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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Black and white?

Black and white affects the reading of the image and is something I was acutely aware of without ever really understanding why the effect is so different from colour.

Black and white makes the viewer more distant from the photograph, because the image is reduced down to form and structure. In other words as Henry Carroll states: ‘black and white simplifies what colour complicates’ – (Carroll, 2015). This struck a chord with me because I felt I was able to read the components of black and white photographs more easily than similar colour photographs.

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Attempt at seeing in black and white 1

As a photographer you have to learn to ‘see’ in the black and white medium and not just convert it from black and white afterwards because then those forms and structures probably won’t be as pronounced as if the photographer was looking for them in the first place. This is illustrated by Henry Carroll in a book I’ve been reading called ‘Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People’, where he says: ‘All too often people compose their shot using the language of colour and then hope that it will translate into black and white later. Neither of these approaches work.’ – (Carroll, 2015). I have been guilty of using that approach in the past but have since experienced what Carroll observed; instead it is better to be on the look-out for shots that would look good in black and white first.

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Attempt at seeing in black and white 2

In my opinion it is psychological too, as negative emotions are more easily related to in black and white. There’s something melancholy in my mind associated with black and white because it reminds us subconsciously of photography’s nature – a memory of something from reality which can’t be replaced. This makes me feel if I were to produce 8 black and white single-image narratives for assignment 2 I would be inclined to choose a more despondent theme for the photographs. On the flip side of this is the photograph’s other attribute – the potential for it to be reproduced indefinitely. This reproducibility allows the viewer to look at the black and white photograph especially with a sense of importance – this same photograph could be seen in newspapers etc and indeed had been. This would be by association – in the past black and white photographs were observed as more truthful and people had grown up with them in their culture – there was a sort of aura embedded into the collective psyche surrounding black and white photographs.

One strategy I felt would prove pointless with an optical viewfinder camera like mine was to shoot in black and white preview mode and view it on the LCD screen after the fact. While this definitely wasn’t as immersive as shooting with an EVF ‘in the present’ and viewing the scene before the camera in near-enough real-time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that before ‘chimping’ I could start to imagine what the preview would look like. Therefore I started to think in black and white, with particular attention paid to light and shadows and seeing potential for reducing the scene down to its abstract, core features.

Above I’ve displayed a couple of examples of me trying to ‘see’ in black and white before taking the shot (even though the optical viewfinder let me see in colour as a preview!).

 

References:

Carroll, H. (2015). Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People. London: Laurence King.