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Curious Frame - Issue #11 - On Color

Curious Frame
Curious Frame - Issue #11 - On Color
By Leanne Staples • Issue #11 • View online
Happy New Year and welcome to the color issue. Color is a really really big subject. Let us see where the journey takes us. But before diving into it, my interest in photography and understanding what it all means is all-encompassing. So yes, I will be zigzagging around a bit in search of making sense of it all throughout the Curious Frame issues. 

I would argue that understanding what photography means and its influence on how we live our day-to-day lives is even more important than learning how to take and process photos. But that’s my opinion.

Up until a few years ago, I definitely had a bias for monochrome photography. That is to say that I preferred my street photography to be black and white. It isn’t really that I didn’t like color photography as I do have an appreciation of the color photography of many both famous and not so famous photographers.

When I shoot street photography, I tend to preview in monochrome. That is to say that I shoot raw and I always have the choice after the fact to process it either way. It is my method of limiting my field of vision to concentrate on composition and exposure. Color can be a big distraction.

But in the last few years I started to find different methods of processing color photos and my appreciation for it has grown since. And my curiosity about color and color photography has grown with it. Hence my desire to explore what color means and how it affects us. Let’s dive into the world of color.

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Reader's comments:
Curious Frame isn’t just about me going on and on about my experiences in photography. It exists to create a dialogue. Here are some recent comments about Issue 10 - On Curating.

And all you need to do to join the dialogue is hit reply. You can even reply about earlier issues as well. It is necessary for me to shorten some of the comments for space.
One reader responded:
At the beginning of my career, as a young man, I did not understand much about the figure of curators and its importance for art, I thought that curatorship should be done by the artists themselves.
It is clear that the artist creates and he himself acts as the first curator, maintaining or tearing up what he has just created. How many photos have you ripped or thrown in the trash today?
Curating and saving photos is an exercise, if before digital it was already difficult now then we don’t even talk! Have HDs to save and save your photos! Even in the clouds they are kept today!

Another reader responded:
Thanks for another interesting issue. 
And one more
I also wanted to thank you for Curious Frame. I’ve been reading it and enjoying it, and best of all learning from it… I really enjoyed learning the etymology–Curators cure the soul. That is important work. Well, then I am pretty sure that I don’t want the soulless algorithms at Instagram curating for me. 
Even short and sweet is good. It’s nice to know that you’re out there and getting something useful out of the newsletter! And if you would like to catch up on previous issues, you can find them at the link below.
Curious Frame | Revue
The combination of a single dominant color with a silhouette and shadows made the decision to process in color the obvious choice. Silhouette with Orange Wall, New York City, March 2018
The combination of a single dominant color with a silhouette and shadows made the decision to process in color the obvious choice. Silhouette with Orange Wall, New York City, March 2018
On Color
If you’ve taken a workshop with me and/or subscribed to my Shoot New York City newsletter, you have probably heard me swooning over the photography of Saul Leiter. So it was with great joy that I received Retrospektive Saul Leiter as a holiday gift.

I was unaware of the existence of this book. I already own 4 other books of his work. But this book has many photos not included in other books And it also has many of his paintings in it as well. I definitely recommend this book.

The history of art is the history of color. Saul Leiter 
Leiter was one of very few photographers who dared to shoot in color back in the early days, in the late-1940s. Most photographers at the time viewed color photography as a fad and “low-art.” Not a serious medium if you wanted your work to be taken seriously. Some photographers persist in that feeling to this day. There’s no telling for the opinions of some people.
Walk with Soames, Saul Leiter, 1958. This is the book sleeve.
Walk with Soames, Saul Leiter, 1958. This is the book sleeve.
To be fair, the difference between shooting in or processing in color vs monochrome is nothing more than a personal preference. They are both valid. It was very brave and radical of Leiter to work with color photography back then. But he had a bit of a rebel streak and couldn’t care what others thought. Perhaps that is one definition of what it means to be an artist.

That said, many people tell me that they have difficulty with color or with monochrome processing. If your experience of photography is only in the digital realm, then perhaps you may think that processing should be as automatic as shooting.

If you have shot and developed film photography, you will understand that that the learning curve from shooting to developing and then printing are three distinct processes that have their own learning curves. And they are real curves. But my aim here is not about the technical aspects but rather the influence of color.
This photo really begged to be color. It is included in my zine, City in Color. Man in Hat, New York City, June 2018.
This photo really begged to be color. It is included in my zine, City in Color. Man in Hat, New York City, June 2018.
Light is therefore color, and shadow is the privation of it. J. M. W. Turner, 1818.
What is Color?
Okay, the technical side of things is not really my forte. So a brief comprehendible definition is needed here:
What are we really seeing when we look at, say, a ripe tomato or green paint, is light being being reflected off the surface of that object and into our eyes… Different things are different colors because they absorb some wavelengths of the visible spectrum, while others bounce off. So the tomato’s skin is soaking up most of the short and medium wavelengths—blues and violets, greens, yellows and oranges. The remainder, the reds, hit our eyes and are processed by our brains. So, in a way, the color we perceive an object to be is precisely the color it isn’t. Kassia St. Clair, The Secret Lives of Color. 
We live in a very colorful world because of the invention of synthetic dyes. We can wear clothing in many many different colors. But this wasn’t always so and some colors were reserved only for royalty and the church because they were costly and sometimes rare. This was also true of the pigments that painters used.

Just as there are colors we adore there are those that we can live without. We may know which colors look best on ourselves and those that only look good on others. And there are people who are consultants in color from our personal wardrobes to interior designers and commercial agencies that are used for choosing colors for fashion and film.
Pantone is one such company that consults on color. They have chosen gray and yellow as the colors for 2021. So be on the look out for them everywhere. Unfortunately, I look terrible in yellow.
Pantone is one such company that consults on color. They have chosen gray and yellow as the colors for 2021. So be on the look out for them everywhere. Unfortunately, I look terrible in yellow.
When people began to see and dress in different colors, they began to think differently. Manlio Brusatin, A History of Colors
When we see images of people from different periods of time, say the Middle Ages, one of the most striking things is the lack of colors worn by common people. They wore drab colors and perhaps appeared as drab people as a culture. Yes, of course, seeing is not always believing!
And there are Colors for Cinephiles on Instagram. Pulp Fiction is just one of the many films that they provide color swatches for and for each film they have a handful of images like this for different scenes. I'm not certain that it has any practical value for me. But I do enjoy seeing them.
And there are Colors for Cinephiles on Instagram. Pulp Fiction is just one of the many films that they provide color swatches for and for each film they have a handful of images like this for different scenes. I'm not certain that it has any practical value for me. But I do enjoy seeing them.
Every thinker paints his world in fewer colours than are actually there, and is blind to certain individual colours. Friedrich Nietzsche
Just as there are hidden meanings or interpretations in all images which are often personal and buried in our minds, the same of course is true with language when it is our mother tongue. We forget those things which are more obvious when you are learning a new language.

Color is an entirely different language. Like images, it is absorbed in our subconscious and typically is more akin to an emotional experience than an intellectual one. We receive signals of sorts from colors but we don’t often translate the meaning of colors. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have an affect on us.

We are naturally attracted to certain colors when we are out shooting. Red of course is the photographer’s delight. Whether red is combined with other complimentary or opposite colors on the spectrum or all alone, the eye is naturally attracted to the color red.
I was going to use the old red cape as the reason that a bull charges. But that is a myth. It seems that bulls are probably colorblind.
I was going to use the old red cape as the reason that a bull charges. But that is a myth. It seems that bulls are probably colorblind.
All that is visible in this world is so through light mixed with shadow, through a sort of clarified darkness. Colors are therefore the properties of an object obscured, of a darkened light. Goethe
If you have a look at art throughout the ages, one thing that stands out on the surface is the color palettes used by painters. They change over time based on the availability of pigments and mood. Think of Picasso’s Blue Period. Enter Leiter and as a painter and photographer you can see his sense of color is highly tuned.

Color is an important aspect of composition in much of Leiter’s work. It is also something that lead me to search out colors that are typical in certain kinds of light. Especially rich afternoon light. Hence my book City in Color. It was perhaps the beginning of my real appreciation of color street photography.

In the old days when color photography first became possible, it was expensive and it is a finicky process. As well, it took quite awhile for the colors that were produced in film to catch up to reality.

When Garry Winogrand died he left thousands of rolls of undeveloped color slide film that were discovered. He was quoted in a documentary as saying that it was expensive to develop. And of course, Winogrand was also quoted as saying that he took pictures to see what they would look like. Yes, I quoted that in a previous issue.
Here are 2 photos that I took with Kodachrome slide film circa 1980.
Here are 2 photos that I took with Kodachrome slide film circa 1980.
Kodachrome
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Paul Simon
The color film and transparencies from the 1950s and 1960s provide us with images that are in palettes that film was able to reproduce then. We have this idealized world with a very kitsch atmosphere as a result.

Because of the quality of colors that could be reproduced in film, the question then becomes, does art influence culture or does culture influence art? If we could go back with the color films that we have now, would it all look different?

Have a look at the films of Hitchcock and his intentional restraint of the use of color. It’s interesting to see how maybe only a woman wearing a red dress revealed any color in an otherwise monochrome scene. There is much to borrow and be inspired by the color palettes used in cinema and art including using color very minimally.
The film Far From Heaven, 2002, intentionally recreates the look of film and life in the 1950s.
The film Far From Heaven, 2002, intentionally recreates the look of film and life in the 1950s.
It is of course possible that many photographers in the early days of color didn’t find that the colors matched their vision. Yes, it is an artistic choice. It’s also possible that they were just a little too comfortable with their method of working. It happens that artists get lazy and even smug.

With digital photography, our possibilities are endless. The thing that baffles me is why it is that people don’t explore the possibilities more? It doesn’t cost anything to experiment and find a style that resonates with your vision. And color is something that either resonates or not.

The ability to process photos is learned. The ability to appreciate both monochrome and color is not unanimous. In the past, I had a problem with color for the sake of color. A perfectly good photo with weak colors or clashing colors, became a monochrome photo.

Even with film photography I would digitally process a photo as monochrome. I write about my feelings for color photography. They might not be your experience.

But before finishing off the color topic in this issue, I have a little of the symbology that can be found in the color red. When you’re having some quality time looking at photography or art, think about what the color or lack of color contributes to the image itself.
The joy of a red wall and of this woman moving her umbrella to hide her face from the camera! Umbrella Sideways, June 2018.
The joy of a red wall and of this woman moving her umbrella to hide her face from the camera! Umbrella Sideways, June 2018.
Red
My favorite color is red. It’s a color with many meanings that range from love, sex, passion to anger, aggression, power, danger and even the devil. In Chinese culture red is a very auspicious color. Red doors, red envelopes and even a Little Red Book.

Throughout history, red has been a color of royalty and the pope and common people weren’t allowed to wear it. Pigments and dyes in red were very costly. Now red is common everywhere. There’s also the red light district which is designated for prostitution. It’s interesting how many opposite meanings are held in one color.

Red is also associated with many major corporations including Coca-Cola, Maserati and it is the number one color used on flags for countries around the world. Of course it is also the color of stop signs. Using a color is always about the context that it is placed in.

Why are red roses considered more romantic than other colors? Does it have anything to do with the color of blood that is drawn as a result of touching a thorn?

Although there are many meanings associated with the color red, they are never ambiguous. I think that the histories and meanings embedded in colors is an interesting topic and we haven’t even ventured into the many associations with the color blue! Oh, and the color red looks great in a monochrome photo as well.
Photography Is - Part Five
Die! Die! Ratanic, New York City, December 2019*
Die! Die! Ratanic, New York City, December 2019*
Developing happens at many stages,
The first is in the action of taking a photo.
It is with a different eye that filtering between those that were taken and those that are deemed worthy can occur.
Then comes the actual processing of the photo.
That works when the vision in the mind matches the ability to see and develop. These steps don’t always happen instantly or orderly.
Reading list:
So I’m still working out how to put together a reading list to share. For now, here are a few of the books that I use in my research on color.
  • Brusatin, Manlio. A History of Colors, Shambhala Publications, 1983.
  • Gass, William H. On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry, New York Review Books, 1976. (I didn’t use this book here. I do recommend it though. It is rather amusing.)
  • St. Clair, Kassia. The Secret Lives of Color, Penguin Books, 2016.
  • Theroux, Alexander. The Primary Colors: Three Essays, Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
Further look & listen:
Here is a very interesting discussion of color with audio and photos (not video) from The Forbes Pigment Collection.
A History of Color: An Audio Tour of the Forbes Pigment Collection | Harvard Art Museums
You can also find me at:
Artist, Photographer & Writer - Leanne Staples
Walking Photo Tours & Street Photography Workshops in New York City
And you can find my zines & prints for sale at:
That Other Space Shop – Art, Etcetera
Shop for Art, Zines & Publications - Leanne Staples
Did you enjoy this issue?
Leanne Staples

In a world that is overpopulated with images, Curious Frame is where I share my thoughts on photography. It is always about ‘seeing with new eyes’.

I’m Leanne Staples, a photographer, artist, and writer living in New York City. Street photography and lens-based art are my passions, and Curious Frame is where I’ll be sharing my thoughts on these passions.

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