v2.14 / Eric Kellerman’s Tenebrisms

There’s a poem I love by Heather McHugh that describes sunlight shattered by trees and water—an event without boundary, without order, yet somehow channeled by the eye, as if in deference to sight itself. In the opening lines, she says:

The sun that puts its spokes in every
Wheel of manhandle and tree

Derives its path of seashines
(Sheer centrifugality) from my

Regards. I send it
My regards. Some yards

Of lumen from the fabrika
Have come unbolted from the look

Of it (or likes of me) . . .

It’s the way I feel when I look at Eric Kellerman’s images of striped light colliding with dark torsos, scapulas, and the dunes of the mons veneris. The eyes (mine, at least) respond in kind—unbolted, loosed from all sense of origin, cause, effect. A complimentary esteem. To the tenebrisms: my regards.


Eric Kellerman

These photos form part of an ongoing series called Tenebrisms. The word “tenebrism” (deriving from the Latin for “darkness”) usually refers to a style of painting associated with Caravaggio and others, where deep shadow prevails and strong contrast is used to heighten the drama of the subject matter. However, my tenebrisms are far from dramatic; on the contrary, they are rather quiet, reflective things. No Judith beheading Holofernes here.

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Kim’s Downward Slope © Eric Kellerman

Like one or two other photographic styles I have evolved, the first tenebrism came about accidentally. The stripe of light, created by the flash of a snooted studio lamp through a narrow gap between two abutting boards onto a woman’s angled face, cast an interesting shadow—one that, following the contours of forehead, nose and chin, appeared to be the profile of another dark face superimposed. I call this photo Eclipse, for reasons obvious when you see it!

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Becky’s Dark Portrait © Eric Kellerman

The stripes my studio lamps and abutting boards generate are not as a rule smooth bands of undifferentiated light—for one thing, their passage through the narrow gap also endows them with interference patterns in the form of alternating substripes, both lighter and darker. These add variety and texture to the image.

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Elle-Beth’s Back and Side © Eric Kellerman

But best of all is the unpredictable journey undertaken by the stripe as it encounters the contours of a complex volume like the female body. Anatomical discontinuities are brought together by highways of sinuous light adjusting their routes, widths and intensities according to the terrain traversed. This is where the precision work begins, a choreography of muscle, bone, sinew and skin. Every small move, a single breath, a twitch, can make or break a photo.

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Laura’s Undulations © Eric Kellerman

As I’m a photographer who believes in improvisation, the sudden spotting of a potentially good tenebrism will certainly induce a frisson. “Hold it!” I hear myself shriek at my already very still collaboratrix. “Don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t think!”

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Portrait of N © Eric Kellerman

Serendipity beats meticulous planning any day . . .


Kellerman’s The Box was one of 2015’s “books of the year,” awarded by the Federation of European Photographers. See more from Kellerman on Facebook and check out his most recent book from Edition Galerie Vevais!

Feature Image: Anna’s Shoulders © Eric Kellerman