Photographing a subject on a shadowless, white background became a signature look for fashion and portraiture starting in the 1950s.
Milton’s mantra was “if you can’t light it with one light, then you can’t light it.” This held true for the light hitting the subject. But it had nothing to do with lighting the white environment so the subject seemed to be floating. Photographers would use different intensities of light on the background to a point where it could give a white line around the edges of the subject.
There is a beautiful book titled “Moments Preserved” by Irving Penn. In this you see him experimenting with light-colored panels, creating corners or walls for his subject to play off of. It was the inception of this technique. Penn also created a daylight studio. It was a tent enclosure with parachute fabric as a roof, which created a soft, diffused daylight studio.
Milton had created a bank of thirty-six 200-watt strobe heads, mounted to a frame that was attached to an 8x10 camera stand. It was equivalent to a large bank light which gave a similar effect to that of a skylight. Then Milton would light the background separately from the sides and above.
Richard Avedon took this concept a step further. He had a small bank light lighting the subject, a variety of lights on the sides, and above lighting the white background. But Avedon added a light source that tracked the subject. He created a telescoping pole that could go up to 15 feet and on it was a customized strobe head with a small translucent white fabric umbrella. His first assistant would follow the subject, keeping the light source an exact distance from the face. Five to ten feet, depending on the settings. This was, if the person jumped, sat, covered half their face no matter what they did their face would always be lit perfectly. And this became one of Dick’s signature lighting styles.
The shadowless background that is more commonplace today, are L and U-shaped cycloramas, usually used for film and video where you can track the subject moving across the frame.
We share these photos of Sammy Davis Jr. in honor of his Birthday on December 8, 1925.