A Note on Colour

A Note on Colour

I shoot in black and white.

Perhaps that’s because I’ve grown up in Britain where colour doesn’t have quite the same role as it does in warmer climes. From the weather to the shade we paint our houses, or the hue we choose for our clothes and cars, colour in Britain is relatively subdued. Of course I realise this is a sweeping generalisation, our country is certainly not monochromic (contrary to popular belief) but I currently find myself in Colombia, a place that exists amid an absolute riot of colour.

It’s perfectly normal to see houses in coffee towns like Jardín or Salento painted in the brightest possible pigments, often with a deft use of complimentary colours or surprising combinations. Even the way in which these palettes are applied is striking; all bold graphic panels and geometric repetition.

Then there’s the Caribbean Sea, a brilliant aquamarine. Common birds are a punch of shocking yellow, hummingbirds glisten with iridescence. The selection of fruit, many of which we don’t even have a name for in English, is kaleidoscopic in its scope of delicious hues. Hair styles are highlighted with electric blue or more often dyed a brilliant metallic red, and not forgetting the shades of blonde that round out a trio of national colours.

Heading to a continent as vibrant as South America as a black and white photographer posed a difficult question for me. Many people asked the very same thing before I left. Colour was my elephant in the room for this trip. I’ll always shoot a scene in monochrome where I can. I focus on quality of light, textures and tones, forms and contrast. It’s essential for monochrome. But sometimes you need to know when you're beaten.

A brightly painted wall in Santa Marta is divided by a white moulding of plaster, like a dado rail. Saffron yellow above, a panel of royal blue below. Unusually for such a feature, this wall is external and I find myself on the street, not in someone’s front room. Deep shadows sweep diagonally across the scene, with one falling in perfect alignment against the rail. A little earlier, a little later, and the sun’s position would move it out of sync. It’s a striking backdrop upon which to catch a passer-by. One more colour through this frame and all three primaries would be present.

I switch my film simulation from ACROS to Classic Chrome. The side street is quiet. But as luck would have it (which is of course just timing) a local strides down the street in my direction. Something about the man catches my eye. As it’s the only chance I have at including someone in the shot, I’m going with him regardless. My camera sweeps from right to left as he passes. A few shots fired off in quick succession as he falls into focus, just two, no time for three.

I get the shot. The man is frozen with three fine lines of shadow leading to his head and torso. He’s thrown into stark silhouette against the backdrop, dark shirt appearing as solid black. Subtle highlights of blue come through from his rumpled jeans. His hat is caught in a spot of directional light, throwing his face into shadow, but maintaining a brilliant hit of red above. The three primary colours are captured in a blink of an eye, and I realise what it was that had stirred my subconscious.

All of this plays out in a matter of minutes, or perhaps seconds. The subject is ideal, not another tourist or a backpacker but a local who belongs in the scene. It’s not until sometime later that it occurs to me; the significance of those colours is more pronounced. They are the very same that make up the tricolour of the Colombian flag.

Often it pays to deviate, experiment, and go with your instincts. If I’d stuck rigidly to black and white, I’d have caught a striking but ultimately unremarkable shot of a man walking past a wall. As it happens, I captured a Colombian in all the colours of his country.

Look out for more colour work from Colombia featured on my Instagram feed soon. Including imagery from Jardín, Salento, and Cartagena. 

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