Understanding black and white photography

We have discussed at considerable length the concept of memes or if you prefer the connotations of images.  The most obvious lesson in all of this is that we cannot escape our biology.  It’s all in our genes – with the wonderful paradoxical caveat that the closer you look towards identifying those genes, the more the very concept becomes fuzzy and the gene disappears.  Still we are certainly very complex, and our ability to relate with an image and to associate it with a reality is deeply imbedded in a intertwined network of biology, physics, chemist, neurology, and ultimately psychology. 

It is never-the-less not a contradiction or paradox to believe that we can understand ourselves and in the present case understand the meaning of photography.  The fact that we are using the very computer that we are trying to understand, namely our brains, presents no real obstacles.

So let’s consider a very simple question, namely, why we can relate to a black and white image as expressing reality, even though we see in color?  And I should say from the start that I am conjecturing here – although I am fairly certain that there is a huge body of scientific literature on this very topic.

You will remember the image of Albert Einstein in our discussion of memes and the curious question of why he is wearing his wife’s coat.  Is the picture in your mind as Albert Einstein, your meme, in color or in black and white?  We had no problem recognizing this black and white image of Einstein as Einstein.  Similarly we would have no problem recognizing a color picture of Einstein as Einstein.  It is even the case that if we were to Photoshop an Einstein picture with weird, say psychedelic, colors that we would still associate this image with our meme entitled “Albert Einstein.”  So we conclude that the essential information that codes our meme is structural and black and white.  Color is unnecessary and in the case of the weirdly colored image can be a bit distracting, perhaps requiring a few more fractions of a second to gain recognition.

So in a sense we can argue that black and white is capable of carrying all of the necessary form information.  You might even argue that it is the fundamental form and for that reason we see in a black and white photograph some kind of purity.  This, perhaps, arises from the way in which vision evolved.  At the very least color can be quite confounding.  Working with modern digital cameras gives you the binary option of shall I stay in black and white, thereby focusing on form, light, and contrast or shall I add the very profoundly dominant element of color.  With an intensely colored image it’s often quite difficult to get your mind to focus on anything else.

That said, our eyes can crave color.  And certainly color can provide a very beautiful and dominant component to a photograph.  This is perhaps illustrated by the fact that quite often when one is working on a black and white image, we have the sense that something is missing and we can add that something by miserly adding just a bit of color, the fine subtle shades of toning.  In this process one often has the sense that the image is “meant” to be toned sepia or green or blue.  Of course, that is a very subjective sense.

So in this small bit of conjecture, we perhaps have the roots of a theory of why black and white photography is so appealing.  We see it as an art form that is essentially pure and unconfounded by color.  We see that it codes all the information about forms to appeal to our societal memes, that is to take on meaning and emotion.

This entry was posted in Reviews and Critiques.

One Comment

  1. Rajn June 22, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    I found this blog very interesting. It made me think, what if we were really color blind! Would all discoveries been made? Newton would not have figured out spectroscopy and you can imagine the rest. But that was not to be the case and is that by luck or a master design? Darwin would vouch for the former.
    So is there some other attribute that our genes have missed or not evolved to – and we still are in the dark about the nature of reality or the nature of “Nature”? Your blog has fired up my brain this early morning and I am thinking what have the humans missed and how many centuries would it take to reveal that. At least in our ‘historical lifetimes’ going back from B.C. to now, nothing like this seems to have happened. Did the cavemen had color genes? I guess yes, from those lovely cave paintings bought to life in the documentary by David Lynch! So may be I am wrong – but I have hopes deep within me that our genes have yet to evolve to respond to a new physical force or a physical reality which our lives do not feel the presence of – because we still do not need those extra features and like your blog suggests, can survive with fundamental core aspect of whatever we live with. But then one day some eons later – if humans survive, our genes will mutate and bang! will find something as amazing and spicy as color!