Out of Shadow: The Dramatic Digital Photography of Denis Palbiani

Body, Photography, 24 x 40

The use of chiaroscuro, starkly contrasting light and shadow in painting, was perfected by  Caravaggio, the most powerful and original Italian artist of the 17th century. He had an enormous influence on other painters who came to be called “Caravaggesque,” including the French artist Georges de La Tour, known for his nocturnal scenes with candles used as the source of light. Chiaroscuro has been employed ever since by numerous artists down through the centuries, but few contemporary artists working in the new media of today have exploited it as successfully as Caravaggio’s fellow countryman Denis Palbiani.
    Born in the province of Reggio Emilia, Italy, now exhibiting in New York City, Palbiani began his career as a successful marine photographer, winning major awards and competitions in that field in Italy, the United States, Russia, France, Turkey, Korea, and the Czech Republic, culminating in being awarded the World Championship of Underwater Photography.
    Since taking up fine art digital photography, Palbiani has innovated a technique for which he is perhaps best designated as a “sculptor with light.”   For the distinguishing factor in his prints of the female nude is a highly contrasting, high definition use of light and shadow that lends palpable, almost three-dimensional depth and weight to two-dimensional form. To achieve this unique quality in his pictures, Palbiani does not rely on Photoshop filters or any other high tech means. Rather, he has devised a brand new method with which to create his own variation on Caravaggio’s “tenebrism.” Working in complete darkness, he holds a small hand-lamp next to the naked body of the model to illuminate the part of the anatomy that he wishes to photograph, while leaving the rest in shadow.
    The Caravaggesque chiaroscuro that he achieves with this method is especially appealing in “S.L.,” a twenty-four by forty inch digital print in which the linearly illuminated outer contours of a nude woman kneeling on all fours almost entirely engulfed by the surrounding blackness takes on the sleek, abbreviated grace and beauty of a Brancusi. In another print called “Body,” the flowing form of a reclining nude model recedes in vanishing perspective, her shape defined by a golden aura suggesting a full-body halo. But perhaps the most startling print of all is “Sensual Curves,” in which only a thin line of light plays sinuously over only the outer contours of another reclining nude, creating the unsettlingly convincing impression of a snake with a human head, as in a synthesis of Eve and the Serpent of Biblical myth.
    In other works, such as his “Opera” series, chiaroscuro is employed in a less radical manner to highlight the head and torso of the subject, as in “Opera 9,” where just enough of the model’s nude form emerges from the blackness, her golden tresses flowing behind her, to suggest the figurehead at the prow of a Viking ship. Then there is “Red Passion,” where the model’s lower face and hand alone are visible and the only color in an otherwise monochromatic composition is the bright scarlet of her lipstick.
   Although this internationally exhibited and widely collected artist has also done notable images of landscape and other subjects, these sensual, sculptural pictures of the female form are among his most remarkable accomplishments.              ––– Wilson Wong


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