Maybe Because They Are Much Easier To Process

By Bill Dobbins

The earliest known type of camera was the camera obscure, in which light passing through a small  hole was projected on some kind of screen behind it.  The first reference to this device occurred in China back around 400 BC.  There was no way to fix this image, but artists did create drawings by tracing the projection.  In fact, artist David Hockney, writing in his book Secret Knowledge, proposes that the perspective that appears in many famous paintings was achieved by using this method.

The camera obscura has been known since about 400 BC.  Artists could trade the projected image.

Modern photography, in which a permanent fixed image can be created using a camera, was the subject of experiment in the early 1800s but became commercially available in 1839.  Originally, photography was done in BW and color effects were achieved by hand coloring photographic prints.  There were a variety of experiments involving color photography throughout the 1800s and into the 2oth century but it wasn’t until the late 1930s both Kodak and Agfa introduced commercial  film and processing techniques that allow for shooting color negatives or transparencies.

From that time on both still photographers and movie makers had the ability to work as easily in color as they had been using BW.  Despite this, our culture seems to have retrained a fondness for BW images – and even a preference when it  comes to the world of fine art photography.  The question is why this love of BW exists and continues to persist?

Kodachrome film did not contain any color. The color was added later in processing, much like human color perception.

There are a lot of opinions regarding this matter.  By taking away the color information, BW images are able to better reveal details such as form, shape and graphic construction which color tends to obscure.  BW reveals aspects of tonal range you aren’t as aware of in color.  Even very detailed photos in BW are still more abstract than color photos because the color information has been eliminated.  Being more abstract and less literal, many feel this medium is inherently more artistic.

Back in the day to create color prints they had to be hand colored.

All of the above is true, but it leaves something out.  Something I have written about in other blog posts.  The fact is, seeing color involves very complex processes in the brain and seeing BW is far quicker, easier and less labor intensive.  So I suspect the brain prefers looking a BW images because it has to work so much less hard.

When it comes to seeing color, science has long been puzzled by the phenomenon of color constancy.  This refers to the fact that we can perceive the color of an object in spite of the color of light that is illuminating it (up to a point).  A red ball looks red in your living room and your backyard, although the light indoors and outdoors have very different color temperatures.

There is no doubt that this Ansel Adams photo would not be as dramatically effective if sot in color.

We know there is no such thing as “color” in nature.  There is only wavelength.  The eye perceives light of a certain wavelength, communicates information to the brain which somehow creates our subjective experience of color.  But how this all happens has been a mystery since we don’t have three different kinds of receptors in the eye representing red, green and blue as photographic film might have.  So how does the brain know what color it should present to use as part of our visual experience?

The answer to this was discovered by Edwin Land, invented of the Polaroid camera.  He realized the photoreceptors at the back of the eye (actually, the cones) are modified by three different color “filters.”  These filters change the contrast range of the light being transmitted to the brain and by comparing and contrasting these different ranges of contrast the brain is able to compute, calculate and produce the experience we know as color.

Photographer Man Ray made BW even more abstract by using techniques such as solarization.

This is an amazing, highly complex process that involves a great number of brain cells and a lot of processing power and energy.  We aren’t consciously aware of any of this, but the brain certainly is.  Humans have evolved over millions of years to be homeostatic organisms, very good at maintaining internal balance and equilibrium.  As part of this process, evolution tries to be very economical and always tries to choose the easiest way of dong  things with minimum waste or effort. Why else would men have nipples?

My supposition is that this is why we have a certain preference and take a lot of comfort from looking a BW images rather than color.  It is easier on the brain and nervous system.  It is less complex and requires less effort and energy.  Unconsciously, this suits our nature of beings who have evolved to survive in the world in the most efficient and effective manner possible.

Of course, there is also the fact that BW photos can be extremely beautiful.  We have also evolved to have a highly developed aesthetic sense, so beauty is certainly an important consideration.

My photo “Ozymandias” is a good example of emphasizing abstract qualities such as form, shape and total range by eliminating color info.

Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles.  He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)





EMAIL: billdobbinsphoto@gmail.com

There is color in fashion but some of the most effective fashion photos, such as this image by Irving Penn, continue to be done in BW.

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