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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Shadows

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To the small creatures that call the tree home, we are no more than a temporary addition to their landscape. Spiders and beetles wander over our legs or drop from our hair as we rest with our backs to the trunk, feeling the sleepy life of the tree through our spines. Our world is in the darkness and we are grateful for the cool oasis of dappled shade. Around us the earth bakes in the noonday sun that saps our energy, while the birds, butterflies and bees reap the harvest of summer.

On a hot day, there is no better place to be than within the shade of a tree, looking out upon a sweltering world without feeling the heat of a sun that blasts and sears. Yet hiding in the shadows is not always the best option. There are many who seek the safety of the shadows rather than allow their true selves  to be seen by the world.  For some the darkness is a cloak to hide a nefarious purpose.

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Sometimes it is depression or fear that keeps us in the shadows and we see that darkness as a place from which we long to escape. Outside seems more attractive than where we are, yet we know that it is the heat of the sun can sear and that it shows every line that is written on our brow. We look out with envy on what we see as a happier world from which we feel isolated, yet we cannot walk out into the daylight.

For many, the darkness is a refuge. We fear that the light will shine on us, showing  the flaws and weaknesses we believe define us, showing us without the veil of illusion behind which we seek shelter. We cannot see that the light casts both our flaws and our gifts into relief; or that what we see as a flaw in ourselves may be a gift to another, or the catalyst that enables strength.

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We each carry our own shadows and sometimes hide within them, sometimes hide from them. There can be no shadow without light and that too we each carry, no matter how dark our days or even our deeds. We cast out own shadows when we interrupt the flow of light. The light shows us whole, imperfect and beautiful in our imperfection…works in progress, unfinished masterpieces of human nature.

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