Thursday, March 09, 2006

Two Views, Revisited

At the beginning of the week two treatments of the same exposure--one color and one black and white--were offered for comparison (see entry for Monday, March 6). No two sets of eyes will see the photographs in exactly the same way, of course, but in all likelihood. a typical viewer will see the photos in the following two ways.

Color version. The eyes are attracted to the color red, and alphanumeric characters also convey textual meaning, so chances are very good that a viewer will first look at the red letters that spell out New South Federal Savings. Blue complements red, and the sky is highly saturated in this instance, so the viewer will next typically look at the sky. Probably next will be a quick scan at the rest of the information in the photograph, with the eyes then returning to the top part of the frame, alternating their gaze between the red and the blue. The white building, for the most part, separates the red and blue values.

Black and white version. Again, the eye is likely first to be attracted to the lettering. The sky is unusually dark for a black and white photo, and because it is in such close proximity to the lettering, the sky is probably, once again, the second place a viewer will look within the photograph. However, unlike the color photo, where the eyes tend to linger in the upper half of the frame, in the black and white version the viewer's eyes now pulled down to another element. In the B&W version, the most interesting contrast is not between the red and blue colors but rather between the extreme dark of the sky and the bright white of the building. Because it now provides the greatest contrast, the white building appears more massive, almost heavier, than it did in the color version. In the color version, when the eye makes a quick survey of the entire photo, it detects differences. In the monochrome version, some of those differences now become similarities. Specifically, the various shades of gray of the windows now match the various shades gray in the sky. In fact, several windows seem to match parts of the sky perfectly. The white of the building is clearly stone, but the windows now seem almost to show all the way through to the sky behind the building. Our brains know better than that, of course, but somehow the white and black checkerboard made up of building and windows now seems more connected to the sky and to the rest of the scene.

Those two descriptions can only approximate what takes place in a brief matter of seconds. Some of what happens within those seconds becomes more clear in the mind when a viewer reflects back on the viewing experience. Probably much, much more than we are aware of transpires when we look at a photo. Photographs that are rewarding often will be those that show us more the more we look into them.

In these examples, we have looked primarily at color and contrast, but a photograph also contains other elements such as line, shape and texture. The black and white version particularly, because it emphasized the similarity of elements, and their symmetry, seems to convey a sense of order and stability. An entirely different mood is available, though, if we chose to compose the scene differently.

Same building. Same sky. Not at all the same photograph.

That, in part, is what makes looking at photographs, and making photographs, compelling. Whether we are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon looking down, or standing on a city sidewalk looking up, the world presents itself in an almost endless feast of visual variety.


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