Small Green Island
Color Accuracy, 1996
In Small Green Island, the color was beautiful just as it was.
The luminous greens of the seabed shimmered with golden light undulating across them. The yellow light was echoed in the ochre kelp pods that drifted to the surface sparkling, as they bobbed in the light. The blue shadows in the depths echoed the blue highlights on the water’s surface and the blues found high in the air. All the colors shared components with some other color in the image. Each was different, yet they all related harmoniously. None of the colors were at their purest, yet they were rich. It was a subtle symphony of color.
All the colors within this earthen palette grew cooler in shadowy depths and warmer in the bright shallows, grew cooler and less saturated as they receded into the distance and warmer and more saturated as they approached. The cool color of the water progressively altered the appearance of what was seen through it. The cool colors of the sky above progressively altered the surface of the water and what was seen through it. The light was gradually filtered as it passed through the depths and as the surface of the water receded.
A sheet of light grew from the horizon and disappeared at my feet. Faraway, I could not see the ocean depths, only the light from above was visible. Nearby, the surface was so clear it was almost invisible. Faraway it was filled with pale shades of white, uniform, without texture, without form beyond the flat plane of the surface. All this was gradually reversed as distance was decreased. Nearby, it was rich with saturated colors, varied, with texture, and with depth and volume beyond the flat plane of the surface. Two states existed, surface and depth. Typically you could only see one or the other at one time. Here I could see both simultaneously. One was visible where the other was not and vice versa. Both were surely present in each location, but I could only see one aspect in one area at one time from one vantage point. To see another aspect I would have to shift my perspective, both in space and time. What I saw was relative to a location and moment. It always is.
I shifted my perspective to find the sky in the final composite. The two images, the oily water suggesting a starry night sky, and the beds of kelp reminiscent of clouds drifting across an evening sky, came from the same geographic area. They were a few hundred yards from each other. They found unity in color. Green, both blue and yellow, provided the dominant color chord for the image uniting the upper surface with the lower surface. They found unity in form. Water was everywhere. Yet the water suggested air in both places. The two planes shared a common metaphor.
The transparencies were fairly accurate. The moments were fairly clear in my mind. I had my records and my memories to guide me. In comparison to my memories, the film was a bit contrasty and a bit saturated. But I hadn’t remembered the complex undercolorings, the immense variety of subtle colors in the original scenes. My memory had served me. My memory had failed me. Knowing that, I was then faced with the challenge of deciding when to regard and when to disregard it. Prior experience helped guide me. I’m familiar with the general response of the film I use. I’m familiar with the general topography and conditions of the area. I have many kinds of memory to serve me.
Photographs are a kind of memory. Photographs are representations of memories. Often we don’t realize how important the memories of their makers are in establishing our relationships to them. Part of their authenticity is derived from the testimony of the witnesses who made them. It’s that testimony that would stand up in a court of law more strongly than the data in the document. Clearly the two are inextricably linked. When a photograph’s maker is gone, what happens to that testimony? How often do we presume too much?
This photograph is a representation of a memory and a feeling. While it is part fact, it is also part fiction. It is only partially objective; it is clearly subjective. Though it may not be as clearly stated in many photographs as it is here, I think most photographs are. The larger metaphor this image portrays — “as above, so below,” once latent now overt — suggests a relationship that cannot be grasped from one vantage point at one moment in time. It can only be found in the comparison of many memories — some above, some below, some by day, some by night.
Just as when I am painting, I watch for the point at which too much work makes an image lose life. I watch for the point at which excess manipulation or addition produces an adverse shift in an image. I am always on the lookout for a quality of freshness, something to be preserved within the document recorded and something in my subsequent activity with it to be introduced. It may sound strange for an artist who does the kind of work I do to quote Theodore Roosevelt, “Leave it alone. It cannot be improved upon.” While I allow myself to take liberties with my material (some call it artistic license and think this makes a work better), there are also times when I want to be faithful to the original event. Others think this discipline makes a work better. Neither is necessarily so. It depends on your point of view. Seen from different perspectives, both may be true. This image finds a balancing point between the two. I recognize the impulse to accuracy and the impulse to expression as two poles within a spectrum of many available responses. For me, no one answer will do for every instance. I prefer to be mindful of the larger field of possibilities. It helps me cultivate a larger awareness, both of myself and the world I live in.
Would that I were a plein-air photographer. If I could see the recording at the moment of exposure and compare it to the scene at hand I would be able to achieve greater accuracy. That day is coming — soon. On that day, will I more strongly defer to document than memory? Will that always be wise?