Carol Dragon: Making Magic With Light

Photographer Carol Dragon has mastered the use of light in her photographs which display a deceptive simplicity. Drawing inspiration from master Dutch painters and her subjects themselves, Dragon employs careful use of light and dark to orchestrate her ideal image.

Central Park Carousel, from the Night Candy series courtesy of Carol Dragon
© Central Park Carousel, from the Night Candy series | © Carol Dragon
Portrait of Ian Mack courtesy of Carol Dragon
Portrait of Ian Mack | © Carol Dragon

Planning shots with subtle skill and meticulous care while also allowing ‘accidents’ to happen, the lighting in Carol Dragon’s photography draws from and, in an updated fashion, rivals the old masters of light such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. Dragon’s photographs and her subjects resist easy categorisation. One series captures the gritty underbelly of Brooklyn, another offers the Night Candy of artfully lit buildings, while her portraits draw on the work of the old masters, all with a contemporary gaze filtered by her deft ability to harness digital technology. Though her subject matter has evolved over time, the unifying thread remains the same: in all her work Dragon manipulates light in a way that belies the magic of her ability.

Dragon received both her bachelors and masters degrees from the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. She began her career as a painter and was most attracted to portraiture. She soon found, however, that she did not have the technical ability to express herself and achieve the effects she desired. Living in New York, she met photographers who allowed her to experiment with their darkrooms and cameras. Soon she began taking classes at the International Center of Photography (ICP) using 35mm film. While serving as the head art teacher at Churchill School in New York, Dragon continued her studies and soon became an assistant and then a photography teacher at ICP. An early converter to digital photography, Dragon has not only mastered the medium and the unique sensitivities of printing digital images, but she continues to patiently teach her craft and inspire a bevy of budding photographers.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap c. 1940
Rembrandt van Rijn, Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap c. 1940

At once natural and authentic, Dragon’s disciplined approach to light is what makes the work so compelling. Take for example Dragon’s recent portrait of the artist Ian Mack. Drawing inspiration from the unusual lighting in Rembrandt’s Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap c. 1640, Dragon highlights the man’s ‘cap’ of white hair while accenting his angular face with deep shadow, achieving chiaroscuro similar to the Old Master using carefully positioned flash rather than depending on natural light. In most of Rembrandt’s portraits the light appears to emanate from a window on the left side of the canvas, so most of the sitters faced left. In this case, however, the old woman is facing right and thus her white cap is bathed in light while her face remains in shadow.

Another set of images dramatically captures both sides of a subject also named Carol. A friend of the photographer’s and an aspiring photo artist herself, Carol had suffered horribly from Parkinson’s disease for many years. Despite her agonising pain, Carol presented herself to the outside world with a smile and an engaging spirit. For this reason, Dragon shot Carol with a beguiling smile, poised on the cushions of her couch and lit with the cool colors of the cushions, capturing the soul of this beautiful woman as she saw her. Carol then asked Dragon to make a picture of the way she actually felt. The resulting image highlights a hand and face both wracked by pain while engulfing the rest of the subject in shadows too deep to crawl out of. Though she passed away not long after the images were taken, Carol happily framed both images back to back, showing both the side of herself she portrayed to the outside world as well as that side only she knew.

Portraits of Carol Blann courtesy of Carol Dragon
Two Portraits of Carol Blann | © Carol Dragon

To achieve her desired effect, Dragon always plans her lighting and absolutely never walks into a shoot cold. She regularly visits the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for inspiration and is always looking at other photographers' work, studying the effect of lighting, and thinking about how she can apply it in her own work. When she arrives at her shoot, however, the world falls away, nothing else matters and she is Alice in Wonderland creating fantasies and environments for her subjects.

Cecile and Paco courtesy of Carol Dragon
Cecile and Paco | © Carol Dragon

Take for example Dragon’s carefully choreographed image of Cecile and Paco on the streets of New York City. With a quick glance at the image the viewer sees a hip young couple carelessly inhabiting a space papered with posters and graffiti and shadowed by buildings. Upon closer inspection, however, it is apparent that Dragon has engineered the light and the space to capture the graphic play of light and shadow on the otherwise empty sidewalk, she has lit the beautiful faces of the young people who, in this clearly dark space would otherwise be in shadow, and she has magically lit the window behind them to capture the reflection of billowing clouds and a startlingly blue sky contrasting with the dark scrollwork of the fire escape above. All of this colour and contrast is crammed into a seemingly fleeting moment in time.

Caryl and Donal Judd Sculpture, Carol Dragon
Caryl and Donal Judd Sculpture | © Carol Dragon

Dragon is not only a master of her shoot, through years of dedicated attention and experimentation she has become a master of digital manipulation and the print. In her image of Caryl and Donald Judd sculpture Dragon creates an image impossible to obtain in real life. She shot the artwork and the collector separately with appropriate lighting and then created a composite image that by all appearances is a straightforward formal portrait. This is Dragon at her best, controlling all aspects of the images and magically manipulating them so that the viewer never questions her results—seamlessly weaving her magic.

By Jessica Ransom

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