Photography, Caravaggio & The Musicians

By Yínka Elujoba

June 21, 2019

The Musicians. Late 16th century. Oil on canvas, 92.1 x 118.4 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Courtesy of the Rogers Fund (1952) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Walking through a market one evening with a photographer friend, she turned to me and declared: “Photography is literally drawing with light!” We had been together on a road trip across Nigeria for days and were pausing in Calabar. She had been taking pictures throughout midday, when the sun—the light—was at its brightest, seemingly concentrated on the center of the market. I had been walking behind her, trying not to get in her way, observing what I thought of at the time as the photographer’s stance—how a photographer positions their body when they’re about to shoot. The sun was setting when she made her declaration, and its new angle cast long shadows in the stalls towards the edge of the market so that it was impossible to see anything inside them. The photographs she made of those stalls had only a few visible elements, their darkness highlighting whatever tiny parts weren’t confined to the shadows. When I went recently to see Caravaggio’s The Musicians (1595) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in order to write about it for a project, I thought about my friend from two years ago.

It is already established that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610), the Italian Baroque painter, had devised a revolutionary method of working with light and darkness in his paintings, which gave them a particularly cinematic effect, obtainable only when light fills a space with targeted intensity and sensuousness. Art critic Jonathan Jones contends that light in Caravaggio’s paintings was real and that “he actually did create these lighting conditions in his work room.”[1]

Even without knowing about Jones’s argument, it would be easy to consider the painting as the precursor to photography, a quality perhaps more visible in the work of Caravaggio than that of any other Renaissance painter. For contemporary artist David Hockney a direct line can be traced, in actual practice, from the works of painters like Caravaggio to modern day photography. “The photograph is far, far older than we think. That kind of image is older. It’s just that they didn’t have the chemical fixative until the nineteenth century,” says Hockney. “It frees us. It makes the artists of the past much, much closer. They are not demi-gods way up there. They are marvelous artists but their techniques have a great deal to teach the artists of today.”[2] His theory that painters beginning from the Renaissance employed mirrors and lenses in their work seems to be gaining momentum in current scholarship. Hockney’s hypothesis first arose during a consideration of the speed with which the painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) worked. His sketches, executed within short periods, were especially accurate. Hockney believed that Ingres might have used a device, newly invented at the time, called the camera lucida—an optical device that creates a superimposition of the subject in view on the surface upon which the artist is drawing. Hockney himself experimented with one and was soon able to produce accurate sketches with immense speed. He began to search backwards in time, up to the 1400s, and noticed that many earlier painters also seemed to have used different kinds of lenses—in essence, photography without chemicals. Caravaggio, who did no preliminary drawings yet whose work more than those of almost everyone else embodies what is closest to being “photographic,” is a prime candidate for Hockney’s theory of lenses. However, pertinent for me in considering Hockney’s argument is not that the early painters were somehow “cheats” but that it was impossible for photography to not have eventually been born.

Roy DeCarava, Five Men, 1964. Gelatin silver print, 26.7 x 33.3 cm. Courtesy of the Jesse H. Metcalf Fund.

Speaking of photography, one photographer whose work reminds me of Caravaggio’s is Roy DeCarava (1919-2009).  A thorough understanding of how to use light and darkness allowed DeCarava to move beyond the limitations of midcentury cameras when it came to photographing black people, a subject he returned to throughout his long career. At midcentury, when DeCarava was first picking up a camera, color reference cards used to perform skin color balance in still photography printing were modeled only after Caucasian women dressed in bright colors. It wasn’t until furniture companies (when they had trouble differentiating between light-grained or dark-grained wood tones) began to call out Kodak for this deficiency that serious attention was also paid to dark skin tones. DeCarava decided to photograph in only white and black. He embraced shadows and darkness in his photographs and was then able to invoke a unique sensibility lying within the spectrum of blackness. And it is possible to speculate that the idea of working with light this way might have occurred to DeCarava by studying Caravaggio’s work, since he himself was a painter before he became a photographer, and had first taken up photography as a means to document his paintings.

Lights and shadows, however, appear to be too easy a subject when one thinks about Caravaggio. What excites me the most when I think about The Musicians is not tenebrism but instead the composition of the painting. The intensity of The Musicians comes from a certain squeeze in the canvas, a forceful fitting of subjects into a space too small to contain them. This kind of intensity resulting from tightly packed subjects abounds in DeCarava’s work as well. For example, in Five Men (1964) the faces of the subjects are barely contained within the frame. Yet, DeCarava’s sense of composition strikes me as even more sophisticated than Caravaggio’s. While Caravaggio appears to be aggressively packing his canvas with subjects, DeCarava seems to be cropping his images so that the frame itself is what becomes squeezed, rather than the content of the frame.

In this regard, it might be correct to say that Caravaggio’s influence on the medium of photography is more than an interplay between light and darkness; his contribution extends to composition. Speaking technically, a painting is not a portion of the world in the same way that a photograph is. We know that a photograph excludes and includes actual elements in the world depending on how its frame is adjusted. This is easy to see when one compares The Musicians with Five Men. DeCarava is able to exclude by adjusting his frame while Caravaggio is struggling to include within the frame. Yet both seem to be achieving the same thing: an intense intimacy only possible when different bodies are up-close in tight spaces. If Caravaggio did use a camera lucida, his jagged inclusion (The Musicians has an almost impossible composition with scales clearly wrong), which results in the kind of intimacy also found in DeCarava’s work, might be considered a pointer towards the eventual relationship that would come to exist between the photographer and the adjustable frame a camera makes possible. As my friend in the market proclaimed, photography is drawing with light. But it doesn’t end there. What is allowed into the frame, and what is excluded from it, is equally important.

[1] Jones, Jonathan. “Caravaggio: master photographer?” (accessed April 23, 2019).

[2] Marr, Anthony. “What the eye didn’t see…” (accessed April 23, 2019).

Yínka Elujoba is a Nigerian writer and art critic currently living in New York.


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