The Gray

The Kind of Blindness post has had me thinking further about color perception, cognition, etc etc — of the many interactions that drive the life of any sort of image (or performance): interactions between the world and the artist; between artist and their tools and medium; between the image as made and the artist; between the image and an external viewer; and sometimes even between that external viewer, as part of the world, back onto the artist (or their dealer). Wheels within wheels.

As written earlier here (and elsewhere), humans have two different sets of vision circuits in our brains, handling color vision (photopic, cones) and monochrome vision (scotopic, rods) separately. The color system also handles a lot of our fine-detail vision near the very center of the eye (called the macula). These two parts of our vision are continuously intertwined, like the B&W and color signals of a television transmission. We don't think about their separateness in day to day life (*). Here's an important distinction, though: the scotopic system's neural routes are faster than those of the photopic system. So we use mostly monchrome information for navigation, for avoiding predators (such as bad drivers approaching from a cross street), and for quick glances. Cones dominate the center of our vision, while rods own the periphery.

Color: slow and focused. Monochrome: fast and wide. It's functional, in an evolutionary sense — the objects around us move, often quickly; but they don't change color very often.

This distinction obviously can have impact for quick, impulsive seeing and making pictures. The color system lags behind — it's harder to work intelligently with color if the colors are in a state of flux. Color vision needs a more relaxed pace. The "blindness" I mentioned in the previous post (my choice — ymmv) is to deliberately ignore the color lag, and attempt to let the scotopic system take the reins.

Of course, if the pace allows, color is manageable (here's a recent almost-monochrome pic that would look wrong, imo, as pure monochrome). Or you get lucky. Or you choose an environment (e.g., "magic hour," interesting costumes, studio sets) when the colors will be pre-managed so that you can ignore them while making pictures.

These picture-shooting considerations are radically altered when viewing a picture, which is a static object. Scotopic vision can relax — a still photo can be casually consumed by the color and detail-intensive macula (likewise, computer displays are deliberately built for photopic response). In the contex of viewing photographs, our photopic system has all the time it wants to absorb and process colors, or to pore over the revealing minutiae from a large-format negative.

I'll even go so far as to say that the crossover from immediate, scotopic-dominated vision to the lingering, detail-oriented macular vision is probably a subtle and nearly universal part of the pleasure in looking at photographs (and many paintings) — our eyes are hungry for detail whether it be the image detail from a large negative or crisply-defined grain. And the further descriptive detail of color.

It also implies that the images we see when playing video games and watching films have important differences from static images — not just the obvious superficial one (still images don't move) but that the experience of seeing these sorts of images are handled by different parts of our brains. When we see the hours spent by cinematographers, managing contrast and rimlighting and other "cinematic" lighting effects, it's hard not to think that DP's and game designers, aware of it or not, are ensuring that their audience's monochrome vision is well-engaged (in fact many will come right out and say: if it doesn't read in B&W, it shouldn't be in the movie).

A B&W print, therefore, could be interpreted as more "honest" to the experience that lead to its creation (one might make a similar argument for "lo-fi" cameras like the Holga, though I have a harder time buying it). It's difficult to unthread the influences of of visual anatomy from social ones (like 100+ years of B&W journalism), but they seem hard to ignore. People have been drawing in monochrome since the beginnings of art, though multiple colors were available to them during most of that time. The persistence and universality of B&W indicates strongly that it's a natural complement to our inescapable human physiology.

But like everything else in the arts, it depends on what you're after. Ya makes yer choices, and ya takes yer chances.


(*) If you have ever read Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, you know that there is much hay made there on the topic of "R-Mode seeing." Thinking about my own subjective experiences w.r.t. the drawing methods in her book, it seems to me that "R-Mode" might actually involve temporarily shifting the emphasis of your neural attention from the photopic to the scotopic. At least in my experience of "R-Mode," assuming I've gotten it right, I experience a sort of decentered fish-eye sensation, as if my peripheral vision had become stronger — about what you'd expect during such a shift. I often attempt to have a similar "relaxed" vision when shooting. Not always easy. Maybe it's why I like wide angle lenses so much? "R-mode" = "rod mode"?

Some people use color mental processing when doing mathematics. Bizarre. But the research might indicate a connection between language processing and color cognition, which also would fit well with the "R-Mode" abstraction — to draw directly, to see what's really in front of you, it's easier once you're free from predefined symbol systems and language (and also indicates the usefulness of color in building visual mini-languages within individual works — say, a game or film).

Comments on "The Gray"

Tudy
June 9, 2004 04:34 PM

That was really intersting thanks. Love the photo.

Gary
June 10, 2004 01:42 AM

Ending with 'Ya makes your choices...' makes it hard to argue with the ideas in this but first a question. How much is the difference in time between the scotopic and photopic system? Is it significant when it comes to making pictures?

When shooting there are lots of things that attract the eye. Clearly we are programmed to respond to movement, for instance, but you can also do a bit of temporary wiring by suggesting a colour to yourself and suddenly you'll see it everywhere, fast and distant.

Do we know how many levels of grey the scotopic system handles or is it a hard switch?

> This distinction obviously can have impact for quick, impulsive
> seeing and making pictures.

How much of an impact?

> When we see the hours spent by cinematographers, managing
> contrast and rimlighting and other "cinematic" lighting effects,
> it's hard not to think that DP's and game designers, aware of it
> or not, are ensuring that their audience's monochrome vision is
> well-engaged (in fact many will come right out and say: if it
> doesn't read in B&W, it shouldn't be in the movie).

These people might also be the type who would say that B&W is more real, conforming to an aesthetic sense they've developed over years of watching film noir, or whatever. I'm not trying to dismiss the DoPs who spend four hours lighting a head shot but I've managed to read, understand and enjoy enough movies that have relied on natural light or given minimal attention to my scotopic system to be suspicious of this argument.

> A B&W print, therefore, could be interpreted as more "honest"
> to the experience that lead to its creation.

Why? Because the experience only lasted as long as the scotopic system allowed? Pretty fast shootin' there dood! B&W is a component of the experience not the totality.

> It's difficult to unthread the influences of of visual anatomy
> from social ones (like 100+ years of B&W journalism), but they
> seem hard to ignore. People have been drawing in monochrome
> since the beginnings of art, though multiple colors were available
> to them during most of that time.

How available were they? Multiple colours are available to our national newspapers but they still have a lot of non-colour pictures. It's not only the social influence that's hard to unthread, it's also the technological and financial.

> The persistence and universality
> of B&W indicates strongly that it's a natural complement to our
> inescapable human physiology.

This seems like un-provable waffle put up to defend a preference. Just because it's a preference that you share with lots of other people doesn't mean that it's hard-wired into our physiology. Lots of men like looking at pictures of naked women for (partly) physiology reasons - should we confine our photography to porn because of that?

> But like everything else in the arts, it depends on what you're
> after. Ya makes yer choices, and ya takes yer chances.

Using B&W is a reductionist stylization. I think most people use it without thinking *at all*. Never mind the influence of physiology, a lot of B&W photography seems to being made by people who think that they'll get automatic greatness by association. Drain the colour and call it a tribute to Garry Winogrand or HCB. As I said previously, why not ramp the contrast and grain while you're there. Of course, a lot of people do that too, but let's call it what it is, a stylistic preference, not something inescapable or natural.

Having said that, I'm not as dismissive of B&W as, say, Andrew Nemeth (http://www.4020.net/unposed/critics.shtml - actually, he seems to be ranting less than he used to and the paragraphs on B&W aren't far off what I think). There are people (like you of course Kevin) who are thinking about the 'why?' of using B&W but to me it gets harder and harder to justify.

> (*) If you have ever read Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right
> Side of the Brain, you know that there is much hay made there
> on the topic of "R-Mode seeing."

I have a vague memory of some of the things in this book being debunked but I might have imagined it and it may have been fixed in later editions. In any case, whether the science was right when I read it, the exercises in it worked for me.

I'd like to type out page 192 of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud here but I'm sure you and your readers will have their own copies :-) and if not, why not?!

http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/006097625X

It agrees with both of us, I think.

Bjorke
June 10, 2004 11:16 PM

Gary, your comment about seeing a color is certainly true enough, and surprisingly timed -- I've been shooting "white" all week and it sure does seem to be just everywhere.

The rods are capable of many grey levels -- it's been shown that rhodopsin (the light-sensitive chemical) can be triggered in the lab by just ONE photon! Though 90 photons seems to be the practical sensory limit for humans (which is pretty darned low energy). I'm mostly interested (in this context) in their performance in bright, normal light however. So the cones can see and the rods can see at the same time. It's that they see things differently, and are wired into the brain differently, that makes it an interesting subject for pondering (and ranting).

"Lots of men like looking at pictures of naked women for (partly) physiology reasons - should we confine our photography to porn because of that?" Heh! Aren't the oldest known artworks venuses? The erotic and nude have a long and illustrious art history.

I don't suggest that anyone confine their art -- I just ponder and pronounce on what works for me.... until I change my mind. I've noticed that a lot of people manage to create good work even without my permission :)

I think newspapers love color because advertisers love color. Color is connected with food, and perhaps with seduction. It's great for advertising, so the market forces color into the printing process. Color attracts the eye to sell newspapers as well as groceries and clothing (so cover color is common, but interior color much less so).

It's funny how many photographers over the years have gone around carrying two cameras -- one loaded with color and the other with B&W (digi lets you carry both in one camera). What drove them to do it, if not the ongoing belief based on experience that there is something compelling in monochrome photos that's different from what compels in color?

I entirely agree that "B&W is a reductionist stylization" -- so is grabbing a monocular rectangular bit of your visual field and squishing 1/125th-second's worth of it onto a bit of paper. I'm not going to make any claims to its "truth" or its ability to capture souls (ewww, sounds sticky) or any of that -- but I do feel that when I shoot, I pay more attention to the aspects of monochrome than those of color. The color, often, intrudes in unexpected ways when seen in the final print.

My current theory on *why* things seem different is that color's sway over the final print is greater than its sway over the initial shooting experience. The dominant reasons for this seem to me to have to do with stillness and scale.

I also recall that the whole left/right brain business has been debunked neurologically, but it seems more like a convenient metaphor than serious science. What Edwards is really after, and helps people discover for themselves, is that there are experiences and thoughts that transcend our words for them. Drawing is one way to get at some of them and get them out.

Of course we have "Understanding Comics!" And "Reinventing Comics," too. I find the comments about line and composition in color, a few pages earlier, also an interesting reference.

 

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