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October 21, 2004

Staring Into the Light

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

What's with all the backlighting? Not since the 1970s -- when movie directors and cinematographers decided that lens flare, glowiness, dust, and haze could be exploited rather than fought -- have I found myself gazing woozily into light sources quite so frequently. A few samples from the many I've noticed recently:

How to account for this vogue for backlighting? (My genius scans, by the way, don't convey just how backlight-y these images really are.) I'm going to assume for a sec that I'm not making too much out of a fashion blip. Debatable, I know, but what the heck.

In any case, my theory is that it has to do with computers and television, and the switchover from traditional values to electronic-media-age values. The people making photos, ads, and layouts are in a phase where they're determined to turn all media experiences into something akin to surfing cable or the web. And along with everything else we're doing when we're looking at a computer or a TV is the simple fact that we're looking at something that's lit from behind.

So that's my explanation for this mini-epidemic of backlighting: designers are doing their best to recreate the subjective experience of looking at something lit from behind even when they're working on paper, which reflects rather than transmits light. It's a kind of digital-electronic fundamentalism, isn't it -- a constant bringing-us-back to the most basic constant of life in the digital age: staring at a backlit screen. Does anyone have any alternative hunches about how to explain this epidemic of backlighting?

By the way, is anyone else as startled as I am by how much time many of us spend these days peering into glowing screens? Digital cameras, Palm Pilots, cellphones ... We're spending an amazing amount of our lives staring at backlit screens -- we're like a nation of people transfixed by gods-in-the-form-of-lightbulbs. It's as though we're expecting to find something in our backlit screens that's really significant, something more than a mere phone number or spreadsheet.

What do you suppose we're hoping to find in there? Perhaps with just one more click, we'll find Meaning Itself.



posted by Michael at October 21, 2004


Don't forget those iPods. They're just so pretty ...

Posted by: Dick on October 21, 2004 11:21 AM

Just now I stared into the light and saw this blog post. While not quite Meaning Itself, this blog post is certainly something more than a mere phone number or a spreadsheet. So I guess I'll keep staring....

Posted by: Outer Life on October 21, 2004 11:24 AM

I've also noticed an interesting phenomenon in TV lighting, especially on crime shows such as CSI and Missing. The characters will be backlit in a dark space, but with really odd colors that normally aren't found in an office or lab--neon pinks and yellows. Wierd.

Posted by: beloml on October 21, 2004 11:48 AM

In the post above, I meant the show Without a Trace instead of Missing.

Posted by: beloml on October 21, 2004 2:13 PM

gods-disguised-as-lightbulbs...that's hilarious.

I think your theory is possible, but I also notice a "dreaminess" to the backlighting, which I think just keeps feeding our narcissistic need for ever-more-perfect images, settings. Plus...I think sex has something to do with it---let's face it, what kind of relationship would you have with someone that you see as the sun comes up?

Psst...I actually did think god was speaking to me through my cell that odd or something?:)

Posted by: annette on October 21, 2004 4:58 PM

Another possibility: computers have lowered the cost of making "perfect" images through digital touch-ups. So making "imperfect" images is now that chance to grab the eye...

Posted by: Bob McGrew on October 21, 2004 7:03 PM

Dick -- Well, iPods do contain the secrets of the universe, don't they?

OuterLife -- Maybe the cure for both of us would be to wear dark glasses? I've always wanted to blog about the peculiar headache that results from too much staring into computer screens. It's not quite like any other headache, is it?

beloml -- I've only watched one episode of one of the "CSI" shows, but I was amazed how souped-up the visuals are. They must work really hard to achieve that -- anything for the sake of some visual liveliness, I guess. I guess I wonder two things about it. A question: does it really matter to audiences? And a musing: what's going to happen if and when viewers get used to this level of visual dazzle? Will they start taking it for granted? Already I've noticed that many younger people, when they watch older movies of go to the theater, simply don't see anything going on up there. It isn't twirly and sparkly, so in their eyes it's dead. Scary, at least if you're interested in culture. But maybe that's the way things are going.

Annette -- Good to see you again! And that's a really good point: never underestimate the media (and the media audience's) self-love, or at least craving for experiences of self-love. Funny how self-love has become in the ultimate in sexiness these days, isn't it? Another good blogging post I may never get around to: "Masturbation Nation." Whatever happened to the concept of opening up to another person -- the idea that that might be far more rewarding than, ahem, getting off on yourself?

Bob -- That's a good point too, tks. It helps explain some other puzzling phenemona too -- the love young people (or at least designers) have for scratched-up-film effects, scrawly handwriting ... The pop media seem to swing back and forth between the pumped-up-and-techno, and the wimpy-little-adolescent-diary look.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 22, 2004 12:08 PM

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