In Defense of the Incandescent

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design for “Spectral Scriabin” at the Lincoln Center in November 2011. Photo: Ruby Washington/The New York Times

If you talk to lighting designers about new technology—as we did recently—it’s hard not to conclude that the incandescent bulb is headed for almost certain extinction. The reasons seem obvious: LEDs are a lot more energy efficient and much (much) longer lasting. What’s not to like? Well, for now, price. But once economics of scale are achieved and the cost of LEDs come down, then it’s simply a matter of time before the incandescent—at one time, a radical breakthrough in its own right—shuffles off into obsolescence.  And that has Jennifer Tipton, the legendary theatrical lighting designer, worried:

“My biggest concern is that the incandescent lamp will completely disappear, and with it the spectrum that it brings,” she told our Barbara Eldredge recently. “This means that all of the color that has been devised over my lifetime will no longer be the color that my eye recognizes. LEDs are great—they add to the toolbox. But if you look at the spectrum of an LED and the spectrum of an incandescent, they’re just fundamentally different. LEDs don’t produce that warm candlelight glow of the incandescent bulb at a low reading. Unfortunately, this has happened throughout the history of lighting. Each new lamp has been colder than the one before it. Lighting today is very, very cold, tilting almost to the inhuman. So I guess I’m old fashioned, like the people who complained about missing the glow of gaslights when electricity came in. But I do feel very strongly that the toolbox should be complete, and that you shouldn’t entirely give up one thing just to have another.”
62252727Lighting for the Yale Repertory Theater’s recently-produced ‘Autumn Sonata’, designed by Jennifer Tipton. Photo: T. Charles Erickson/Yale Repertory Theatre
Related: In Leading Luminaries, we spoke to seven of our top lighting designers about new tools, new technologies, new challenges, and the way forward.

JenniferTiptonJennifer Tipton is an award-winning lighting designer, internationally renowned for redefining the relationship between lighting and performance. She has collaborated for five decades with a veritable who’s who of the stage, with such companies as the New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, Twyla Tharp Dance, and the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and venues such as the Metropolitan Opera. Tipton has won two Tony awards, two Drama desk awards, and was awarded The Dorothy and Lilian Gish Prize. Since 1991, she has served as an adjunct professor of lighting design at the Yale University School of Drama. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2008.

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