Last column, I talked about my experiments pushing the limits of available light photography down to the level of starlight. Emboldened by the impressive results, I decided to try some candid photography. When Rachel was at the scope, I'd open the shutter for as long as she seemed to be standing (more or less) still and see what I got. After several tries, I got this...
...a 14-second exposure at ƒ/2, ISO 6400. OK, not perfectly sharp. But still, starlight!? Wow.
I e-mailed the photograph to several friends with the remark to the effect of how amazing it all was and Oren Grad commented back, "Subtract the color, and I agree." (Oren added a smiley.)
I had already tried that, resulting in this:
You know something? Artistically, I agreed with Oren. It'd never be a great photo, wasn't supposed to be, but it had a mood about it in B&W. If someone else had shown it to me, I'd likely make the same recommendation—subtract the color and it's a better photograph.
But, as a memory photo, a snapshot, that I made, it was a serious fail in B&W. It looked phony and artificial and disconnected from reality. Same as if it were a Lomo photo or run through one of those silly artsy-fartsy camera filters. It became a derivative (in the IP sense) work that was distanced from the original photograph and experience.
I don't remember stuff in B&W. Even in a situation like this, where I can only barely see what I'm photographing (starlight, remember) it's still in color in my brain. There are perceptual cues, like the yellow-green fireflies flickering in the brush, the occasional car headlight barely visible miles away through the trees, the very dim red glows of the LED flashlight and the astronomy app on the iPad. The stars themselves have colors. These all remind my brain that it's a color world, even though I can't see any in the starlit landscape. Black-and-white photography does not reproduce the experience of viewing the world at night.
So, in color, funky as it is, this photograph is a simulacrum of reality for me, which is what I want from a memory photo. In B&W, it becomes an aesthetic artifact, with considerably more redeeming social merit but much less of a personal connection.
Even more interesting: when I was a youn'un and color was beyond my reach and budget, I didn't feel that way. Snapshots made in B&W with the family camera or my Polaroid felt entirely real. And those older photos do still work as memory photos. Differing expectations and experiences have changed what's an acceptably faithful reference to reality in my brain.
I wonder if this is in any way related to the newish custom that has arisen of recording short video clips instead of making a still photograph? Not because the folks doing this have any urge to be videographers or want to watch hour upon hour of "home movies" but because a moving picture (with sound, yet) is a closer simulacrum than a silent, still one, just as a color photo is closer to life than a B&W.
It ain't about the art. Most photography isn't about the art. It's about the memories.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by John Krumm: "Interesting observations about color and memories. So I wonder what your take is on Hipstamatic iPhone filters and the like? Myself, I shoot probably 90 percent family memory shots, though I spend a fair amount of time making them look decent in Lightroom. But I try to be a little careful when deleting the bad ones too. I know I'm grateful for every old family photo I have now, looking for interesting detail in even the worst photos, so perhaps (maybe in 20 or 30 years) I will enjoy going over my digital family-shot rejects just to see what I missed, and miss."
Featured Comment by Steve Jacob: "What a fascinating post.
"Colour vision is such a marvelous, incredible and seemingly arbitrary gift (such a tiny spectrum of wavelengths) yet it conveys immense meaning and significance in its own right. The semiotics of colour and its effect on mood and preconception is immense, and changeable (cultural).
"The colour of a photograph is the most sure way to date a picture—fashion in the '60s, shop fronts, branded signs, buses, cabs, fishing boats, rows of cottages. It's so evocative I can almost smell lavender in a photo of Provence but it's the colour that triggers the memory.
"I spent much of my youth in Malta. Buses there were colour coded by destination. As a result the central bus station in Valletta was a riot of colour. Mdina, Rabat, Sliema. Looking back through old photos of it brings all the names back to me in a way a monochrome print simply cannot.
"Black and white can work, but in my view desaturating a colour digital photograph is not a default way to be more 'artistic' any more than one of those cheesy Instagram retro effects. It only works when it's appropriate, which frankly is not nearly as often as it's used."