Sunday, November 13, 2011

Photographic Purity– (B&W vs Color)

In my previous post I mentioned that the basis for photography was producing "an analog of what the original subject 'looked like.'" That thought was a kind of off-the-cuff remark, but thinking about it again, I believe it now even more strongly. It is significant that a photograph is aimed not at simply reproducing a physical duplicate of the original, but, rather, in producing (or re-producing) a human perception ("...looked like"). The photographer may be interested in reproducing/conveying whatever her own human perception was of the subject at the time, or she may be interested in producing a particular and wholly new internal perception in the mind of the photograph's viewer (or both).

I believe this matter sets photography apart as an art, rather than as simply a science. There certainly is a place for photography's use as something closer to a science when it is used more simply as a documentary device. In my own work as an optical engineer, I sometimes use photography to purely document the external surface state of a material sample after it has been exposed to laser radiation. And its use in medical and forensic science to document both simple and complex systems and circumstances is invaluable. Even photo-journalism uses something of this documentary power of photography, but in this case, it is equally used to form a perception in the viewer and persuade.

When photography began, it's aim was an image that was composed of light and dark areas, to represent the light and dark areas that were seen in the original subject. This light/dark nature lacked any reference to the original colors in the subject– it was what we now call B/W ("black and white") photography. In this infancy of photography there was not much thought given to what the original colors might have been. At that time the only pigment available on the photographic artist's pallet was a single, simple stick of charcoal. Colors were not what mattered; only values mattered. These early innovators of photography probably never even imagined that photography would someday capture colors as well as values.

Today, there are very few people alive who can remember a time when there were only B/W photographs. And the days of choosing between an inexpensive B/W television and an expensive color unit are decades in the past. In this day, B/W photography is seen as sort of an avant-garde artistic technique, rather than the primitive progenitor of modern photography. B/W is now seen more often than not for its substantial artistic possibilities rather than as an older and cheaper form of photography. This is a good thing.

EARTH AND WATER, INTERWOVEN I, © Bill Brockmeier, all rights reserved
The considerable benefits that monochrome photography brings to the art are wide in spectrum and deep in subtlety– far too great to exhaust in this short article. However, I must at least mention its unique ability to bring the form and structure of an image's composition into clear focus. In some respect, it can offer also distinct abstract qualities to an image, somewhat distancing the observer from the original scene, and thereby bringing them into a closer interaction with their own (or the photographer's) thoughts, impressions, and emotions about the image.

With only tonal values present in the image, color can no longer distract the viewer from the image's underlying structure. This monochromatic vision is a very foreign way of seeing, and usually only experienced under extremely low light level conditions. Perhaps it is this foreign nature of the experience that helps us to see in more than a simply natural and commonplace way. Geometric interplay between various forms and shapes in the image can become paramount. Light and dark, airiness and weight, levity and gravity sing and dance a duet.

It is strange to think that in limiting our ability to see– by removing all color information– we can see things that may have been invisible before.

Of course the final irony in the whole thing is that B/W photography is not truly monochromatic. The white in a B/W image is what a physicist would refer to as "broadband" or "full spectrum" light. This is light that is composed, not of a single wavelength (color) of light, but, rather, of all wavelengths/colors. And even in the original capture of the image, all colors (not just one) came together to produce the image. Truly, "less is more" and "more is less."

1 comment:

Artwork by Nancy Johnson said...

Great, thoughtful article! And what a beautiful photo to go along with it.

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