The Ungraspable Shadow

Jonathan Mechanicus
Jonathan Mechanicus

Jennifer C. McCarthy, artist, El Paso, Texas:

“The substance of shadow is ephemeral and indeterminate, but it is heavy with meaning in life and in art. It is where we project our fear, wonder, and ignorance of the unknown. The forests of fairy tales are made haunted by the shadows that darken them. In many poems and novels we have met the hero’s “other” self, who hides just out of the corner of one’s eye, like Jekyll’s Hyde.

The fundamental unknown from which almost all fears and narratives arise is that of death, and in my opinion the shadow, in some way, always represents death. Closer to us than a stone’s throw, it follows us throughout the day, and at that hour of duels and gun fights–high noon–it is completely upon us. According to the ancient Roman author, Pliny the Elder, the art of painting began when a maid of Corinth traced her lover’s shadow on a wall. Like her lover’s outline, art was born from the desire to make permanent that which is fleeting, to offer answers to unanswerable questions and to provide substance to that which is incorporeal. Because the absence of light created the sense of space and form from which the lover’s form was drawn, the shadow, or death, is both the creator of art and its muse.”

Kumi Yamashita

When I first encountered the shadow art work of Kumi Yamashita, I was intrigued, although at the time I couldn’t fully say why. Certainly, her process was fascinating: how she brought to life human-like silhouettes by directing a single light onto a precisely arranged array of wooden blocks or cut paper.

Kumi Yamashita
Kumi Yamashita

“There is strong shadow where there is much light.”

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Götz von Berlichingen
Kumi Yamashita
Kumi Yamashita

But Kumi’s technical wizardry is only half of the story. To go deeper, one needs to talk to Yamashita herself. Through the help of a translator, Yamashita, born in Japan and now living in New York City, shed some light:

“In my work, the object and the shadow that it casts are equally important. I love to see the presence of both solidness or weight of materials, and weightlessness, the ungraspable aspect of light and shadow. To see permanence and ephemera sharing the same spaces, the same moments.”

Kumi Yamashita

And that’s it, of course.

Traditionally, when we encounter the presence of shadow in art, what we are looking at is what is not there. Someone is hiding something, most often that undesirable or dark aspect of self that we just as soon not see.

Yet what Yamashita is asking us to consider is bringing out this very darkness, this haunting doppleganger which try as we might we can never quite shake, and actually place it front and center.

“In my homelife [growing up] in Japan, I didn’t feel like there were really limits imposed upon me. I felt I had the unconditional support of my parents. I was given a good bit of freedom and allowed to follow my interests, around art especially. They gave me pencil and paper and the space to create. It was only when I came to the US as an exchange student for the first time at the age of sixteen that I started to become aware of the assumptions people make.”

Kumi Yamashita

“I want to remind ourselves of how we preconceive what is around and inside of us. It is easy to turn to prepared information. Knowledge and ideas and values are too often accepted without questioning.

Many of us spend a lifetime struggling to banish or at least diminish our own inner darkness. But through her artworks, Yamashita is inviting us to consider if this is even an admirable quest. Might humankind be better served by a more collaborative partnership between these dual aspects of ourselves, the dark and the light?

Kumi Yamashita

Poet and professor, Dorianne Laux, Raleigh, North Carolina:

“Our shadow follows us, or walks before us, or stands under our feet, our other self, the only one we cannot run from.”

Dark Charms

Eventually the future shows up everywhere:
the burly summers and unslept nights
in deep lines and dark splotches, thinning skin.
Here is the corner store grown to a condo,
the bike reduced to one spinning wheel,
the ghost of a dog that used to be, her trail,
no longer trodden, just a dip in the weeds.
The clear water we drank as thirsty children
still runs through our veins. Stars we saw then
we still see now, only fewer, dimmer, less often.
The old tunes play and continue to move us,
in spite of our learning, the wraith of romance,
lost innocence, literature, the death of the poets.
We continue to speak, if only in whispers,
to something inside us that longs to be named.
We name it the past and drag it behind us,
bag like a lung filled with shadow and song,
dreams of running, the keys to lost names.

~Dorianne Laux

Dawn Thompson, poet and writing workshop facilitator, Portland, Oregon:

When I think of shadow, I think of that part of the personal self or the collective self that has been denied or not lived out – those aspects of the psyche that are underground. I think that it is our journey to integrate the shadow as much as possible. I think that an integrated shadow can turn to gold.

Annie Rose, lecturer in performing arts, playwright and theater director, Ireland:

“Working in theatre, shadow has phenomenal importance; it has shape and almost texture too. When we craft a performance for the stage, we shroud the actors in both light and shadow and both are equally important. Light illustrates a presence; shadow hints at the revelation of a presence. Shadow is the expectation of light to come.”

In film noir, in the writings of Raymond Chandler, shadows have teeth. Shadows hint at danger, at deeper, more resonant darkness, and at the evil within the human condition. People hide in the shadows. People die there too.

But the shadow that dwells within humans – the metaphorical shadow of sadness and that sense of another self burrowed deep within-can be an overwhelming metaphysical miasma. It is cloying and nebulous, and when we fight that personal shadow, we grasp at smoke. It eludes us, drifts away from us, and then settles around us once more. If we face it, realizing that shadows are part of the light we possess within, then we accept it as being a part of us. The closing paragraphs of James Joyce’s “The Dead” – where Gabriel looks out the window into the dark shadows of the winter’s night and sees (not only in the immediate space but all across Ireland) the flakes of snow falling ‘on the living and on the dead’ is a moment of breath-taking beauty. Gabriel’s epiphany is a sudden brilliant point of understanding – of his place in the world and in his failing relationship with his wife – and it happens, paradoxically, within the shadowed darkness.

Shadows are within and without.”

“People who avoid shadow scare me.”
― Fierce Dolan

Jonathan Mechanicus
Jonathan Mechanicus

In an interview with Netherlands photographer Jonathan Mechanicus, the subject of shadows was at the forefront.

For me it’s the essence of photography. If you look at my work, you will notice I hide my models a lot. And because I hide them. I am able to show more.

Jonathan Mechanicus

“Because I don’t show everything, you’re going to want to see more, yes? But to do so, you must make your own image. It’s as if you’re reading a book: If I’m going to straight out tell you the whole story, well then it’s just boring. But if I leave certain details out, there’s tension. To relieve this, you must make up your own story in your head.”

Jonathan Mechanicus, Netherlands

“Whatever it is that most attracts me, that is what I actually then will leave out of my pictures. I will show the rest around it, sure, but not that thing itself. So what remains in the shadows becomes highly concentrated.”

This made perfect sense, but earlier Jonathan had shared with me that what he most strives for when photographing his subjects is exposure. His ultimate goal is to reveal a part of his subjects that’s never before been seen, an aspect of them which they themselves might not even know exists.

How then does he reconcile the tension between revealing and concealing?

There’s a difference, Mechanicus explains, between exploring a person’s most naked self, and merely showing skin. To take a picture that reveals your true essence, says Mechanicus, he would need to get you out of your comfort zone. Otherwise it’s just a pose.

“Today I looked at a book of beautiful girls, but it was a very boring collection. Every one of them the same location, all the same position, and so there was no tension.

If I ask you to open your legs, I’m not going to focus on what you would expect me to focus on. What I am looking for is to get you out of your comfort zone. When I do that, there will be tension. Without tension, the balance will be too perfect, and then its just a neutral thing. A pose.

“Whereas the way I create, it’s always a surprise. I never know what I am going to get, because it is not about me, it is about them. And they don’t know at the time what they are revealing because I work in total darkness. If you are in a dark studio with only one light so that you can’t see the photographer, you have a really unique situation, and that creates a tension in the picture. I fake that I know what I am doing so they can trust me and feel at ease, but I am totally guided by that element of surprise and the unknown.

Jonathan Mechanicus

“Nowadays you can photoshop anything. I don’t want to do that. I just want to work with light. To key to finding the essence of your subject is to leave light out as much as you can. Because only then will you see.

“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow.”
~Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Richard Krawiec, writer, teacher, Durham, North Carolina:

“Shadows are sensuous and dangerous. Or maybe sensuous because dangerous. They speak of both life and death, sex and and denial. Shadows are the ultimate mystery. Like Plato’s cave, we know they don’t really reveal, but they give the illusion of revealing, or a tease of revelation, a hint of shapes not fully defined, like a pair of leather boots, or mesh stockings.”

Jonathan Mechanicus

“When you think of the artistic lines of a woman’s body, it is the shadow trench between leg muscles, the shadow in the line of leg, torso, shoulder, the shadow in the small of the back, the cup of the neck, that entices. The darkness of what is not there. You get lost in the shadows, whether it is the shadow of an alleyway, or the shadow on a face curtained by hair as a head is bent forward in conversation. The shadow promises both literal and metaphorical oblivion, the seduction of getting lost – in the world, in time, in another.”

Valentyn Odnoviun

David Gillette, artist, musician, Portland, Oregon:

“A shady tree is the epitome of a safe place, right? A shadow is caused by the sun. A shadow of me is the same. I could examine that shadow but I am more interested in the star that created it.”

Dimitri Spyrou, art historian, journalist; originally of Greece, now living in Germany:

“In folktales, those who sell their soul to the devil for gold lose their shadows. Superstitious people avoid following or standing in the shadow of another, otherwise they could take possession of them.”

Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı
Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı

Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaş, documentary photographer, Istanbul, Turkey:

“For me, the origin of how I work with light comes from the inspiration of the painter, Caravaggio. Because the models I choose are people who are being isolated and lack economic freedom, I prefer taking their photos with ‘Caravaggio Light.’ After I identify the ideal transition point between the light and the shadow, I try to capture the model with his/her body language, without affecting his/her mood. My photos emerge between light and shadow.”

Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı
Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı
Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı
Mehmet Mustafa Bulakçıbaşı

“Some people seemed to get all sunshine, and some all shadow…”

― Louisa May Alcott, Little Women

Abdo Shanan photography

“The subject in this photo is a friend of mine. At the time when I made this photo of him, we did not know much about each other. Two days before this photo was taken he was telling me about the difficulties he is facing in his life. At the time I did not know how to show him that I understood him. I did not even know what to say, only a few flat words. Two days later, while attending a cultural event, I was in the men’s room and noticed a light above a mirror. I ran and pulled him in and asked him to look at the mirror while I took his picture.

Later, when he saw this photo, he asked if what I had managed to capture had anything to do with what he told me before about his difficult life. It was at that moment when I knew I had finally found the sufficient ‘words.'”

Nilüfer Feyizoglu, Turkey

“How can I be substantial if I do not cast a shadow?
I must have a dark side also If I am to be whole.”

― C.G. Jung

Oregon’s Poet Laureate, Paulann Petersen:

“This is the first segment of my poem, “Vantage” (which is in three segments). It’s in my book The Voluptuary, part of a section of poems spoken directly to Walt Whitman. So the “Father” here is Walt Whitman. And the “night-piece I carry with me” is, of course, my shadow.”


 Night-piece I carry with me
every sunlit day,
the little darkness moving
however I do, absence leaping
quick as movement itself.
Infallible mime, shadow perfumed
with iron, a struck match. Sawdust
rotting into heat, but cooler
nonetheless. My weightless body
clad in black, thrown down.
Tell me, Father, where will I be in a day,
a week, next year, when the sun no longer has me
to interrupt its journey to earth? Will you too
disappear? What other darkness will touch
the ground at every step when I
no longer step? Only a flame
throws no shadow—only memory,
flame, this written breath.

James Renier, photographer, printmaker, Melrose, Massachusetts:

I was new to Europe and was in a German lecture and the lecturer was Joseph Beuys. I knew of his importance as an artist, politician and teacher but did not yet get the language. He stood in the middle of a room with a spotlight below him. It created an eerie atmosphere, and he was an imposing figure. I found myself getting lost in the shadow he cast and photographed it instead of him:

Shadow: Beuys photo: James Renier
Shadow: Beuys photo: James Renier

Molly Fisk, poet, teacher, radio commentator, writing workshop facilitator:

“For me, the shadow has two kinds of opposing features: it’s the hidden side of something, what is there but you can’t see. But it’s also the mirror of something, as when a tree’s shadow will fall on the sidewalk. In that form, it’s often distorted. A shadow will look exactly like the tree when the sun’s in the right place, but it will look much taller and narrower when the sun shifts, or shorter and squatter.

Metaphorically, people use it to examine or talk about the parts of themselves that are hidden or distorted. What they don’t want to look at, what might be unexplored, or in a very limited way ‘bad.’ This works to some extent, and has a certain logic, but it breaks down entirely when you start thinking about skin color. I would hate to have myself equated with all things unrevealed, scary, or bad, just because my skin was a dark color, and in our white-centric, European-based artistic culture it’s pretty unavoidable: all the symbolism points that way and there’s no opposing story to hold on to. So I don’t feel drawn to use it much in my own poems, unless I’m speaking literally about the time of day or the shadow something is casting. I’d rather state, and pretty regularly do state, what I think is ‘bad’ or needs to be explored more, and leave the metaphor behind.

Here’s a poem from my poetry collection, The More Difficult Beauty, that is an example of this:”

What I Want

 is to inhabit
the world as it is:
the crabapple’s
magenta halo
shading a squirrel
crushed into the road —
me not turning
my eyes away.
~Molly Fisk

About the Artists

Molly Fisk: Read more about Molly in the Combustus piece, “Creating in Community,” in which she shares with readers her experience leading “Writing to Heal” workshops for cancer survivors.)

Dorianne Laux: Enjoy more of her lovely poetry on her website and also in the Combustus magazine pieces, “Artists and Writers Who Ignited Us.” and, “All Poetry is Preparation for Death” )

Jonathan Mechanicus: Visit his website.

Jennifer C. McCarthy: Find her at

Valentyn Odnoviun: Find work by the Ukrainian photographer at (Also enjoy a profile of Odnoviun in the Combustus issue, “When Tragedy Hits, Where Does Art Fit?”)

Paulann Petersen: Find more of Paulann’s exquisite poetry on her website (Also enjoy a Combustus profile on Paulann Petersen: “Paulann Petersen: Poet Laureate”)

Annie Rose: Read more of Annie Rose in her contribution to the Combustus piece “It Starts with Touch”)

Abdo Shanan: View more of his work on his website.

Dimitri Spyrou: Visit his Kulture-Durchblick.

Dawn Thompson: To sign up for one of her writing workshops, visit Portland Women Writers (Also enjoy the Combustus profile on Thompson: “On Writing and Sacred Spaces”)

Kumi Yamashita: See more of her work by visiting her website, Light-and-Shadow

Combustus Managing Editor | + posts

My dream: to create a unique vehicle for artists and visionaries from all genres and all over the globe to inspire and learn from one another.


  1. Byron on April 22, 2013 at 10:56 am

    Dear Deanna, I can’t get enough of this section. I have seen once, twice and I always “discover” something new. I just can’t get enough. It is so powerful, moving, mysterious and it keeps calling you back….. 🙂

    • Combustusmanagingeditor on April 22, 2013 at 11:05 am

      Such lovely feedback, Byron. Thank you. And I know what you mean ~ there are some artists whose work runs so deep that there is no way one can process it all fully in just one sitting. But ahhh, what pleasure and riches to be found in the exploring and savoring…

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