Shift your attention away from subjects and toward just the colours in front of you, suggests Michael Freeman
By shifting attention away from subjects and onto pure colour, you can create striking images, Michael explains
Strictly speaking, a colourist is a painter who is a master of, or focuses strongly on, the quality of colour. Rubens, Matisse and Chagall were all supreme colourists in different ways. But the use of colour really took off after abstract expressionism freed painting from any attempt at actually representing things. Mark Rothko and others made colour their entire subject – how it affects our senses depending on its shape, brightness, saturation, and how adjacent colours interact.
Well, that’s painting – but how can it work for photography? The big difference is that you always start with a real scene. You can abstract it, using various kinds of blurring and tightly framed close-ups for a ‘what’s that?’ effect; or you can work with normal-scale, recognizable scenes from life, which demands some effort in finding the right location.
The colourist approach has worked well for quite a few photographers, either as part of their normal working method, or as a way of taking a break from other assignments. Two from the past who are enjoying a revival are the American Saul Leiter and the Austrian Ernst Haas, who worked mainly in America.
Leiter was known for his subtle colour palettes and for layering his images by shooting through or around out-of-focus foregrounds, and by shooting through windows. Haas, one of the most soughtafter advertising and editorial photographers of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, made personal, colour-focused abstracted images of details and reflections around New York (published in Ernst Haas: Color
Correction by Steidl). Tropical vivid For some reason, many tropical cities and towns are splashed
brightly with vivid colours, which become part of the urban fabric. This shot, on a recent trip, was of a vegetable seller by a bus station on the French island of La Réunion, To be completely honest, the scene has almost nothing of interest – a bus, a wall, a red awning, a man in a window. In fact, this was midday on a long day’s shoot, following an early morning elsewhere and killing time until the sun lowered. High tropical sun in towns is difficult lighting, and there are very few people on the streets in any case, but in the shade the light can do some interesting things. Here it shone through a red awning to put an intense glow on some already colourful surfaces. For once I followed my own advice and abandoned the search for interesting events and people, looking purely for a colour composition.
I especially liked the way that the turquoise wall enclosed and framed the intense red. All I needed was for the figure of the man to be neatly framed as well…
Unrestrained colours by a bus station on La Réunion, including intense red from midday sunlight on an awning A tight framing cuts out just about everything that isn’t a vivid colour, while the window frame gives some graphic organization
If you enjoy this article and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be discovered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Photography. (NB: all 50 are different from the ones featured here in the magazine.)