Cre­ative paths

Shift your at­ten­tion away from sub­jects and to­ward just the colours in front of you, sug­gests Michael Free­man

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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.)

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