A Kind of Blindness

Current listening: "Nightingale" by Yoshikazu Mera, whose voice anime fans would recognize from his melancholic rendition of the title theme from Miyazaki's Mononoke Hime. The album is subtitled "Japanese Art Songs," and is something of a rarity here: just voice and piano accompaniment in a Swedish recording of contemporary Japanese kunstlieder. It is at once close to the heart of conservative music and yet bold and expressive in its realization. For all the admiration I have for brilliant arrangements on a large and complex scale, whether it be a Kid Koala scratch track or Beethoven's magnificent Ninth, there's still nothing more expressive than the direct voice. Simple clarity. Eminem exagerrates (duh): "nobody listens to techno" but we know what he means.

I've been shuffling lots of digital pictures around lately, moving them from my space-strapped laptop to CDs as backups and also to one of the desktop machines. As long as I was rebuilding picture folders, last night I had Photoshop bulk-duplicate several of them in monochrome and ran the results as a slideshow for a while. The result surprised me.

Almost without fail, the b&w versions were as good as , and in most cases better than, the color originals. This surprised me? Yes, because I've grown increasingly used to shooting in color. Those photos had been intended as color photos. But genuinely, what I was shooting were images that gained more from their shape than their color — more from a face's expression than its complexion. I hate to make sweeping generalizations, but here goes anyway: In its simplicity, b&w expresses more directly than color.

The elements seen at the moment of shooting, I'm becoming convinced, are better-represented in the b&w. Snapping at faces, at people in motion, really does seem better suited to rods rather than cones, at least for my eye. To give in to that quick, impulsive response is to ignore the color — to blind myself so that I can see.

The photos where color is significant are always slower, even to the speed of landscape. In a few cases they add form where the grayscales have blurred, but it's only adding to an image that's first and foremost driven by its monochrome reading. As often as not the color seems to distract, unless color itself is a primary subject.

BTW, I recommend a visit to Ben Lifson's latest project.

Comments on "A Kind of Blindness"

May 31, 2004 11:50 PM

Just remember that de-saturating photographs builds up bad karma. :)

June 3, 2004 01:39 AM

OK, I'll bite on the hoary old, colour distracts, chesnut. Apart from the fact that you move from personal obsesrvation and preference to sweeping generalizations, I have to ask how far to you want to go with making things simple? So you've dumped the colour, what's next, pumping the contrast? Decreasing the grain / noise? Where does it end?

So colour makes things more complex, it may be distracting to you in some cases but saying that it distracts unless it's the "primary subject" may be an indication that you just don't want to deal with the complexity.

I think you should post your strongest argument in a before and after kind of way.

David Munson
June 6, 2004 05:14 PM

Where did you happen to find the "Japanese Art Songs" disc? It sounds interesting.

June 6, 2004 06:01 PM

Yes Gary, it is a hoary old chestnut, but with a germ of truth in it. Enough for me to carry it on to another post, I think. And I don't mean to say that color can't have a useful role to play in many pictures that aren't, at the moment of exposure, "about" color. I'll try to refine what I'm saying in that subsequent post.

Before/after examples are easy but ultimately a counterexample is just as easy (I can in fact think of some shot by yourself, such as http://www.gaspweb.co.uk/photos/ilob/source/dscf7245.html which would compare poorly in B&W).

June 12, 2004 11:54 PM

Sorry Dad, couldn't help myself, it's "noBODY listens to techno"


becka-chan ^..^

June 14, 2004 09:54 AM

As opposed to "no one" -- hardly changes the sentiment, just the ther meter :)


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