Cinema and photography are two close-knit relatives that help us to tell stories through the use of a camera and mindful composition. This week, we are taking a look at the visual style heavily relied upon by the film noir genre that was most prevalent in the mid 20th century. Through the exploration of Hollywood’s film noir visuals, we can learn a bit more about the history of cinema while finding inspiration for our own work.
Film noir is a genre that encapsulates a number of dramas from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. The movies themselves were typically hard-boiled crime fiction pieces that relied on cynical detectives with an emphasis on sexual desires. Film noir defines itself through unique visual queues, experimental narratives, flawed antihero protagonists, and questionable morality.
Of course, we are here to discuss the visual style that film noir made so prevalent and iconic: low-key, dramatic lighting depicted in black-and-white cinema. Film noir is similar to ‘chiaroscuro’, a category of art that is illustrated by its usage of high contrast between light and dark elements. Directors utilized stark lighting and heavy contrast to portray characters in a light that wasn’t typical of Hollywood at the time.
Conventional Hollywood filmmaking relied on the standard lighting scheme of three-point lighting that ensured a subject was fully lit and visible. Film noir, on the other hand, would cast their subjects into darkness, sometimes hiding portions of their faces. Lighting within film noir was all about creating dramatic shadows to help craft a mysterious environment.
Symbolism is always at play within film noir. Which character falls into darkness and why? The depiction of your favorite character suddenly having shadows thrust upon their face or a halo of light behind their head helps to create strong foreshadowing and even reveal their true desires and emotions.
A common cliché that was in use before the film-noir era of Hollywood, but became a staple of its style is the casting of blinds or horizontal lines of shadow upon a subject’s face. Dramatic and stark patterns of light such as this were never subtle and helped to create a strong visual and recognizable visual style.
Also quite common within film noir was the use of silhouetting. Typical films would never think of leaving their actors entirely in the dark, but film noir was ready to do so when needed. The intense lighting could create a feeling of strong disconnection from the viewers or enact a sense of impending dread.
Film noir pieces also took use of dramatic camera work to convey a story. Using low-angle shots to make the audience perceive the subject as more powerful was quite common. Directors also employed techniques such as Dutch angles and wide angles to distort reality. Dutch angles rotated the camera, making the world feel off-balance while wide angles distorted the faces of actors. Film noir was all about manipulating the reality the viewer saw to convey a story.
As photographers, we can take note of techniques used in film noir to convey our own stories. The genre that helped define hardboiled crime dramas in the mid 20th century shows us how we can use dramatic lighting and unique camera angles to tell a story. During a period when black and white was still prevalent in the cinema, lighting was your strongest visual.
If you find yourself interested in film noir, many critics would agree that ‘The Big Sleep’ is an excellent place to start. However, to actually dive into the genre, give your favorite search engine a good run and find what truly sparks your interest.