The “Hand of God” Technique

In my silver-based film days, I had three enlarging lenses, a 50mm that belonged to me, and a 50mm and 75mm that belonged to my newspaper.
In my silver-based film days, I had three enlarging lenses, a 50mm that belonged to me, and a 50mm and 75mm that belonged to my newspaper.

As we all know, each of us is a product of our era and circumstance. I entered photojournalism in the early 1980s. It was during a period in which black-and-white photography was probably at its zenith. Kodak, Ilford, Fuji and Agfa were all making exceptional silver-based black-and-white films. Most of the images I made for newspapers were in black-and-white.

One concept I learned early in those days was that of grabbing the viewer’s attention, and one way to do that in the 1980s was to darken the corners of the frame, leading the viewer’s eye to the center of the image. As the decade progressed, we photojournalists, either on our own or influenced by each other, used this technique more, and more dramatically than ever before. In the darkroom days it was called “burning” or “burning in,” since after exposing the print to the baseline amount of light, we could open the enlarging lens to a bigger aperture, and using our hand or a piece of cardboard, we would expose the corners to more light from the negative, making that part of the print darker. (If you are confused about the “more light = darker image”, just remember that when printing a photographic negative, everything is exactly that, negative.)

By the late 80s, the technique was being used so frequently and so overpoweringly it began to be known as the “hand of God” technique. Photographers were burning the corners of their prints so much that they were sometimes black.

The 1990s brought more use of color in newspapers, and this corner-burning technique looked wrong in color, so it slower faded from vogue. To this day I still sometimes burn corners in Photoshop, but only to equalize exposure so the corners aren’t too bright. In the end, the objective is to give our audience, in my case the reader, an image that unhesitantly explains the subject.

This images is from 1988. The technique was to expose our print, then open the aperture on the enlarger all the way and "burn down" the corners. The idea was to propel the viewer's eye into the center of the image.
This images is from 1988. The technique was to expose our print, then open the aperture on the enlarger all the way and “burn down” the corners. The idea was to propel the viewer’s eye into the center of the image.
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