by William Chapman Sharpe. Oxford University Press, 2017. 440 p., ill. ISBN 9780190675271. (h/c) $74.00.
Reviewed May 2018
In Grasping Shadows: The Dark Side of Literature, Painting, Photography and Film, William Chapman Sharpe offers a scholarly, comprehensive presentation of the roles played by cast shadows across several visual art fields, as well as in literature, throughout history. He presents his thoughtful categorizations of these representations, and concludes with his personal reflections on shadows and their study.
Dr. Sharpe, a professor of English at Barnard College, has published several other interdisciplinary studies, including Unreal Cities: Urban Figuration in Wordsworth, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot and Williams (1990), and New York Nocturne: The City After Dark in Literature, Painting and Photography (2008). Sharpe’s current work enhances and extends his exploration, rewarding readers with its ever-widening scope as well as with its author’s astute and far-reaching observations.
Following a predominantly chronological organization (interspersed with unanticipated yet welcome contemporary cultural references), Sharpe traces the evolution of cast shadows. His examples range from Ancient Greece through the year of this book’s publication. He overlays this framework with keenly-observed and articulated shadow representation classifications, including the “Vital Shadow,” the “Look-Elsewhere Shadow,” the “Completing Shadow,” and the “Independent Shadow.”
The work is a model presentation of academic research supporting and enhancing an investigation that is both scholarly and personal. It presents a thorough literature review, is meticulously annotated, offers a detailed and engaging bibliography, and provides a complete index. Unlike many academic publications, particularly those dealing with multiple centuries of cross-disciplinary study, the logical format and clear language of this publication make it accessible for undergraduate through post-graduate audiences.
The physical publication fittingly supports its contents. Numerous color as well as black and white photographs (113 and 42, respectively) are beautifully reproduced and thoughtfully situated in the layout. The book’s integrated design extends to its cover: utilitarian black and white, compact and sturdy, but housed in a startlingly-illustrated dust jacket.
This is a significant, thoroughly researched and highly-perceptive study. Its scope, nuanced articulation and broad accessibility identify it as an ideal selection for many types of libraries. These include academic libraries supporting undergraduate and graduate programs in art history, studio art, English literature, photography, film studies, and anthropology. They also could include public library as well as many special library collections. (The only caveat for the latter collections might be that a preliminary understanding of the subject areas would enrich the reading experience; the material, however, would be understandable and beneficial without prior knowledge.)
Highly recommended for many levels of readership.