Light and Luminosity

Mikkel Bille, University College London

Light: From old English leoht, meaning luminous, from Indo-European leuk-, to shine, to see.

Light has been studied as metaphor for truth in Philosophy, and within Science in terms of lumen (as external and objective matter) and lux (as subjective and interior; as sight and mental sensation). Additionally, light, as a ‘building material’ has been an important element in the development of architectural as well as artistic forms. More recently some aspects of light, such as colour and luminosity, have gained significant influence in material culture studies. Many studies indicate that people conceive, use and experience colours and the luminous qualities of things in culturally specific ways. Colours and surfaces of objects may be emitting or omitting brilliance, tint, or saturation and such variations may signify sacred, spiritual or other particular social dimensions.
Opposition Effect: Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan’s photograph of his own shadow cast on the coal black lunar surface December 1972. His shadow, or more accurately his camera’s, appears to be surrounded by a bright glow.
Photo from the book Full Moon by Michael Light. ©Michael Light, taken from

There are, however, also other variations such as shadows, or types (electrical, fire, sun, etc.) and modes (bright, dim, subdued etc.) of lighting, which have not yet been significantly studied. These variations may change or be significant parts of the lightscapes in which the coloured or potentially luminous things are equally involved, and thereby affecting their very materiality. Tanizaki (1933) describes many such examples in relation to Japanese aesthetics, and claims that ‘We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates’.
A dualism between lux and lumen, from a material culture point of view fails to encompass the way light – or absence of certain kinds of light – is used actively in social life. Light is often shed for – and not just on – the material environment. Lightscapes can be used (not necessarily deliberately) to orchestrate inclusion or exclusion of aspects of the material and social world, or the permeability of these worlds. Thus, despite the long history of studies on light and luminosity, what is still missing, with very few exceptions, are studies on how lightscapes and shadows are used socially to manipulate, orchestrate, and affect the experiences and materiality of places, people and things relating for example to notions of identity, cultural heritage, security, honour, personhood, hospitality, etc. In short: an anthropology of luminosity.

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