Seeing in Color

I’ve realized that I don’t see in color.

I mean, I do, but not really. Not a lot of the time.

When I’m out on the streets looking for images, I don’t tend to compare the shades of different t-shirts and consider which would look best in front of a yellow cab. I don’t often pay attention to the color of a wall that might be the background, unless it’s particularly striking. I don’t immediately pick out contrasts or complementary colors. The colors are potentially interesting but they're not primarily in my thoughts, except when there's something really obvious like a red umbrella amongst a sea of black.

I've realized though that I can choose to notice color first. It’s like multi-tasking. I can pay attention to the moments, the people, the activities and expressions, looking for stories as they develop. Or I can look for light and shade, shadows, shapes and space. Or I can look for color. Or systematically switch between each, considering one after the other in a given place.

Try it. Maybe you can see and anticipate and process all of these factors simultaneously. But I think it’s a choice. Like most street photography, it's a compromise of picking what's most important for you on a given day or for a specific project. Here's a simple example from last weekend that personally I might not always have noticed:

 Washington Square Park, Manhattan. May 2018.

Washington Square Park, Manhattan. May 2018.

Not that matching or complimentary colors necessarily make an interesting image. But look at the great color photographers, the ‘colorists’ like Saul Leiter and Fred Herzog. Like most great photography, it’s not the obvious that works best. It’s the connections, the subtle interplay, the exclusions or restrictions or simplicity of palette to enhance the experience.

(On the subject of color, a consistent look between images can be critical for a successful portfolio or project. There's plenty of information out there on color theory, and plenty of examples of color grading, but this video by Sean Tucker is one of the best I've seen for connecting the theory with some simple color processing.)