“Colour Is Important… In Colour Photos”

About 14 months I was incredibly privileged to spend two weeks in Los Angeles, California, with friends, and heavyweights of the online film photography world George and Louis of the prolific Negative Feedback. During this time, and while we weren’t enjoying the luxury of cheap Grey Goose, the lads filmed a number of videos, one of which was a walk-around video where I demonstrated my general attitude and practice when it comes to taking street portraits;

This brings me to the title of this blog post. At around 1min 35s I utter the (now infamous, at least to me) phrase “Colour is important… in colour photos”. In the last year I have remarkably received plenty of comments/messages like the one below.

The actual phrase comes from a moment in the video when I’m talking to a portrait I had just taken of a gentleman, Chris, holding a large bottle of milk. When asked about what I was thinking about when taking it, the truth was that I was just excited that the red colour of the bottle cap matched the signed behind it!

I’m aware that the simplicity of the phrase could easily be mistaken for the simplicity of the concept behind it. I do however stick by it and will elaborate on why.

When it comes to documentary photography I think it’s easy to get caught up in exotic or profound subjectivities. The works of my favourite photographers, Alec Soth, Stephen Shore, Dianne Arbus et. al. all tackle complex ideas. Their photographs, however, would be failures if they weren’t also incredibly visual enthralling. Photography is a visual medium and for an image to be successful it has to firstly be successful at a surface, design level. Stephen Shore’s photographs in Uncommon Places, while picture banal subjects, were masterfully composed - Shore mastered the large format view camera. Alec Soth’s images are undoubtably beautiful, whilst also being wistful, romantic, shocking and confronting. 

I think colour, especially, is a very important visual tool. Colour as a design feature within a documentary image has a supreme ability to convey serendipity and to suspend the viewer between thinking the image was staged or candid. Perhaps no image represents this better than Joel Sternfeld.

“McLean, Virginia, December 1978”, from the series: American Prospects. The original image is a dye transfer print and measures 37.7 x 48.7 cm.

McClean, Virginia, December 1978 is a bizarre symphony of coincidence and serendipity which captivates the viewer. The orange repeats itself is a way which is both uncanny and bizarre, an aesthetic quality which is echoed in the subject of the photo. A seemingly too-calm firefighter casually selects pumpkins as a beautiful house is ablaze metres away. The actual scene captured, for the record, was a training exercise by the McLean Volunteer Fire Department!

An awareness of colour is so important at the moment of taking a photograph and is something I’m training my eye to be more and more aware of. The two portraits below from my series, Wellard, perhaps represent my best efforts to date. 

Stuart, Chisham Ave 2016

Venus, Runnymede Gate 2017

So - is colour important in colour photography? Obviously!

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