Photography is about capturing light; it always has been. Dawn is a good time to shoot; so is sunset. But especially on these cold winter days, there is an hour late in the afternoon I call the blue hour. Then, the sky takes on a cerulean hue that casts a heavenly and peaceful glow over the land. Sadly, it’s light that doesn’t linger; it’s only with us for an hour at most, often less. Catch it if you can.
As a color, cerulean is a pigment whose primary chemical constituent is cobalt stannate. It’s extremely expensive: painters put great value on it because of its hue, permanence, and opaqueness. Not me; during the blue hour, I get if for free.
Heavenly as it may be, blue is also the color of sadness. The use of ‘blue” to mean ‘sad’ is an old conceit. It may even harken back to Greek mythology, to a time when Zeus would get so angry with human foibles that he would create a tempest or make it rain for days on end. Wet, blue weather. On a hypothetical emotional spectrum, that feeling of low-pressure sadness corresponds to the color blue, perhaps the result of all the remorse humans felt for the offense that incurred the wrath of the gods in the first place.
There is, however, another school of thought that equates blue with sadness that dates back to Chaucer’s 14th Century work, “The Complaint of Mars.” In that work, Chaucer described living with “blue tears and a wounded heart,” forever consolidating the ancient link between the color blue and sadness, the very one that still holds fast today.
Colors have feelings. Red has always been the color of anger, green has its envy, and yellow has been the color of confidence and sunny abundance. But blue’s lot in life, through no fault of its own, has been to represent gloom, disappointment, depression and sadness. Poor blue!
But maybe blue is finally on the rebound. For me, the blue hour is a peaceful time, a tranquil moment on the messy palette of the day. The temperature of the day lowers, not on any actual thermometer, but certainly on my own personal emotional register. When I encounter the blue hour, I feel embraced, safe, bathed in a pool of calm, warm water. Well, maybe that’s pushing it a little, but you get the point.
But hold on! It turns out there is another, more properly scientific explanation for the blue hour. It’s a nautical term that describes the moment when the sun descends to, or even falls just below (four to eight degrees below, to be exact), the horizon and casts indirect or residual light over everything below. That only happens just before dawn or dusk and it’s a natural stage of light that is characterized by diffusion or shorter spectral wavelengths. Who knew? But be that as it may, somehow that scientific explanation dampens the emotional glow that, for me anyway, makes my blue hour such a rare jewel, such a photographer’s prize.
So now here we all stand on the cusp of a new year. There’s hope ahead: the political roil is subsiding, the pandemic has perhaps met its match, our shattered economy will soon start to rebuild, and maybe people will finally begin to address the systemic social problems that have plagued us for far too long. Maybe 2021 will be filled with long blue hours, not hours of unrelenting strife and sadness, but ones bathed in the clearer, bluer light of healing, empathy, and reconciliation.
Let’s make it so.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.