Light and Color – The Work of Deborah Bay

February 26, 2017
Light and Color – The Work of Deborah Bay

Light is nothing to our eyes. We cannot see it unless there is darkness around us. Yet, light is everything. Most all visible things have some color which resonates from light. Light weighs nothing, yet it defines shape, appearance and gives objects the sensation of mass.  Light in nature comes from the sun, which is wavelengths of the colors that make up what we call “light" (1). The visible light spectrum is a range of hues (or color) that transitions from red, yellow, green, blue to indigo or violet. The human eye is sensitive to red, green and blue or “RGB” (2).  At either end of the light spectrum there are infrared waves and on the other end, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. We cannot capture these extremes without the aid of technology to “see”. The blend of all colors in the visible light spectrum is what we “see” as white. “The absence of wavelengths from the light spectrum is black, yet…black is not actually a color” (3).  Deborah Bay’s “Traveling Light” photography series is all about light and color (4).


Viewing a photograph that is a color abstract forces questions that we should contemplate, whether documentary, scientific, vernacular or art.  How does a viewer of an image really appreciate what the photographer has done?  With an exception for documentary or scientific images, some might argue that if you like an image, that is all that counts, implying that it is not necessary to be critical of the color and whether it is “true to life”.  Is it appropriate to argue that whether the color is recorded and printed correctly is less important than the artistic result?  Otherwise, might we ask ourselves how the color we see relates to the subject matter and our sense of that image?  How do  “hue”, “saturation” and “value” (5)  impact a viewer’s feelings about an image?  Were these images taken in the morning, afternoon, dusk or late evening? Or whether the colors we capture in our eyes will change with the intensity of the light of day, or other atmospheric influences?  Alternatively, was an artificial light source used?  If artificial light was used, as it is in Bay’s images, how does that affect what we see, and should we care?  Is there an undesirable color cast over the image that skews the pure colors intended, or is there a proper “white balance” (6)?  Bay’s images put these questions front and center because there are no tangible familiar images in these works to which we can relate and identify in our mind as to what something should look like; and, there is no frame of reference for what color(s) these shapes should be or represent. To create a frame of reference, we should understand how we, as humans, “see” color, and the history of how color photography began to record and reproduce what colors we “see”.


While earlier scientists thought about color, it was Sir Isaac Newton who first explained a theory of light and colors in 1672. Isaac Newton’s experiments created a wheel  of color divided into the three “primary colors” of red, green and blue (7), and the “secondary colors” of yellow, cyan and magenta (that result from various combinations of primary colors) (8). The pursuit of capturing photographic images in color began in 1861 by a Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell.  In 1903 the Lumière brothers developed the Autochrome process that used colored microscopic potato starch grains on glass plates and a complicated development process. It was in 1935 that Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes (“God” and “Man” as they were apparently called) at the Kodak Research Laboratories  who created Kodachrome film, and the era of color photography really began for everyday and artistic use (9).  Color photography has come a long way since those days, and further now with the advent of digital technology. Photographers never cease to be fascinated and challenged with “drawing with light” (10). Deborah Bay is no exception.  Bay stated that: “Images from the “Traveling Light” series developed …After collecting dozens of prisms and lenses and experimenting with tabletop setups…intrigued with the unexpected planes and lines of color created by the light moving across the objects. The physical form and texture of the optics produce a sense of “materialness” from the formless waves and particles.” It is this captured “materialness”, using photography as the tool, that has created these intriguing abstract images.


Bay’s work challenges the viewer to consider how they will react to these images.  That effort begins with understanding the common terms associated with describing colors: “hue” (or color), “value” ((adding white (lightness or “tints”) or blacks (darkness or “shades”)) and “chroma” (“color purity”).  There is an entire science that has developed around the study of color and human perception, most often seen in some form of a color wheel (11).  “Hue is the term for the pure spectrum colors commonly referred to by the “color names” – red, orange, yellow, blue, green violet”.  Chroma (or saturation) measures the purity or intensity of the color. Value is the lightness or darkness of the color.  Something is “monochromatic” when the hues (color) are the same, varied only by value adjustments (white and black additions or subtractions to the color). (12)


Each of Bay’s images tests our perception of hue, value and chroma. Recently, Bay explained: “My approach is largely intuitive. I may be inspired by a combination of colors seen on the street or in a piece of art, fabric, nature, almost anything. If I go to the studio with no particular plan, complimentary or analogous groupings are a good starting point. I also like to experiment with elements of disruptive color.” Her work explores the interaction of light and color gel filters with transparent or translucent optical objects, making us stop to evaluate what color we see and how they relate to each other. As a viewer, we have, consciously or unconsciously, an emotional and visceral reaction to color. It is not easy to reflect in a photograph the color as we believe we see it. Different sources of light can give an artificial “color cast” over an image, either making it too reddish or too bluish, for example.  To capture color accurately, the type of light and atmospheric conditions that exist at the moment the image is made have to be considered.  The act of correction to what is mechanically captured is call the “white balance” adjustment.  “White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. A proper camera white balance has to take into account the “color temperature” of a light source, which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light. Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources, but digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance (AWB) — and can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts. Understanding digital white balance can help avoid these color casts, thereby improving photos under a wider range of lighting conditions. …  Despite its name, light which may appear white does not necessarily contain an even distribution of colors across the visible spectrum” (13).  And colors create an emotional “feel”.  Brown colors are referenced as “warm” or cozy colors, and “blue” colors convey a sense of “coldness” or distance. In Bay’s images, we see color tones that range from muted or pastel to a bolder color palate.


Image by Deborah Bay © 2017, “Linear2Circle”, from the Traveling Light series


When we look at her image “Linear2Circle” we see the entire visible spectrum of light from red to violet.  Yet, our eyes are programmed for red, green and blue. How is it that we can see different hues and saturation and values of color? What we see and how light is projected is RGB based; but, a printing process is based on CMYK (14).  “Any natural scene or color photograph can be optically and physiologically dissected into three primary colors, red, green and blue, roughly equal amounts of which give rise to the perception of white, and different proportions of color give rise to the visual sensations of all other colors. The additive combination of any two primary colors in roughly equal proportion gives rise to the perception of a secondary color. For example, red and green yields yellow, red and blue yields magenta (a purple hue), and green and blue yield cyan (a turquoise hue). Only yellow is counterintuitive. Yellow, cyan and magenta are merely the “basic” secondary colors: unequal mixtures of the primaries give rise to perception of many other colors all of which may be considered tertiary. … [secondary] colors are cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black); abbreviated as CMYK. … Where two such inks overlap on the paper due to sequential printing impressions, a primary color is perceived. For example, yellow (minus-blue) overprinted by magenta (minus green) yields red. Where all three inks may overlap, almost all incident light is absorbed or subtracted, yielding near black…” (15)  The image “Linear2Circle” is actually a diptych of two separate images combined into one.  While the colors of each image are very different, there is a pleasing combination and a sense of flow from one to the other by her use of shapes through which the light has passed.


Image by Deborah Bay © 2017, “Angles of Pi”, from the “Traveling Light” series


The use of only one color or hue, as Bay has done in some of her images, still creates a sense of depth, weight and dimension. When asked about this intensity in color, Bay stated: “The images constructed against a black background have a richer color density, while those created with a white background have an airiness to the light. In post production, I may add contrast and/or saturation to get the look I want.” In both “Angles of PI” and “Geometry Lesson” , we perceive light and dark gradations of one color. In each, several light sources were used, but with filters of the same hue, but different values or tones. Dr. James Pomerantz (16) commented on Bay’s images: “Many of them… have a dominant color tone throughout, with variations in brightness and saturation only, for the most part. Others…pit opposing colors (yellow and blue) against one another, and those juxtapositions bring out a kind of vibrancy along with them. Many of the images have light passing through glass filters. … I see pronounced edge effects around the filters. They can have a big effect on the colors we perceive inside those edges. See the Watercolor illusion (17)…where all the background region is the same pure white throughout, even though the portions inside the yellow edges appear to have a yellowish beige tint. The illusion happens because the brain determines colors mainly at the edges it perceives and then just fills in the colors throughout the rest of the space, in a way similar to how we fill in the blind spot we have in each eye. In some images, sharp edges bleed into blurred edges, suggesting depth and a lens with a narrow depth of field. Finally there are shadows, where the color temperatures are different (compare white balance settings for sunlight vs. shade).”


Image by Deborah Bay © 2017, “Geometry Lesson”, from the “Traveling Light” series


While the camera sensor is made to replicate what the human eye sees, the human brain is far more complex and involved in analyzing and adjusting what our mind’s eye sees compared to what a camera records. Pomerantz further explains these differences. “The human eye responds to wavelengths ranging from 400 – 700 nanometers (violet to red). That’s an infinitesimally tiny slice of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, most of which we are blind to. Also the eye, doesn’t respond equally to all wavelengths in that narrow 400-700 range. It also doesn’t have cones tuned to each wavelength (701, 702, 703, etc.) but rather has just three cone types, a short one tuned to roughly 424, a medium one tuned to 530, and a long wavelength one tuned to 560 nanometers. … Most digital cameras use what are called Bayer sensors. Each pixel is simply a photo-sensitive element with a tiny colored filter over it – red, green, or blue – like what Deborah Bay uses. As with the human retina, there are more of the medium – green – elements than red or blue. So when the camera records a picture, the blue elements produce the blue channel, green produce green, and red produce red.…The brain does a lot of interpolation to fill in or infer wavelengths in between the three sampled wavelengths of 424, 530, and 560. …By looking at the R, G, and B on a color space like Adobe or sRBG, you can see how you can create all the colors inside the triangle formed by these three points (i.e., the full gamut).”  An example of camera sensitivity to spectrums of light the eye/brain cannot record is evident in some military cameras.  Richard Mosse, a photographer, uses a camera that “has the capability to shoot sharp images from as far as 30.3 kilometers (18.8 miles) away. … by comparison, the human eye can see a maximum of around five kilometers at sea level.” (18) The camera records more specific details about color than we see, but for the colors we don’t record, our brains interpolate a color to fill in the blanks, so to speak.  When we look at Bay’s images, her compositions reflect our ability to enjoy the created ranges of color.


Image by Deborah Bay © 2017, “Intersection Theory 1”, from the “Traveling Light” series


Bay’s images are a visual dialogue on color theory. The image “Intersection Theory I” combines yellow and blue. Yellow and blue are primary colors and across from each other on a traditional color wheel. A color wheel is a visual aid to understanding how colors relate to each other visually, and how that influences a viewer. Colors in opposite positions on a color wheel are referred to as “complementary colors” (or opposite), and colors near each other on the color wheel are “analogous colors”.  Opposite colors on the wheel create a strong contrast and give a noticeable separation or barrier when next to each other.  Analogous colors, since they are close to each other on the color wheel, give a more harmonious or peaceful sensation.  An artist armed with that understanding has a valuable tool through which their images can speak; and, depending on the value or saturation, speak loudly or softly.  In a sense, we are hearing a visual expression in our mind’s eye. “In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it’s either boring or chaotic. At one extreme is a visual experience that is so bland that the viewer is not engaged. The human brain will reject under-stimulating information. At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone, so chaotic that the viewer can’t stand to look at it. The human brain rejects what it cannot organize, what it can not understand. The visual task requires that we present a logical structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.” (19)  The power in Bay’s images is this ability to intuitively match colors and shapes to give an image we want to explore, and find pleasing to look at.  Yet, the images are more than just pleasing, because her arrangement of shapes, combination of images, and juxtaposition, as in the image “Mondrian Dialectic III”, cause our mind to relate these images to other thoughts, places and objects by association.  Her reference to Mondrian (20) reinforces and illustrates the mutual influences of art on photography and the reverse allowing similar expression whether a camera or a paint brush, oil, acrylic or watercolor, paper collage, etc.


Image by Deborah Bay @ 2017, “Mondrian Dialectic III”, from the “Traveling Light” series


What Deborah Bay has done is somewhat different from other contemporary photographers who are also working with abstract photographic color compositions.  Liz Nielson creates cameraless color images. “Replacing the traditional negative with hand cut collages comprised of different colored gels, Nielsen projects her forms on to chromogenic paper creating bright and luminous abstractions.  As the paper she uses is a negative rather than a positive paper, the colors of the gels are reversed often creating surprising new combinations…”. (21)  A good example is her work “Canoe (2015)” an analog chromogenic unique photo. Other photographers to look at are Shirana Shahbazi, Jessica Eaton and Walead Beshty.  Shahbazi’s images are non-digital studio photographs of painted geometric objects. 2(2)  Writer Lily Rothman wrote about  Jessica Eaton’s cFaal images. “…[She] explains that she exploits the properties of light through additive color separation… Eaton applies filters in those three [red, green, blue] colors to her camera and takes multiple exposures…constructs her images using analog photography with various experimental techniques that play with light and colour and that, unlike traditional photography, go beyond what can be seen with the naked eye.” (23) One should look at Eaton’s cFaal 113 (2011) or cFaal 109(2011) images.  Yet, another method is used by Walead Beshty in creating his photography based color abstracts like “Six Magnet, Three Color Curl” (2009). “With the Multisided Pictures I fold the paper into a freestanding form, and based on touch – the processes of colour photography require total darkness – each side is exposed to a colour. If the form has six sides the piece will be called Six-Sided Picture. Initially the colours were all the ones embedded within the development of the technology: cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green, and blue, but with the curled pieces I stopped using RGB, realizing there was actually no need for it. I had thought that RGB incorporated the way we see, i.e. the red, green and blue cones in our eyes, but this seemed unnecessary as my understanding of the work changed. In case of the Curls I use the easel outlines left behind by others in the darkroom. It’s a horizontal enlarger, which means you project against a wall instead of at the ground. Using the existing magnetic framing I let the paper hang of the wall, so that its weight, how it curls and what not, will dictate how the shadows are cast. I expose it to three colours; taking it down and putting it back up between each exposure, all of it blindly.” (24)


Deborah Bay’s photographic art brings an excitement into our visible world.  In her case, the arrangements are experimental yet purposefully done. Our inclination and experience with photography, in general, has been to see a photograph that documents an event or records a scene, like a landscape.  Black & white film photographers of the past, such as William Klein, Aaron Siskind, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy have experimented with abstraction in the past, but color has added an entirely new dimension for experimentation with in photography, in some ways learning from what has been done in other mediums previously.  But, Deborah Bay’s work has a special message for those who take the time to look carefully at her work.  Not everyone, nor every creature can enjoy the visible colors in nature and our surroundings. (25)  Her use of color with different filters and geometric optical objects shape, twist and turn  the light.  Her orchestration of “traveling light” make these images intriguing.  Bay’s images are a reminder that we should not take the visible and tonal pleasures of color for granted.




  1. see 
  2. Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid to late 1800s postulated: “the existence of three types of color receptors, called cones, in the human eye that are stimulated by broad regions of the visible spectrum. Red light in one of these regions stimulated one type of cone, green light from the middle region could stimulate a second type of cone, and blue light in the final region stimulated the remaining cone. The relative degree of stimulation of these cones gives us perception of all of the colors that we see. We perceive sunlight as “white” because [wavelengths of light that] radiate from each of the three …parts of the visible spectrum (red, green, and blue) stimulate the three cones in our eyes. If an object reflects red and green light but not blue light, my eyes will see it as yellow. If a second object reflects just red and blue light, my eyes will see it as magenta. Yet another object reflecting just blue and green light appears cyan colored.” . The “RGB” concept will be discussed in more detail later in this Commentary.  
  3. from 
  5. This last dimension usually goes by brightness or lightness (for light sources and reflective surfaces, respectively). But there are different groups that use different terms. The Munsell system calls this third dimension “value” and uses “chroma” for saturation. 
  6. Most cameras today have features to “correct” the color recorded based on the predominate light reflected off the subject. There is usually a default “auto” setting. Other settings include: Tungsten, Daylight, Cloudy, Flash, Shade, Fluorescent or allow for custom or manually adjusted settings.  
  7. At an early age…We were taught…that the primary colors were red, blue, and yellow. … The color wheel that we could make … is quite different than Newton’s color wheel. The primary colors that we learned in school, were red, blue, and yellow (NOT GREEN). From Dr. James Pomerantz (Professor of Psychology at Rice University, with an emphasis in the areas of perception, cognitive and affective neuroscience. Dr. Pomerantz has served as the Elma W. Schneider Professor of Psychology, Dean of School of Social Sciences and Director of Neurosciences) explained it well. “Basically it depends on whether you are talking about mixing lights versus mixing paints. Computer screens emit light, whereas prints absorb and reflect light, and therein lies the difference. Color science almost always focuses on mixing lights and so usually uses RGB as the three primaries,…For mixing paints, which absorb light, what we see are the wavelengths that are reflected, that don’t get absorbed. CMY are really the three primaries here. You can form black by mixing C, M, and Y (cyan, magenta, and yellow), but that’s way expensive compared to using plain old carbon, so the space for printing with inks is called CMYK (with the K standing for black, because the letter B has already been used for blue!). There’s nothing really in the physics of light to justify any of this, however. It’s all in biology and evolution. Biologically eyes evolved to take the physical continuum of wavelength and represent it in the brain using long, medium, and short wavelength sensitive cones. Thus we have R, G, and B cones, and we can fake any other color by mixing those three properly.”
  8. See 
  9. An excellent timeline and discussion of color photography can be found at: History of Color Photography: , The Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, from the “Timeline of Color Photography (2005)”.  
  11. There is an entire science that has developed around the study of color and human perception: “Colorimetry”. In colorimetry, the Munsell color system is a color space that specifies colors based on three color dimensions: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (color purity)…created by Professor Albert H. Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century…and he was the first to systematically illustrate the colors… into perceptually uniform… and in three-dimensional space …Munsell determined the spacing of colors along these dimensions by taking measurements of human visual responses. …Each horizontal circle Munsell divided into five principal hues: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple … Albert Munsell, an artist and professor of art at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art and Design, or MassArt), wanted to create a “rational way to describe color.”  
  12. for a basic illustration of these terms go to and see also  
  13. “Basics:How Your Camera Works: Understanding White Balance  
  14. See footnote 7 above for an explanation of CYMK.  
  15. From wikipedia – .  
  16. The excerpt is from conversations with the author about Deborah Bay’s work with Dr. James Pomerantz (op.cit.). See also “Sensing Violet: THe Human Eye and Digital Cameras”, Dr. Robert Schleif, Johns Hopkins.  
  17. See an explanation of the Watercolor Illusion at
  18. From the article “Richard Mosse Is Using a Weapons-Grade Camerato Take Chilling Photos of the Migrant Crisis”, ARTSY, by Casey Lesser, February 13, 2017. Dr. Pomerantz, op. cit., mentions pictures from the Hubble Telescope, which include both UV and near infrared.  
  19. An excellent site for an explanation of how colors work and why color is important.  
  20. “In the 1920s, Mondrian began to create the definitive abstract paintings for which he is best known. He limited his palette to white, black, gray, and the three primary colors, with the composition constructed from thick, black horizontal and vertical lines that delineated the outlines of the various rectangles of color or reserve.”  
  23. From article May 16, 2012 by Lily Rothman.  
  25. Again, referencing the comments of Dr. Jim Pomerantz of Rice University (op.cit.) : “ Other animals have only two cones … Birds often have 4 or 5 cones, so they aren’t fooled by our screens and printers in the slightest. Most animals have no cones, however, and they don’t see color at all.”  

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