Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Saturate Before Viewing

Yesterday I found a copy of Pieter Hugo's Hyenas and Other Men at the library. This work has gained a lot of attention in the past year, and justly so. The images are otherworldly. The hyenas look like a cross between dogs and mythical creatures. Combined with the level-gazed portraiture of their human captors, the effect is pretty daunting. I was glad to have a chance to see a printed version of these images rather than just the web images I'd been limited to.

One thing that struck me about the work, perhaps because I've been spending so much energy lately on color management, is how desaturated its palette is. The colors are so muted that they verge on being black and white, or perhaps a better analogy is hand-colored black and white. Like a nomad in the African Savannah, your eye wanders the photo looking for a patch of color. In every photo a few can be found, a patch of red here or blue there, to which you're immediately drawn.

What's that, you say? Black and white? But these look pretty colorful? In fact, these aren't the correct images. They've been doctored by me in Photoshop to amp up the saturation. Here are the undoctored images from the book:

I think seeing the saturated images first really emphasizes how colorless the real images are. Taken at face value, they look wrong. So why is it that as a group they somehow look, well, right?

The desaturation must be an intentional effect. Many of Hugo's other images are conventionally saturated but this particular series is printed in a muted way, so it was a conscious decision. It's interesting to speculate on his motivation. There is no mention of it in the book's text. It goes against the trend in contemporary photography toward rich colors, archival pigments which hit the eye like a furnace blast and last 200 years. So perhaps Hugo printed this way as a reaction against that. Perhaps he wanted to showcase the dry, arid surroundings of his photos. Hard to know, but I do know it helps create a unique and cohesive look for this body of work.

Hugo's images are only one example of a photographer breaking rules on purpose. I love it when folks do that. For example Roy DeCarava printed way too dark:

Bill Brandt's photos have no middle tones:

Ron von Dongen must've misread his light meter on this one:

These images must drive the typical previsualizing f/64 disciple crazy. Yet no one would dispute they're masterful photographs. They work not just despite the rules, but because they break rules. In the same way, Pieter Hugo has created for himself his own personal color space, and I say more power to him because of it.


Anonymous said...

His palette on these outdoor images reflect the gigantic blue sky in Africa, bluer than we can imagine in the USA, strongly affecting the film. I have seen other images from africa that share this palette, very blue and cool, almost hand-colored looking. If his work were digital, it would have to be intentionally desaturated to achieve a look.

It's nice to give photographers credit for total aesthetic control, but it's just as likely (or more likely) that these "effects" just happen. I doubt Bill Brandt totally overexposed that image on purpose, but it certainly has a look! Or it might just be not really "good" printing. But not necessarily intentional...

Anonymous said...

very interesting post, and that on my birthday!

one can add that this shows that there is something wrong with the aim for more and more saturated colours nowadays. if it isnt saturated enough, its not good.
big difference in consumer and pro-film.
your post also shines a light on how even simple things are subject to make a choice. a photograph from a pro is not an accident. accidents on there own never make an artist.