It is not unlike someone buying Playboy or Penthouse and claiming that they are just reading the articles. Anyone who tells you they're buying Max Keller's new book, Light Fantastic: The Art and Design of Stage Lighting, to read the text is lying to you! The best--and, perhaps for an American audience, the only--reason to purchase this book is for the jaw-droppingly gorgeous photographs of Keller's lighting designs for the Munchner Kammerspiele.
The photographs reinforce one perception that we might have about German theatre and shatter another. In the first instance, a fundamental unfairness that US-based lighting, set, and costume designers sense about subsidized German theatres will be confirmed: They have resources that American theatres simply do not. Secondly, the old notion that German lighting designers work within a very tight palette is blown away. Keller presents some of the most beautifully graphic uses of color in theatre that I have ever seen. [See also "Pure passion," March LD, page 46, for Keller's work on Tristan und Isolde.] I would own this book simply as a source of inspiration.
The text, however, is another matter. The translation from the German, I'm sure, is the major culprit. The language of the book comes across as both stilted and unnecessarily obtuse, and the tone is pedantic at best. I'm not sure that Keller's sentimentsin his native tongue are entirely this way, but it makes for tough reading nonetheless. And when he devotes chunks of the book to musings about light, it comes across as almost a parody of stereotypically oblique German philosophers:
"External warmth, the warmth we feel when we touch things, the external warmth carried in the air--if this is to be absorbed by the human organism, it must be transformed in such a way that the actual warmth itself in the human being, if I may express myself like this, is to be found on another plane from the one outside. If I define the level of warmth that outer warmth has in this way, then, when it is absorbed by us, it must be inwardly somewhat transformed so that the organism intervenes everywhere where we are not, in the outer warmth."
There is much discussion of color theories as well, with the ultimate effect, however, of causing the reader to think, "So?" The book is something of a technical treatise in this regard, discussing the theories of Newton and Goethe regarding color, but it is less than helpful in any practical way. It offers very little real guidance to the LD in terms of negotiating your way through the difficult world of color choice, and, in fact, if read undiscerningly might lead to some very garish results. And Keller is, in my opinion, a little misguided in attempting to delineate for the reader his personal views as to the meaning of individual colors.
The rest of the book is a hodgepodge, bouncing from thoughts on color and philosophizing about light and space, to attempting to serve as an intensely technical compendium of all the lighting tools available to a designer, with a somewhat portentous "visionary" look toward the future of lighting control. There is also a history of the use of light in the theatre, and a discussion of the "six" angles of light (somehow missing the "occasionally" useful front 45-degree angle), which falls prey, once again, to the somewhat naive attempt to describe what each angle "means."
Finally, there is a description of how lighting happens in a German theatre's "lighting department." This last is both interesting and frustrating for an American reader: It might satisfy your curiosity about how our continental brethren do what they do, but, again, it has little practical application to the way theatre is done in the English-speaking world.
Ultimately, one needs to accept that this is a very personal, idiosyncratic view of what light is all about. The purchaser should not think that it is a practical guide in any way, although there are attempts at being exhaustive when it comes to lighting technology.
But I must reiterate that the book is very, very beautiful. Besides the theatre production photos, the layout on the page, the photographs of different lamps and fixtures, the graphic design--they are all of the most carefully considered and elegant quality. Light Fantastic truly reinforces the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. In my mind it would be most successful without the words and just the images.
Light Fantastic: The Art and Design of Stage Lighting is a Prestel Publishing title, ISBN 3-7913-2162-5. The 240-page hardcover has 270 color and 257 B/W illustrations, and retails for $75.
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Peter Maradudin is a freelance lighting designer, an educator, and a founding principal of Light and Truth, a theatrical and architectural lighting design consultancy. He can be reached at email@example.com.