Sharing the Light, Embracing the Shadow: Visual Art through the Cinematographer’s Lens
by D.Amari Jackson
Ever seen the “Nuncaland” episode of Terence Nance’s breakout series Random Acts of Flyness on HBO? Or Nike’s “Beginnings” commercial with LeBron James? How about Common’s “Black America Again” video?
Well, that means you’ve seen the work of cinematographer Shawn Peters. The talented filmmaker, who began his career shooting music videos for such artists as Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo, has worked on projects with a wide variety of clients and celebrities including Nike, Mercedes, Alicia Keys, Calvin Klein, Muscle Milk, Solange, and many more. Peters’ film projects have premiered at Sundance, the Rotterdam International Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival.
Impressive, right? By all means. That acknowledged, right about now you are probably wondering, “But what does a cinematographer actually do…?” If so, you should not feel ashamed given the answer to that question is neither singular nor simple, and can depend on which cinematographer you ask.
Generally, a cinematographer, otherwise known as the “DP” or director of photography, plays a varied and critical role in a film project as the individual most tasked with giving visual life to the director’s vision. As a camera operator and technician, the cinematographer is the chief of the camera and light crews and the one primarily responsible for what we literally see onscreen. Responsibilities commonly include shooting the film, lighting and photographing each scene of the film, arranging and properly equipping camera shots and angles, color correction and color grading, and ensuring the project conforms to storyboard requirements and director specifications.
Clearly, as photographers charged with shooting, lighting, and, yes, painting the scenes of a film, cinematographers are artists. And some enlightened ones, like Peters, clearly recognize the connections between motion pictures and what we traditionally label as ‘visual art.’
“Light and shadow is everything in photography,” promotes Peters, who attended Morehouse College before pursuing a MA in Media Arts and Photography at the University of South Carolina. “One of the things I tend to tell young cinematographers is that the darkness reveals the light, not the other way around. You see the light because there’s darkness around it,” clarifies Peters, noting that “you visually see a streak of light coming in from the window because, above that streak is shadow, and below it is shadow. It’s not that light comes in and reveals the darkness because, obviously, you don’t see the darkness anymore once the light comes in. The darkness and shadow reveal the light and shape it, so I’m conscious of that in my work.”
In comparable fashion, through light and shadow, painters or visual artists are “able to trick the mind and conjure a memory,” offers Peters, stressing “that’s really what it comes down to. In order for someone to believe something, to a certain extent, it’s because they have a recorded memory of a certain scene or moment, and that’s what really goes to the emotion or to the heart of the viewer.” Simultaneously, “a lot of what we know as the visual world or reality is the interplay of light and shadow, and how that intersects with form, texture, and color. We store trillions of these scenes and memories from our daily travels, and that data is accessible,” he explains. “So when you see a painting, the computer that is your brain or your subconscious recognizes something and, if it has an emotional memory, that’s when you like something” and you’ll say things like “I don’t know why, but I have a feeling about this painting,” continues Peters, adding “you’ll often hear that, and that’s what that comes from.”
Over the years, Peters has encouraged other practitioners of light and shadow to delve more deeply into collecting art, including his close friend and industry colleague, Bradford Young. An Academy Award-nominated cinematographer for the 2016 blockbuster, Arrival, starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker, Young’s many films include such noted projects as Selma, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Pariah, Mother of George, A Most Violent Year, and the Netflix docuseries When They See Us.
Fittingly, the two filmmakers have shadowed each other’s moves for decades. Both attended Historically Black Colleges & Universities—Peters at Morehouse, Young at Howard. Both own homes in Baltimore while splitting time in Brooklyn. Both have become prominent, in-demand cinematographers in the film, TV, and video industries. Both collect, work with, and associate with numerous African-American artists from Titus Kaphar to Kerry James Marshall to Amy Sherald to Khalif Thompson. This past month, both filmmakers purchased works by the talented Thompson.
Further, Young, like his “big brother” Peters, is adamant about the important connections between visual art and motion pictures.
“It’s really about how can the art inform the cinematography,” offered Young, in an exclusive interview with BAIA’s Najee Dorsey. “Filmmaking itself is such a young art form, and it’s an art form that’s prospered at the expense of Black people. That’s why I think Shawn and I are attracted to figurative art; because it checks the box around representation that Black filmmaking has not been able to achieve at such a scale. We are so fascinated with Kerry James Marshall as cinematographers, because it’s such a feat to try and get that density and complexity, and be allowed to bring that density and complexity into the images,” explained Young, noting that “in the art world, it is unapologetically Black people’s moment, and nobody is telling us what is or what isn’t. When you render a Black figure on a canvas, it is everything that it is there in front of you.” So, in the film industry, “I’m trying to be as bold and as significant as the Black artists.”
While such comparisons shed light on the historic and ongoing challenges of autonomy and definitional authority facing Black filmmakers, they also speak to the bottom line of any industry. Money.
“If I didn’t have art making friends, being a filmmaker would be a lonely, lonely, lonely place because I don’t get to self-determine the way my artist friends get to self-determine, I don’t have the same amount of sovereignty or autonomy as they do, and if I wanted to just be a straight savage and go get money, I don’t even have that opportunity,” Young told Dorsey, acknowledging how cinematographers are traditionally underpaid, particularly given the relative salaries of their colleagues on set. “So I’m also trying to use these moments to inform how I operate in the film world as my whole language around my body of work and what is monetary value in the film space is, right now, totally informed by what my Black art friends are making in the art world.”
Pointing to how contemporary white film producers pay large sums of money to collect works by Black visual artists, and how top fashion magazines also pay hefty amounts to photographers, Young stressed how cinematographers are both artists and photographers who are not being compensated as such. “Why do you see me any differently? I’m an artist, I’m a Black artist, I’m here making it happen for these movies. If there’s no cinematographer, there’s no film, it’s just radio.”
Accordingly, for African-American cinematographers like Young and Peters, the Black art world helps shine a light into the remaining shadows of a film industry still clinging to its gnarled and entrenched 19th century roots. For such is the process of light and shadow in its eternal cosmic dance, the former ultimately revealing what has always been there in the dark, a space far from empty, teeming with energy, be it good, bad, or ugly, yet ever true. It is this type of revelatory interplay between light and shadow that Peters gravitates toward with African-American visual artists like Khalif Thompson.
“I kind of went right to a piece with his brother called Selah,” recalls Peters, who had almost bought a different work from Thompson until seeing the ethereal image of the artist’s brother on canvas. At the time, not knowing it was his relative, Peters reached out to voice his interest and was told by Thompson that the piece was “very special” to him because it was his brother. “You see like this ghost of another pair of hands, like a spirit,” depicts Peters, noting “it feels otherworldly in some ways, as part of his body has become spirit or deformed. So I was wondering what that’s about.” While he has yet to find out why the artist rendered his brother in this fashion, Peters acknowledges, “I want to hear more about it, but just the fact that he said it was special to him personally and that it was a portrait of his brother sort of tipped my desire to buy because I’m often more interested in the story behind the piece than just the aesthetic beauty of it.”
Ultimately, for Peters, the creative navigation of light and shadow in both film and visual art is to reveal the one thing that most artists spend their lives seeking—truth.
“I think your responsibility is to tell the truth, whatever that is,” promotes Peters, and “that’s sometimes good, bad, or indifferent. I think when you start getting into a sort of ‘respectability’ art, you’re already considering someone else’s gaze,” someone that’s “usually not Black.” Because, he adds, “you wouldn’t care if it was just among us, right?”
“So, essentially, the only responsibility is to tap into the truth,” reiterates Peters. “And if it comes out of Black people, it’s already coming from a certain ontological position. If you love your Blackness and Black people, your gaze is already different—even if it’s something that may be negative, positive, or whatever, as all that stuff is subjective,” continues Peters. “If you do love Black people, you love the totality of Black people and you’re not going to be limited to tropes. You’re not going to limit it to simplicity, or oversimplify a life.
“You understand that it’s complex.”
Cinematographers Bradford Young and Shawn Peters in an exclusive interview with BAIA’s Najee Dorsey.
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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