“In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light.” -Hans Hofmann
Living outside a small farming town in the rural countryside, one is surrounded by monochromatic browns, blacks, and greens of horses and cows, corrals and barns, hay stacks and pastures. It is far too easy to look past the depths of texture that color brings out in these shaded earth tones or even notice how it works with light – or the lack of it for that matter – to enhance the vast landscape around it.
When my husband and I first married and settled down to raise our children through our love of livestock and horses, I was initially overwhelmed by the similarity of these colors. Previously, I’d always photographed interactions amongst people, rather than with animals, so I had to take my love of human stories and retrain my eye to capture light through the soft grazing of cows in a green pasture, or freeze moments of my husband roping instead. So I asked myself, “what stories can I find and tell here?” and soon it became a life-long quest, one that I’m still exploring today.
Like how the soft reddish browns of a horse’s neck against supple, saddle leather, speaks to me of sweat and hard work, while the grays of a cowboy’s rope in a gloved hand reminds me of the rigors of country life. Or how a beam of light reveals the fine texture of a dun horse as he looks longingly over the rough brown wood of a stall door at fresh hay bales stacked in a barn.
Now color calls to me, in a crystal clear voice, by gathering texture, shadows and light, and weaving them together to create moods and emotions; a palpable feeling of connection through visuals where similar hues subtly blend to stage life as it unfolds. The passage of time across well-worn barn wood or the supple grain of old leather. The silky tans in a horse’s mane, or the cool softness of a green pasture glistening with morning dew. These are the colors of nostalgia and texture that make up my world.
When my daughter’s flannel shirt popped against angry clouds in the dim light of a stormy sky, I loved how it added to the fierceness of the day. And how the beautiful blend of browns from the face of her cherished, dun horse seemed like an extension of her windblown hair enhancing the gentle bond between them.
Although black and white images tell beautiful monochromatic stories, color can elevate these anecdotes even further. When these newly born calves peaked out from around the black-and-white neck and underbelly of their mothers, I couldn’t help but capture them!
I love the work of Sally Mann because she shares her truth of country living, unabashed at real life, capturing her children in their rustic environment. She uses a large-format film camera capturing her work in black and white, which I find truly inspiring. But I sometimes wonder what the lush greens of her surroundings would look like had she shot them in color instead.
Color doesn’t have to shout, or jump out at us to be heard. Similar hues often work together by blending into a story to reveal country life. Whispering in our ear, it beckons us to look more closely for textures, shadows, and light hiding in the struggle of a calf attempting his first steps, or in the sound of thundering hooves digging into deep dirt, while chasing a steer. It reminds me of crisp fall days with yellowing leaves and the soft nickering of horses early in the morning before a ride. That is when I hear the voice of color as it breaths life into each season.
I also love the work of William Albert Allard, who was known for his color-slide photography in the 1960’s and 70’s when he worked for National Geographic. His serene, yet strong images of life out west, reveal the ruggedness of ranch living and the beautiful terrain of simple life. His sense of how light interacts with his subjects makes me feel as if I’m there and enable me to empathize with the joys and difficulties of ranching life. He continues to shoot today, sharing his legacy of storytelling through light and color.
I hope you’ll look for the subtle stories color has to share with you in your daily lives. Don’t be afraid to explore its monochromatic world! It will not hide the story it wishes to tell. I’ve learned, instead, it will often reveal the wonders of life we all too often miss in our regular surroundings.
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Tana is a lifestyle photographer living in rural Washington state with her husband and youngest teen daughter, along with a small herd of Corriente/longhorn-cross cattle, two horses – with a colt due in a month – and two dogs and a cat. She’s enjoyed a journalistic style of photography capturing real life from a young age on film, and now shoots both film and digital. Tana spends most of her time photographing teen life, country living and her husband’s favorite hobby: team roping. She’s been working independently for the last 8 years, and enjoys travel, exploring new areas, and capturing real life. She’s a founding photographer at Stocksy United.
You can visit her on Instagram @tanateel and her Stocksy United portfolio.