Thursday, March 29, 2018

Mean Streets Meets Edward Hopper

The whole notion of color photography was something that came late to me. For most of my early film days recording the world was all about using Tri-x or Plus-x to capture all those grainy shades of grey. Mostly the reasons had to do with simple economics; film has a cost per click that's no longer an issue in digital but it was also about control. Even as a struggling college student, I could develop and print b&w on my own. Dodge, burn, crop and expose by the red light of my safe light and walk out with images that I could say were a cut above just simple recordings. Shooting color on the other hand, meant surrendering your photos to a lab and having to pay for every edit of every image.

Fast forward to the next century and I've got thousands of negatives from an historical New York that now mostly exists in documentaries and Martin Scorsese movies. Of course, all in glorious black and white. Not that those limitations were a bad thing. B&W isn't simply the absence of color it's also a medium in its own right. Stipped down to the bare essential shades of grey, you're forced to pay attention to details, composition and expression. And as time has moved on, it's also become an historical marker that gives images a context for time and place as well.

But now, a century later and armed with Photoshop, Lightroom, personal printers and the fact that nearly all images are now viewed on monitors I'm more than happy to shoot color. There's no lack of inspirational photographers (Joe McNally, Mark Seliger, Erik Almas to name a few) and I finally feel that I have enough control that I can build on my prior experiences and deliver my own perspective. But what to do with all those funky b&w shots collecting dust in my archives?

The shot below was a quick snapshot from a Sunday afternoon. Early 70s, somewhere in Chelsea. Brilliant blue sky with the odd skywriting framed in by the brownstones. Honestly, in black and white, it's not much to write home about. I stuck it back in the archives and forgot about it. A few years later on my wife was persistent enough to drag me to the Museum of Modern Art. I like New York museums about as much as I like department stores which is to say between parking, crowds and waiting in lines, not much at all. On this day though, the art gods smiled on me and I got to see Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" live and up close. It was almost enough to make the crowds disappear for a while. That row of brownstones... the warm colors, that feeling of a singular time and place.

Where had I seen that before?

A walk in the park with some friends, a few joints and a trek to my friends apartment in Chelsea. Odd skywriting against a brilliant blue sky. Warm tones of late afternoon Sun starting to light up the brownstones. Scanning the negative let Photoshop kill the grain at the expense of some sharpness but in monochrome it was still just a faded memory.

Thirty years on, I'd learned enough Photoshop to let me paint in the colors over the b&w original. Depending on the blend mode (e.g. color, overlay, soft light, etc), each color can present with different levels of saturation. Keeping each color on it's own layer let's you fine tune but early on, my painting skills were pretty rudimentary.

Discovering "Match Color" buried a few menu layers deep made me think I might possibly borrow a palette to improve the rendering. In the back of my mind, I'd always been inspired by Edward Hopper's "Early Sunday Morning" so the choice of which color palette to test was a no brainer.

This is where the magic happens. You'll need two files... a source, the file that you want to pull the colors from and a target (the destination image) which is the photo that you want to apply the colors to. The resolution, composition and size of the source doesn't really matter at all. You're only grabbing the colors so even a low res file will do just fine. Open the target image, then go to Image -> Adjustments -> Match Colors to get the following dialog box.

The destination will already be prefilled at the top. Click on the drop down menu labelled Source to navigate and select your file. If there's more than one layer in it, there's an additional option to select the one you want.

It's worth noting that you don't even have to open the "source" file... it's enough for it to be accessible by Photoshop. Clicking the source button and navigating to it makes the color palette accessible to the target file.

The initial rendering is almost always too dark. Tweaking the sliders is enough to bring the tonality in range. This will vary for every set of images.

Hmmm. Look at me, making aesthetic judgements.

The sliders in "Match Color" brought the colors into range. A few final tweaks in levels got me here.

So the result is a fusion between my humble snapshot and Hopper's remarkable color palette. In a million years I'd never be able to match his eye for color but I'm happy to have the means to access them in my own way. If I could look at a Rembrandt and be inspired to copy his lighting is this any less legitimate?

For a blue collar kid who was challenged to draw anything better than stick figures and never went to art school I'm feeling pretty smug. One more technique that I can use to set my work apart and of course if this process inspires your own vision, no one would be happier than me.

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Mean Streets Meets Edward Hopper

The whole notion of color photography was something that came late to me. For most of my early film days recording the world was all about u...