One Source, Many destinations
Journey to the West, 1995
This image, Journey to the West, could have stayed as it was. It was so blue it looked like a cyanotype right from the start. Yet it was at odds with the other pieces in the series, Rites of Passage. They contained a wide range of color — some looked like warm or cool toned silver prints, some like platinums, others like ziatypes of varying hues — but all were monochromatic and the palette was subdued. They pushed the envelope of “gray.” This one was decidedly full-color. And yet it didn’t seem that it was very far from finding unity with the rest of the series. It didn’t contain a great variety of color; it was a symphony of one color — blue.
I tried a variety of options: converting it to black and white, creating a duotone, color correcting a black-and-white version, even “split-toning.” Well past resolving the issues of composition, tone, and contrast, I kept two questions in mind. Which blue? How much blue?
It was when I was trying a “split-toned” version, giving highlights and shadows differing colors, that it occurred to me. The image was already split-toned; it was naturally split-toned. The shore had a magenta undercoloring, the waves had comparatively neutral white caps, and the waters were a warmer blue than the horizon. Atmospheric perspective was already working dramatically within the image: Warmer colors were up front, cooler colors were in back. The space was deep, not flat. Picking another set of colors would have reduced it. If I subdued the intensity of the color, all those relationships would be preserved.
It was the simplest solution of all and the most effective. It also yielded the most complex visual effect. The range of colors was more complex than any cyanotype or split-toned image could ever achieve. What’s more, the colors were not arbitrarily assigned; they had a preexisting set of relationships between them, which even when subdued, remained intact. It would be a challenge to maintain those exact relationships even if I painted them in. It was a wonderful discovery. The world can tone itself. Since then I’ve become fascinated with subdued color images. A new body of work arose to explore this — Allies.
Black-and-white imagery involves a significant transformation of the world; it’s less representational. Some say they dream in black and white, some say black-and-white images are more dreamlike. Others say they are nostalgic. They are certainly otherworldly. They evoke another place, another time, or both. Whatever connotations we bring to them mentally, just as significant are the emotional responses they evoke. These are impossible to define specifically, yet all we have to do is look at them to feel their power. They offer a decidedly different experience.
Merging full color with black and white is an emotional union for me. Subdued color images are still otherworldly and yet they have not lost color’s ability to move us emotionally. It’s not surprising that I’m attracted to subdued color as much of my prior work was tinted drawing. To some, subdued color images are reminiscent of tinted drawings or hand-colored photographs. Yet they’re richer and more complex.
I’m particularly attracted to color unity, colors that are similar or share a common foundation. Without the presence of other very different colors to compete with, the subtleties of their differences can be more fully appreciated.
Small shifts in color can produce large shifts in emotion.
I am often asked why I choose to work in both color and black and white. Actually, I work along the spectrum from full color, through subdued color, to toned black-and-white images (those tinted with color), to very neutral black-and-white images. I find that working in one way sharpens my perceptual skills, not just in that one way but also in other related ways. Aristotle said that to be a great tragedian you had to be a great comedian and that to be a great comedian you had to be a great tragedian. I take his point. To truly understand something you need to know about what it stands in relation to. Often, some of the strongest relationships are found in opposition. So I watch the pendulum swing within my work. After going through a period of working with color I return to working with very nuetral black-and-white imagery. After working in black and white for a time I return to working with color, very strong color. After working with calm unified fields of color I move to working with intense color variety. I am constantly watching my visual progression. It is a powerful indicator not only of where I have been and who I have been, where I am and who I am, but also of where I am going and who I am becoming.
While all of these ideas and techniques are in operation as I work they are not the primary impulses for making the decisions. The image before me is. In deciding whether an image should be in color, subdued color, or black-and-white, I always ask the image first. I listen to the work. It has a life and a voice of its own. In it I hear the voice of the other, that which is not me, and the voice of the other me, that which I have yet to become aware of. Amid its voice is my as yet unheard voice.
This is my discipline. After all the preparation, I abandon myself. I abandon myself to find the world. I abandon myself to find myself. I abandon myself to the process of watching and listening. I’ve found that the more I do this the more my understanding of the world and of myself grows.