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When color makes the difference in conveying ideas and meaning.

We have come to take color photography for granted, but we shouldn't. Color plays a huge role in photographic communication. Yet, improperly used, it can obscure meaning.

The most obvious difference between color and black and white photography is that color can seem more "real" because it replicates vision. Black and white, on the other hand, is a medium of abstraction--it simplifies, while the "reality" of color, unless very carefully selected and used, can often lead to clutter and confusion.

Color attracts the eye and stimulates the senses. It also gives an identity to subjects that black and white imagery can't. Color itself can also symbolize ideas that help convey meaning.

Here are four of my own photographs involving various forms of business activity that work as communication, largely because they were made in color. In each one, I've consciously used color as subject matter itself. All of the images would have been far less effective in black and white.

I shot the first example just as the Central Market was opening for customers in Valparaiso, Chile. A woman cranks open an awning to shade the onions, tomatoes and potatoes displayed on the street outside the market itself. I use color to differentiate and identify each vegetable and to define the skin tones and clothing of the people. In black and white, it would be more difficult to recognize each of these agricultural products. And the woman, the central figure in this picture, would be less emphatic. Her orange shirt would become gray. The colors in this picture capture the purpose of the market--a black and white version would not.

Moving from the vegetable business to banking, my second example features a bank operating from a former colonial mansion in Willemstad, Curacao. I was attracted to the scene by the interplay of the brown plaza and stairs against the pale blue and orange of the bank building. Using a wide-angle lens, I include the green foliage as well as the fluttering flags. I waited for people to pass through my frame, and was able to capture a man in a yellow shirt, tie flying, as he raced down the steps. The color of his shirt is repeated in the yellow stripe in the flag. In black and white, all of this would merge together in tones of gray. The building and flags would not stand out, and the fountain would dominate the image. The man would become an afterthought. In color, the running man is the focal point, and the entire plaza becomes a study in historic beauty and elegance.

The third example features a small fishing boat putting out to sea at dawn from the harbor at Arica, Chile. The entire region now depends on this small industrial port for its existence, and on fishermen such as these, who scratch out a living from the sea. The warm golden haze softens the harsh, commercial nature of the port, and the tiny fishing boat becomes a symbol of survival in the face of a challenging climate and economy. In black and white, this picture would be virtually meaningless.

I found my fourth example in the flooded caldera of a sunken volcano that forms Antarctica's Deception Island, Shooting from the deck of a moving cruise ship, I was able to capture what seems at first to be a mirage--a cluster of brilliantly colored buildings huddled at the base of the snow swept walls of the caldera. These buildings, housing a Spanish Antarctic research station, shockingly and incongruously contrast a touch of man-made color against the vastness of the stark, monochromatic Antarctic landscape. Without color, this picture would merely describe the scene instead of expressing its meaning.

Philip N. Douglis, ABC, directs The Douglis Visual Workshops, now in its 33rd year of training communicators in visual literacy. Douglis, an IABC Fellow, is the most widely known consultant on editorial photography for organizations. He offers comprehensive six-person Communicating with Pictures workshops every May and October in Oak Creek Canyon, near Sedona, Ariz.

For registration information, call +1 602.493.6709, or send e-mail to Send photos for possible use in this column to The Douglis Visual Workshops, 2505 E. Carol Ave., Phoenix, AZ, USA 85028. You can view Douglis's 13-gallery cyberbook on expressive digital travel photography at
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Title Annotation:photocritique
Author:Douglis, Philip N.
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2004
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