Seeing & Looking
In Maritime Canada, on the southwest shore of Nova Scotia, Lunenburg's harbor waters reflect a town of wooden ships, hardy residents and a myriad of vibrant red buildings.
Seen through thick fog from across Lunenburg's harbor, these red structures stand out. Their color is a safety precaution. Painting harborside buildings red is a tradition traceable back to 1753 when Lunenburg was founded. Then, before global positioning systems, navigating your ship into port was accomplished with dead reckoning and experience, so to avoid accidents, the high contrast red color ashore alerted homecoming captains that land was imminent.
While I'm not a ship's captain, when we drop anchor in Lunenburg harbor, it is still easy to find the shore, so I immerse myself in the town's culture. Strolling along the harbor, questions come to mind about some of the other aspects of red, beyond how Lunenburg's story. For instance, why do we see color the way we do?
This puzzling led me to explore color culture and color psychology. How does color influence our moods, symbols and perceptions?
We know that color comes from light reflected from an object. Yet, a mystery remains. Objects do not reflect a color of light that is not present. There are holes in a every color spectrum; some colors simply are not there. Each light source has a different mix of colors. Even in light bulbs of the same type and company, there are variations in the spectrum and colors that do not exist.
So, while Lunenburg's red buildings seem to have just one shade of red, there were difference in shade and some missing reds as well. Wandering its harbor streets, I found shades of wine, apply, berry, currant, scarlet and crimson, but no blood red. And when I thought I was seeing a single color, looking from afar, up close the shades of red were nuanced. Red hues changed with the light intensity and the surrounding hues. Lunenberg's reds were not those of just one kind of wine, but a whole variety of vintages and blends.
Seeing a flag waving near the harbor, I also puzzled over the symbolism and uses of the many reds we see. Color symbolism is woven into our beliefs. Take the Canadian flag. It is is red and white. The red is symbolic of England. In Western cultures, red is perceived as energetic. It is an action-oriented hue: Spiderman and Superman wear red.
Red branding also means we should buy this product. It is often the main logo color in top promotional products like Coke. Red is the hue of danger, war, and power. The uniforms of some Western colonial powers sport red clothing. In Eastern cultures, red is seen differently. Red is a preferred color for a bridal dress in India. There, the Hindu festival of colors called Holi covers its participants with powders of many colors, and the festival's reds symbolize fertility.
Elsewhere, red has other meanings. In South Africa, red is sometimes the color of mourning.
It was time to go. Fatigued, as I walked wistfully downhill back to my rowboat, I passed by the Lunenburg Fisheries Museum building. A red car was parked between a red motorcycle and the Museum. I waited until a red vehicle came into the middle of the scene. What clicked was red itself!
So, why all that red? It keeps me awake, even as I dream about returning to Lunenburg.
Photos and Writings by Jim Austin Jimages