I made the mistake recently of saying, out loud, that I hated rainbows. I could have said, “I like to eat kittens and gravy” and the reaction would have been no less appalled. You HATE rainbows? It wasn’t exactly what I meant. I had been called to the deck of the sailboat with “Get your camera!” I came on deck with my camera and the expectation of a whale or a bear on shore to find that it was “just a rainbow.” Perhaps the word “hate” is too strong. No one really hates rainbows, do they?
What I meant was this – rainbows don’t do it for me photographically. We all have things we like and dislike, and rainbows always seem a little saccharine to me. All those colours competing for attention. I don’t mind the sun showing off a little, but rainbows make it seem a little like the sun is suddenly fishing for compliments. It feels needy. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make.
I don’t hate rainbows. I love the arc of the bow. I love the dramatic light in which rainbows occur. I just don’t dig the colours.
“Well,” I was asked, “what about Galen Rowell’s image, Rainbow over Potala Palace?”
“Nope, doesn’t do it for me.”
How he made the image is a great story, but the late Galen Rowell, of whom I am a big fan, made hundreds of images which are much stronger, more resonant, to me. It’s a very symbolic image, but to me not a particularly beautiful one.
My friends went back to conjuring images of me eating kittens.
So when I saw the rainbow over the Fairy Pools, a long series of cascading falls at the feet of the rocky Cuillens on Skye last week, I knew I was going to catch shit for photographing it. But here’s the thing: a rainbow is not only colour. It’s light and shape and those to me can be insanely beautiful. But if I want to focus on that luminous arc and not on the trying-too-hard festival of colours, then black and white is a great choice. I have precisely one other rainbow photograph in my published work – it too is in black and white.
My point is this: recognizing what you like, and what does nothing for you, and then finding a way to include the one while excluding the other, is much of the creative task of photography. And it takes a little courage because someone (probably several someones) is going to ask you why you killed the rainbow. They lack imagination. I didn’t kill it at all. Anyone that sees a black and white image of a rainbow can imagine the colours. They fill in the blanks themselves. I don’t need to show it in colour to provide new information – this rainbow, like all others, is going to be the same progression from red to violet. For me the impact is greater if I’m unburdened by the need to provide that information.
Everything we photograph has several aspects to it. We make choices about which aspects we show and which ones we do not. We choose one moment or another when making a portrait, and what we do not show strengthens what we do show. We choose one point of view, or perspective, over another, and again, something is shown while something is hidden. The same is true with our choice of lens, exposure, focus, depth of field, and crop. The more intentional we are about those choices the more able we will be to control both the impact and the information in our images.
Whether, by the way, the image is stronger to you in black and white, is not the point any more than Galen Rowell was worried about my opinion when he made Rainbow Over Potala Palace. He had his own vision, and his own way of doing things. I have mine. You have yours. Be intentional about it. Own it.