THE RED PERIL
Years ago, Frances and I had an editor who was a complete sucker for red. It was almost irrelevant how bad the picture was: we referred to him as The Red Peril. You could see it all too clearly in other contributors' pictures, as well as our own. It's commonplace to give an editor a choice of pictures to accompany an article, to accommodate personal preference and layout; and there's always the hope they'll use more of them and go onto another page, so you'll be paid more. But even so...
Windmill and 2CV. Yes, well, what's it actually about? Windmills? Citroen 2CVs? La France Profonde? Arguably, all of the above. But would you want it on your wall? I wouldn't. It's further let down by the light: the shaded red on the right hand side of the car (camera left) weakens it. But hey, it's reasonably exotic and it's the sort of thing I'd cheerfully have put into an article in the hope that the red-loving editor would use it. I'd certainly have looked out subjects like this for a lens or camera test. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
It's common advice, of course, to use “eye catching” red. But there are countless other “eye catching” tricks too. For example, there's literal “eye catching” when someone looks directly at the camera.
Arlésienne. For me, the eye contact and the smile are much more important than the red dress; which, incidentally, I saturated a little more using the "sponge" tool in Adobe Photoshop. It's true that if someone is looking at a screenfull of thumbnails, the red dress will catch the eye, but it's a pretty lazy way of both seeking and bestowing attention. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
There's the use of contrasting and indeed complementary colours. There's adding a touch of mystery: not quite “What the hell is it?” but something that is sufficiently out of the ordinary that it piques people's interest. There's abstraction.
Deconstructed flag. Red, white and blue are so common in national flags that we almost start looking for one when we see the three colours in juxtaposition. This is just some shopfitters' waste, but I liked the colours. I'm still not totally sure about the dark strips at the top and bottom, but having tried it with and without, I prefer it with. This is a golden rule when you're not sure about something: try the different variations. DON'T ask for advice on line or you'll get numerous different opinions, few if any of them worth as much as your own. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
There's humour (which very often is a sense of shared, slightly rueful, experience). And – let's be honest – there's desperation, where the subject matter isn't all that brilliant but you've nothing better that fits the brief, so you'll try all the tricks you can.
Foto Automat. I'm not sure why I find this picture amusing, but I do. Would it be as successful, though, without the vivid (and completely un-enhanced) red of the curtain? I wondered about cropping it top and bottom, but decided not to. A reasonable expanse of floor under the booth (and the feet) stabilizes the composition; the Kodak yellow above it seems to provide space for the sign to aspire to the skies. Note the "arrow-head" on "t" and the way the whole thing seems to be streamlined vertically. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
All right: this was for illustrating magazine articles. Now change perspective. Let's call it “Fine Art”, as shorthand for a picture you'd like to see on the wall or to see in a book. For their own sake, that is, as pictures, not as reminders of happy times or as illustrations to a text.
Frances in the Pyrenees. You (or at least I) might be perfectly happy to have this on the wall as a reminder of a happy time, or in a book as an illustration; but it hardly qualifies as Fine Art. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
As soon as you start thinking about Art, with or without a capital A, your criteria shift. You must also ask which wall you'd like to see it on. Your own living room? Breaking up the monotony of a hotel room? In a bank? The picture above, for example, might go very well in an office or study, to remind you why it's worth working to earn money.
Extinguisher. I have something of a weakness for fire extinguishers, just as many photographers have for doors. On the other hand, where would I want to see this on the wall? Not in an hotel or public building, I think, though it might be OK in an exhibition, especially as publicity for a book. Actually it wouldn't be, because it's not outstandingly sharp: I should have used a tripod. But it also reminds us that red is often used as a signifier of emergency, or to encourage you to stop, and it quite well illustrates the value of contrasting, matching and and complementary colours. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
If it's in a book, what's the book about? There has to be a theme. Does the picture fit it? Does it fit in with the other pictures? And, pace the image above, is it of adequate quality?
Red chair, sickly green table, Arles. The individual components of this picture are all adequately interesting, but it's worth asking yourself if the redness of the chair adds to the composition or detracts from it. How would it work with a blue chair, or green? For me, the most intriguing part of the picture is the reflection of the vine, which gives the impression that the table is semi-transparent. It's also worth remarking on the black shadow on the left. At first sight it's intrusive, but if you cover it up with your thumb you will most likely agree that its absence would still further weaken an already somewhat weak composition It's part of the Secret Life of Chairs series. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
Finally, an exercise. I'm deeply suspicious of this sort of thing, but you might just find it useful. Go out and photograph as many red things as you can. Create a file called RED and copy all your appropriate pictures in to it. Add to it when you see something particularly red. Trawl your existing pictures, too.
Another 2CV, I happened upon it during a walk in the country. It was originally a plain record shot, but I cropped both the back and the bottom of the picture in order to make the car appear more ground-hugging and to give it space in front to "move into": another old trick. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
I suggest above that you copy your red shots into a RED file because it is entirely possible that you might also want them in another file: in this case, perhaps called 2CV. Grouping pictures like this helps to to realize what interests you (and what doesn't) as well as helping you to understand what you're good at (and what you aren't).
Tail light. I just liked the combination and contrast of colours. It is however too literal to be a true abstract shot. Even so, it could be a useful part of the kind of exercise I suggest above. Leica M9, probably 50/1.5 C-Sonnar.
The trick, when you've gathered your pictures together, is to ask yourself where (and whether) the red works; how much of it there is in the picture; and how you might use that picture, as a competition entry, a piece of fine art, an illustration... Asking yourself why you took a picture, and what you took it for, can both be good ways of improving your photography, simply on the grounds that the more you concentrate on photography, the better you are likely to get.
Red roof. Does it work? I think so. It's the contrast between the bright red and the greys of the rest of the picture, but with enough differentiation in the greys to save it from that ghastly fate, "spot colour", where all the rest of the picture is converted to black and white. Leica M9, probably 35/1.4 Summilux.
Quite honestly, this article contains more than its fair share of indifferent pictures, but the common theme of red does indeed lend them a degree of impact. Increasingly I suspect that impact is the enemy of depth: the sort of picture that immediately catches your eye may not be the kind of picture that you want to look at for long. But if it applies to your own photography (and it may well not), then that's a lesson worth learning too.
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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2018