In black and white

 

Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.

 

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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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Rain on the window

The light changed, suffusing the clouds with a soft glow and shadowing the sky that strange half-light that heralds a storm. The rain, it seemed, had settled in, pattering against the window and drawing the eye to focus on the diamond streaks of misery. Yet, beyond the pane there was colour, molten gold flaming in the sky as the day drew to a close.

I picked up the camera, unwilling to get wet by going outside, but determined to capture at least one moment of the crepuscular display. The camera fastened its gaze firmly on the immediacy of the window pane and refused to look farther than its proverbial nose, consigning distant beauty to an indistinct netherworld beyond its focus.

I fiddled with the settings, desperate to circumvent the limitations of the camera, but to no avail. While I was doing so, the constant shifting of light and cloud meant that the opportunity to capture the moment was slipping away.

All I could see through the shortened lens was looming patches of darkness against consuming fire. The rain restricted the perception of the lens, not only erasing detail but transforming it into an uneasy vista of threatening possibilities. Yet it only took a flicker of the eye to look beyond the lens and see a different landscape that sent me outside, regardless of the rain.

It occurred to me that I recognised the pattern all too well. I had to ask myself, “Where do you focus? On the rain on the pane or the vista beyond?” and realised that, all too often, the instinctive reaction is to focus on the pain on the pane.

As soon as a problem comes into our lives, real or perceived, our focus shifts and offers exclusivity to whatever it is that has caught our attention. We get so caught up in that focus that we no longer see what might be waiting beyond our gaze. Instinct is a pessimist and sees only uncomfortable consequences and possible horrors.

We give our attention to the problem and, in our attempts to solve it, waste so much time and energy that we may miss the obvious solution. We may miss the moment too, when the perfect opportunity slides by unseen in the distance… or, even worse, refuse its gifts for fear of what might happen if we pursue it.

There is always a bigger picture beyond our immediate horizon. With every step forward that we take into the ocean of unseen possibilities, we expand that horizon, even though we may well end up getting wet.  We may not be able to see far enough to know whether what lies ahead will be stormy seas or a limpid lake, but unless we make a move, we will never find out and the moment will be forever gone, leaving us behind on the shores of our own trepidation.

Barefoot, I left the window to brave the rain and watch the dying light gild my little corner of the world. Caught in the magic, drops of liquid light fell to earth, caressing my skin and drawing me in, making me feel part of the moment, not merely an isolated observer. Sometimes, it is worth having wet feet.