Beers With: Vermeer

With apologies to every art student and teacher, ever, today marks the second in an occasional series of chats with Old Masters.

These guys were the original connoisseurs of light, and that is the framework under which we interview them -- as photographers. Turns out, they've been ripped off by photographers so many times at this point that they are actually cool with it.

Which, by the way, is why the Old Masters merit your study. At least to the point of trying to stay awake during that early morning humanities class.

They are, of course, very difficult to pin down for a chat -- what with hundreds of years of fame and all. But as always, perseverance pays off.

A Little Background

I caught up with Johannes Vermeer at a bar in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, DC, where he was visiting from The Netherlands for a talk and signing at Kramerbooks.

He is Dutch, and known for his portraiture as well as his use of chiaroscuro-style light, which has become the basis for the way many photographers light today. It is against that backdrop that we began our chat.

David Hobby: First of all, just wanted to start out by saying that I am a big fan of your light. Love the light-against-dark internal separation -- that technique saved me many times while working for a newspaper that basically printed on Charmin.

Johannes Vermeer : Glad to help out. I am sure you learned about it in school.

DH: Well, now that you mention it, we didn't, actually.

JV: Yeah, to be honest that is kinda of a sore point with me. I pioneer the lighting style that has become the modern standard, and you-know-who headlines every beginning lighting class.

DH: You mean Rembrandt?

JV: Thank you. My point, exactly. Didn't even have to mention his name, did I?

DH: Well, no, but ...

JV: Seriously, who ever actually uses Rembrandt lighting? Five sources for a headshot? C'mon…

DH: Monte Zucker, kinda.

JV: Name one more.

DH: Umm… okay, you got me.

JV: Don't worry about it. Rembrandt had a great press agent. Understood the power of a brand like nobody else. He even crowdsourced Night Watch. It was a group commission. I hear he is even working on an iPhone app. He's a machine. You can't fight it.

DH: It matters these days.

JV: Always has.

DH: So, Rembrandt gets the headlines. But your light gets used left, right and center. Can we talk about it for a sec?

JV: Sure.

DH: Okay, then. Let's talk about "The Girl with the Pearl Earring."

JV: Just one light -- a soft box up and camera left. Black backdrop, no fill. Very simple.

DH: And yet, it is one of your most famous images.

JV: Just goes to show you, it is not about complexity. It is about the connection between subject and viewer.

DH: They even made a movie about it.

JV: I got to be "technical advisor," which was a hoot. But let's just say I liked the painting better than the movie and leave it at that.

DH: Oh, don't be so modest. I have a clip!

JV: Oh, wonderful…

DH: So, did you at least get to meet Scarlett Johansson?

JV: Oh, yes.

DH: And?

JV: Stunning. Just amazing. Hawt. If I weren't 377 years old…

DH: Yeah, yeah. So tell me more about your light. You like to use window light a lot.

JV: Not as much as you might think. I usually drop a medium or large soft box right outside the window and ape northern light. More control over intensity, fall-off, color, etc.

DH: Makes sense. What strobes do you use?

JV: Profoto 7B's. That way, we are not power dependent. And it's not like we do a million frames, either. I am about the moment. The 7B's work great -- one out, one in.

DH: Whaddya mean?

JV: One outside the window, one inside the room. Soft box key on the subject -- usually upper camera left -- and a second soft box from camera right, in back, on the background.

DH: That simple?

JV: That simple. And that's where the separation comes from, too. Light against dark. That's what chiaroscuro literally means.

DH: Yeah, I know. Italian right?

JV: Right.

DH: So, let's talk about something a little more complex. Tell me about "The Procuress," just above.

JV: Whaddya wanna know?

DH: That one's a little, um, spicy.

JV: I like to mix it up.

DH: Where did you come up with the concept?

JV: It was her idea. She was from Model Mayhem. They all were. She wanted something a little racy. Had tattoos everywhere. We just went heavy on the wardrobe.

DH: So tell me, is Model Mayhem really just a pick-up joint? Or are there serious people there, too?

JV: A lot of folks are just trying to meet women, I think. Except maybe Caravaggio.

DH: Really? Is he strictly professional?

JV: Hardly. He's just not into women. He likes the boys. Young ones.

DH: Oh.

JV: Check his work. You'll see.

DH: Okay, then. How about the light in "Procuress?"

JV: Work it out for yourself.

DH: Alright… Big source camera left. A little up, maybe…

JV: It's a bare head, through a queen-sized bed sheet. Classic McNally. Go on…

DH: Not much coming from camera right -- shadows on the wall in the corner tell that.

JV: Yeah, and?

DH: On-axis fill? About two stops down or so?

JV: Yep. Reveals the detail without leaving a signature. Our eyes can see a greatly expanded tonal range in real life, but when we light an image we have to create it. Not a ring light, though. We used a large umbrella, just behind the camera.

DH: Sweet. You are said to have never sat for a portrait. But that guy on the left, he looks a little familiar.

JV: Does he?

DH: Is it you?

JV: Not sayin'.

DH: Fair enough. But the detail in this image is sweet. How did you shoot it?

JV: PhaseOne P45+, on an old Hassy 500 body.

DH: Looks a little like a Drew Gardner. You know him?

JV: Never met him, but I'm a fan.

DH: I thought you might be. Hey, thanks for your time. I know you have the signing soon, so we should wrap it up. One more thing -- who should I go for next in the series? Any suggestions?

JV: I'm a big fan of Hopper, too.

DH: Dennis?

JV: Edward.

DH: Of course. Can you hook me up?

JV: I'll make a call.

DH: Thanks!

Wrapping Up

Artistic liberties aside, interviewing Vermeer as a photographer might not be such a big stretch. There are many who see his paintings as being a little too accurate. There have been papers which suggest Johannes Vermeer had a little help in the form of a camera obscura.

The geometric accuracy, the simplicity of setting -- even the fact that many of his paintings were (or could have been) painted in the same room -- all point to the use of the crude forefather to the modern camera.

Read More

If you enjoyed this chat, you might want to check out the first in the series, which was with Rembrandt.


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Blogger Nionyn said...

Loved it - thanks for that.
An interview with Hopper next would be excellent. I'm looking forward to it already. :-)

November 12, 2009 12:22 AM  
Blogger Kyle Jackson said...

i can't believe how long it took me to pick up on the sarcasm/wit.

November 12, 2009 12:34 AM  
Blogger Jeryc Garcia said...

Great interview, David. I'm a big fan of Jan Vermeer myself. Him and Pieter de Hooch. Inspired my use of light and depth -- and framing! -- to no end. Allow me to share something from my notes (I got this from an old art book somewhere):

"Vermeer used curtains and carpet-covered tables, beyond their symbolic connotations, to create a sense of distance from the events unfolding in the background. Though they can be considered only props, they nonetheless denote a boundary, and impose a distance between ourselves and the private realm we are permitted to see."

November 12, 2009 12:53 AM  
Blogger Rachel said...

very amusing. You should try to interview carravaggio as well, he may have something to add to the debate about who pionered the use of charioscuro style light in their painting. lol!

November 12, 2009 12:54 AM  
Blogger Eugene said...

This is brilliant!

I have always enjoyed art, and this is an excellent contribution in bridging lighting in traditional art to that of photography :)


November 12, 2009 1:32 AM  
Blogger Kenibatz said...

seriously, wow. of all the things i've learned from this site, this one has to be in the top ten of the most memorable lessons. i've new found respect for the early roots of the visual medium and will make an effort to study the art masters. and then i'll probably check out model mayhem...

November 12, 2009 1:38 AM  
Blogger Bruko said...

ahahahaha how many beers got you here?
This is totally brilliant.

And you should definitely check that Caravaggio guy

November 12, 2009 1:43 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

This is absolute gold.

Dave...(makes a really intense eyebrow motion like I'm about to tell you something you have never heard)....

You...are a really.. really.. good writer...(more emphasis with raised eyebrows and nodding).

You rock DH.

-Richard Melanson

November 12, 2009 1:44 AM  
Blogger Nald said...

made my day, great read. keep this series runnin'!!!

November 12, 2009 1:44 AM  
Blogger mike said...

sh!@, man, you are crazy! Making me check out that perv on modelmayhem, and googling Vermeer! I say!

November 12, 2009 2:03 AM  
Blogger omuiri said...

ooh ooh, you should interview wassname... 'david hobby' next, I reckon he has a few things to say on lighting. : )
as always mr.hobby, great stuff.

November 12, 2009 2:33 AM  
Blogger Pepijn said...

Hi David,

As a dutchy myself I especially liked your post about Vermeer. And it's true, he doesn't get the credit he deserves (as opposed to Rembrandt)

One question though, you did offer Vermeer a Heineken right?

Keep up your excellent posts, and i'll keep on reading them over here in NL!


November 12, 2009 3:08 AM  
Blogger Atom said...

I was laughing my head off! You should write scripts.

You delivered your point across and managed to be entertaining at the same time... great job.

November 12, 2009 3:11 AM  
Blogger Elder Family News said...

Oh, this article makes a great case for the hazards of repeated strobe exposure. Apparently too mamy pops off the SB-800 combined with alcohol can reek havoc on the control of motoneurons and muscle atonia.

Try it again soon, I can't wait to see who 'shows up' next time!

November 12, 2009 3:32 AM  
OpenID pixeldarkroom said...

I wonder why you don't interview any of the pointillism. Is it the quality of the files - low res, huge pixels? I know it's kinda' hard to take "a close look" at them.

my 365 here.

November 12, 2009 3:37 AM  
Blogger Petru said...

Really cool

November 12, 2009 3:57 AM  
Blogger Adrian said...

The living legend ... Mr David Hobby.

My gal understands a little why I spend so much time studying your site when she reads these type of posts.

November 12, 2009 4:45 AM  
Blogger Martin Hobby said...

Loved it! Grinning from ear to ear.

November 12, 2009 5:34 AM  
Blogger SaltGeorge said...

Very interesting, I find the old masters painting very inspiring for their use of shadow as much as the use of light.

Readers in the UK might want to keep any eye out for re-runs of A Portrait of Scotland coming up later in the month on BBC4.

There's a fascinating section on Sir Henry Raeburn who adapted his York Place studios to give incredible control of light over the subject using north light and a system of shutters.

November 12, 2009 5:44 AM  
Blogger gale (she shoots sheep shots) said...

When I interviewed him he had a lot less to say. Dead silent.

November 12, 2009 8:25 AM  
Blogger Tibor said...

You wrote in a way much more engaging style about this great artist than I did some time ago here:

Do you agree with that he planned everything carefully for his paintings?

November 12, 2009 8:39 AM  
Blogger roncastle said...

David, I might have stayed awake during my after-lunch art history classes if we'd had you doing these interviews. Keep up the brilliant work. You really are a treasure!

November 12, 2009 8:47 AM  
Blogger Dave McLane said...

It may seem like too big a jump but in my opinion Vermeer (and Rembrandt) connect with Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style of American Politics" which traces the history of what he calls a "kind of moral drama in which a few and immensely powerful characters mislead, exploit, and betray the gullible public, while only a modest handful of right-wing thinkers interpose warnings and remonstrances against what is happening."

Two connections: First, Hofstadter tracks the rise and fall of the paranoid style in terms of the overall economy. Second, there is no positive outcome, only a never ending series of not this, not that, . . . no, no, no. A dark world indeed with only a few specs of light. Possible, I suppose, but depressing.

Added to this are some of the people I talked with on a long journey up, down, and across small-town America who believer in the rapture which amounts to a total separation of light (the believers, who go to heaven) and dark (the non-believers, who are left behind in torment). Not sure, but I suspect this kind of thinking rises and falls with the overall economy. A bright world totally separated from a dark world. Possible only in fantasy.

Conclusion: Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hobby, McNally, et al. are presenting a philosophical a view of the world as chiaroscuro, light against dark. Not 'against' as in "fight to the death," but 'against' as in "subject against background."

November 12, 2009 9:29 AM  
Blogger JS said...

Brilliant as usual, DH.

Anyone interested in the probable use of "photography" behind the paintings should check out "Vermeer's Camera". It's a good—if overly technical—read.

November 12, 2009 9:53 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Turns out, they've been ripped of by photographers

should be ripped off?

Love your stuff, by the way.

You don't need to post this - just giving you a heads up.


November 12, 2009 10:19 AM  
Blogger Eça da Palmeira said...

Hello David.
This was one of the best posts here in Strobist. I was caught in from the start. Brilliant lesson you just gave to us all who follow this blog. Have you thought about writing a book with these interviews?
Best regards
Francisco Monteiro

November 12, 2009 10:22 AM  
Blogger Edward Carlile Photography said...

I learned something from those guys!
Check it out.

November 12, 2009 10:40 AM  
Blogger Joseph Ferraro said...

Unbelievable! I'm a returning undergrad student (non-traditional 27 y/o transfer student) at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University (after graduating from the New England School of Photography, Boston in 2006 and transferring my photo-credits) and in playing catch-up on other credits, I'm in a freshman Art History course. Currently, we're covering Dutch Baroque painting, and looking at Frans Hals, and of course, Rembrant, I could not believe my eyes when I read this post today!!

In looking at those paintings it just baffles me, as a photographer, as to how they even conceived those light patterns back-in-the-day.

Not that big on portraiture, but a long time reader of your site David, this post, along with the schooling from AIB currently, I'm thinking about giving it some more thought and practice!

Thanks for the inspiration and added push!

November 12, 2009 10:59 AM  
Blogger Robert Davidson said...

I assume you both drank Dutch beer, like Heineken, right?
Seriously, you are a superb communicator. I wish I had found "strobist" a long time ago. I learned about your site just a few days ago, and I am getting bleary eyed because I can't tear myself away from my computer screen. You have so much in depth knowledge on this site, and it is so well presented, that I have great difficulty tearing myself away.
I don't know too much about the fine arts, but I am recently retired and trying to learn more about the old masters and what they have to teach about photography. From what small amount of knowledge I have about painters, Vermeer has been my favorite.
Please keep up the good work. You have gained another loyal follower here!

November 12, 2009 12:43 PM  
Blogger bencochran said...

Fantastic nice interview David, loved it! You just made it to the top of my list, of people I would love to drink with, LOL.

I love Vermeer’s work but if you look closely at “The Girl with the Pearl Earring”, I think that Vermeer was pulling your leg about one-light-source. It looks more like photoshop work as, note how bright the scarf is against the shadow density of her back…

Also, Rembrandt did some amazing work with blending in realistic shadows. Take a look at some of his earlier work; “The Artist In His Studio” his control over densities is very impressive and something that is more common in cinema lighting effect. As well, one of my favorites for study and discipline how to use light sources; Pieter De Hooch “Pantry”, “Mothers Duty” and “Women Reading a Letter”.

I sure hope you can interview them as well, I feel that they are some of the greatest photographers that I have studied. Amazing works with lighting.

November 12, 2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

I think David Hobby has jumped the shark!

November 12, 2009 1:12 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Nice post, thanks David. If any of you guys find yourself on holiday in Northern Europe, and you liked this post, then I would greatly encourage you to check out the vast portraits room in the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam, Netherlands). Your portrait photography will be changed forever. On that note, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery (London, UK) aren't too shabby neither ;)

November 12, 2009 1:21 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

Best post e-var!!!

"Classic McNally", haha, love it!

November 12, 2009 1:26 PM  
Blogger Daniel Solorio said...

Oh my god, this is sick, absolutely hilarious, entertaining, but above everything educational, I enjoyed reverse engineering the light before reading your shot. This is the second of a great series, keep up on it, it may become a pocket size book one day, with loads of tips from the masters. Thanks David.

November 12, 2009 1:28 PM  
Blogger John said...

I love these interviews with the masters!! I hope this will be an on-going project. =)

Great post!

November 12, 2009 2:20 PM  
OpenID Frank Michael Keller said...

Thank you so much!

While I was reading your interview,I stopped half way and watched the movie.

The light is is shot in is absolutely incredible and gives me some real inspiration.

Thank's for doing it, being funny and live on the same planet as I do.!

November 12, 2009 3:19 PM  
Blogger Hugh Talman Photography said...

Glad to see you using the website of painter extrodinaire Jonathan Janson.He does a pretty mean Vermeer himself.
We went to RISD together back in the day

November 12, 2009 3:29 PM  
Blogger El Gato Negro said...

lmao. that model mayhem comment had me laughing all day. awesome!

November 12, 2009 3:30 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

awesome post, david.

lol @ the "classic mcnally"

November 12, 2009 4:02 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...


The first time I haven't gone to sleep within three seconds of someone starting in on the 'old masters'

November 12, 2009 4:34 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

Great exclusive David. Vermeer might have burned your bridge to a Caravaggio interview in the future, but there are other big names out there you ought to be able to wear down with persistence.

November 12, 2009 4:52 PM  
Blogger Kathryn Lymburner said...

Just love this series of posts. Keep doing more of these! It's a great fusion of art classes and photography classes...makes it easier to remember too since these Masters have painted some of the Western world's most recognizable images.

More please!

November 12, 2009 5:01 PM  
Blogger Rolf said...

This post will make me look at the Vermeer and Rembrandt paintings very differently, next time in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

"Bedankt!" (Thanks!) as we say in Holland, being Vermeers' fellow dutchmen.

November 12, 2009 5:03 PM  
Blogger Kerry L said...

Excellent stuff, always read your emails but never so inspired to reply!

I played in an Art School post-punk band called "Chiaroscuro", maybe that had something to do with it!

Well done!

November 12, 2009 5:36 PM  
Blogger Stormin said...

photography, art... what next photogs doing music videos?

oh yeah , Chase already did that for his Day at Work contest

Cash Cab used "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" in one of their questions the other day, I'm sure that's what inspired the post

November 12, 2009 9:20 PM  
Blogger T.W. Meyer said...

contributing to the possible camera obscura theory, is the size of Vermeer's work, most under 17inches, which would have been easy to see in a desktop model. Excellent writing on this, thanks for letting the cat out of the bag. Damn... t

November 12, 2009 10:10 PM  
Blogger dominique said...

In terms of light, Vermeer is my lighting hero. For Dutch-masters-inspired-light check out this work from photographer Desiree Dolron. Warning: not totally safe for work...

follow the 'Work' link to 'Xteriors'

November 13, 2009 12:29 AM  
Blogger Antoine R. said...

David you are truly amazing. This is the pinnacle of pedagogy.

November 13, 2009 5:05 AM  
Blogger mpm said...

fn hilarious Dave. "Queen-sized bed sheet, classic McNally". Very, very funny.

November 13, 2009 7:15 AM  
Blogger RoamingChile said...

I really enjoyed Rembrandt... didn't realize you hadn't done an interview since then. Glad to caught this one. A great laugh and a memorable lesson. Keep it going, Hobby. Shalom.

November 13, 2009 7:15 AM  
Blogger kevsteele said...

Thanks for this! I have always considered Rembrandt and Vermeer as lighting influences. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is a must to get the creative juices flowing for lighting:
A favorite is Vermeer's - "Wiman Reading a Letter"
The Dutch also had a way with lighting landscapes and nocturnes:
Rembrandt - "The Stone Bridge"
Aert van der Neer - "River View by Monlight",
Jan van Goyen- "Two Oaks"

November 13, 2009 11:12 AM  
Blogger Yoram said...

Mate, you're a serious light geek. Funny, but spot on.

November 13, 2009 1:16 PM  
Blogger google said...

It's funny you bumped into Vermeer like you did. I ran into him when I was a young teen in art school and was also taken by his play of light and shadows. Learned a lot from the guy, got to know all about his studio window too.

Fast forward a bunch of years, and I'm a wedding photographer shooting the wait staff prepping at some wedding. The waitress leans to pour water into the waiting glasses and my eye says, "Hey! That looks photo worthy!" and I grab this shot. Only later does it dawn on me that what probably made me see that instant as photo worthy, was its resemblance to Vermeer's "The Milkmaid". Or in other words, because these great masters influenced me, sometimes my shots are taken because they're unconsciously influenced by them.

Over the years, I realize I've gotten not only a Vermeer out of a wedding, but Rembrandt, Degas and yes, even Norman Rockwell.

I'd love to show it to you, the resemblance is so very cool!

November 13, 2009 9:52 PM  
Blogger Mail Order Mystic said...

Hey David,
First thanks for everything you do. I have learned a lot from you, and like many, I really truly appreciate it.
I'm not sure if this is the right place for this comment, so moderate it if you need to. I don't know if you are familiar with Bryan Peterson (Author of Understanding Exposure), but he has started an online photography school that is quite good, and one of the new courses is called "Lighting Techniques of the Portrait Masters - An introduction to digital portrait photography" This is a legitimate school with excellent instructors. David Tejada is even teaching a course now. I don't know if this is a conflict since you teach courses, but if not maybe you could do a review of some of the lighting courses. Most of the classes are 4 or 8 weeks. I am in no way affiliated with this school. I obviously think an in person seminar with you, or Tejada, or Wiz, or someone would definately be 1st choice, but a quality on-line class is probably the next best thing.
Thanks again,

November 14, 2009 6:28 AM  
Blogger Biyahilo said...

Model Mayhem? Ha ha ha ha! Funniest post ever!
Maybe Rubens should be next so that we can find out where he gets his fat models.

November 14, 2009 6:42 AM  
Blogger BdgBill said...

Brilliant! Really looking forward to the Hopper interview. I am aways thinking of Hopper when shooting.

November 14, 2009 8:48 AM  
Blogger marco said...

I love these interviews, please please do write a book, "beers with the lighting masters" - I'm just saying :)

November 15, 2009 5:08 AM  
Blogger mikepenney said...

Steve Allen would be proud...
He invented a television program called "meeting of the minds" where famous people of different periods met and talked about their interests.

People were too stupid to watch it and it didn't fly very far.

November 15, 2009 10:54 PM  
Blogger Itamar said...

Brilliant ! In my opinion VerMeer is the inventor of photography. He used the camera obscura and was the film himself :-)

November 17, 2009 7:50 AM  
OpenID enticingthelight said...

Entertaining interview, Dave! It brings to light (ahem) one of the overlooked aspects of great paintings: Lighting. It's what separated the Greats from the me-toos. Personally, I'm a fan of Caravaggio.

If I may, I'd like to plug an article I wrote a while ago exploring this topic:

The More Things Change...

In it, I analyse the work of 3 Renaissance Venitian masters (Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese) through the eyes of a photographer.

November 17, 2009 11:35 AM  
Blogger Kevin Winzeler Photography said...

Your writing blows me away DH! Simply awesome. As others have said I look forward to the next in the series. I wish you would have taught my history of art class back in the day.


November 17, 2009 10:36 PM  
OpenID regislefebure said...

how dare you allow Vermeer to slander (libel?) Caravaggio!!! Everyone knows he batted from both sides of the plate. A rebuttal is in order. I can't wait for the next interview installment, please let it be the creative bad boy who preceded both Rembrandt and Vermeer. The enigmatic Edward Hopper may be the essence of cool, but, c'mon, MMC used a prostitute to model as the Virgin Mary! This sword-swinging (in more ways than one) Italian stallion is sure to be a much more lively interview.
Aside #1: Jonathan Harr's "The Lost Painting" is a great read.
Aside #2: no mention of Vermeer's use of the camera obscura? huh?
other than that, absolutely brilliant, Mr Hobby! thank you for all your informative contributions. great reads!

November 19, 2009 10:56 AM  
Blogger Vanessa Raney said...

Hi! :) You showed intelligent wit with this piece. Although I don't follow photography too closely, I couldn't stop reading this! I'll definitely go back and look at the Rembrandt interview. Keep up the quality writing as shown in the Vermeer interview!


P.S. I got to your article because a photographer on Facebook shared it and, because I also enjoyed it, I shared it, too.

December 27, 2009 8:30 PM  
Blogger Angelo Bellotti said...

excellent sharp 'game'

now it's the time for Caravaggio.

And check with him for the Camera Obscura , too.
The use for sure of several candles or other powerful strobes...

March 21, 2010 5:12 PM  

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