Thursday, September 15, 2016

Camouflage Through Purposeful Shadow Disruption

Paul Strand, Porch Shadows (1916)
Above Photograph by Paul Strand, titled Porch Shadows (1916)•. Courtesy Library of Congress. Public domain.

Strand was one of a number of photographers before and after World War I who relied on a well-known shadow effect that resembles the patterns of venetian blinds. Other examples are easily found, notably in the photographs of Max Dupain••, Harold Cazneaux, Alexander Rodchenko, and Laszlo Moholy Nagy.

As mentioned in an earlier post, disruptive shadow effects are also frequently found in paintings in the latter part of the 19th century, especially Impressionist. Among the most compelling is John Singer Sargent's masterful Breakfast in the Loggia (1910), which is reproduced below.

John Singer Sargent, Breakfast in the Loggia (1910)

In the early years of World War I, military camoufleurs began to apply disruptive patterns to vehicles and other equipment, to purposely break up their shapes. Soon after (probably as a consequence of a proposal by British painter and camouflage officer Solomon J. Solomon), it became evident that disruptive patterns can also result from the shadow effects of the overhead sun. Nets suspended overhead, garnished with scraps of fabric, could break up any components below, without applying any paint. We've talked about this earlier as umbrella camouflage.

Of course, this was nothing new. Today the same effect is seen on a tennis court, when the shadows of the chain link fence break up the shape of a lost ball in the grass. In an issue of the Illustrated London News (August 31, 1918, p. 233), this disruptive shadow effect was demonstrated in a photograph (shown below) of a group of soldiers inspecting a supply of ammunition, stored beneath a garnished net.

At the end of the war, non-military examples of shadow disruption were published in an issue of The Sketch (May 22, 1919, p. 209), with the headline: SUN PICTURES! LIGHT EFFECTS IN A FEZ BAZAAR: A Picturesque Network Effect of Light and Shade: Interesting French Photographs of a Covered Market at Fez. One example is shown below.

Finally, it is only fitting to conclude with one of the best-known photographs of shadow distruption (below) by the Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko, titled Girl with a Leica (c1933).

There is some disagreement about the proper orientation of Paul Strand's photograph. Should it be in vertical format, as shown here, or should it be horizontal instead, with the circular table in the upper right corner? It is most commonly reproduced as a vertical.
•• Australian art historian Ann Elias has written extensively on Max Dupain and the purposeful use of shadows in photography and camouflage.