Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Power of Black and White

Color is an interesting component of our vision. The ability to see color is like salt and spices on our food, providing an explosion of visual flavor. We experience this every spring when the grey shades of dead landscape bloom into the vivid hues of colorful flowers and vibrant green foliage. We've enjoyed the universal availability of color photography since the 1950's (though experiments in color photography had been going on since before the turn of the century).

But our common visual experience of the 1940's and before is through a black and white filter. We see the quaint history of a simple and sometimes gritty America through a nostalgic lens. Common scenes were filled with meaning and drama, or alternatively were imbued with a certain campy charm, often seen in old carnival photos.

A cache of color photos from the 40s floated across my email recently and I began looking through them with interest. The initial intrigue of seeing a more accurate representation of what old America looked like eventually gave way to a certain disillusionment. What I had become accustomed to as a beautiful era of hardy, hopeful Americans in drab clothes driving charmingly antique retro vehicles was actually a very ordinary, every day reality. The beauty of nostalgia it turned out was conveyed in the shades of grey.

Color was like a harsh light, exposing the almost contemporary mundaneness of their lives. Old America was minted, idealized, and glorified in the drama of black and white imagery. We created an alternative visual memory of our history which was greater than the reality. The mundane was augmented to the height of drama through the removal of color.

Color is in a sense, a distraction. Relating back to the food analogy, it is like ordering filet mignon and dousing it with ketchup. Not that there's anything wrong with ketchup -- fries without ketchup is almost a travesty! But the complexity of a fine steak, or a powerful image, can be undermined with the distraction of color. And hence, black and white imagery is still with us today despite the obvious technological advancement of color.

To be sure, black and white is not a cure-all for injecting drama where there is none, or forcing "artistic interpretation" on a patently bad image. But for some images, their true power is revealed when the mantle of color is removed.

We at INFINI sometimes incorporate a process where the essence of black and white is entreated into an image though a color tone remains. It is a blended treatment that enhances the drama but also provides a hint of visual "flavor", a pleasing compromise between the vibrancy of color and the mystique of black and white.


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