The Function of Color

“The difficulty with color is to go beyond the fact it is color – to have it be not just a colorful picture but really a picture about something. It’s difficult. So often color gets caught up in color and becomes merely decorative. Some photographers use color brilliantly to make visual statements combining color plus content, otherwise it is just empty” ~ Mary Ellen Mark

I’ve always had a bit of difficulty with color and how to use it effectively. Maybe it was all those images from newspapers and watching my heroes in black and white on television that has something to do with my lack of affinity for color. I was introduced to color as something serious in my first years of college art classes. Up to that point I had never thought about it, except I liked how Kodachrome rendered better than other films, but it wasn’t an in-depth thought. The one thing that stuck with me though was that color carries emotion.

I have lived most of my adult life in the Pacific Northwest under gray, cloudy skies. Warm emotional colors are not a big factor in my daily world. This tends to push my seeing into the black and white or my view of situations as forms or shapes. It is difficult when color presents itself to me to find a way not to make the images about the color or have the color overpower the point I want in the image.

I grew up in places that were mostly harsh bright sunshine. The Southwest is bright and pastels and warm, with accents on the adobe buildings mostly reds, yellows, and bright blues—very warm and inviting, even somewhat of a riot of colors at times. The people who live there wear colors reflecting that environment and those who move there invariably adopt much of the same color schemes. I see the same thing happening when people move to the Pacific Northwest. They tend to dress in blacks, grays, greens or muted colors like those who live here.

I see fantastic colors in photographs of places like India and East Asian countries and I ask myself if that reflects the cultural practices or is it from the environment. Does color reflect the place and people, or does it shape them? Over time traveling around the USA, I have also noticed each region seems to have its own colors, except for large urban areas which all seem to have a practical color scheme to hide pigeon crap or something else. I can’t say the Southwest has any more variation in environmental color than the Pacific Northwest, one being shades of red and brown the other grays and dark greens. Since this isn’t a camouflage to fit social practice, I believe it is more of an environmental sense of place that is created from weather and the countryside. Living in the places we do begins to shape how we see subjects or ideas and the longer we live in one place, the more that environment shapes how we see light and color.

The colors I wonder about are those that surround us not only the natural colors but those that people wear and make of their environment. Artists tend to use the colors of the culture around them. Georgia O’Keefe being the example that comes to mind in the Southwest and Morris Graves or Mark Tobey in the Pacific Northwest. What does color mean to us as artists? As a sculptor for many years, I dealt with forms and shapes rather than color to provide what message or meaning I wanted in my work. For those of us living in the world of gray it is a struggle to find how to handle color without it becoming decorative. I do miss the light and color of the Southwest but living where I do, my use of black and white fits. I can see forms and subjects without the distractions of color and I can concentrate on the content of an image which is what matters most.

The color of place is important to any artist. What we see daily has influence on how we use vision and voice not just in our home environment but how we see everywhere. Color is a part of who we are, vision and voice, and for some it is handled brilliantly and with care. Take for instance, Saul Leiter or Bill Allard. Their use of color never overpowers the meaning in their images. There are a few like Leiter or Allard who can handle color without it being the focus of the images they make. For many it takes a bit of an adjustment to the new forms of environmental influence to focus on the things they are trying to say without the colors getting in the way. If our images are just about color then we need to look at both our own environment and how we see the world to begin to understand what color means to us, how to use it, and when to use it to add to our work.

Colors are part of the culture and social fabric of a place. Look at where you live and how you dress to understand how you fit into the colors of place; be objective. Knowing how the colors of a place fit helps me decide if I will shoot work in color or black and white to maintain intent. There are some that shoot in black and white in the Southwest, but you still feel color in those images. I can shoot color in the PNW and those images seem more black and white because the colors are muted or flatter than in similar images from other places.

While art and images influence how we see the world, our living environment, and the culture that environment creates, also shape how we see and handle the ideas and messages we create. When we travel or shoot stories in a place other than home, it is important to take the time to feel the color of the place and people who inhabit it. Find the colors that define the place and use them to tell the story about that place. Be mindful not to let your photographs become about the color rather than the subject just because it is outside your normal way of seeing. As color has become the accepted norm for images, it is important to use it wisely and find ways to keep the messages that color sends in line with the work you are making.

Click here to see how I use color and black and white.

Leave a Reply