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It's Not All Black and White

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California Dorothea Lange (American, 1895–1965)

This is how a computer sees color. More specifically, what you see in this image is the result of feeding an iconic black and white photo into an advanced AI program called Colourise. I recently stumbled across an article detailing this new technology (you can click here to read the article and even try it out for yourself). But, what grabbed my attention even more than the article itself, was the comment section below. I saw many commenters reacting with an almost visceral disgust at some of the computer colorized photos. The reactions were so strong that it got me wondering, how can something as simple as color scheme illicit such varied responses in people? Why do so many artists swear by the use of black and white over color? Some audiences will eat up a movie like The Lighthouse, which was shot on black and white 35mm film. Others find it boring and pretentious. The reason behind this divide can be found in the history of color in media.

The Lighthouse (2019 film)

“Color negates all of photography’s three-dimensional values.”

While the first color photograph was taken in 1861, color in media didn't become used commercially until the 1960s. Popular photographers at the time shunned the use of color with claims that it was "vulgar" and removed any challenge to the viewer's imagination. Photography pioneer Henri Cartier-Bresson is even quoted saying: “Color negates all of photography’s three-dimensional values.” And he had a point. Black and white images allow higher levels of contrast and depth. However, despite the pushback from famous photographers, color photography had almost completely replaced black and white by the end of the 1970s.

Saul Leiter, Taxi, 1957

During this time period, photographer Williams Eggelston bemoaned the advent of color saying: “The world is in color. And there’s nothing we can do about it.” As soon as pandora's box of Kodachrome and Technicolor was opened, there was no going back. Consumers reveled in the ability to see themselves in different shades and hues and photographers quickly adapted to the change in medium. Subject matters shifted from stark geometric shapes and heavily contrasting landscapes to everyday objects and people. This shift was made available by the incredible amount of information that color holds. With color, an image like Leiter's cab photo (pictured above left) becomes a vibrant story instead of the abstract dull shapes it would become in black and white.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968 film)

These were ideas that filmmakers had been playing with for years. Movies like the Wizard of Oz used color to explore themes as early as 1939 but, color in film truly achieved new heights alongside photography in the 1960s. Filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick began to heavily experiment with color and the effect it has on the viewer. He has been noted to have an obsession with the color red. This color evokes passion, fear, hunger, and other primal emotions that are central to many of his movies.

In modern cinema, the use of color to convey information is so widely used that audiences have begun to recognize industry standards. Horror movies are pale blue. Apocalyptic movies are grey. Movies that distort reality are green. Anything shot in a dry hot climate is yellow. These effects are so commonplace that you can accurately organize most major Hollywood productions by plot according to the color pass filter used.

While the psychology of color was first explored through art, it has pervaded most forms of media. Modern advertising relies heavily on the subtle emotional states that color can communicate. Corporate logos are often branded with colors that reflect the industry they are in. Green evokes feelings of stability, health, and comfort, which is why it is used heavily in the corporate branding of banks and hotels, and healthcare facilities. Red and yellow in cooperation can produce feelings of hunger and craving and are used in fast food branding. Color theory in psychology is one of the most often used but least recognized forms of marketing. So, if the effect of color on the brain is so easily exploited, why do certain companies still use black and white in their advertisements?

Why do some of the largest, most successful companies, like Apple, Nike, and Chanel all often forgo the use of color in their branding? Why do some of the most renowned photographers and filmmakers still capture images in black and white?

In our hyper-saturated modern world, color bombards us from all sides. We are constantly receiving packets of information in the form of pigmentation and the effects can be overwhelming. Introduce into this multicolored scene a simple black swoosh on a white background and our minds immediately begin to relax. Instead of a rush of new ideas and concepts to unpack we are presented with simple imagery. We see a black and white photo and are unconcerned with details. We can focus on softer things like emotion and form. In a world of constant color, a black and white image allows us to process things more thoughtfully and hearkens back to a simpler time when we were unconcerned with specific messaging. This is why despite all the realism and detail color affords us in media, black and white will never die. There will always be those that enjoy an old black and white film for the feelings of nostalgia and simplicity it offers. Color is exciting, effective, and real, but, Black and white is classic, honest, and safe.



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