Kevin Bjorke
Kevin Bjorke
4 min read

Filed Under


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.

Mono: The Color of Speed

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).

Related Posts