Color Is Content

I walked around a Buddhist monastery in China one rainy day looking for images; waiting, watching, resting, taking in all the things around me that were strange and new. I watched this bench, saw people come and go, sit and wait. I loved the simple composition, but again, it was the color that attracted me. I took many shots at different focal lengths. I was so relaxed being there, so peaceful, and I knew the choice of colors--the whole place is done in orange, maroon, and saffron--was deliberately designed to relax the people who live there and who visit. The scene, and the color, spoke to the emotional state of mind I was in. (Nikon F4, 35-70mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor.)
Photos © 2000, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

I've spoken to photographers who believe that "color for color's sake" is a crutch, a cheap shot, because a photograph based on color is not doing what a photograph should do. It doesn't tell you anything, doesn't reveal anything about a place or a person. There are no telling details. These photographers define "content" as the message of the picture, the information the photograph provides. Color, they say, should support the message but not be the message. Color is never the meaning of the photograph.


First, let's think about this: what are our eyes attracted to as we move around? What is often the first thing we see, especially if we are traveling in surroundings very different from our own? Most photographers are attracted by light, composition, gesture, and mood. But I'll bet that all are attracted first by color. I know I am. I see color before I see anything else. I literally see it before composition, before light. I'm stopped by it.

Secondly, I reject the methodical, analytical approach to photography that says, "If you don't see meaning in it, don't shoot it." And the commercial corollary: "If it doesn't have a commercial application, don't shoot it." I say, "If it's personal or emotional, shoot it."

The photograph of the fence against the sky was taken in Uruguay. I was driving near the shoreline and saw the barrier fence front-lit by the rising sun. I took a series of six or eight shots, getting closer and closer, and this one is the next to last. Color was the main attraction: the colors in the sky and the earth tone of the fence against that mix of blue and white. Early morning is not only great for the softness of the light, but it's also one of my favorite times to shoot because I can set up with the sun over my shoulder with my subject front-lit. (Nikon F4, 24mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor.)

"Color is content" is based on emotion. That's the heart of it. Wherever I travel, when I see color I stop. And then I go to work using the other building blocks of an image: composition, light, time of day, lens choice. But often it's my emotional reaction to color that starts the process. And whether I think the picture has a commercial value or not, I have to take it.

The photographs you see here are examples of that idea. Color was what first attracted me, and color is the subject. They're not Pulitzer Prize-winning pictures; they're pictures I was drawn to and pictures I took because of their emotional appeal.

Sometimes color makes you take the picture, and that's the way it ought to be.

In Tobago, West Indies, I was stopped by the three shades of blue in a scene of a boat on the beach. I took the photo with no filter, no effects, no color manipulation--you're seeing what I saw. I took a lot of photographs, moving in closer and closer until I was satisfied. In this picture I'm so close you lose a lot of information about the surroundings, but so what? The subject here is color. (Nikon F4, 20mm f/2.8D AF Nikkor.)

My wife and I were in Singapore when we saw the painted bicycle--it's actually part of a "tri-shaw," a bike with a sidecar. It was the particular green color, and the homemade paint job in general, that attracted us. Someone cared for that bike, but obviously was in a hurry to do it. We moved the bike so the red cloth provided a background. I took several shots, but this one, isolating just this section of the frame, is my favorite. Interestingly, this photo has become one of my signature images, not because I say it is, but because others react so well to it. It's been published over 200 times. That shows me that my personal choices not only please me, they're also of value to others. I didn't take this picture to make sales, but it turned out to be commercially viable. Color sells. (Nikon F4, 80-200mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor.)

This image is isolated from a confusing scene. I was driving down a busy road when the color leaped out at me from 500 yards away through the confusion of a bustling neighborhood. I thought, what is that? And I realized that if I could get that question--what is that?--into a picture, then I'd have something. Again, color drew me into the scene. What is it? It's cloth hung out to dry at a thread-making factory. By the way, a lot of people don't like the "what is it?" idea. They want a photograph to tell us everything and to give us all the information. I don't agree. I like some photographs to ask questions, to leave us with a bit of mystery. (Nikon F4, 300mm f/4 AF Nikkor.)

A cruise ship with the red hull was tied up at a dock in the Bahamas, and I don't think I'd ever think of photographing the side of a ship if it wasn't€well, so "red." And the blue ropes didn't hurt, either. This is a great example of color attracting me to the image. The bright red invited me to pull this picture out of a confusing, messy scene of dockside disorder--there were people, clutter, trash everywhere, but I moved in and framed with a telephoto to isolate exactly what I wanted. And what I wanted was color. (Nikon F4, 80-200mm f/2.8D AF Zoom-Nikkor.)