No one told me, I mean really told me, how I would love the south of France. And other than the impressionists in the museums, no one really made an effort to describe the light to me. Why hadn’t anyone told me about it? I mean, I’m a photographer Who better to appreciate it?
I remember when I worked across the street from the Art Institute of Chicago (how lucky was that? ) and strolling over during my lunch hour to gaze at my favorite Monets. There were several paintings of simply a haystack, no big deal at first. But each was different - the colors he chose were surreal: eggplant purple, tangerine orange, icy white, olive green, often all thrown together in perfect harmony. Only a brilliant eye could find all those colors in a haystack, never mind convey them to others.
But now I get it. Now I’ve been to where the light is magical, and now I understand the vision of a painter who, literally, sees the light. It’s just something a camera doesn’t capture....why is that? But once witnessed and experienced by the naked eye, it’s impossible to erase, and the magical light shows up everywhere, with a palette of astral colors to transform the mundane into surreal.
I was never much of a painter - I pretty much still draw pictures the exact same way I did as a child (which only my 4-year-old thinks are brilliant). And my colors had to be exact, but even the Crayola super 100 box didn’t have the right brown for a horse, or the right green for a tree. It always looked like just crayon colors to me. And I wasn’t any happier with paint. It dripped too much or appeared brighter in the cup than on paper. And it smeared as my hand moved. Nope, the right side of my brain refused to speak artistically to my left hand, and I left the fine art talent to the right-handed members in my family.
Thankfully, at that same young age, I learned other mediums to express myself as an artist - dancing, acting, performing, writing. And I also learned the camera. I liked the pictures I could create with it, they were far more realistic than anything I could draw, and photography made better use of both sides of my brain.
But even now, and now especially, I am dissatisfied with the inability of digital photography to capture the colors of nature with the same depth and richness of Velvia film, which, in itself, falls short of accurately rendering true color as seen with the naked eye. But these astral colors were there! I saw them! Why didn’t my cameras???
The light is everything to a photographer - the difference between good and perfect. We chase the window of “perfect light” in that space between day and dusk. So when I looked out the train window enroute to Nice, I would have sworn it was that magic window of the day....but my watch, set to local time, read 11:30am. The winter sun was high in the sky.
The sun was high over the Mediterranean too. And from the southern coast of France, in the early days of January, the winter sun magically rises from, and sets into, the waters of the Med, spending the whole day crossing east to west over it. I concluded that was the reason for the magic light - the sun is constantly over the water and reflecting off it onto the southern coast of France. Reflected light is softer and gentler than direct light. It permeates everything with a soft glow. I’ve seen it elsewhere, I’ve captured that golden glow on faces and in nature in other parts of the world with my camera, when timing was everything. But here, in Nice, in Menton, in Rocquebrun, even in Monte Carlo, it’s day-long perfect light. And....as if that’s not enough..... there’s still a window of even more perfect light in the last hour of the day. (My favorite thing about perfect? My daughter’s inability to pronounce it, always exclaiming gleefully “it’s perfket ”). That work’s for me. The only thing better than more perfect is perfket.
So, my camera failed me in the south of France. Sure, I took lots of pictures, many in perfect light, some in perfket light, but none capturing what I was seeing with my naked eye. Those colors. Those astral colors - the ones Monet pulled out of the haystack. I saw them. Every moment of every day, with every step I took along France’s Riviera. I was certain it was attributable to the magic light of the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean. Surely Spain would follow suit.
But when I got to Barcelona, the light was different, the magic less. Casablanca. Marakesh, Tenerife, Madiera, even Malaga, on the southern coast of Spain, didn’t have it. There were the usual windows of the day when the light was best, but it wasn’t the same.
The colors, however, the new astral palette, followed me. I saw them everywhere I looked. And even back home now, I still see them, like never before. The light may be ordinary, but the world looks different. Monet’s haystacks are everywhere.
This is where I’m supposed to upload some images. Not gonna happen, sorry.
Perhaps these colors exist only in the mind - so an artist can create them on canvas, but a lens can’t capture them on film. I don’t know. I could comprehend the light - easy enough to explain. But the astral palette....well....I can’t explain it. And now I can appreciate why no one ever tried to tell me about it. It’s not something to see, not something a photographer is going to have any success at capturing....it’s something simply to experience. And yet, not everyone does.
I guess Monet and I are among the lucky ones. How perfket.