Black and white photography, with all its simplicity and purity, has serious limitations. There is a restricted range of tonal values, between the pure white and complete black, and to be quite frank, the absolute values of the extremes are somewhat limited by the medium, both at the stage of the negative, and particularly at that of the print. To make up for this, B&W photography has to play out all the visual tricks, to persuade us, that we look at something that closely resembles things and people we like to look at, and to try to create an emotion.
Perspective has been at various stages discovered, at times forgotten, then taken up anew and finally perfected, beginning with the Antiquity. It has been diffused during the Renaissance, and a couple of centuries later Vermeer has developed it to mastery. By the way, it looks, like he was not unfamiliar with the instrument that eventually gave birth to photography itself. If you are interested, there is a very fascinating story behind his alleged use of Camera Obscura.
Only during the renaissance however, the painters have discovered Chiaroscuro – the three dimensional effect they could create on a flat surface, through careful placement of brightly and dimly lit elements of reality. The most renowned “inventor” of the shadows in art has been Leonardo da Vinci. Subsequently, Caravaggio, and above all Rembrandt, have further developed the technique. But the shadows have always been secondary to the subject, were only an attribute.
I think, the first artist, who gave up the subject and shadow link, limiting his visual narrative to two dimensional shapes on simple background, has been Matisse, notably in his cutouts. In photography, his equivalent has been Man Ray, with his Rayographs.
Today, shadows have an important role to play in photography, and I often find, that the shadow itself, rather than its source, can become a key element transforming an ordinary scene into a space filled with poetry and mystery.
A particularly interesting and difficult use of shadow consists of incorporating primary subjects and shadows in an interplay, where both elements acquire equal importance in the final image. To my mind, one of the photographers, who has used this technique to a great effect is Ralph Gibson.