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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #52, 12/22/2006

High Contrast

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

A high-contrast photo, both visually (clear separation between subject and background) and in the emotions of the subject (the melodramatic facial expression). [Escondido Renaissance Faire]

The best photographic and artistic advice I ever received came from the bi-monthly magazine of the Nevada Bar Association. On one of the front pages, the editors said that they were looking for high contrast photographs taken by Nevada lawyers to publish in the magazine. That phase, "high contrast," has stuck in my mind and influenced every photograph I have taken ever since.

In photography, high contrast might refer to a subject that stands out clearly from the background. It can also refer to an idea that stands out clearly from the background. Something about the lighting, color, cropping or composition makes the subject jump out at you. High-contrast isn't subtle; it is glaring and obvious. After you have achieved high contrast and drawn out your subject, then you can work on subtlety.

Your typical family photograph of a baby sitting on someone's lap in the living room is low contrast. The photo may mean a lot to you, but to others it is usually bland and uninteresting. A high contrast photo is baby sitting in her highchair absolutely covered with orange spaghetti with a look of total joy on her face.

Most of the photographer's art is finding and isolating these high contrast scenes. Most of what enters you eyeball doesn't fit the criteria, no matter how meaningful it may be to you at the time. If you develop an eye for high-contrast, then you begin to see the world differently. Many important events don't photograph well, while some of the most mundane things make fantastic photos. High contrast is a whole different sensory mode, which can symbolize real life but doesn't necessarily match it.

"Pictures don't lie," the saying goes. Well, they do lie. The high contrast scene that draws the photographer's attention may have nothing to do with what is really happening. For example, you could be photographing people at a funeral. If you take hundreds of photos (as I usually do), you are eventually going to catch someone smiling, laughing or showing some other feeling that doesn't really match their overall sentiments. It may turn out later that this is the best shot of the bunch, even if it is totally unfaithful to the original event. Life seen at 1/200th of a second not necessarily the same as life at 5 seconds.

Good photography is an artificial art form like painting or music. It is an expression of the artist and his available materials more than a reflection of real life. In a way, the photographer is committing a kind of fraud. He walks into a very complex scene, like a holiday festival, but focuses on only a few high-contrast details that may or may not reflect the whole event. The details attract his eye not necessarily because they are true to life but because they have the right visual elements.

A festival participant later sees the photo, and the photo replaces in memory what he actually experienced at the event. Viola, the fraud has been committed! The photographer has thereby co-opted the event, turning it into something different than it was.

High contrast and an element of fakery are essential elements not just of photography but of any artform: writing, music, movies, even public speaking. You want to draw the subject out from the background, and you are seeking a symbolic representation of life, not a literal one.

To make a movie, you could simply go to a holiday festival and let the camera run for two hours. No matter how entertaining the festival was at the time, the movie would be boring. A real movie is going to focus on a rapid series high contrast events: car chases, explosions, a laser fight between good and evil, or love at the moment it changes.

Even if you are filming a subtle love story rather than a James Bond thriller, you will stage high contrast events to draw out the subtleties of the characters' feelings. A good film is not a literal representation of real life. No real events could ever turn out the way they did on the screen. Instead, a movie is a high contrast symbolic representation of life. Hopefully, it teaches you something about life, but it isn't an accurate literal record of anything.

In writing you want to do the same. Whatever concept you want to express, you need to find a high contrast metaphor for it. For example, the funeral example above is high contrast metaphor. I wanted to express something—that photos can be inaccurate—and I seached for the highest contrast metaphor I could think of: laughing at a funeral.

The best popular songs have a high contrast phrase, like "riders on the storm," coupled with high contrast music. Both of them symbolize something, but in the best songs, what they symbolize isn't entirely clear. Since the 1960s, the best songs have been ones that combine high contrast with haunting ambiguity. Take "Hotel California," by the Eagles. It is a memorable song fill with high contrast imagery, but what the hell does it mean? Every time you hear it, you are trying to figure it out, which is exactly why it has stood the test of time.

Once you have high contrast, then you have captured your audience's attention and you can start working on the subtleties and ambiguities of your message. High contrast—like constant car chases or explosions—will attract immediate attention, but it won't sustain interest over time. It is just the first step in any artistic process. You have to isolate the subject and grab the attention of the audience. Beyond that point, a more subtle set of skills are required. Now, you must try to use symbolism to achieve something, hopefully for the good of mankind and not to its detriment.


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