‘Don’t Give Up’ – High Contrast and Colour within a Narrative

The influence of Ansel Adams on photography generally has been enormous. Initial research into the work of Adams has been a joy, examining both technical and artistic contributions to the medium. His ability to frame a composition in the most vivid terms strikes the viewer while also leaving a legacy from his technical treatise on exposure, ultimately giving rise to modern day digitized ‘matrix metering’. Different avenues of photography, such as high contrast and Chiaroscuro photography with their associated pre-eminent artists, have opened my eyes to a creative world that have left me intrigued and at times intimidated. As someone who has personally focused so much of their photography on landscape shots and my natural predilections towards this subject matter, perhaps only naturally, Adams was the obvious starting point given the brief ‘People and the environment’.


(Ansel Adams, Half dome merced winter yosemite national park California, 1938)

“I hope that my work will encourage self expression in others and stimulate the search for beauty and creative excitement in the great world around us.”
—Ansel Adams

My research however, brought my attention towards artists who use high contrast to make a statement, such as Koudelka.  Josef Koudelka (magnumphotos.com) has documented people and the environment since the early 1960’s. So much of his work has been acclaimed by showing the human spirit in unforgiving landscapes. Gypsies (1975) particularly struck me, as the harsh Romani life in Europe is captured through high contrast black and white images, giving mood and exemplifying texture within his shots (josef-koudelka-gypsies).


(Josef Koudelka, Slovakia Klenovec Gypsies, 1967)

The viewer is not left with any ambiguity as to how harsh an environment can be. Exiles (1988) is not for the faint of heart either. Many of the images have a deep sense of foreboding and clearly reflect some of his own experiences having left native Czechoslovakia, applied and lived through political asylum. The courage Koudelka demonstrated in documenting the Soviet military invasion of Prague in 1968 was truly inspiring (Prague).  His images have a strong sense of narrative, something I was battling with in choosing a subject for our first submission.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Prague. August 1968. Warsaw Pact troops invade Prague.

(Josef Koudelka, Prauge, 1968)

Michael Freeman delineates the need for narrative to provide a sense of cohesion in a collection or body of work. Much of the collective written work on narrative in my research, has commented on the relationship between context and subject. In particular, Barthes talks of this interplay as the two central concepts of photography; ‘stadium’ and ‘punctum’ (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography by Roland Barthes (1980)). While reading excerpts, in the back of my mind was the old adage ‘fill the frame’, giving all or at least most of the attention to subject either through framing, colour or other photographic means to provide visual punctuation.

Colour theory we discussed in class and was explored and utilized extensively by William Eggleston (http://www.egglestontrust.com/), something we later investigated following the exhibition at the National portrait gallery (npg.org). ‘Greenwood’, or more commonly referred to as ‘The Red Ceiling’, is a celebrated but prime example of rich saturated colour, a theme which permeates all his work. His influence extended far beyond his own medium, with musicians and filmmakers, such as David Lynch, drawing on the creative outputs of Eggleston. Sean O’Hagan, July 2004, interviews Eggleston with some surprising comments from the artist, revealing someone humble and understated given the impact of his work (https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1).


(William Eggleston Greenwood, Mississippi, 1973)

In my follow up research on colour theory I was particularly interested in how colour harmonies (e.g. Monochromatic, Analogous, Complementary, Split complementary, Triadic, Tetradic) can emphasise subject (https://feltmagnet.com/misc/Harmonious-Painting-Color-Schemes , http://www.zevendesign.com/color-harmony-hulk-wears-purple-pants/). McCurry, as a celebrated investigative photographer (http://stevemccurry.com/), uses colour creatively to enhance subject regularly. His most celebrated work, ‘The Afghan Girl’ employs complementary colours from opposite sides of the wheel and to great effect. The modern commercial photographic aesthetic, however, increasingly looks for colour utilized to its fullest effect, in which the entire palette is on display. David Lachapelle in particular (http://davidlachapelle.com/) fills his work with vibrant colour from all areas of the colour wheel in the same shot.


(David Lachapelle, from Delirium of Reason, 2009)

It was clear to me that my first submissions requires a narrative to hold the shots together. Contrast and colour were key elements I was looking to explore, having initially looked at high contrast in test shots and subjects. After so many test shots and scrapped ideas, I decided to put the camera down and reflect on narrative, my research, what they mean to me and attempt putting all these pieces into practice. Eventually resting in a coffee shop, ‘Jailbird’ by Primal Scream was played over the radio and remembered the album ‘Don’t Give Up’. A shot from ‘Troubled Waters’ by Eggleston was used by the band for the CD cover, a happy coincidence and poignant given my search for subject.


(William Eggleston, Untitled from ‘Troubled Waters’, 1980)

Criteria: 1,2,4,5

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