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Introduction to Jay Maisel's Light, Gesture, and Color

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"Finding light, gesture, and color is a little bit like trying to hold water in the palm of your hand. If you squeeze, it’s gone. If you’re patient, it will stay." In this excerpt from Light, Gesture, and Color, Jay Maisel shares his thoughts on these three aspects of photography.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book


It’s difficult to arbitrarily separate light from gesture or gesture from color. I want to speak of each separately but they are all intertwined.

  • Light is.
  • Gesture is.
  • Color is.

Since all three are always there, how do you “get” them? Let them find you. The aggressive search for them is counterproductive. It makes it less likely that you will perceive them.

The most important thing for a photographer to learn is to be self-critical. Here’s a new mantra: If you’re not your own severest critic, you are your own worst enemy.

There is one thing that can help you to be self-critical or objective about your work. That is the ability to look at your work and see, literally, what is in your image. This is not as easy as it sounds. You also have to take a step back and try to see, literally, what is in your field of view as you shoot. To do this, you must be open to the world in front of you.

You must learn to leave yourself open to accept things rather than anxiously searching for them. You cannot say, “Today, light; tomorrow, gesture; the next day, color! And I’ll do all three by Sunday!” It just doesn’t work that way.

Ernst Haas said that we do not take pictures, we are taken by pictures. Try to be as open as possible to what is around you. Who knows what you’ll be taken by.

The whole world is there for you. Gifts will happen, but only if you are patient with life itself, the shooting process, and your own limitations.

Lucille Clifton said, “If you are open to it, mystery will come. If you’re not, why should it, actually?”

One of the first things in Genesis is: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. God saw that the light was good….” Ever since then, photographers have been complaining about “bad light.”

  • “The light sucked, so I went home.”
  • “It rained all day; there was no light.”
  • “I only shoot at the golden time.”
  • “The sun went in; there was no light.”

There is no bad light. There is spectacular light and difficult light. It’s up to you to use the light you have. It won’t always be spectacular and sometimes you may not get much light at all. Use whatever light you find. It may not be inspiring or wonderful. You work with the hand you’re dealt.

Stop complaining about the light. Without it, we keep bumping into things and can’t see the gesture or color.

The drama in light exists not only in what is in the light, but also in what is left dark. If the light is everywhere, the drama is gone.

When I see light that moves me, that I cannot explain, I won’t leave until I figure it out. Where is it coming from? How did it happen? If you cultivate this curiosity about light, it will be the beginning of the self-education process.

Light inevitably has a massive effect on color. It can enhance or destroy color.

The effect of light on gesture is different. Gesture holds its own no matter what the light is. The light can enhance it, but it cannot destroy it. Why? Gesture has identity and it is less vulnerable than color, which can lose its identity to light. Gesture will survive whatever kind of light you have. Gesture can triumph over anything because of its narrative content.

Light can be thrilling and emotionally moving. So can color. Gesture, though, incorporates narrative and can convey all sorts of emotional and intellectual content.

Light and color are about form. Gesture has content, as well as form.

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