Thinking about colour • 3

Knowing how to use colour can aid your ability to communicate meaning through your images. Colour photography is most successful when you work with the colour for a specific meaning or effect, rather than simply using photography to record colours. Tom Ang (2008, 204)

The symbolism of colour in art appears to be a relatively recent concern. According to Gage (2000) artists before the mid 19th century were more concerned with light, shade and contrast than with colour per se. Colour palette was, in any case, limited by the availability and cost of pigments.(‘Imperial purple’ was expensive both for dyeing clothes and for representing them in paint, hence the modern association with wealth and power)

Gage (2000,109) notes that it has proved difficult to establish anything like a basic universal system of colour symbols because symbolism belongs to metaphor rather than perception and is, therefore, a linguistic (rhetorical) rather than psychological matter. With the improved availability of pigments, and the scientific work of Newton, Goethe and others, by the late 19th century,  artists were developing elaborate schemes of symbolic correspondences, but they were individual to the painter in many cases.

There are also cultural differences in the meaning of colours. For instance, in western cultures, black is seen as the colour of death and white as symbolising life; in eastern cultures this is reversed. In western culture, red is a symbol for danger or for penalties but, as a 2003 HSBC advert pointed out, in China it means good luck and it is the colour of Asian wedding dresses.

In an attempt to discover any consensus on colour symbolism in western culture, I have tabulated comments from the four books and six websites noted in the references below. The books are on my shelves. The websites are all from the first page of a Google search on ‘colour symbolism’, from self-proclaimed colour consultants. This infographic is typical.

Black has a variety of meanings. Death and mourning are noted above, and there are negative connotations in language (‘blackmail’, ‘black list’ …). Possible because of the death connection or because of an association with shadows, black is seen as mysterious, hidden or secretive. However, there is also an association with power, formality and elegance (‘black tie’, ‘little black dress’)

Conversely, white has a clear positive connotations, with a strong consensus meaning of purity, innocence and cleanliness. White is the colour of fresh snow, operating theatres and bride’s dresses.

Falling between the two (at least in colour science terms), grey is the colour of compromise (‘grey area’). It is seen as modest, mature and unemotional, but also as heavy, boring or sad.

Red is the colour of fire and blood, so its connotations are of life, energy, heat and passion. It also represents war, danger, violence and anger. It is a very intense colour which is obvious even in small quantities (cf. Magritte’s comment about a ‘thimbleful of red’). Freeman (2005) notes that it can appear three-dimensional, floating above a dark background; I have seen it suggested that this is because long-wavelength light focuses behind the retina and the movements the eye has to make to bring it into focus are the same as for viewing a closer object.

Pink, a light red, means love and romance. A saturated ‘hot pink’ can be exciting and was once associated with extreme sports. A light pink is feminine or ‘girlish’.

Orange is another colour with mainly positive meanings. The colour of flame, incandescent light and late afternoon sunlight, it symbolises warmth, joy and optimism. Two of the websites, however, point out that it is a ‘love it or hate it’ colour and can denote superficiality or ‘brassiness’

Yellow is the colour of sunlight and symbolises optimism and energy. It is the brightest colour (and the most visible at sea). Secondary meanings are health, happiness and idealism. Paradoxically, it is also the colour of cowardice (‘yellow belly’) caution and some forms of physical illness. Yellow denatures rapidly when mixed, and shades into brown.

Brown is an earth colour (literally) and denotes stability, reliability, ‘hearth and home’, comfort and endurance. One website (colour-wheel-pro) suggests masculine qualities. In its lighter form, as beige, it symbolises quiet and pleasantness but is also rather boring.

Green is another earth colour, the colour of plant life and Mother Nature. Ecologists are ‘green’; gardeners are ‘green fingered’. It denotes growth, harmony, freshness and fertility; also youth, spring and renewal. On the negative side, it depicts inexperience, envy (‘green-eyed monster’) and some forms of sickness. There is a enormous range of greens from forest canopy to strident ‘acid green’ (Kawasaki motorbikes). Green in a flesh tone can look sickly, and an overall green cast to an image becomes unpleasant.

There is no real consensus about cyan (called turquoise in the sampled websites)

Blue is the colour of the unclouded sky. According to Gage (2000), Goethe considered it calming, quiet and nostalgic while Kandinsky considered it spiritual. The website says that blue has more complex and contradictory meanings than any other colour, but this depends on the particular shade of blue; dark blues are more serious, while pale blues are cool and reflective. The consensus view is that blue represents trust, loyalty, integrity and stability – which may explain why it is a popular corporate or ‘branding’ colour. Blue, especially very pale blue, is a cooling colour. Unlike red, it tends to recede and therefore is a useful background colour.

Purple (or violet – only one website called it magenta) is, according to Freeman the most elusive of all colours. I suspect this is because it is not really a spectrum colour at all but encompasses the artificial range of colours between red and blue, created by linking the two opposite ends of the visible spectrum together. It is notoriously difficult to agree on the mixing and naming of purple, mauve, magenta, violet etc. There is a consensus (probably associated with the old idea of ‘imperial purple’) that it represents wealth, nobility and luxury. There are secondary meanings of mystery, magic and spirituality. In its lighter forms, it is a favourite colour of young children. In a very light form, as lavender, it represents femininity, grace and elegance.


Ang, T. (2008) Fundamentals of modern photography. London: Mitchell Beazley

Freeman, M. (2005) Colour: The definitive guide for serious digital photographers (digital photography expert). London, United Kingdom: ILEX

Freeman, M. (2007) The photographer’s eye: Composition and design for better digital photos. London, United Kingdom: Ilex

Gage, J.D. (2000) Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. Berkeley: University of California Press

Web pages


Thinking about colour • 2

In this posting, I look at colour harmony, the question of which colours ‘go’ with which. I had thought of this as a fairly universal concept, so was surprised to read in ‘Colour and Meaning’ (Gage 2000) that art history has little discussion of colour harmony until the 20th century, having been more interested in ‘value’ (shades of dark and light) hitherto. Earlier discussion of colour was between scientists rather than artists. I will be returning to Gage as a main source in the third posting of this series.

Colour harmony is a popular (frequent) topic in hobby magazines and technique books, which all take very similar approaches. My sources for this posting are Tom Ang (2008) and Michael Freeman (2005 and 2007).

There are two basic strategies, adjacent colour (restricted colour palette) or contrasting (complementary) colour.

Adjacent colour combinations use colour tones that are next to each other in the colour circle, such as desert landscapes (yellow/brown/rust) or seascapes (blue/cyan/green). Ang comments that these tend to be restful on the eye and can be viewed for long periods.

Complementary colours are those directly opposite each other in the colour circle, such as red/cyan or blue/yellow; these big colour contrasts can be exciting in the short term but lead to visual fatigue.

For Freeman, this is a special 2-colour case of a more general principle. Harmonious colour contrasts of three or more colours are possible provided the chosen colours are symmetrical in the colour circle.


source: Freeman (2005)

The proportions of colour in the image are also important. Henri Matisse is famously quoted as saying ‘A thimbleful of red is redder than bucketful’. There is a camera club in-joke that claims the abbreviation ARPS stands for ‘a red patch somewhere’

Freeman draws on Goethe’s 1810 ‘Zür Farbenlehre‘ (Theory of Colours) as modified by Schopenhauer, to codify suggested proportions of the colours. Starting with Goethe’s brightness values (yellow 9, orange 8, red 6, green 6, blue 4, violet 3) he suggests that, for balance, the colours should be used in inverse proportion to their brightness values, thus:


source: Freeman (2007)

The third posting of this series will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Ang, T. (2008) Fundamentals of modern photography. London: Mitchell Beazley.

Gage, J.D. (2000) Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Freeman, M. (2005) Colour: The definitive guide for serious digital photographers (digital photography expert). London, United Kingdom: ILEX.

Freeman, M. (2007) The photographer’s eye: Composition and design for better digital photos. London, United Kingdom: Ilex.

Thinking about colour • 1

In feedback after assignment 4, my tutor commented:

You have clearly observed and recorded colour in the work and created your own colour palette. In relation to this I would like to have seen further development with research into theory and symbolism in the use of colour.

I therefore plan a series of three postings, between now and the end of the course, dealing with colour. As Itten(1974) has pointed out, there are many ways of looking at colour: a physicist will be interested in radiation and optics, a chemist in the nature of pigments and paints, a painter in the way that colours interact on the canvas etc.

This first posting, dealing loosely with the scientific background, will be mostly unreferenced because the starting point is high school physics lessons and other influences too deeply ingrained to unravel.

What colour is

Visible light is one manifestation of electromagnetic radiation. The full spectrum ranges from radio at one end to gamma radiation at the other, a total of 400 octaves of frequency (Asimov ‘Four hundred octaves’ a 1982 essay collected in Asimov 1984). Of this, slightly less than one octave (approximate wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers(frequency 430-750THz)) is visible to the human eye. The phenomenon that we call colour is the brain’s way of interpreting the difference between frequencies of visible light.


source: Wikipedia

These colours can be seen in natural phenomena such as rainbows, but it was only when Isaac Newton demonstrated splitting and recombining the colours from white light with a prism that the principle was understood. The spectrum above also shows the invisible radiation at either end of the visible range, infra-red and ultra-violet, which can also be recorded by cameras. The naming of the traditional seven colours has more to do with mysticism than science: indigo is really a dark blue and there are no discrete colours in a continuum.

The (in my opinion) questionable next step is to turn the linear spectrum into a ‘colour wheel’ by stitching the red and blue ends together through a range of colours known variously as purple, magenta or mauve. I suspect the reason why these colours are difficult to describe is that they are conceptually artificial.

The 1990 Schiffman diagram is the most ‘honest’ of these examples as it shows the pink-purple sector is separate from the ‘rainbow colours’. It also introduces the concept of saturation. However, whatever the scientific basis, the full colour wheel can be justified because it ‘works’ for colour mixing.

Primary and secondary colours

Although colours have almost-infinite variety, it is not necessary to have an enormous number of colour sources to reproduce them.

It is notionally possible to select a smaller number of ‘pure’ colours and mix the others from them. How many colours, and which, will depend on personal choice, the nature of the medium and the way in which the primaries are mixed. Usually, three primaries are used. Artists mixing paint, and schoolchildren using crayons, use red, yellow and blue as seen in the first diagram below.

The standard when mixing lights, and on colour TV screens, computer monitors etc. is to use red, green and blue, as illustrated in the middle diagram. This type of mixing is called additive because the lights are added to each other, the secondary colours (formed by mixing equal amounts of two primaries) are lighter and it is possible to produce white by mixing all three equally.

When printing, including computer inkjet and laser printers, the inks lie on the white paper and subtract some colours from the white base. Adding further ink reduces the colour still further and this type of mixing is called subtractive. The subtractive primaries are the same as the additive secondaries (cyan, magenta and yellow), producing red, blue and green when mixing in pairs and, notionally, black when they are all mixed together. In practice, a mixture of the three pigments is a rather muddy, dark colour rather than pure black, so printers will add a black ink to the set, giving the standard CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, blacK) inkset of low-end printers. Because of technical issues in the way the inks are formulated and applied, the colour mixing of the basic four colours is not perfect, and high-end printers use additional colours to fill the perceived gaps. For instance, my Canon PixmaPro 9500 uses ten inks in nine colours: the basic CMYK set, lighter versions of magenta, cyan and black, plus red and green. There are two different blacks (matt black MBK and photo black PBK) but this is about ‘glossiness’ rather than colour.

Colour temperature

The colour of a scene depends on the colour of the light illuminating it. The eye and brain will accommodate this, to some extent and perceive the scene in its ‘true colours’. The process of ‘colour correction’ is an attempt to alter the true colour of the scene to accord with the way it is perceived.

The main reason for colour variation is the temperature of the light source. A physical concept called ‘black body radiation’ says that the amount of radiation emitted by a body increases with its temperature, and also that the average colour (peak of the frequency curve) tends toward the higher-frequency, short-wavelength blue end of the spectrum.


source: Wikipedia

Thus, the sun with its surface temperature of about 6000K emits light that we perceive as white (that being what the eye has evolved to do) but an incandescent light bulb, with a coil temperature of 3000K emits mainly infra-red (heat) radiation plus some visible light at the red/yellow end of the spectrum. The situation is more complicated with fluorescent sources, which have a discontinuous spectrum and require correcting on the green-magenta axis as well as the blue-yellow axis.

One curiosity is that the bluer colours are considered ‘cooler’, while red and yellow light is considered ‘warmer’ and more comforting, in contradiction to their relative physical colour temperatures. Partly, this is due to common experience; fire is yellow, ice is bluish. However, I speculate that part of the cause relates to Rayleigh scattering, by which the red-yellow light from the sun reaches us directly, while blue light is scattered and turns the entire sky dome blue. This means that an outdoor scene effectively has mixed light sources. Objects directly lit by the sun have a yellow tint while objects in shadow are lit by light from the sky dome and acquire a blue tint.

The next posting of the set will look at the way colours are used together, whether harmonious, complementary or ‘clashing’.

The final posting will look at some of the symbolism of colours.


Asimov, I. (1984) X stands for unknown. New York, NY, United States: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group

Itten, J. (1974) The art of color: The subjective experience and objective rationale of color. 2nd edn. New York: Wiley, John & Sons

‘The camera never lies … huh?’

Last month, I gave an after-dinner talk to a local Rotary Club on the subject ‘tweaking your holiday snaps’. The vote of thanks included the hackneyed phrase “… and they say the camera never lies”. This is odd because apart from 5 minutes on using cloning to remove distracting elements, nothing I demonstrated (minor crops, global and local exposure/contrast adjustment, waiting for the light, foreground interest, etc.) altered the essential truth of the image. I then reflected on how often I hear similar sentiments expressed, often with the word ‘photoshopped’ in the same sentence.

The phrase ‘The camera never lies’, or variations thereof is almost as old as practical photography itself, dating back at least to the 1890s ( and early photography was used as a reference for artists in improving accuracy, for instance Muybridge’s sequence of the galloping horse. (Harry Ransom Center). Photography is evidential, the photographic image is taken as evidence that the subject matter existed, in that place in front of the camera, at least for the period the shutter was opened.

However, we live in an age when fashion images are routinely retouched, impossible scenes are created by CGI on our television and cinema screens and in advertising, we are suspicious of the photographs that we see in our newspapers, sometimes rightly so (Wikipedia 2016), and the winner of a prestigious photographic competition is disqualified for manipulation. (Cheesman, 2015). Although the layman may blame this on Photoshop, we should remember that retouching occurred in pre-digital days and was considered matter-of-course by the Victorian Pictorialists such as Oscar Rejlander and Henry Peach Robinson.

An 1982 extended essay by John Berger, ‘Appearances’ (Berger 2013, pp61-98) suggests an essential difference between photography and other visual arts. He says that painting or drawing ‘translates’ the scene whereas photography ‘quotes’ it. This concept of ‘quotation’ gives me a metaphor for a broad taxonomy of ways in which photography can  appear to lie.


The camera may quote the scene accurately but the image (quotation) is then altered in post-production. Spot the differences (not to mention the incompetent use of the clone tool) between the original and altered versions.

‘Selective quotation’

Apocryphally, the newspaper review, “If you want a riotous new comedy, avoid this like the plague.” becomes “… a riotous new comedy … (Daily Blah)” on the theatre posters.

Selective quotation can happen in camera or in post-production. The photographer can select his decisive moment and his framing to show his version of the story. Alternatively, an editor can change the emphasis and meaning of an image by selective cropping.

‘Quotation out of context’

Context is important to understanding. If you hear a person wanting to buy ‘a large farmhouse’ it is relevant to know whether they are talking to a baker or an estate agent.

Words and pictures reinforce each other. A false impression can be given if the words and photographs have different sources.

This image was used to illustrate and authenticate a viral hoax about snowfall in Cairo. The sphinx is actually a miniature from a Japanese theme park (Boese 2015)

Accurate quotation of a lie

I can do no better than quote John Berger on the subject of publicity images, a subject that occupies the fourth programme of Ways of Seeing (tw1975 (2012d)). The following quotation is from Understanding a Photograph (Berger 2013, 69)

‘The lie is constructed before the camera. A ‘tableau’ of objects and symbols is assembled. […] This ‘tableau’ is then photographed. It is photographed precisely because the camera can bestow authenticity upon any set of appearances, however false. The camera does not lie even when it is used to quote a lie. And so, this makes the lie appear more truthful’

A relevant variation on the original phrase is ‘The camera does not lie; photographers do’ (various sources, all unattributed) to which could be added, ‘… and so do art directors’


Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. Edited by Geoff Dyer. London: Penguin Classics.

Boese, A. (2015) Snow-covered Sphinx. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Cheesman, C. (2015) Photographer loses £10k crown; Claims editing ‘not major’. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Encyclopædia Britannica (2016) ‘Henry Peach Robinson | British photographer’, in Encyclopædia Britannica. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

Harry Ransom Center (no date) Horse in motion, Eadweard Muybridge, ca. 1886. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016) (no date) The meaning and origin of the expression: The camera cannot lie. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

tw1975 (2012d) John Berger / ways of seeing , episode 4 (1972). Available at: (Accessed: 22 October 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) ‘Adnan Hajj photographs controversy’. Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2016).

The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ has been suggested by my tutor as an antidote to the cult of personality that has grown up around Cartier-Bresson and other celebrated photographers. The essay deals with the status of the author in contemporary literature, but there are parallels with photographers and photography.

Cards on the table; I must say that there is a major barrier to my understanding – the dense language used (at least in the translation that I have seen) makes the text pretty much unreadable. I put the full text into three online ‘readability test’ pages which confirmed my opinion. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index was between 7.2 and 25 (average 13.1), Gunning Fog Index 24 to 31.5 (average 29) and SMOG index consistently just over 18. (The differences in scores may be due to different algorithms recognising syllables in different ways). At these levels, I am inclined to suspect obscurantism rather than a desire to be understood. I am also unhappy about the way that personal opinion is presented as if it were incontestable fact. I find myself, once again, in Gavin Milarrrrr territory (starts at 3:47 in this clip)

What Barthes appears to be saying is that, in pure literature (he specifically excludes literary history, writers’ biographies, magazine interviews and autobiography – and, by extension, non-literary writing) it is the words and their meaning, rather than the author who wrote them, that is important. He sees the emergence in contemporary (‘modern’ in 1968) literature of a different kind of writer, dubbed a ‘scriptor’ who exists only to write the text.

Having disposed of the ‘author’, Barthes then wishes to dispose of the ‘critic’ and literary criticism, on the assumption that the purpose of criticism is to ‘decipher’ the text, i.e. to discover what was in the mind of the author at the time he wrote it. He believes that the text has a wider meaning than the writer’s intent. As an aside, and an interesting contrast, it seems that modern art critics also believe that the artists stated intent is no more valid a guide than the viewer’s or critic’s opinion (Barrett 2006,56). Perhaps “the critic’s” obituary notice is, like Mark Twain’s, premature.

For Barthes, the person who gives meaning to the text is the reader or spectator. He gives the example of Greek tragedies, written with words having double meanings that each character interprets differently, causing dramatic misunderstanding, and only the spectator (playgoer) grasps the whole story. Likewise, with literature, it is the reader and his unique set of life experiences and cultural references, who filters and give meaning to the text.

Bringing this into a photographic context, Barthes would say that it is the viewer of a photograph who is responsible for interpreting it, rather than the photographer. As a photographer, I should resent that view but have to accept an element of truth – although I take a view nearer to Barrett who says that the photographer and the viewer have equally valid interpretations.

For me, the viewer cannot be supreme because without the photographer there would be nothing to view. Perhaps the ‘meaning’ of a photograph arises by collaboration (or even a conspiracy) between author and reader, photographer and viewer. Something to ponder for the future.

Like the peasant in Spamalot, the Author “ain’t dead yet”


Barrett, T.(2006) Criticising Photographs (4th ed.) New York: McGraw Hill

Barthes, R. (1968) The Death of the Author (translated by Howard, R) [Online]

(In)decisive Moments

Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log.

I start this posting agnostic on the question of “the decisive moment”: whether it is fundamental principle of photography, a cliche or just irrelevant. Partly it is because the concept is slippery to get hold of and partly because I am not convinced that HCB intended the phrase to have the importance later authors have ascribed to it. For instance, the phrase appears nowhere in O’Byrne’s film ‘L’amour tout court‘ (O’Byrne 2001).

The phrase first appears in a photographic context as the title of a 10-page essay forming the preface to HCB’s 1952 book ‘Images à la Sauvette‘. The original book title does not translate easily into English (it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorised street trading or street peddling (Reverso) which looks like a good parallel with street photography) so the American translator and publisher adopted the essay title ‘The Decisive Moment‘ for the entire book. (Assouline 2005, 140)

From then onwards, Cartier-Bresson was established as the photographer of the decisive moment. Thus are legends born. The effect was to blur his image in the United States, for by radicalising his ideas in so restrictive a manner, the description had fixed him once and for all (Assouline ibid.)

As with my posting on originality, it is necessary to heed Humpty Dumpty (as reported by Dodgson and collected in Gardner 1970, 269) on the meaning of words. It is possible to create or to escape from a problem by the way we define our key words.

HCB describes, rather than defines the concept:

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. (Cartier-Bresson, reported by Fotografia 2015)

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. (Cartier-Bresson, ibid.)

In L’amour tout court (part 2, 2:11 and 4:30), HCB tells us that form and geometry are everything. His ‘decisive moment’ then is the moment at which the elements of the image come into a formal composition and he decides to press the button.

For me, the best illustration from popular culture is the old Channel 4 station idents, collected here on YouTube.

My favourite example is at 1:59 because it could be a real-world situation, not invoking levitation. Of course, these clips are not a perfect analogy because the scene and the motion are pre-defined to create an artificial ‘decisive moment’. However, they illustrate the point that there is an instant when everything comes together correctly.

Eric Kim takes a similar view and tells us ‘This moment is fleeting, meaning that once you miss that half of a second to capture that moment, it is gone forever. You can never recreate the same circumstances in terms of location and people… Capturing an image half a second too late or early can greatly influence the outcome of an image.‘ (Kim s.d.)

Derrick Price describes HCB’s technique thus:, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image which he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing. This he called ‘the decisive moment’ a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder‘ (in Wells 2000, 98)

All of these descriptions converge on the idea that ‘the decisive moment’ is the moment that the photographer decides is right to take the photograph. While this is a useful idea to have in the back of one’s mind, it is also a circular definition analogous to, in other fields, Darwin’s  concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ (where ‘the fittest’ are defined as those most likely to survive) or Lord Atkin’s ‘neighbour principle in Donogue v Stevenson (1932) which is the foundation for the law of negligence (paraphrased: I owe a duty of care to my neighbour; my neighbour is a person to whom I owe a duty of care)

Therefore, in my opinion, ‘the decisive moment’ is not so much a cliché as a tautology. In the example given on p.69 of the course notes, the unknown photographer’s 1953 image is poor not because it is derivative but because it is badly-executed.

Michael Freeman (2011, 146) notes that some photographers have challenged ‘the decisive moment as not being relevant to their way of shooting, citing Garry Winogrand’s ‘indecisive moment’ and Arnold Newman’s comment that ‘there are many moments’

He also (2007, 98) notes that the concept is not unique to street photography and the decisive ‘moment’ might play out over minutes or hours.

One modern debate arises from digital technology and the ease of taking multiple images in ‘machine-gun mode’ at effectively zero cost, rather than pre-planning and exposing valuable film at precisely the right instant. Darlene Hildebrandt (2014) dubs this technique ‘Spray and Pray’.  She prefers to get it right in camera but quotes situations where ‘spray and pray’ has an advantage: very fast movement, too quick for normal reactions, or where the intention is to create a sequence.

My view on ‘spray and pray’ is that it is a way of delaying a decision. In principle, it allows us to select a ‘decisive moment’ post-hoc and in post-production. In practice, it encourages laziness at the point of shooting and involves lot of work in editing.

Incidentally, Freeman (2011, 146) accuses Winogrand of doing the same kind of thing in film, shooting ‘haphazardly and in great quantity’ and leaving behind 8000 unprocessed rolls of film awaiting a selection process.

The course notes also refer to ‘The Present‘ a work of Paul Graham, as reviewed by Colin Pantall (2012) as being an example of ‘the decisive moment’ missing the point of our contemporary situation.

Pantall tells us ‘And what he wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.’ but he appears to consider this a good thing.

I agree that Graham’s images are the antithesis of the decisive moment and, frankly, I find them rather pointless. In the examples given in the review we see street scenes with no particular composition (or even attempt to hold the camera straight), two or three examples of each taken at random times with random passers-by. The big concept appears to be conning the viewer into believing there is some significance in doing a ‘spot-the-differences’ exercise.

In summary, and returning to the original question,  I believe ‘the decisive moment’ is a central concept to photography, but one that each photographer subtly redefines in his own image (if you will excuse the pun).


Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Lewes:Ilex

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Vision Lewes:Ilex

Fotografia (2015) The Decisive Moment as Henri Cartier-Bresson meant it [online] at:

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Hildebrandt, D. (2014) Do You Wait for the Decisive Moment or do You Spray and Pray? [online] at: (accessed 13 June 2016)

Kim, E. (s.d.) How to Master “The Decisive Moment” [online] at:“how-to-masterthe-decisive-moment” (accessed 13 June 2016)

O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at (accessed 6 June 2016)

Pantall, C. (2012) The Present [online] at:

Reverso.(s.d.) ‘sauvette’ translation. [online] at: (accessed 13 June 2016)

Wells, L (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

YouTube (2006) Channel 4 idents [online] at: (accessed 10 June 2016)

A riff on ‘originality’

This posting starts from Matthew’s (my tutor) comments in formative feedback on Assignment 2.

The question that arises is a fundamental one of originality and at what point does work produced become imitation. In the world were millions of images are produced daily we may have to question if there can be such a thing as originality. It is conceivable that at some point we may have to draw a line in the history of photography at the point where originality stopped and to consider imitation not only as a form of flattery but as the only means of producing work.

I propose to take up the ball and, if not run with it, stroll around with it for a while. I don’t expect to come up with any answers but I hope to ask some of the right questions.

As a starting point we must heed Humpty Dumpty’s comment to Alice (Dodgson, C.L. as collected in Gardner 1970, 269) ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’. It is possible to create a problem, or escape from one, depending on how we define our key words. However, for a bit of objectivity, I start with COED (1964) which gives ‘originality‘ as the adverbial form of ‘original‘ inter alia thus:

… that has served as a pattern, of which copy or translation has been made, not derivative or dependent, first hand, not imitative, novel in character or style, inventive, creative, thinking or acting for oneself …

I suspect that Matthew is using a quite strong definition of originality, meaning something on the lines of ‘nothing like it has ever been done in the history of photography’. This is analogous with the concept of priority in scientific research – whoever is first to publish takes the credit. As time goes by, new research covers increasingly narrower points – effectively filling-in the gaps but whole new fields do open up from time to time. Similarly, in photography it is increasingly difficult to find something that has not been done before but I like to think there are ‘gaps’ to be filled, and the occasional conceptual leap.

I believe there is a legitimate, weaker form of originality in the dictionary definition – based on the phrases ‘not imitative‘ and ‘thinking or acting for oneself‘. An idea, concept or photograph may be original to a particular photographer even if it has been done by somebody else, somewhere else, so long as the author was not consciously aware of the previous work. (Work based on subconscious memory is a grey area in this argument). To continue with the scientific analogy, this is similar to Wallace and Darwin describing natural selection at the same time,  Newton and Leibnitz inventing the calculus, or Swann and Edison independently inventing the electric light bulb.

There is also a stronger interpretation, by which it could be said that no photograph is ever original. Every photograph (rather than piece of digital art) requires a subject to be present; the photograph is, effectively, a copy of the subject. This is obvious with a piece of 2-dimensional art such as a painting or a piece of graffiti. It is less obvious, but I believe no less true, that a photograph of any object is a copy of the surface form of that object.

On that basis, is a photograph of a photograph, such as Richard Prince’s copies of the Marlboro Man (example) or his ‘New Portraits’ exhibition (link) any more of a copy than his subject is? My own view is that they are blatant plagiarism, but this appears to be controversial in the art world. (Parkinson 2015)

In the absence of direct plagiarism we can still ask how similar one photograph must be to another before we consider it an imitation, and whether there are other factors in play. Is it simply the subject matter, or is context relevant?

Consider the images above, made decades apart. All are unique. All are of gardeners posing in their gardens.

I made the left-hand image today. Nobody in the history of photography has previously taken a photograph of my wife, wearing that outfit and standing in that corner of our garden. Indeed, the potting shed is only six months old and it is the first time it has appeared in a photograph. The image is unique, but does that make it original? My answer is ‘no’ because it is a conscious imitation (albeit in colour) of the sort of image used by Keith Arnatt in his ‘Gardeners’ series, discussed in previous blog postings.

Is the central image original? It was taken at about the same time Arnatt was making ‘Gardeners’. I regard this as original to me (the weaker form of originality described above) as I was not aware of Arnatt’s work (or indeed his existence) at that time.

Similarly, the right-hand image was taken by my mother some 15 years before ‘Gardeners’. Does that give it priority over Arnatt’s work? Does it refute his claim to originality? I think not, for similar reasons to the previous paragraph.

At this point, I run out of steam without any real conclusions except that ‘originality’ is a slippery concept and the question of its eventual demise depends entirely on how it is defined in the first (original?) place.


Concise Oxford English Dictionary (1964) 5th edition. ‘Original’ definition. Oxford University Press

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Parkinson, H.J. (2015) Instagram, an artist and the $100,000 selfies – appropriation in the digital age [online] at:

Tate (s.d.) Search Art and Artists, Keith Arnatt [online] at: (accessed 3 April 2016)