Emotions aren’t black and white

Last leaf

I’ve always loved and been fascinated by colour.  Ernst Haas famously said ‘colour is joy’, and it always has been for me.  For that reason I was never very interested in black and white photography – while I could see its merits, I was so absorbed in seeking out colour that I had little time for it.  Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of work in black and white, which hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has simply emerged.

I could say – and have – that this is because winter doesn’t offer much in the way of colour, and so I’ve concentrated my energies on what’s there rather than bemoaning what isn’t.  There is some truth to this, and it’s been a welcome change to find subject matter that fascinates me right through the winter months.  It used to be that I rarely picked up my camera in those months, waiting for the colours of spring to reappear before I felt inspired again.

However, I think there’s a little more to it than that.  In the past I’ve done training in various psychotherapies, including NLP.  For anyone not familiar with this, it’s a way of changing how you think (and therefore feel) about something by altering the way you perceive it in your mind/memory.  At a simple level, the memory of a distressing experience can be made less impactful by changing the picture of it in your mind from colour to black and white – black and white simply drains a lot of the emotion from it.  And depressed people, who have effectively numbed their emotions so much they can’t feel much at all, usually dress in greys and browns and black – it would be very unusual to see a depressed person wearing colourful clothes.  Colour and emotion go hand in hand with each other.

For the past few months I’ve been struggling with some old demons that have resurfaced – traumatic memories that I thought had been dealt with but obviously haven’t.  I’ve felt low and very numb – the whole range of emotion just hasn’t been available to me as my psyche tries to protect me from those old and painful memories.  Interestingly, this has coincided with my sudden turn to black and white.  At times, I’ve even found myself actively disliking colour, finding it too brash and intrusive.  I have felt uncomfortable with it without knowing why.

I wonder – and I don’t feel able to answer this in any definitive way – whether a photographer’s attraction towards colour or black and white is related to their emotional range?  Many avid black and white photographers seem actively antagonistic towards colour.  I’ve never really understood this – if you prefer to shoot in black and white, then that’s absolutely fine and there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to denigrate those who choose colour instead.  Those photographers who do have an aggressiveness about them that seems out of proportion to the matter in hand and smacks of defensiveness.  Take, for example, this quote from Walker Evans:

Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.

Or this one, from Roland Barthes:

For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).

Of course there are lots of perfectly good reasons to choose black and white over colour.  If your image has one disconcertingly intense area of colour in it that would dominate the shot, then black and white will deal with that.  If there’s very little colour in the image and it adds nothing to it anyway, then black and white will be a better choice.  If the main interest of the shot lies in lines, shapes or tones, then black and white will show these up better and direct attention towards them.  Removing colour can also make a shot more timeless – think of those crudely coloured fifties photos that can be dated immediately just by the colours.

And it’s also true that black and white can be used to make the image more dramatic – where a colour shot would look unnatural and crude if you were to increase contrast more than a little, a black and white shot can take it, and more.  To make it more dramatic is to bring emotion into the shot, which of course goes against what I’ve said above.  I’ve also come across this quote, which argues that black and white portraits actually reveal more emotion:

Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction. – PhotographyVox

Not sure if I agree or not on that one.

I’ve done a little bit of digging around online, and can’t find anything much about this.  My go-to place for this kind of thing is the online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, by John Suler, which is full of fascinating stuff but he doesn’t specifically discuss colour and black and white anywhere that I can see.  However, under the topic of Selective Colour he has this to say (‘selective colour’ is the practice of keeping one small part of an image coloured with the rest in black and white):

Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. – Selective Color, John Suler
It’s interesting that he links colour to emotions and emotions to a feeling of connectedness – emotionally numb people usually have a feeling of disconnection and isolation from the world and other people.
My conclusion is that, for the majority, the black and white/colour decision is one that’s made according to how effective it makes the image.  Those folk happily switch from one format to the other accordingly.  And there are some people who simply like black and white a lot, for no particular reason.  But these people don’t usually make a big deal of it, and based on my own experience I do wonder whether the more emphatic black and white photographers are somehow threatened by colour because of its emotional component, and to shoot in black and white reflects their practice of keeping emotions at one remove.  I might be widely off the the mark here, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’m not for a moment suggesting that all dogmatically black and white photographers are suffering from depression – more that they may be more uncomfortable than most with emotions.  Depression is only one of many ways of numbing emotions, and I’ve concentrated on it here partly because there’s a great deal of literature linking it with lack of colour, and partly because I think it may be a component in my own turn away from  it.  But is this particular to me, or can it be more generally applied?  What do you think?
More reading

Researchers find choice of colour reflects mental health

Depression Colors the Way We See The World

The Colour Thief – a children’s book about a father’s depression.  From the back cover: ‘My Dad’s life was full of colour.  But one day Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said that all the colours had gone.’

Interestingly, where a tiny hint of colour has crept into my own photography, it tends to be blue, as in the two shots below – another colour associated with low mood.

Lake water, with Lensbaby

Lensbaby branches, patch of blue sky

52 trees – week twenty-two

Branches, Lensbaby

This little project is teaching me many things, and one of them is how hard it is to stay true to my own vision and not be swayed by what I think other people will like.  Unusually, I had quite a number of images to select from this week and have changed the posted image about four times so far because I can’t make up my mind.  Some were ‘safe’ – the kind of thing universally liked but not that interesting – some were dark, both in tone and visually, hinting at darker emotions that are not so immediately appealing.  Some I loved myself, but knew that others almost certainly wouldn’t.

I never photograph for anyone other than myself.  While I’m using the camera, it’s all about how I’m seeing things and what I’m drawn to.  Afterwards, though – afterwards – I begin to see my pictures as other people are likely to. In some ways this is good – it introduces a little bit of objectivity into the proceedings –  but it’s also when I start tying myself in knots.

It’s easy to say it shouldn’t matter and of course there’s a lot of truth in this.  On the other hand, some of my motivation to continue taking photos lies in sharing them, and I like to feel I’m sharing them with people who enjoy what I do – for the most part, at least.  I’ve questioned this need to share more than a few times, and the conclusion I came to is this: I need to share in the same way that if I got a piece of good news or something fantastic happened to me, I would feel a strong urge to phone up a friend and tell them about it.  It increases the pleasure for me, and I hope gives them some second-hand pleasure too.  It’s not a case of looking for validation – rather, an intention to connect through the medium I most enjoy.  So I’m very grateful to anyone who takes the time to look at what I’ve done, and I’d rather not alienate them with too much stuff they won’t like.

Then there’s the business of trying to assess, as objectively as possible, what I’ve produced.  I believe that I’m producing better art these days than I did a few years ago – in fact, I believe that I might venture to actually call some of what I do ‘art’ – but self-doubt is never slow to poke its head in.  It’s so difficult to judge your own work – it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve looked at something I’ve done and loved it, only to realise later that it was pretty poor stuff.

Other people’s reactions are not really something you can go on here.  The more you look at images the more sophisticated and informed your taste becomes, and any one person’s reaction to what I’ve produced is likely to be dependent on where they are on that scale of visual experience.  What I’ve resorted to is looking at other people’s work – work that’s gained some recognition – and comparing with my own.  Much of the time I can see how far I lag behind them, but on occasion I see people doing the kind of thing I’m doing myself, and even more occasionally I think I might be doing it better.

So I think I prefer the weeks when there isn’t much to choose from.  I’ve no idea if I’ve made the best choice here or not, but I’ve been playing with diptychs lately – something I haven’t done for a long time – and this is one of them.  I was also playing with my Lensbaby – another thing I haven’t done for a long time – and I liked the way it blurred the background layers of these hanging branches.  It’s a quiet image, with perhaps something of a Japanese aesthetic about it.

 

Jazz at Strays

I sometimes think photographers can be divided into two groups – those who like taking people shots and those who don’t.  I tend to fall into the latter category, although from time to time I do enjoy a bit of street photography, and I have been known to do the occasional portrait.  Last Sunday we went with some friends to an afternoon of live jazz at what is probably the best cafe in Newark – Strays. I’m not a huge jazz fan, but this was the kind of jazz I like – nothing too heavy,  a trio of two guitars and a drummer, with a female vocalist for some of the numbers.

Jazz at Strays, Newark on TrentThis girl had the most amazing voice – mature and sophisticated, and quite different from what her youthful prettiness would lead you to expect

One reason that I don’t do much people photography is that, if I’m going to indulge at all, I much prefer candid shots and I’m aware that not everyone likes being photographed when they’re not aware of it, so I feel I’m being a bit intrusive.  When it’s musicians, however, I don’t feel bad about it as being photographed goes with the territory.  I was sitting there wishing I’d brought a camera with me when I suddenly realised that I had – my little compact Fuji was lurking in the bottom of my handbag.  I don’t enjoy using this camera at all, not because there’s anything wrong with it per se, but because the quality is so much lower than a DSLR, it doesn’t shoot in RAW, and it doesn’t have a viewfinder.  It also has more shutter delay than I’m used to, which can be a bit frustrating.  But as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you, so I decided to see what I could do with it.

There’s something quite freeing about making do with what you’ve got, and trying something that you wouldn’t normally do, and once I got started I had a very good time indeed.  The impulse to start photographing in the first place came from one of the waitresses who was competently wielding a Nikon DSLR – it’s funny how just watching someone else take pictures can get you fired up yourself.

Jazz at Stray's, Newark on TrentYou can see how slow my shutter speeds were by the blurring of the guitarist’s fingers as he played

I’m not displeased with the results.  They have a fair bit of noise, thus losing much of the fine detail and reducing the potential for sharpening, and I couldn’t get the shallow depth of field I like to use, but that’s all part of the challenge.  I used the black and white shooting mode, largely because the singer was wearing the brightest orange jumper I’ve ever seen and it would have dominated a colour shot.  Everything’s a bit soft, but in the circumstances it was all that was achievable.

The performer I only got one usable shot of was the drummer, despite spending most of my time focussing on him.  He had an amazingly mobile face, with lots of great expressions, and was obviously thoroughly enjoying himself.  But because he moved his head and face a lot, and the camera has its limits, every shot I took bar one shows him with blurred features.  You can’t win ’em all.

Jazz at Strays, Newark on TrentThe only usable shot I got of this musician – he had such great facial expressions but slow shutter speeds made it impossible to capture them

Jazz at Strays, Newark on TrentThis chap’s expression didn’t change at all, but he was enjoying himself – honest!

The photographer being photographedOne time you definitely won’t be noticed taking photos is when the person in question is doing some photography themselves. 

ConversationGeoff and Paul in conversation during a break

 After I’d exhausted the possibilities of people photography, I then reverted back to type and took these two shots!

Elegant legs under a tableThis very elegant lady was the wife of the drummer in the band.

Reflection, Strays Cafe, Newark on TrentAnd I never could resist an interesting reflection, although this one was at the absolute limits of my zoom, and is a mite soft because of it

52 trees – week twenty

Tree shadow, London Road, Newark on TrentI’m at the stage where I’m getting a little bit bored with this project, or at least, bare trees with no leaves.  However, we’re now getting a bit of sunshine and on Sunday it was bright enough to cast these wonderful shadows on the Georgian houses round the corner from us.  It makes a change from reflections.

I guess this is the danger time in a project, when you’re well enough into it to have lost the initial excitement and you begin to get the feeling you’re repeating yourself a little too often.  Time to up my game a bit, I think, and start thinking a little more laterally.

It does help to have a camera with you at all times.  I don’t usually, because mine’s far too big and heavy, but on this occasion I happened to have a little digital compact in my bag.  The quality’s not nearly so good but, as they say, the best camera is the one you have with you.  However, at long last it’s looking as if I might get a bright shiny new camera in the near future, and I’ve decided to go for the Sony a6000 which is going to be small and light enough to carry around with me most of the time.  I’m rather hoping it will give my photographic creativity a bit of a boost.

52 trees – week nineteen

Leaf tapestryOh how I long for colour!  Much as I’m enjoying the strong lines, shapes, and contrasts of black and white photography, colour is what I most love.  There’s little of it around at the moment, so when I saw these richly coloured autumn leaves floating at the edge of the lake, adding their vibrant tones to the darkness of the water, I was drawn right to them.

being lost, wu wei, and photography

Forest, Moel Famau

Some years ago I was on holiday in Somerset, by myself.  Each day I went walking in a different place, and on one occasion I ended up in an extensively forested area.  I’d been walking for a couple of hours, had stopped to eat my bread and cheese and olives, and realised I wasn’t sure which way I’d come or how to get back.  In all the time I’d been walking I hadn’t seen anyone at all, so there wasn’t much chance of being able to ask for help.

I felt the beginnings of panic, but pushed it away and rationalised that there was plenty of daylight left and even if all I did was walk in one direction, then sooner or later I’d come to a road and I’d find my way back (this is the UK, after all, where there isn’t that much wilderness left).  I felt a bit calmer, took a few deep breaths, lay back on the grass, and allowed myself to enjoy, for the moment, the warmth of the early spring sun on my face.  Then it came to me – the sun had been dazzling me from my left as I walked from the car park, and taking into consideration its rotation as the day went on, I could probably figure out roughly which direction to go in.  I could, I did, and it got me home again.

I was reminded of this on reading a post by Parker J Palmer, which included this wonderful poem by David Wagoner:

Lost
by David Wagoner

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. you must let it find you.

Palmer tells a similar story to mine in his post, about a time he got lost, and how he began to panic, and how he calmed himself down and suddenly knew what he needed to do.  I’ve always been very scared of getting lost – unreasonably so.  To quell the panic that surges up I feel the need to do something, try something, anything, to solve the problem, but frantically poring over maps and doing mental calculations just increases the desperate feeling of being hopelessly lost.  The best way to solve the problem is to stop, be still, calm down, come into the present, and become aware of where I am at this moment.  Only then can I understand how to get to where I want to go.

You can see the parallels with life.  We live in a an action oriented culture and when we come to a part of life where we feel lost and directionless, the need to do something can be strong.  Taoism has a term – wu wei – which means, literally, non-doing.  Paradoxically, in the Taoist state of non-doing you are actually doing quite a lot.  However, what you’re doing is allowing yourself to feel a sense of connectedness to others and to your environment, and strengthening your ability to tune in to both inner and outer messages.  It relies on being present to the moment.  Any action you then take – using action in the sense in which we mean it in the West – becomes spontaneous, effortless, and highly effective. We might call it intuitive, or inspired action.  ‘Stand still.  Wherever you are is called Here.’  – let the forest find you.

Coming into the present – the Here – not only removes the panic caused by imagined, disastrous futures but focusses attention on what’s around us, what we can see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.  Those things we now notice give us the answers we need.  We might call this mindfulness.

I hope you can also see the parallels with a contemplative approach to photography.  We go out with our cameras and feel lost and directionless – nothing inspires us, there’s nothing to photograph.  We try harder.  We look and look.  Still nothing.  We’re frustrated, all this effort tires us, irks us, so we give up, stop, and decide instead to enjoy the walk.  Suddenly we notice the patterns on the water, the shapes of the clouds, or the colours in the tree bark. In this coming into the present, the Here, we begin to see again and, amazingly, the photographs find us.

Walkers, Moel Famau, North Wales

 

 

52 trees – week eighteen

Tree, Newark Castle gardensA return to ‘straight’ photography this week.  This magnificent tree grows within the shell of Newark Castle, which was turned into public gardens by the Victorians.  As usual at the moment not much colour around so a black and white conversion it is.

I’ve got a bit of thing about gardens inside the shells of old buildings.  My favourite place in London is St Dunstan’s Church, in the City, which is just that.  In the days when I visited London regularly it was one of my go-to places for photography, and I loved the contrast between the peaceful green leaves of the garden inside and the hurry and scurry of the city workers on the outside.  So, two for the price of one this week, as I’m feeling nostalgic.  (And also a nice reminder of summer)

St Dunstan's Church, City of London

52 trees – week seventeen

I love Venice too, even though I've spent very little time there. This is the side of Venice that holds me - the quiet, secret, timeless parts of it. Vanda, I've been enjoying your photography and your blog so much, particularly your

Look carefully at this one – these trees are reflected in very shallow water, and the dead leaves just underneath the water give it a textured effect.  It seems a little like a double-exposure to me, and I liked the idea of bringing earth, sky and water together in one image.

beauty in broken things

Broken glass with colours 5

In the West, when we break a cup or a plate we throw it away – in Japan, you might practise a technique called kintsugiKintsugi is a method of mending ceramics using a paste made with gold, silver or platinum.  The idea is to incorporate the history of the breakage and its repair into the object, resulting in something more beautiful and meaningful than the original – you can see some pictures here.  I love this idea and this week has brought some blog posts and articles to me that all link into it as a theme.

First off, I came across this post on Improvised Life, about Yoko Ono’s book Acorn.  Here’s a little extract from the book:

Mend an object.

When you go through the process of mending, you mend something inside your soul as well.

Think of a ‘crack’ in your own life or the world.  Ask for it to be healed as you mend the object.

Our tendency when we ‘break’ is to look for a return to how we were before, which can never happen as we’re irredeemably changed by these things.  Instead of seeing ourselves as damaged, how much better to celebrate our breakages by mending them with the gold of wisdom and experience, so that our cracks add something valuable to us.

But quite apart from the parallels with mending your life, kintsugi is very much in line with the current trend for upcycling and turning old and broken things into useful and beautiful ones.  It also overlaps considerably with another Japanese concept, wabisabi, which sees value and beauty in the old and the decayed, sadness and impermanence.   Unlike our throwaway here-today-gone-tomorrow culture, it places value on the history of a simple piece, and evidence of wear and tear and the patina of time are valued far more than shiny new-ness.

Many photographers are naturally drawn to these things, loving to photograph the rich colours of rust, crumbling facades, dying flowers, or worn stone steps.  Nina Katchadourian has taken this one step further.  She mends broken spider’s webs with red thread, and split mushrooms with bicycle tire repair kits.  The spiders don’t like it much, removing the repairs overnight and leaving a pile of red thread on the ground underneath by morning.  The mushrooms are less able to comment, and to me the multi-coloured circular patches give them a whimsical air of fairy-tale toadstools that I rather like.  (Incidentally, Katchadourian creates some of the most playful art I’ve ever come across – you might like it, you might hate it, but she obviously has a lot of fun making it.)

Not quite meeting the criteria for kintsugi, but containing something of the essence of it, Bing Wright used broken mirror glass to reflect sunsets, then photographed the results.  These photos are so gorgeous I felt like smashing up some mirrors and going out to do the same, but this really isn’t in the spirit of kintsugi. Kintsugi arose out of necessity – as in our own not-so-distant past, Japanese folk had to reuse and recycle as it was outside most people’s means to throw away and buy new.

While photographing broken things doesn’t make them usable again, as kintsugi would, it can recognise and make something good out of brokenness.  Some years ago I broke a glass bowl I was very fond of, and at first was upset.  But then I looked at the pieces and thought how lovely they were in their own right.  I placed transparent coloured sweet wrappers between the pieces of glass, shone a bright light on it, and took these photos. If I’d known about kintsugi then, I might have made my bowl whole again afterwards.

If you want to try Kintsugi yourself, you can buy a kintsugi mending kit from Humade.

Here is the Improvised Life article featuring Yoko Ono’s book.

24 Brilliant Pictures of Broken Glass

The Art of Beautiful Repair

Broken glass with colours 4

BBroken glass with colours 1

Broken glass with colours 3

Broken glass with colours 2