Photographing color

Some preliminary thoughts on how to capture color or by extension light rather than using color to enhance an image. Many great photographers taught us how color can be put to good use in photography, too many to list them all right here. Far fewer photographers go out to capture light, or color for their own sake. This is hardly a surprise, after all the bread and butter of photographers is based on capturing people, objects, events and the like. There are/were however a few photographers who had the energy and curiosity to explore the actual substance of color photography, which is color, in its won right. I am thinking of Ernst Haas, Saul Leiter, William Eggleston and others. It is probably no accident that some of them crossed over from fine arts into photography. The examples in this post are arranges by degree of abstraction. Clearly for color to become the dominant subject of an image, concrete subjects such as people, faces, objects, landscape elements have to be deemphasized and this can be done to varying degrees.

The border line case for me is Alex Webb. When I look at his images there is a constant tension between his documentary and aesthetic ambitions.

Alex Webb, Tehuantepec Mexico 1985 from The Suffering of Light, publ. Aperature

Here the aesthetic component, the limited color palette, dominates on first sight. Yet one is intrigued how a street image in broad day light can lead to such limited colors. It is then that our attention shifts to the documentary aspect of the image. Which is why the image only takes us half way to photography of color and light. However the idea of a simple and reduced color palette is always a powerful tool to keep in mind.

Feb 2014 I sat in my local Starbucks in Chicago. The second polar vertex had passed through . Negative space and blue, white and red/orange make up the colors. On first sight colors dominate but soon the eye discovers familiar details needed to decipher the image. The poor chap warming himself on a cup behind frozen windows that is the story.

Photo by Matthias Pfau, Chicago Feb 2014

Lets call this technique color minimalism. Many photographers have used minimalism, to emphasize color areas and composition. Here two simple examples. The last light of day, when artificial light sources dominate provide a natural playground for color minimalism.

A second way to emphasize color is simply to blur the subject. Motion blur, multiple exposures, deliberate out of focus areas are time tested techniques used to deflect attention from concrete objects and guide the eye to perceive color itself rather than objects. Ernst Haas, one of the early pioneers in color, remains one of my all time favorites.

Ernst Haas, Lights of New York City, 1972

I tried my hands at it using motion blur. Color has not yet taken over entirely, but at least colors has taken center stage.

A beautiful example of the combination of color minimalism and blur created by a fogged up car window comes from Todd Hido. The result is cold/warm color composition with only a faint sense of a reality behind it. Fogged up, rain covered windows are always an effective way to create a slightly melancholic blur. Saul Leiter used it over and over again with great effect.

Todd Hido, from “Bright Black World”, publ. Nazraeli Press

A third technique is the use of reflections. Reflections and half transparent windows reorder objects in a way that confuses us. With the subject hard or impossible to comprehend our vision returns to the surface design to find some orientation and in doing so we view an image more on the basis of composition and color. Saul Leiter has many wonderful examples, below just one of them:

Saul Leiter, Early Color, publ. Steidl

Scenes like this are not hard to come by in NYC. The first image is a reflection in a double paned window and hence out of focus. For the next one I hung around at Lexington and 77th street. There is a subway exit next to a “Pick a Bagle” and an intersection, causing just enough confusion for the eye when its busy and the light is good. The final image is a cropped detail of street life in Chicago around noon. The stark shadows create enough black so that all the warm colored details seem to emerge from darkness.

A forth technique is to take images of the profane. The viewer simply won’t bother spending time on the objects depicted. But if color is offered, then the eye will wander from color area to color area. This for me is the charm of some of Eggleston’s work. I am sure there is a lot more others could say about his work, but what I said summarizes my current appreciation of his work. My take on it looks like this, two bikes and a bucket:

Just for the sake of color

My fifth and for now final option for capturing color is simply to go abstract. Then all that is left for the eye are color, texture and composition. Below some simple examples, rust, evening light, ocean blue, color dots from a rainy day cab ride, and the colors of fall.

As I said, this is preliminary and I hope to return to it. If there is a reader with other ideas how to explore color using photography please do share.

Cheers, stay healthy,


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