Feininger on B&W versus colour

“Black-and-white photography is essentially an abstract medium, while color photography is primarily realistic. Furthermore, in black-and-white a photographer is limited to two dimensions – perspective and contrast – whereas in color a photographer works with three: perspective, contrast, and color. In order to be able to exploit the abstract qualities of his medium, a photographer who works in black-and-white deliberately trains himself to disregard color; instead, he evaluates color in terms of black-and-white, shades of gray, and contrast of light and dark. A color photographer’s approach is the exact reverse: not only is he very much aware of color as ‘color’, but he decidedly tries to develop a ‘color eye’ – a sensitivity to the slightest shifts in hue, saturation, and brightness of color.”

Andreas Feininger, “Successful Color Photography (1966)

Every colour photograph is a manipulation of the truth

Previous discussions have focused on the quasi untruths the camera produces. What is the greatest of them? The freezing or blur of movement? The distortion of perspective? Or maybe the manipulation of colour? When it comes to colour, where does the truth lie? Colour is interpreted differently by each person, and even the camera itself. No one may truly understand the complexities of how colour is actually perceived. Most people see a blue sky, but what shade of blue? Consider the following photograph taken at Point Pleasant Park, in Halifax (Nova Scotia). The sky seems over-saturated, but there was no processing done. Is it natural, or an affect of being in the right place at the right time?

Prince of Wales Tower, Point Pleasant Park, Halifax

Colours in a digital photograph are a result of many differing processes – light passes through the various glass optics of the lens, and is absorbed by the sensor which converts the photons into a digital signal. This does not mean that the colours which exist in a scene will be properly interpreted. The pure “light” of white can be used to manipulate the colours of a photograph, something called white balancing. Scroll through the available choices, and the colour temperature of the photograph will change. Sometimes we manipulate colours through white balancing, other times through manipulation of the colour histogram, all to make the contents of the photograph seem more akin to our perception of realism. Sometimes we add colour to add a sense of non-realism. Sometimes we saturate the colours to make them seem bright, and other times we mute them. 

Take a photograph of something. Look at the colours in the scene, and try to remember what they looked like. Maybe take the same photo with different cameras. It is hard to reproduce the exact colour… so in many ways the photograph the camera produces is something of a generic interpretation to be manipulated in a human way to some visual aesthetic. Which takes us to the question of what is the truth? Is there any real truth to a photograph? 

Nothing has a true colour- it is all varying perceptions of the interaction of light and colour pigments, and the human eye. We apply filters in Instagram to make things seem more vivid and hyper real, or desaturated and contemplative. There is no right or wrong way of understanding colour, although our experiences are influenced by the other senses such as smell. I mean, as far as wavelengths go, the Earth’s sky is really more of a bluish violet colour, but because of the human visual system we perceive it as pale blue. So maybe our own eyes are manipulating the truth?