Colour in Documentary

I had heard and indeed experienced for myself that colour was a harder medium to work in than black and white. Black and white allows the user to concentrate on form and light. With an added bonus of heavier post-processing potentially being applied, the black and white photographer can enable the viewer to be further removed from reality while at the same time maintain a degree of truthfulness because of the black and white medium’s fact-based traditions. Colour on the other hand is much more immediate and colour relationships have to be considered as well as other elements of a photograph. On top of this the viewer has a harder time decoding the photograph as they work out the photographer’s intentions in the colour medium. Therefore I found it useful to read a description about William Eggleston as an example of transcribing his own visceral world into a social document.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis), 1970.
William Eggleston, Untitled (Memphis), 1970.

First I read the press release for Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976 where he was the only photographer featured who used colour. What Szarkowski wrote in the press release concerning Eggleston’s use of colour seemed to correlate with a text I had been reading called ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography’ by Vilém Flusser (2014). I had been recommended this text by my tutor to observe the discrepancies between black and white and then colour mediums. One thing I’d picked up on in both texts was how colour was intrinsically linked to the object. As Szarkowski puts it: ‘These photographers work not as if color were a separate problem to be resolved in isolation, “but rather as though the world it-self existed in color, as though the blue and the sky were one thing,”’ – (Szarkowski, 1976). As Vilém Flusser puts it: ‘The green of a photographed field, for example, is an image of the concept ‘green’, just as it occurs in chemical theory, and the camera (or rather the film inserted into it) is programmed to translate this concept into the image’ – (Flusser, 2014). What I gathered from these comments was that there is a code in colour photographs which make them translate as literal variations of the world once decoded by the viewer. Here the colour photograph seems at first glance to reflect the real world but in fact the viewer has to decode what they are seeing on the surface of the photograph in order to ‘get’ the colour concept. I had always thought of colour as a separate design element to be incorporated into the (colour) photograph but hadn’t seen it as something which couldn’t be dissociated from the object.

Szarkowski’s writing on Eggleston’s use of colour in the press release for MoMA’s 1976 exhibition also reminded me of an essay I’d previously come across by Thomas Weski (2009) entitled: ‘WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera”’ found on the website American Suburb X. Weski (2009) divulges Eggleston deliberately chose to employ a snapshot aesthetic to his colour images. He also: ’emphasizes hues that soak the scene or resonate in a critical way, virtually creating effects of sound, silence, smell, temperature, pressure–sensations that black-and-white photography has yet to evoke.’ – (Weski, 2009). He accomplishes this by using the controversial dye-transfer technique to subtly add perceptions of atmosphere through the colour treatment. In combination with a centre-weighted composition where seemingly incidental details are included going towards the edge of the frame as well as the obvious in the centre, Eggleston’s photographs become a lot more meaningful than the snapshot aesthetic he models them on. I wasn’t sure how I’d implement this into my own photography but it did get me thinking that with colour photography at least it’s not so much how well the photograph is taken but how well it is conceptualised that creates an impact for the viewer. Also how it is processed and/or shared by the photographer for the viewer might also be of importance, for example Eggleston with his dye-transfer technique.

References:

Weski, T. (2009). WILLIAM EGGLESTON: “The Tender-Cruel Camera” – ASX | AMERICAN SUBURB X | Photography & Culture. [online] AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/01/theory-william-eggleston-tender-cruel.html [Accessed 27 May 2017].

Flusser, V. (2014). Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 3rd ed. London: Reaktion Books, p.43.

Szarkowski, J. (1976). Color Photographs by William Eggleston at the Museum of Modern Art. [Exhibition].

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