There are a lot of photographs to look at these days. Since sharing them digitally online has become easy, the number of photos by non-professionals (especially personal acquaintances) that you see in an average week has increased exponentially. At every turn, you are being exposed to another exposure, a little highlight of someone’s life.
And there’s really a lot of eye-catching stuff out there. Photos are being shared around that have special qualities that you just don’t see with your own eyes. “Art” filters have become very popular – digital cameras are generally expected to include at least a few of them. And people with cell phones can take pictures right, left, and centre, and make them look somehow classic or hip or retro or you pick your style, thanks to the Instagram effect. It’s like dressing up boring salad greens with some sassy vinaigrette. The “lomography” movement already making its way through the grapevine of film phtography more than a decade ago – a movement that makes use of previously deprecated features of “bad” equipment – is now bearing digital fruit. Now, instead of a simple snapshot, you can have something that really seems like a glimpse of some significant, timeless moment, a frozen vignette.
And one of those bits of special sauce is vignetting. Do you like the look of this word, vignetting, with its sort of symmetry as though bright in the middle and shadowy at the sides? In photography, that is what vignetting is: fading away to shadows towards the edges, usually in a circular pattern.
It’s a natural property of light to be weaker as it is farther from its source (because the same amount of light gets spread over a larger area) – just think of a candle on a table in a dark room: the light spreads in a circle around it and gets dimmer over distance. When you have a lens focusing light onto a flat surface – a negative or a digital sensor – the sides and especially corners of the surface will be farther away from the centre of the lens, and the light getting to them will, if not corrected, thus get dimmer. This is easy to see in pinhole photographs. Lenses are designed with multiple elements to correct for that effect – and others.
Another thing to know about lenses, by the way, is that the image they project onto the film or sensor has its limits. You couldn’t put them in front of a much larger area of film or sensor and get a much larger picture. You would get a picture that had a circular border (probably fairly abrupt, thanks to the corrections for the vignetting as I just mentioned), and outside that it would be black. This is also a problem with lenses that are not well made or are mismatched to the format of the camera. This, too, is called vignetting. And you may also cause vignetting if you have a lens hood that cuts into the corners of the lens’s field of view.
But at the same time, you know what a vignette is, do you not? In my Word Tasting Note Index, when I refer to my little stories that I use for some word tastings, I call them fictional vignettes. Little glimpses of some focused bit of time, a stretch of activity surrounding some word that fades in abruptly and fades out abruptly. And you likely also think of a picture when you think of a vignette: a little cameo-type thing, just a little picture in a book that fades away at the edges into the black of ink or the white of the page. This is the connection: this fading away at the edge gives a focus, a centre of attention and a selective forgetting at the edges. The circle of attention is narrowed to one subject, one topic, one moment. It’s a little like looking at it through a lorgnette. It has a highlighting effect similar to that of chiaroscuro. It is a candle-in-the-darkness effect. A piece of literature that is small and focused is similar and so is called a vignette.
Let’s look at this effect in a photograph for a moment, shall we? Here is a photograph of my lovely wife standing on the road up to the golf course from Le Manoir Richelieu in Charlevoix.
First, cut it down to essentials: black and white. Just one scale to go on.
Now heighten the contrast. Everything sharper, crisper, grabbier: darks darker, lights lighter.
Now add vignetting. Not strong, strong, strong; just enough to shade the corners and edges off, to make it clear that they’re less important, less focal.
There. You see? Scroll up and look at what we started with. Now look at this. The first photo was a moment. This one is a vignette. (But does it seem overdone or trite? It might.)
Try it with a scenic shot, like this one from the Eglinton Valley in New Zealand. Here it is in original colour:
Here it is with the same processes applied:
Contrasty clouds are especially popular in photos I’ve seen lately.
But why this word vignette? We do not normally choose words because of their shape; nor is it truly pertinent that this word has, as its central consonant, a palatalized nasal, that /nj/ spelled gn, like an ordinary /n/ with vignetting around it so that it shades into the vowels with an intermediate glide. This word is often associated now with things “vintage” – old books, old photos, old cameras… What is its vintage?
Its vintage is the wine that helps us to forget the things at the edges, to focus our view more on what matters in the middle – as Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet puts it in the eponymous opera, to pour intoxication and forgetting into our hearts (verse l’ivresse et l’oubli dans nos cœurs – listen to the aria on YouTube). I’m not being cute here: wine and vine are cognate, and vignette is not a cousin but a child of the vine. Latin vinum “wine” became vinea “vine, vineyard”, which became French vigne, and the diminutive of that is vignette. Little vine? Little drawings of vines to fill space ornamentally in books, and little pictures with vine borders. Then vignette transferred from the borders to the pictures, and when the vines fell away and the pictures simply shaded into the page, the name vignette stayed.
But you don’t remember all that history when you see a vignette, or when you see vignetting. You remember only the intoxication of the image, with that sauce poured on it, that tunnel vision. What is in the heart of it is given, and you are getting it; the rest is not for getting, so you are forgetting it and it is taken away when the picture is taken.