DPP Home Profiles Al Satterwhite - Fields Of Color

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Al Satterwhite - Fields Of Color

Al Satterwhite made his mark with saturated color design. His refusal to be categorized has allowed him to leave it virtually everywhere.

A Primary Focus

Over the years, Satterwhite has distilled his photographic approach with what he calls color design. It has become the Satterwhite signature.

“I started in black-and-white because of my roots in the newspaper business, so it took me a while to transition to color because obviously things are different there,” he says. “In black-and-white, you can use shapes and forms, and because it's all black and white, something out of focus in the background doesn't bother you. But shoot the same thing in color with this big blob of yellow or red in the background, out of focus, and it's immediately apparent in a way that doesn't integrate well into the composition. So you really have to be aware of how color fits into the whole.”

Satterwhite found his eye gravitated toward strong primary colors.

“When I see them, I get excited, or at least my mental triggers start jumping up and down, especially when there's some kind of form or shape that allows me to play from a composition perspective,” he says.

While his gravitation toward strong primary colors was natural, his resistance to being pigeonholed into a particular photographic niche was a natural force in its own right.

“I never really thought about this consciously, but my focus was that I just never liked being categorized,” he says. “In the beginning, it was out of necessity, because I was in Florida and it was kind of ridiculous to specialize. One day a week I might be shooting fashion, the next assignment would be food, then I'd be shooting race cars, athletes—it was all over the place. But I really enjoyed it because of the variety.”

What he didn't enjoy was the growing trend among art directors to see photographers as specialized practitioners, something that Satterwhite says reached a level of putting people in niches to the point of stupidity.

That wasn't a world Satterwhite wanted to cater to, so he has basically gone through his life shooting what he wants and dealing with the consequences.

If You See It, It Will Come

In discussing how an image comes together, he repeatedly mentions the importance of patience and nerve.

For the image of hurdler Edwin Moses on the opening spread, Satterwhite was given the assignment by Sports Illustrated. He followed Moses around for several days of training, but caught his dazzling image when Moses unexpectedly ran the bleachers, which Satterwhite's eye had already noted for their pattern of brilliant primary yellow. Interestingly, SI's editor for that feature didn't find Satterwhite's Moses images to be to his liking, so Satterwhite suggested they pass off the assignment to another photographer, which they did. But when the magazine published its annual photo issue celebrating the year's best sports images (reviewed by a wider panel of SI editors), the Moses-in-the-bleachers shot was selected.

“Photographers, especially sports photographers, tend to work in packs,” says Satterwhite. “I'm not sure why. I think it's that group mentality. If they're on the 50-yard line, everybody gravitates to the 50-yard line. So you have to take a chance and roll the dice and ask yourself, ‘Do I go with the pack and be safe, or do I go down to the end zone and, say, shoot with a 1000mm lens and try for a different angle and maybe not get a good shot?' Well, most of the time I'd try the chancy one, or at least try something that would give me a different angle, because I've already shot the regular angle, so why bother to do it again?”


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