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Why is everything glowing?

An otherworldly glow has taken over visual culture, from music videos to fashion campaigns


2023 is the year the digital camera became a regularity on Instagram. Even if you don’t follow the kind of shutter-happy, selfie-savvy niche-internet-microcelebrity-types that first brought back 2000s digi cams in the past few years, they’ve become essential accessories for the likes of Bella Hadid, Charli D’amelio, and It brands like NiiHAI. The renewed popularity of digital cameras changed the look of images that dominate our feeds. Warm-toned golden hour shots have been replaced by the flattering, cool-toned wash of a digital flash, notably beloved for its ability to blitz out blemishes and essentially flatten the the face to its key bits (eyes, lips, a smidge of nose) — a non-secret known by every millennial who swore their new MySpace pic was model level.

Adjacent to the hard flash of the digi cam is a similar, yet more transcendental, effect — it’s not always identifiable as the product of flash, but it shares the same swathes of exaggerated highlight etched out by contrast. The subject appears to glow from within, but once again not in a soft, bronzed right-before-sunset photoshoot way — the luminosity feels ethereal, otherworldly, sometimes nearly blinding. An early, and somewhat extreme, example is the art for electronic musician Sega Bodega’s 2021 album Romeo, in which Sega is depicted in a variety of scenes posed with his mythical girlfriend, Luci, who is literally made of light — the silhouette of a young woman with flesh of pure white brightness. The effect is simultaneously celestial and cyber — in the cover for the album’s single “Angel On My Shoulder”, Sega basks in the light of a thick desktop monitor in front of him and the light of Luci behind him, her hands gently resting on his shoulders as his own rests atop a mouse.

The art for Romeo was created by photographer and director Aidan Zamiri, who is also a regular collaborator of American avant-popstress Caroline Polachek — another glow purveyor of record. In the cover for the singles from her 2023 album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, shot by Zamiri, Polachek glows against a black backdrop that’s simultaneously flat and bottomless. In Polachek’s case, her radiance evokes the ancient — she is accompanied by props with an artifact-like quality, including a cornucopia and a ramble of glass bottles wrapped with thick paper and twine. Still, Polachek’s myth is modern — atop her Juliet cap, she wears wraparound sunglasses, the kind worn by guys who rode BMX bikes in the 2000s and now worn by guys who go to raves in Berlin. 

Brands like Blumarine, Chopova Lowena and Mowalola have made glow central to their campaigns and storytelling. Blumarine’s latest collection is titled “A Glowing Tale” and speaks to the girl who’s “...magnetically attracted to light, like an elegant nocturnal butterfly”. Earlier this month, Chopova Lowena announced a “fairytale” book starring Chloë Sevigny. The book is titled Conversations With Angels and Sevigny’s likeness, captured by photographer Charlotte Wales, is so glowed out she threatens to disappear entirely around her edges. Mowalola’s profile in the latest issue of GREATEST features a road trip-inspired shoot shot by Zamiri, in which light bounces and doubles on car mirrors and leather jackets. 

Though copious amounts of glow often seems to reference the very distant past (when immortal deities and magical creatures roved the earth, or at least, when more people believed they did) or the very distant future (when we’re all beams of light who live in hard drives), it also evokes a time somewhere between the two — the 2000s. Used over 5.3m times on TikTok, the Bella filter, named for Twilight saga’s lead character, casts a greenish-blue glow on users, meant to resemble the super-cool colour grading used in the film adaptations of the series. Cool-toned glow came to represent a genre, from movies to music, marked by moodiness and an interest in mythical qualities. The cover of nu-metal band Evanescence’s 2003 debut album Fallen is a close crop of lead singer Amy Lee, the plane of her face nearly blanked out besides definition created through stylised blue-black contours. One of the four singles from the album is even titled “My Immortal”, pointing to the importance of what’s beyond the veil to the genre.

In a way, glow’s got it all. Its popularity could be tied to the pathology that drives our obsession with “dewy”, “glass”, “glazed donut”, “dolphin” skin, and “good lighting”. Go even further, get your hands on the level of glow historically reserved for angels, fairy-types, and teenage vampires (the ones you thought looked super cool in movies and music videos as a kid). Highlight for the gods, literally. But glow is perhaps the defining atmosphere of our time, and not just when it comes to skin quality — the glow of a laptop or an iPhone in the dark knows our faces better than anyone.

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