the things that strangely seem like "creating" something which the photographer has been accused of NOT doing.