Before I am a writer, I am a photographer. I would not be a photographer if it weren't for the drive to capture and accurately communicate local color — this first article in a series will examine what local color is (and why it is vital to transporting an audience into an environment) and how best to capture it visually (a most important thing in film), with the next article in this series looking at cinematic examples and how they are successfully done to keep an audience attentive, thrilled, entertained, and hopefully thinking and seeing in new, fascinating and novel ways. Local color is the life-blood of the successful photographer and in many ways the genre film-maker. Indeed, it is the life-blood of any story-teller really. It is only the medium that story-teller uses which changes.

As film lives and dies with visual composition, I thought that may be a good spot to start for this article, the first in a series of others which will examine local color in film... taking a look at the details, feelings, ambiance, and overall spirit of a place that is vital in film and photography to really transport an audience to a particular destination and get them enmeshed in a story. Detail, ambiance, atmosphere is the ticket here.

The camera has provided me a creative outlet when I desperately needed one for only about three years now — but I came to it out of an intensity that burns bright because the medium literally saved my life — in the midst of the depression and pain issues I deal with, it has acted as a powerful catharsis, check out my podcast interview here with the amazing Michelle Ann Owensof Lady Fox Entertainment's Nothing off Limits for more on that part of my story — and taught me how to hustle my work to get it shown and appreciated. Through my own effort in pushing of the images I've produced, I've shown in galleries everywhere from St. Louis to Chicago (and surrounding towns) to Kansas Cityto Georgia to electronic displays at the Condé Nast building in Times Squareand the Louvre. I’ve been published even more times in art and literature magazines.

“Rust Reclaimed Dream” Mississippi river bottom, IL side by St. Louis. Nikon D3200. My emotional angle with this shot was the rust to express somebody's dream of a home fading. To achieve superior focus on it, I faded all background colors and brought the rust alone out. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2016.

My subjects include a lot of architectural, decay (something can only decay if it has had life), and burial (what I call "memento mori") subjects, which when put together, communicate a very thorough and exhaustive color for a place in the emotions I feel when there, the details that attack the senses or subtly lay their seeds in one's vision, the ambiance, the atmosphere: is it oppressive? Is it open? Is it alive? Is it dying? Is it any more than a vast parade of ruins dotting the American landscape in a compelling way? What emotions do these variables and details implant in the viewer? Why do they keep us compelled? This is such a huge part of visually capturing local color. It is correctly gauging and communicating the atmosphere, ambiance and visceral feelings of a place, that the audience may understand, empathize and ultimately be transported there with all the little sensory details beckoning them further into the illusion of the place you are creating.

I believe strongly that local color can be best seen (and shown) through examining the historical areas of a town and area. We cannot neglect the "bad side of the tracks" — indeed, how those who dwell in that area are treated is often a very telling social barometer of a place.

“Silhouette Shop Rear Alley”, Quincy, IL. Kodak Eastman 5222 B/W 35mm. This was a sheer urban and hence somewhat alienated color I was seeking to achieve through accentuating more raw geometry and shadow. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2016.

“HDR town-square”, Dallas City, IL. Nikon D3200. Here it was much more detail versus geometry to get the color of this town square. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2016.

I believe the same can be said of how we treat our dead after they have passed. There's really a lot more than just your basic anthropological observations that can be gleaned from observing burial customs in an area and their history. What's the flavor of a cemetery? Are there any interesting bits of local folklore attached? Will I see a woman in white there at night or hear the sounds of children laughing when I am the only soul in the place? What of interesting burials of not just luminaries from the town's history but say crime victims of that 50 year old murder that was never solved? What of the paupers' grave? Does the county own a large vault for those that cannot afford their own funeral? Is it well maintained? Is it out of sight? Is the landscaping well-manicured? Are there just headstones? What of any statues that may be there? Are they ruinous? Are they being returned to the Earth through the advance of rot and the misdeeds of teenage vandals? Why has no one bothered to take care of them, take measures to guard them, or fix them? Why do we even feel the need to erect massive statuary for the dead? Could it be that these artistic objects act as more of a harbinger and warning to us about our own mortality then a remembrance of the individual dead? These memento mori shots give an indispensable take on very important local characteristics.

Every image I shoot stands on its own as self-evident piece but when put together, does a lot to convey the flavor or color of a place, and allows me to allow a place to tell its own story as my eye curates it, in the hope that I can show you the viewer some local color for where I'm shooting, in a way that you have not seen or felt before — in the hopes that the look I have provided will make you feel, think and look at your world in a new, exciting, and hopefully revelatory way.

“Dominion over the dead”, Palmyra, MO cemetery, the shot which hung in the Louvre. Nikon D3200. The emotional angle I was going for here was essentially desolation as a secluded rural cemetery very much has that in the air. This was achieved through maximizing shadow, contrast, and the overall geometry of the scene. Desolation and decay was also the intent of the next two shots. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2015.

“Crowned Goddess” Palmyra, MO cemetery. Nikon D3200. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2015.

“Earth and Time Swallow All”, Bellefontaine Cemetery, St. Louis, MO. Nikon D3200. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2015.

The way I came upon this approach was largely through a very comprehensive study of the cinematic greats of particularly Hollywood’s Golden Age. On my own, I dissected films like Orson Welles Touch of EvilHitchcock's VertigoWilder’s Sunset BoulevardLang’s MTourneur's Out of the Past and so many others (check out my top 35 most influential films here), from yesterday and today. I watched them again and again, breaking down and thoroughly studying every angle, lighting setup and photographic effect of the scenes that moved me most and then asking the deceptively simple question of why they moved me so. In the process, I managed to pick up quite a lot about those films and film in general that hopefully I can communicate to you in a fun and compelling way — that you may feel the spirit of wonder that I do whenever I study or take in a great selection from the medium.

My process of shooting involves what I call "seeing and finding angle". The meaning here is indeed several. My first goal when I shoot in the field is to thoroughly understand the feel, the ambiance, the emotional and social temperature, or the local color of a place. What am I feeling when I'm there? What would I, in turn, want to communicate to you the observer of my images? Sadness? Death? Decay? Violence? Mirth? Ecstasy? If I am really good, hopefully a combination of emotions will be wrought — indeed, the best cinematographers and directors elicit a whole plethora of feelings from one movie, broken down to its constituents of individual still shots.

My first goal is always to find that emotional angle. This is even more vital then technical prowess — the most technically proficient photograph without an emotional punch will always be fatally flawed.. From there, it is a matter of using my eye to find the most geometrically beautiful way to view my subject. This, of course, involves seeing things like leading lines, the rule of thirds, and other technical rules for photography (and indeed knowing when to break those rules). This part is relatively easy to learn and becomes second nature when you do it consciously enough.

Much of the end result is found in the darkroom as well (I use both digital and analog there). It is my individual creative choice to often seek to elucidate the angles I search for in the very form of the subject, using processes like High Dynamic Range to get the relevant details to jump. This way, in my experience, acts as a more focused method to communicate the beauty of a scene. It concentrates what you want your viewer to look at.

“Factory being reclaimed by the elements”, Warsaw, IL. Nikon D3200. This disused battery factory is inhabited by the heroin and methamphetamine addicted, I used heavy shadow and contrast to accentuate what is broken about the facade. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2015.

“Barn in Hancock County, IL” Nikon D3200. This is one time where accentuating an actual color greatly accentuates the decay in this case. ©Wess A. Haubrich 2016.

All these visual techniques and ways of looking are powerful in and of themselves, but what happens when you couple them with a written narrative? How does local color effect the cinematic and what can we learn from it? How does the non-visual tie in with the visual to really hook a cinematic audience? Also, what happens and how does it work when local color is used to turn a locality into another character in a film — like Lang does with the nameless city in M or Gillian Flynn (who's silver screen work we will examine more deeply in the next article) does with the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri in Sharp Objects? Now that we have a better understanding of the visual and how it communicates raw emotion of a place to an audience, how can we add in other important factors to keep an audience interested and hopefully move and thrill them? As Cézanne said in the quote, all art comes from emotion, and local color is, at its core, the emotional temperature of a place in artistic form.

Join me back here soon for a cinematic exploration of these questions and local color, in the visuals and screenwriting of one my favorite thriller authors and her very peculiar brand of Missouri regionalist thriller which relies very heavily on local color: Gillian Flynn, and her newest HBO's Sharp Objects.

SHARP OBJECT’s Wind Gap, MO is actually Barnesville, GA. Nevertheless, the local color of what this area of the country is like was nicely captured by the show’s makers. We’ll be going in to how they captured and used local color in my next piece on the subject, coming soon.