31 March 2008

The colours of the world

Lagoon, sand, sky

Paua[1], alive, hide beneath their camouflage; the brilliant, swirling blues and greens and purples pressed against that wet, black body on the inside of the shell are revealed only after the animal dies, when only that shell remains, stripped of the living animal. In life, the iridescence has no function—at least, none known to us. But who, on picking up the empty shell for the first time, could fail to be arrested by those colours?


Some years ago, Tony Bridge visited for a few days and, after exploring the Pohangina Valley and much discussion about photography and other matters, he suggested my way of seeing (photographically speaking) was in black and white rather than colour. Until then I hadn't thought much about how I see, so I wasn't sure whether I agreed or not. I still don't know, although I suspect he might have been right at the time, but the comment encouraged me to look harder, to pay attention not just to what I happened to be looking at, but how I looked at it. I began paying particular attention to noticing colours, to identifying what I found attractive or discordant in a scene—colours, forms, tones, textures, and so on.
On the coast earlier this year, it even turned into a kind of game.
“How would you describe the colour of the sea?” I asked her.
She looked hard for a minute or two. “I'd say..., blue-green,” she said.
“With a hint of silver?”
“Hmmm... maybe more grey-green?”
And we'd argue about it. Rarely, we'd agree. Usually, we realised how difficult it can be not just to find the right words for a colour, but even to recognise the colour. Try it sometime. Try describing the colour of the sea, or look at the sky on a clear evening, after the sun's dipped below the hills; look at that light just above Gull doing yoga, waiting ternthe hills and try to identify the colour. It's not blue, it's not silver, it's not white. The closest I've been able to get is to say it's the colour of light—apparently nonsensical but somehow more accurate than anything else.


At dawn, as I struggle with these words, light from the sky illuminates the land; it glows, soft mauve and pink. Starlings rush across the paddock where sheep the colour of old, weathered straw graze among dry grass and crisp, brown thistles. The starlings, black and swift, continue to speed past, too quick to make out details; the impression is of movement and the absence of colour, as if they're shapes cut from the world to reveal the nothing beyond. As mauve fades from the sky the land begins to take on a faint golden hue, a promise of warmth despite the lingering cool night air.


I want to believe the whole world is beautiful; that I can feel at home everywhere. But I drive home in the middle of the afternoon in a light that leaches life from colours, leaving them pale and insipid, without even the character of being weathered, yet in perverse contrast, the dense, dark shadows lack detail and subtlety of tone. I can't escape the feeling that these colours, the way they don't work together, the grey roads and muddy olive-yellow foliage, the jumble of discordant power lines and hedges that truncate abruptly in the middle of a paddock—all these visual blows—result in a simply ugly chaos, like a world bruised. The world outside the window of the car as I drive is a mess, not even complex but merely complicated and jarring; the feeling is dismay: “This is not how The World should be!”

Are beauty and ugliness purely human concepts? Our response to the colours of dusk reflected on a wet beach, or cloud swirling around a sunlit mountain ridge, needs no label for us to appreciate the sight at a deeply emotional level—we would know these things are beautiful even if we had no language. A fly, however, responds in a Evening at Himatangifar less complex but essentially similar way to a delicious mound of steaming shit, and most dogs I know seem to view a roadkill with the same sense of appreciation and desire with which we humans view a limpid pool in a river on a sweltering day. How then might concepts like beauty exist independently from what perceives the beauty? To put it simply, is beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

And what causes me to see the world in the middle of this dry and hollow afternoon as dissonant and bruised? But if I somehow developed the ability to appreciate it all as beautiful, would I therefore have lost all ability to discriminate?


Colours and light. So often over these last few months I've been astonished and awed by the sheer power of the light. Elegiac light on distant mountains at dusk as the last sun breaks through rain cloud; evening sun on the hill behind the house, a hill so dry it's the yellow-grey colour of a lion, and behind it the deep blue-black of storm cloud. An angry sky, great clouds piled high into the evening, a thunderstorm in the South-West, black and green, its edges a luminous mist of rain. The car turns a bend in the road and ahead Russell at John & Sam's weddingthe sun's shining through heavy rain, everything behind that glowing gradient of light obscured but in front, the gnarled shapes of old macrocarpas. Near Ohakea a squall drives rain against the windscreen, turns the tarmac into a welter of foaming water, but a minute later it's gone, just a few heavy drops spattering the car, the smell of rain rising from the hot asphalt. Wheat fields, waiting for the harvester, glow bright in drifting sunlight, brilliant against dark clouds. A small flock of finches rises then falls back into the crop, black motes against the ripe yellow. Further West, a more distant but much larger flock rises and swirls like an eddy of wind-stirred dust. They too disappear, down again into the wheat; the impression is more one of movement and grace than individual birds.


In October last year on The Online Photographer, Ctein [2] posted a short article about how the camera he happens to be holding influences the way he sees. If the camera's loaded with black and white film, he says, he “sees” black and white compositions; if it's colour film, the photographer in his mind finds colour photos. The article provoked a good discussion, mostly about whether anyone has ever proved equally adroit with both colour and black and white photography [3], but as I looked at the two photos Ctein used to illustrate his post, I realised neither he nor any of the commenters had mentioned what seemed to me to be an important distinction: that between seeing black and white and seeing in black and white.

Seeing black and white is akin to recognising when colour is unimportant, or at least secondary to other elements like form and movement. SeeingMy driveway at dusk in black and white comprises recognising what something might look like if the colours were replaced by shades of grey. Ctein's photos showed snow chains on the tyre of a large vehicle. The first, a closeup, would have contained little or no colour; in effect, Ctein had seen the black and white composition, in the same way someone else might recognise the graphic possibilities of the shadow of a cat on a white wall (emphasising form) or a handful of shiny nuts and bolts on an old sack (emphasising tone and texture). The second photo, from further out, included the orange-yellow hub and part of the vehicle; this, I assume, he intended as an illustration of seeing colour.

However, the psychological processes are, I suspect, essentially the same: the facility with which one can switch between the two modes of seeing (colour/B&W) depends on one's ability to notice, to pay attention, and to recognise.

On the other hand, to see in black and white is mostly a matter of imagination. To look at a landscape, a street scene, or—much harder—a flock of brightly coloured parakeets and to be able to visualise what a photo of those subjects might look like in black and white differs hugely from the knack of knowing these would make lovely colour photos.


The sun rises through dense, early morning mist, a brilliant yellow-white disc hanging at the end of the long road. Ahead, a truck carrying a digger drives towards that sun through the luminous mist; silhouetted and angular, it looks like a sentient machine from an apocalyptic future. I try to look away from the sun, to lower my eyes from that burning disc, but the urge to gaze into it is almost overwhelming.


Seeing colour and recognising what might work in a photo, isn't as easy as sounds, particularly now we'reMacchapuchare and the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary, Nepal bombarded with and have become accustomed to ultra-saturated images. Mike Johnston, primary author of The Online Photographer [4], said recently:

It's often a source of wonder to me that color photography so infrequently uses color to any advantage—many viewers seem to prefer color simply for its verisimilitude—it shows what was, just because it was—without any thought to whether [...] the colors in a picture have any aesthetic affect or impact. Color can ruin pictures for me, as often as not.”
I agree, although as a friend pointed out, most people photograph simply to record and remember, and for that, verisimilitude is a virtue. Still, I suspect Mike had in mind those who photograph because they enjoy photographing as a creative act, and in that context I share his surprise.

Accompanying Mike's post is a photo by David Goldfarb which beautifully illustrates the virtues of subtlety and restraint; to me it strongly resembles an old, hand coloured lantern slide. Thinking about colour and black and white, I grey-scaled the photo and discovered it produced a similarly beautiful black and white version. Whether the subtly coloured or black and white version could be considered better is a matter of personal preference. Again, this seems to me to be mostly about seeing colour—but in this case, seeing it when you have to look for it. In contrast, a photo which simply doesn't work nearly as well in black and white is Joel Meyerowitz's “Still life with newspaper”. Colour—restrained, even muted, colour—seems essential to this photo [5].

I thought again about Tony's assertion that I see in black and white. This I believe I understand—loosely put, it's the subconcious translation of colour into monochrome tones, and, as I've said, it differs from noticing (seeing) black and white. But what about seeing in colour? Can one make a similar distinction between seeing colour and seeing in colour—between noticing and translating? Or, because we're overwhelmingly confronted by colour, does the distinction disappear? If “seeing in” black and white is primarily a matter of imagination, what might we be imagining when the subject already presents in colour?

I suspect the process, for colour, amounts to imagining how particular hues might be accentuated, muted, or otherwise altered. The photos by David Goldfarb and Joel Meyerowitz appear to be the results of just such a process—neither photo seems “true to life” [6] but that's not what matters. Farmer at Kileswar, GujaratWhat does matter is that those photographers saw the potential for photos that express something other than, or in addition to, what might be evoked by more literal records.


Desiccated kelp litters Wharanui beach, flotsam strewn right across the beach and beyond the shingle dunes, wrack from a huge sea in the recent past. A flock of black-billed gulls battles into a headwind, making slow progress along the beach towards a cluster of juvenile black-backed gulls fossicking among the wrack or standing, hunched, facing into the wind. Near the ruins of a crayfish carapace and part of one spiny leg, a dead fish—red cod, I think—lies next to a torn-off kelp holdfast. The fish's empty eye sockets gape up at the sky; its open mouth, fine-toothed, seems fixed in its final gasp, drowned in air. A shard of paua shell gleams on the shining, salt-wet shingle. Wild sea, wind, birds in a vast blue sky streaked with white cloud. I look out over the chaotic, turbid surf to the empty horizon and imagine my gaze going on to Antarctica then further, into and beyond imagination. Suddenly, I understand that to call this beautiful or otherwise is meaningless. All I know is that living somewhere like this seems to be the most important thing in the world.


Of course, noticing and imagining aren't alternatives. All non-accidental photos require some degree of noticing by the photographer; this is an unavoidable consequence of the decision to point the camera at something in particular and to press the shutter at a particular moment. Similarly, it's hard to imagine anyone photographing anything while completely lacking any imagination about the outcome—the photo. I might be wrong about all of this, but it's been fun wondering about it and paying attention to what I'm doing when I'm looking at the world; noticing how I'm looking at it, what I'm seeing and imagining.


The wet shingle feels cold beneath my bare feet. I return to the car and resume my journey, on to Blenheim, then Picton and the ferry. Somewhere in Cook Strait I look up at the sky, to where a lone, white cloud hangs in an aquamarine sky. Stretching from the cloud, a faint trace of shadow darkens the blue, so subtle it seems to vanish under a direct gaze; it can be seen only by looking off to the side. Perhaps that's the case with most things subtle—the trick is to pay enough attention, but not too much. And perhaps I've paid too much attention to this topic and lost sight of what I thought I was seeing. So, I'm going outside, partly to look at the colours of the world but mostly to enjoy it. I suggest, if you can, you do likewise.

On Himatangi Beach

1. Haliotis spp. (the Maori name paua usually refers to H. iris)
2. Apparently, Ctein is pronounced “Kuh-tine”, and it's his full name. From what I can gather, nothing about him could be described as ordinary; "larger than life" might be more apt.
3. According to some of the commenters on Ctein's post, examples of photographers who have proved themselves adept at colour and black and white include Harry Callahan (the photographer, not the other one), William Klein, and Sylvia Plachy.
4. I recommend The Online Photographer as one of the best photography oriented blogs. Sure, like all of them, it has plenty of opinion, but it's generally well-argued (and well written); it's a good source of news and ideas; and many of the articles I find excellent for learning about photographers I knew little or nothing about.
5. The online version doesn't do it justice, at least not compared to the version I've seen printed in Geoff Dyer's magnificent book, The Ongoing Moment — and the plates in that book appear no more than adequate to illustrate Dyer's assertions.
6. Of course, a “true to life” photo—one that substantially achieves verisimilitude—is unattainable, as yet another recent T.O.P post suggests.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Three elements on a long coast.
2. Gull and tern, loc. cit. I find it difficult to imagine most wildlife photos in black and white.
3. Evening at Himatangi Beach, Manawatu, a few weeks ago.
4. Some subjects seem to cry out for black and white. Colour can often distract rather than complement.
5. My driveway at dusk.
6. Macchapuchare and the entrance to the Annapurna Sanctuary, Nepal. March 2007.

7. Farmer at Kileswar, Gujarat, India. Early 2007.
8. Not my feet, on Himatangi beach. The beach here contains some ironsand, hence the dark colour.

[Update (8 May 2008): Mike has posted another thoughtful—and controversial—discussion about colour vs B&W on T.O.P. The comments so far are notable mostly for disagreeing with his assessment of the use of colour in a photo by Udayan Behera. I'm inclined to agree with the disagreement, but don't let that put you off reading and thinking about what Mike has to say. In particular, try applying his suggestion of blurring a photo to help assess whether its colours "work" (or just remove your glasses).]

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor


Emma said...

Lovely. What an excellent way to begin the week.

Also: thanks for the reassurance that the silver/blue-pedicured feet are not yours. ;o)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
As always a thoughtful and stimulating post. I think perhaps I may fall into the "see in" black and white catagory. I traveled the Ruahines a few times in the past years with my old film camera loaded with black and white film, and found those results very satisfying to my very inexperienced eye. Perhaps something inside me that saw that wonderful setting in that way.
While my photographic skills are very basic I have enjoyed these posts as a way to enhance using my digital camera in ways I have not considered before. Thanks Pete.
Ka kite,

twoblueday said...

Fine thoughtful discussion of seeing and photography and color. I give considerable thought to these issues, and used your post here as the point of departure for mine today (with due credit, of course).

Of course, the fact that I do a lot of "punch 'em in the eye" color photography doesn't mean I don't like, or do, subtle.

butuki said...

That was perhaps one of the more sublime of your posts. Your words and the photos and the tone of the whole story seem to resonate with the sound of the sea as I read along.

I remember back in 1995 I had been having an awful pain in my right lower abdomen so I went to see a doctor at a hospital along the coast in Shizuoka, where I used to live here in Japan. After a few minutes of prodding the doctor put on a very grave expression and quietly told me that what I had was very serious, that I was going to die and had maybe two months to live. This came as such a shock that I didn't think clearly about the legitimacy of his diagnosis, just that my life was going to end. I walked outside with my wife and we took a long walk along the beach. The beach was strewn with kilometer after kilometer of garbage and oil and ruined shoreline structures and rusty old cars and other derelictions, that normally I would have regarded with disgust. But on that morning, with my wife walking quietly by my side, everything was unbelievably beautiful, everything put me on the verge of tears with its independent beauty. During that time of imminent loss, just the very existence of anything seemed a miracle.

The following week I went to another doctor for a second opinion and was told, after much more extensive testing, that nothing was wrong. Soon all the discrimination towards what I considered beautiful and what not came rolling right back in. And for some reason the magic of the world slipped between y fingers again, too.

Anne-Marie said...

Pete, I am so glad you got through your "struggle with these words" and posted this. It seems to - like many of your posts recently - meander, but that is in your case most definitely a good thing :-) I have just arrived home from several days in Wellington; my flight home was at sunset; the weather clear; as the plane flew up the Kapiti coast I was trying to define the colour of the sea, the sky, the land - it was impossible. I concluded that some times words are useless.

I've sat for several minutes looking at your first photo. Such a simple image, yet so evocative: when I look at this photo, I can smell the salt and feel the sunshine.

twoblueday said...

I put a bit of a postscript on yesterday's discussion of subtle color and black-and-white in today's post, crediting you again.

I also posted a subtle color photo and its conversion to B&W.

Thanks again for your great postings and letting me run with your ideas, or at least not picking on me for doing so!

pohanginapete said...

Emma, thanks. Generally, if my toenails are an unusual colour its black, from too much time spent making my way down mountainsides in footwear just a little too small for my toes ;^D

Robb, the light in the Ruahine can be spectacular, but it doesn't always coincide with "pleasing" colours. I don't know why that should be, but when it happens, black and white seems to be the obvious option. I suspect you've noticed that too, given the time you've spent among those mountains. Glad you've got something from the recent posts :^)

Gerry, that's great! Really pleased you've joined in the discussion, particularly with those thoughts on your blog (those photos you posted of the cockatoo and the palm frond are excellent illustrations of some of the points we've been talking about). Cheers!

Miguel, I'm lucky I've never been confronted with something as frightening — and sobering — as your incident (so pleased it was a false alarm!), but I've noticed the effect when I've gone through other traumas, and have heard the same comment from close friends. I'd like to think it's not necessary to be scared witless or otherwise devastated to be able to "see" like that, but it certainly requires great effort to do it without the emotional kick-in-the-guts. I do try to remember the feeling, and I often try to see things — particularly familiar things — as if I were seeing them for the first time, and it's definitely worthwhile. And thanks for the kind words :^)

Anne-Marie, Thank you. Yes, it's a marvellous place. I wonder how long it'll survive... Welcome back from Christchurch! Hope you had a chance to look around; it has a lot to offer, particularly if you can get out to the coast or up onto the Port Hills (or, even better, onto the Peninsula). :^)

Bob McKerrow said...

Are beauty and ugliness purely human concepts? This you asked. Yesterday I saw the world from a satellite and there was no ugliness, just sheer beauty and natural colours that stirred my heart. I watched clouds swirl over Aoraki.

As part of a climate change pilot project in Jakarta, I have been working in some of the worst slums.
These slums get flood 2 to 3 times a year and people lose everything, if they don't get a warning in time. We are working on early warnings and how to reduce the feects of flooding. Part of the programme, is to train children to use video cameras and make their story on their lives and how climate change is affecting them. Most of the subjects they film are beuatiful such as laughter, helping each other, and the beautiful crafts they make. Even the old man who makes a meagre living from catching plastic bottles floating down the dirtiest river I have ever seen, sees no ugliness. When people live in storehouses of sorrow, it is colour, beauty and rhythm that keeps them positive.

I have seen flowers grow in stoney places
And kindness done my men with ugly faces
So I believe too

So wrote a British poet.......

Yes beauty and ugliness are human concepts. Is ugliness not a concept of those of us who 'have' and those who have little see only beauty ?

pohanginapete said...

Anne-Marie, AARGH!! Sorry. Welcome back from WELLINGTON! And I'm supposed to be editing right now... Maybe I need to take a break...

Bob, good thoughts, well put. I often mused about these things when I was overseas, particularly in places like India. Sounds like a fascinating project you're working on, although I imagine it must engender extremes of emotion at times. I sometimes think the people whose lives seem most hopeless aren't those apparently struggling most desperately, but those who survive adequately but in that kind of grey, nothing-world; where they have just enough freedom to wonder what it all means. Perhaps if you're struggling desperately just to stay alive, even tiny moments of relief can seem immensely beautiful. I try never to take for granted how lucky I am.
Cheers Bob. Hope we can meet up some day.

Beth said...

Pete, thank you for this fine post and the photos - I too spent a long time looking at the first one. Your musings on beauty and ugliness bring up sensitive issues for me too; I'm so acutely aware of both that I do try to see, as a practice, the beauty everywhere and to be grateful for the ability to do that. Yes, I suppose these are human concepts but it pains me greatly when I see wildlife in horrible environmental conditions, for example. And, finally, your photos don't seem the product of a monochromatic vision to me. Subtle color is still color, often more poignant and memorable for the fact that it's not screaming.

Emma said...

Bob, you pose an interesting question. Having been on both sides (of "having" and of having little), I disagree that those who have little see only beauty. It is difficult to see beauty in the midst of struggle and feelings of desperation. It is difficult to see much of anything in those situations. In the end it isn't about what one has or does not have; it is about who one is; I've known bitter, angry (and yes, ugly) people on both sides of the great divide, just as I've known serene, loving, kind, beatiful people on both sides. Economics influence us, yes, but one's spirit determines the outcome.

P.E.A. (no brain) said...

Aaaah - the language of 'seeing'. Can you ever know that the colours you are seeing and labelling 'blue-green' are not, in some sort of 'fact', 'pinky-yellow' to another's eyes; and they might happily be calling them 'blue-green'? If you see what I mean? The tests for colour-blindness can't sort that one out, as far as I know. We can only test what can't be seen. We have to take our own, and others' perceptions on trust.

twoblueday said...

I did a couple of Photomatix files in 16 bit (tiff files). I could edit them in Elements, but cannot figure out how to turn them into usable jpegs from there.

Any suggestions?

pohanginapete said...

Well, I'll have another attempt to respond, after a power cut trashed my comment partway through. At least the power returned promptly, even if my lengthy comment didn't.

Beth, making sense of the suffering of animals seems to me to be one of the failings of many (not all) religions, which seem to consider it irrelevant — animals don't have souls so they don't count. (Of course, many followers of those religions certainly do have great compassion for animals (St Francis of Assisi is a notable historical example)). And where does that leave the person who holds no religious beliefs? Is the animal that dies like a dog at the hands of a human, or in the jaws of another animal, or by simple accident, just unlucky? Should we just harden up and accept the world as not inherently fair? Does that "logic" lead inexorably to the conclusion there's nothing wrong with cruelty? (I think Nietzsche argued yes to that last question, although he was thinking of humans rather than animals, and, ironically, he lapsed into his final madness after throwing his arms around the neck of a horse being beaten by its owner).

Emma, I read Bob's comment not as saying those who have little see only beauty, but as saying even those who have little are still capable of seeing beauty. In that respect, there's no inconsistency with what you say — and I agree with you — about how the capacity for seeing beauty is determined by who we are, not what we have. Perhaps those of us who, like me, have been lucky in life notice more acutely the ability of some desperately poor people to laugh and enjoy their lives, at least occasionally. Thanks for the discussion :^)

P.E.A., I think I see what you mean, but can't be sure ;^) And, I've often thought about that one. I suspect the answer's "no, but what matters is the relationship of those colours to each other". Good point about trust, too — more of it would make the world a better place.

twoblueday/Gerry, unless I've misunderstood, it should be simple. Load the file into Elements, resize it (with resampling turned on), and use "File>Save for Web" (in CS3 the equivalent is "File>Save for Web and Devices").
Congratulations on the photo awards!

Melinda Fleming said...

I wonder: If one deliberately took pictures of scenes and things that one finds aesthetically ugly, would the resulting pictures also be ugly?
Your post resulted in a most edifying read. And stunning pictures, as usual. Thank you.

Avus said...

Often have I wondered why we consider things "beautiful", why our hearts are lifted.
At what stage in our evolution did this happen? The primates do not appear to go in for awe and wonderment at sunsets or flowers.
Some would say it is god in us, but as a Darwinian I cannot subscribe to this. However, it is an easy answer for them, to a question I cannot resolve.

Avus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
pohanginapete said...

Melinda, an excellent question, and one that had me wondering for a while. I still am. I don't have an answer (as usual — and if I did, I'd probably disagree as soon as I said it), but I suspect the process of photographing and questioning why I was photographing — what it was I found ugly — would strongly affect my attitude towards it. Some things I'd still find overwhelmingly ugly, but in others I'd probably find something that would encourage me to revise my opinion, at least to some degree. But mostly, I think I'd realise that nothing is utterly evil or entirely beautiful (well, very little), and, in any case, thinking in those terms is one of those dualistic minefields I keep harping on about. Thanks for the thoughts :^)

Avus, I think some people would disagree about no primates having a sense of awe or wonder (bonobos would probably be cited), although I don't feel i know enough to make a judgement. I do get the impression the more we learn about animals, the more we realise we've underestimated them. But it's a good point — when did our sense of wonder arise? When did the first proto-human look out and become aware she was wondering and appreciating? Did the awareness develop so gradually it was imperceptible; did someone eventually realise he'd been enjoying sunrises for so long he'd forgotten when he'd begun (unconciously) enjoying them? If these questions are unanswerable (as I believe they are), is there any point in wondering about them (I think there is).
Cheers Avus! (BTW, I've deleted your duplicate comment)

Zhoen said...

I had to come back and read this slowly, with pauses to imagine taking photographs. I cannot come up with anything more eloquent than you have here.

I did grow up on b/w tv, and still love b/w photographs most, they seem cleanest and clearest.

Peregrina said...

This has taken a lot of absorbing, and I don't think I've got it all yet. I also went on a few side trips, following up the links you've given as well as links provided in comments on those links. [What fun the superlambananas are, and Pete Carr's images are well worth viewing, especially the B&W ones. I tracked these down after bringing up the David Goldfarb image - and I quite see what you mean by the resemblance to an old, hand-coloured lantern slide. One person commented, "... it looks so much like the 1800's". Then, like you, someone else saw its possibilities as a B&W image and seemed to think he'd like both versions hanging on his wall.]

I find myself confused - not by what you've written, but by the questions you've made me think about. Maybe there aren't answers to some. Maybe answers vary from person to person. But they're certainly questions worth thinking about, because they increase awareness.

I think Ansell Adams must have developed the ability to see IN black and white. I remember reading, in a book accompanying the exhibition we had here a couple of years ago, his account of getting to the site and making the image "Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, 1927". He describes this as being the first time he was ever able to "see" how the image would be before he clicked the shutter. It's not something I've been able to visualise successfully, but I have tried, by being much more conscious of tones when working in B&W. Maybe it's something that I should be consciously practising in colour photography as well, until it becomes automatic. Maybe that's the way to notice the subtleties, instead of being arrested by the impact of saturated colour. (There's a whole topic for discussion here - the increasing visual bombardment of ever-brighter colours. Where will it go next, when we've reached the limits of saturation and brightness?)

Talking of saturation: have you de-saturated the seventh image in this post, of the farmer? It seems to have a quality that I associate with the fourth image in your 6th June, 2007, post - which, incidentally, I still go back to from time to time.

In this post the words that most strongly jumped out at me were, " .... to notice, to pay attention ...". I seem to get worse by the year, and I always was rather bad. Sometimes I don't even notice what I've just done. For example, the other day I embarked on a mad hunt for keys which were not in their usual place, when I'd actually picked them up about three minutes previously and slipped them into my pocket while thinking of something else. That is, I did something which I'd earlier registered in my brain as "something to do", without paying attention to actually doing it. I think a lot of my seeing is like that. I don't really see until I consciously pay attention, and then when I pay attention, I notice. Is this lack of attention a consequence of the constant bombardment of the visual and auditory senses that we mostly live with nowadays, or was I born with a butterfly mind, flitting from one thing to another? I wonder if people noticed their surroundings more two or three hundred years ago, when the pace of life was slower and not controlled by the clock?

This is a thoughtful post, Pete. Yes, it meanders, but each meander takes us to something to think about.


PS. Your E.A. has made me smile again!

PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Hi Pete
This is an excellent blog on those aspects which focused on photography per se. Quite informative. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, there's certainly something about a good b&w photo that can leave me awestruck. I discovered An Inner Silence: The Portraits of Henri Cartier-Bresson only a few weeks ago, and I stood there in the bookshop utterly entranced (and tempted. And frustrated, until I managed to recover some degree of nonattachment).

Peregrina, there's a lot to think about in your comment, too! A couple of thoughts in response: regarding the noticing and paying attention — it's necessarily selective; you simply can't pay attention to everything, and perhaps the reason things like keys get forgotten is mostly because you're paying so much attention to more important things? As for the Kileswar farmer photo, no, I haven't desaturated it. I lowered the contrast (it was extreme) and selectively darkened the brightest part of the background. I see what you mean, though. Velvia, with its ultra bright colours and severe contrast, would have been useless; a portrait film with careful, diffused, fill flash would probably have given a result similar to this.

Paterika, thank you :^)

Peregrina said...

Thank you for that cheering perspective on what I took to be inattentiveness. I see now that I was simply multi-tasking!

I've been thinking about brightness and high saturation on the one hand, and subtle colouring on the other. The increasing prevalence of the former in advertising, particularly on television, is, I suspect, an attempt to grab the attention of viewers who, in time, develop immunity to what is current.

Our senses (and those of at least the higher orders of fauna) are programmed to be alert to change: our eyes catch a new movement, our ears register a new sound, our noses notice a new smell. In the dim and distant pre-human and human past this ability to notice a change in surroundings, which might indicate a threat, must have been fundamental to survival. When the new sensation is registered as being safe, we tend to stop noticing it; or at least, if it continues, to relegate it to a lower level of awareness as something in the background. Thinking of the visual only: I suppose what I'm trying to say is, that in order to be noticed, advertising has to increase the assault on our visual sense by ever-brighter, more saturated images. Maybe this then causes a shift in what we consider to be the norm and we begin to expect it in other types of image.

There's perhaps another factor as well: time. Brightness and saturation catch our attention immediately. An image in subtle colours usually needs to have more attention paid to it and takes longer to absorb. These days we live in a world where so much is geared to speed. (Have you read James Gleich's "F*ST*R"? [1] ). To make a generalisation: are we losing the art of slowing down so that we can spend time noticing subtlety?

And now, not related to the above: I've been thinking of the paua and the beautiful colours inside the shell that appear to be of no use to the living animal. I hadn't thought of that before. I like the idea that beauty exists in places where it isn't necessarily seen.

Thanks for this post, Pete. It gives much to think about.


[1] James Gleich: "F*st*r: The Acceleration of Just About Everything".
Sorry, I can't find my copy to check out the publisher. I must have placed it somewhere else while multi-tasking, as it isn't on the shelf where it should be!

MB said...

I thought I'd left a comment here earlier but perhaps I only thought real hard. ;-) Regardless, I read this post just after I returned from a trip to canyon country in southern Utah, and I appreciated very much your discussion of b/w photography. I had just spent time struggling to understand the scale and light of that country, which although desert, is quite different from that which I'm used to. The color, which becomes particularly luminous at dusk and dawn of course, flattens out astonishingly during the day and the light/shadow contrasts become very harsh -- which led me to consider things more in terms of black and white, since the forms and light play were still so fascinating. I never did manage to figure out just how to communicate the scale, though, which is engulfing and overwhelming. (Perhaps question that might inspire you for another blog post?) I only wish I'd read your discussion prior to my trip, but perhaps it's as well that I didn't. This way, I've understood some things in a way I wouldn't have before. Besides, I'll have read it now prior to the next trip, whenever that may be...

pohanginapete said...

Peregrina, perhaps what we notice most is difference? If so, muted colours and other forms of subtlety might eventually make something of a comeback. Nevertheless, animals (including us) do seem to have a rather simple response to many stimuli — the stronger the stimulus the stronger the response; thus the often bizarre outcomes of experiments on supernormal stimuli. Maybe subtlety isn't part of our nature?

MB, the difficulty of evoking scale in a photo usually stumps me too. For example, I haven't been able to work out how to photograph a giant rimu tree in a way that conveys the feel of standing beneath it, looking up, and feeling utterly insignificant. The problem becomes even more difficult when the photo has to convey that feeling when viewed a mere few hundred pixels wide on a computer monitor. If it can be done, I haven't yet seen it.

Good to hear from you.