Why photograph in color? That question comes up surprisingly often in fine art photography circles. Well, to borrow a phrase, “Because it is there”. We experience the world in color. It is a source of great pleasure.
Colors and color combinations stir the emotions and evoke moods just as melodies and harmonies do in music. There are upbeat major key palettes and melancholy minor palettes. Loud and soft hues.
Consonant combinations and dissonant ones. And just as our appreciation for music expands through a lifetime of listening, our receptiveness to color in the natural world grows with reflective observation.
I don’t mean to argue against the pursuit of black and white photography. I admire and appreciate a great deal of black and white imagery, both classic and contemporary. I came of age under the spell of Ansel Adams’ photographs. All of us who chase the light on the land communicate in a visual language that he pioneered.
But somewhere along the way I developed a colorist brain. In college my first attempts at art were with paint on canvas. Vibrant color was a big part of those efforts. I had grown up near New York and had seen a good deal of art in museums. I’m sure that experience was a force for color.
I have a vivid memory of sitting on a bench in a cavernous hall surrounded by Mark Rothko’s paintings – huge canvases from his classic series of soft, stacked rectangles of rich color. The effect was hypnotic. The state of mind produced by the subtle interplay of color fields was otherworldly and transporting.
As I gradually moved from painting to photography in my twenties I shot quite a bit of black and white. But I was soon drawn back to color. I think I was better able to compose a picture in color. Where strong composition in black and white is built by contrasting areas of dark and light, structure in color photographs emerges from color contrasts. Color and form are inseparable. I found that way of seeing more compelling.
But that is a technical point. The true appeal is really much more emotional. For me, color simply works better to capture the essence of a rare moment in the natural world. It is a vital dimension that gives a photograph a feeling of immediacy – a sense of actually being there.