This is a simple shot of two people sitting in an old Citroën in Lido, Venice, Italy in late September 2016. It’s approaching sunset, the sky is filled with long wavelength light (reds and orange) as can be seen reflected in the pavement. However, widely scattered short wave blue and purple light still exist in abundance, largely because they are more efficiently by our Earth’s atmosphere. We see them as blue and not purple, because our eyes more easily detect blue light, and because the sun gives off slightly more blue than purple light waves. However, what is important is that these light waves exist in abundance whether you can detect them with your eyes or not.
As sunset nears, and light levels diminish, less light hits the light-detecting cones in our retinas and we begin to see greys, rather than color. The sky is still blue, but we can no longer see it, so we see only black. Similarly, sunlight reflects off the metal of the car and the bicycles, and our eyes and brain filters it out, seeing only the predominant colors.
The bicycles are blue or grey, the car is maroon and black. The chrome is chrome-colored. But look closer. If you do, you will see what the camera sees: the reflection of the widely scatter short wave length light–the blues and purples in my color-enriched shot at top. I didn’t distort the color; I simply told the computer to display the full range of color visible. Were our eyes more capable or more like, say, butterfly eyes, this is what we might have seen. Instead, we see only the shot above and convince ourselves this is what reality tastes like.
But our visual taste buds are bland; our sight muted.
Don’t believe me? Then go out in the sun squinting at its radiance, and notice the color of things: the grass, the rocks, the sky. Then, put on a pair of quality sunglasses and notice how the colors change. The glasses polarizing lenses enhance the existent color contrast and their filtering out UV light enriches the other colors. This is reality, not what you saw before. But even then, it’s partial reality. We can see blue light easily, as in the sky. But lower the wavelength from 475 nanometers to 400, and we struggle to see the indigo that is just as real. We can’t see ultraviolet or infrared light, so we assume those aren’t colors, even if our butterfly friends would beg to disagree.
So, partly as a result, street photographers, have decided that the definition of reality is “whatever the hell I think I saw,” even though that’s a flawed notion. By the way, I cheated. The colors above in the ‘real’ shot aren’t entirely real, as the glare from the sun made it impossible for the camera (or my eyes) to see the light reflected off the car. There was too much scattered light, which made the red car look more burgundy. Here’s the Citroën’s real color:
It’s just a red car. The blue was from the sun, not the car. However, and here’s the point of my post, the red we see is from the sun too. The paint on the car’s metal reflects red light, and so we see it as red. When it also reflected some blue light, we decided that only red was real and blue was not. But no things are only one thing. A red car isn’t only red. A lake isn’t blue. (Nor is a tree-lined lake green.) A lake is clear, but reflects the blue sky above it, which in turn is also clear, but scattering blue light via dust and water vapor. (The green lake is tree or plant-colored.)
As artists, especially photographic artists, we must reject the notion that reality is a narrow, two-dimensional construct. Reality is relative, just like time, and exists differently for me than for you. The car above looks different in every shot I took, because reality shifts every few inches. We capture a thing, then move our asses and show it again. The shifts, the possibilities, the emotions, and the lies are what we film. Life never exists, in black and white, yet too many of us claim that as “truth.”
There is nothing true about the monochrome shot above. I boosted the contrast. I washed out the tones. I shifted the point of focus to the shadow cast by the car and then up to the vehicle itself. This is Robert Frank’s artistic aesthetic, not mine, and as such, isn’t even my reality. I could have shifted the tones slightly and overemphasized Phi, and it would have been (spit) Henri Cartier-Bresson. They were not gods, nor were they liars. They simply shot what they felt, which is a narrow view of the world.
Life in black and white is simple, and photography in black and white easy. It used to be cheap too, its primary draw, but now it’s beautiful not because it’s real, but precisely because it is not. Turn the knobs. Click the buttons. Play with the contrasts, the tonal contrasts, dim the lights and explode the colors. It’s not a real photo until it looks as you feel, because you, my children are the goddamned artists.
And that is the only reality.