People think I hate color, which is not true. (What's true is that I love B&W.) However, it does depend what kind of color we are talking about. There are some distinctions I think need to be made that often aren't.
A few personalized idiosyncratic definitions here:
A color picture is a photograph that needs to be in color to work, and that works. One in which the color is pleasing, or interesting, or adds some effect. Usually this means that the photographer is actually sensitive to color, and has actually noticed the colors either before, during, or after taking the shot.
A picture in color is a snapshot in which the photographer has paid no attention to the colors at all; just another miserable annoying approximate ill-seen miss of a camera-generated image that happens to be in color because 99.7% of snapperdigitigizmos happen to capture that way. Often as not the color is off, if not awful, or merely distracting. The salient percept is that the actual colors in the picture are arbitrary and ill- or un-considered, random, haphazard, uncontrolled.
A picture of colors is any result, good or bad, of a photographer on color-crack. Like teenage girls with cute guys around, or heroin addicts, or dogs on the scent of meat, many photographers lose their minds and go all soft and glorpy when they see big patches of bright color. They go from sentient beings capable of seeing and perceiving meaning to just wanting to wallow in all that purple or whatever. Sometimes these can be good pictures. Operative word "sometimes."
Now, I'm being acerbic here (please forgive), flinging language around like monkeys flinging feces, but it's a serious point. Do you see what I mean?
What I'm saying is that sometimes photographers are aware of colors, and use them sensitively; other times we make pictures in color even when the color is arbitrary or jarring or even ugly just because that happens to be the way the devices capture; and finally there's a whole class of photograph where the camera operator is just "after" color—or rather "after just color"—where you get the feeling people will take pictures of pretty colors regardless of how the picture is composed or what it means or even what it's of, with little or no thought for the deeper integrity of the picture as a photograph.
Do you see the distinction? Seems to me that whenever I think I've made a color picture, I should stop for a second and reflect on which of these three kinds it is. I'd probably learn something about it.
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Adrian: "I'm sure you apply the same standards to B&W pictures, i.e. pictures of tones."
Mike replies: I absolutely do.
Ben: "I think there's another element at play too, and that's color palate. Certain palettes can be appealing to some, and others to others. I've disliked Renoir as long as I can remember, because I just really don't care for his palette. It's just never appealed to me. Whereas with Monet, Cezanne, or Pissarro I tend to enjoy the color immensely. There's also a lot of intentionality baked into the categories, thus it seems more a guide for taking rather than looking at photographs. Yet it's an interesting way to look at color pictures, even if I think there's room for a lot more subtlety in there...."
Mike replies: You know whose color palette I really like? Franz Kline's. Oops, showin' me hand, never mind! :-)
Actually, though, Kline had good reason to paint nearly monochromatically. Look at his paintings from the '40s (for instance, "Pennsylvania Landscape" and "Chief Train") and it becomes apparent that the painter had a wretchedly poor sense of color. Ansel Adams's friends said he conspicuously lacked a feel for color as well, often wearing atrocious combinations of clothes that clashed.
Ray Hudson: "Good distinctions. Not sure where this fits in, but I'm often (as a hopeless fanboy of Mark Rothko, et. al.) 'after just color,' and true, don't pay attention to 'what it's of,' 'cause it's 'of' the color. Or would be if I ever get it right. Thoughts?"
Mike replies: I think good art convinces. And thus, you (or rather, your work) could convince viewers, including me.
Moose: "I am reminded of the play Red, about Mark Rothko. As it opens, he is staring, with great concentration, as a painting which is mostly a rectangle of red, and asks with great urgency 'What do you see?'
"Later, he alternates between extremes of frantic activity and inert despair, as he is unable to create the red he is looking for in a painting.
"I have read that smell is the most affective sense, atavistic, in that it goes right to the brain stem (or some such place), where emotion arises separate from thought. For some people, of whom Rothko may be a good, if extreme, example, color itself is powerfully affective and meaningful.
"For such people, color in interaction with itself in subtle variation and in interaction with geometric shape and texture may be capable of expressing the full range of meaning, and experience of meaning which they are interested in expressing and/or experiencing in art.
"It seems to me that you are near the opposite end of that spectrum from someone like Rothko, not colorblind, but relatively blind to the affective aspects of color in itself. Just as monochrome is an abstraction from the nature of the subject that emphasizes some aspects while muting others, emphasis on color is a form of abstraction, with different emphases.
"(As long as you start with some definitions, I'm sticking with monochrome, rather than B&W. A majority of so-called black-and-white images are not, in fact, only shades of gray, but shades of another, generally low-saturation color. Not only toned prints, but the color of papers and imperfections in the color balance of screens make this so.)
"There are certainly some monochrome images that I find to be outstanding art, but I lean far further toward color than do you. I am sometimes overwhelmed, almost swooning, to use an old fashioned term, by a color, most often one occurring in nature. At that moment, the specific form or object which is of that color is of far less importance than the color itself.
"I believe it is this sort of response that leads some artists away from clear form, things which tend to kick off thoughts, toward color, which is more affective. For such people, as with Rothko in the play, a difference in color that may be meaningless to many/most may be more meaningful than the difference between building and bicycle, grandmother and loaf of bread, as subject. There are those for whom a color difference I can't see is monumental.
"I'm not saying that those infatuated with color as primary are right and those, more like you, for whom subject, context and story may be more important, are wrong, or the reverse. I'm saying that both/all are right, and having a preference is only that, only a matter of taste, not any sort of absolute.
...where you get the feeling people will take pictures of pretty colors regardless of how the picture is composed or what it means or even what it's of, with little or no thought for the deeper integrity of the picture as a photograph.
"This is a definition of 'photograph' which makes assumptions, and which limits it more than I would, at least as I understand what you have said.
It is an unstated definition I think more important that the stated ones in your essay. To address only one part of it, '...or what it means or even what it's of...,' there are those, and I am among them, who would argue that a capture of a color alone with a camera is still a photograph.
"Your definitions, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek rant on the subject, are just one of a myriad of legitimate viewpoints on the subject.
"Me? I work most in color, occasionally find an image of mine that works better for me in monochrome, and occasionally abandon form almost entirely, wallowing in color that elevates me.
"There are certainly excellent monochrome images of this subject, but they would not have the emotional impact on me of color, which somehow connects to other times, places and experiences of their beauty and memories of those with whom I experienced them, in ways monochrome would not.
"This is about shape and color alone.
"This moves further toward pure variation in color.
"This goes so far that I've felt compelled to present it with a square of the color alone, because those for whom color is not primary tend to dismiss it as only a square of a single color.
"All of the above are photographic images of real objects."
Mike replies: Interesting and thoughtful, thanks.
I'm just talking about my work in this post, not yours. I'm also not your teacher and have no business judging you. If you accept that spirit, then I really don't see how you can expect your first picture to communicate. The flowers might be beautiful, they might have personal associations, but they can't communicate those associations. I fail to see how the colors can overwhelm the fact that it's just one more flower picture out of 10,000 flower pictures of that species. The meaning you're putting into the color is simply not something that is there in the photograph, I would say.
With the second picture, the opposite holds for me. You're specifically directing my (the viewer's) attention to the colors and how they work near to each other. I would say that photograph works for me, and I suspect it works in just the way you intend it to, although we might have to explore that further to be certain.
You lose me again with the orange square. An online photo can't really "fix" a specific color; you see it one way, I see it subtly differently. I don't mean subjectively, I mean scientifically, as a matter of remote reproduction. Everything on the Web is approximate, diminished, compressed, and uncontrolled in the sense that it has clutter around it. How, for instance, can I see that as orange rather than as orange and black with white lettering?
But beyond that, I can't see how a square of a single color can work as a photograph. Even if there is a faint amount of gradation in it as there is in your orange. It's just a orangeish color. How are you pointing anything out to me, how are you conveying anything, how are you communicating anything? Even if I accept that you feel a certain thrall to specific colors, how can that be Rothko's specific red vs. just some approximate sorta-kinda near reddishness with every other form of interest stripped from it? I can't even know that it's the orange you intend...
...Although you might be right about me; every Ellsworth Kelly I've ever seen has left me completely cold. Nothing in 'em for me. And I recognized in your description of your "swooning" response something similar to what I get from tones—I used to say "tones move me, colors don't"—I feel something visceral and unmediated from tones of gray that isn't there for me with colors. (Rothko on the other hand is almost spiritual—I can stand for long periods in front of his paintings. And I really responded strongly to the recent Matisse Cut-Out show I saw at MoMA, which is very much about color.)
Rod Thompson: "For me the work of Sam Abell (probably my 'trigger' influence back in the day) shows both color used intuitively and moderately, but also intrinsically. I have always responded to color, but must accept confusion as to my own take on color. Mono is the must satisfying to me when done strongly, but misses more often. For me, color or mono an unanswerable question, but I feel its important to take a side as being good at both is near impossible. Life is too short!"
Mike replies: Sam's book Stay This Moment is an important book of color photography for me.