Emotions aren’t black and white

Last leaf

I’ve always loved and been fascinated by colour.  Ernst Haas famously said ‘colour is joy’, and it always has been for me.  For that reason I was never very interested in black and white photography – while I could see its merits, I was so absorbed in seeking out colour that I had little time for it.  Lately, however, I’ve been doing a lot of work in black and white, which hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has simply emerged.

I could say – and have – that this is because winter doesn’t offer much in the way of colour, and so I’ve concentrated my energies on what’s there rather than bemoaning what isn’t.  There is some truth to this, and it’s been a welcome change to find subject matter that fascinates me right through the winter months.  It used to be that I rarely picked up my camera in those months, waiting for the colours of spring to reappear before I felt inspired again.

However, I think there’s a little more to it than that.  In the past I’ve done training in various psychotherapies, including NLP.  For anyone not familiar with this, it’s a way of changing how you think (and therefore feel) about something by altering the way you perceive it in your mind/memory.  At a simple level, the memory of a distressing experience can be made less impactful by changing the picture of it in your mind from colour to black and white – black and white simply drains a lot of the emotion from it.  And depressed people, who have effectively numbed their emotions so much they can’t feel much at all, usually dress in greys and browns and black – it would be very unusual to see a depressed person wearing colourful clothes.  Colour and emotion go hand in hand with each other.

For the past few months I’ve been struggling with some old demons that have resurfaced – traumatic memories that I thought had been dealt with but obviously haven’t.  I’ve felt low and very numb – the whole range of emotion just hasn’t been available to me as my psyche tries to protect me from those old and painful memories.  Interestingly, this has coincided with my sudden turn to black and white.  At times, I’ve even found myself actively disliking colour, finding it too brash and intrusive.  I have felt uncomfortable with it without knowing why.

I wonder – and I don’t feel able to answer this in any definitive way – whether a photographer’s attraction towards colour or black and white is related to their emotional range?  Many avid black and white photographers seem actively antagonistic towards colour.  I’ve never really understood this – if you prefer to shoot in black and white, then that’s absolutely fine and there doesn’t seem to me to be any need to denigrate those who choose colour instead.  Those photographers who do have an aggressiveness about them that seems out of proportion to the matter in hand and smacks of defensiveness.  Take, for example, this quote from Walker Evans:

Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.

Or this one, from Roland Barthes:

For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).

Of course there are lots of perfectly good reasons to choose black and white over colour.  If your image has one disconcertingly intense area of colour in it that would dominate the shot, then black and white will deal with that.  If there’s very little colour in the image and it adds nothing to it anyway, then black and white will be a better choice.  If the main interest of the shot lies in lines, shapes or tones, then black and white will show these up better and direct attention towards them.  Removing colour can also make a shot more timeless – think of those crudely coloured fifties photos that can be dated immediately just by the colours.

And it’s also true that black and white can be used to make the image more dramatic – where a colour shot would look unnatural and crude if you were to increase contrast more than a little, a black and white shot can take it, and more.  To make it more dramatic is to bring emotion into the shot, which of course goes against what I’ve said above.  I’ve also come across this quote, which argues that black and white portraits actually reveal more emotion:

Removing color from a picture helps the viewer to focus on a subject’s emotional state. Black and white portraiture lets the audience see the subject’s face and read his or her eyes without distraction. – PhotographyVox

Not sure if I agree or not on that one.

I’ve done a little bit of digging around online, and can’t find anything much about this.  My go-to place for this kind of thing is the online book Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche, by John Suler, which is full of fascinating stuff but he doesn’t specifically discuss colour and black and white anywhere that I can see.  However, under the topic of Selective Colour he has this to say (‘selective colour’ is the practice of keeping one small part of an image coloured with the rest in black and white):

Why does the color stand out? Well, because it’s color. That seems obvious. But behind the obvious we find some interesting ideas. We live in a world of color. It feels more intuitively real in an image than the somewhat intellectualized and abstract quality of monochrome photos. Recognizing colors played an important role in the evolutionary survival of our species; we naturally rivet to it because we use color to identify what something is. We also associate colors with emotion, and emotions are the forces that connect humans to each other, so we can’t help but connect to the colorful element in an otherwise black and white image. – Selective Color, John Suler
It’s interesting that he links colour to emotions and emotions to a feeling of connectedness – emotionally numb people usually have a feeling of disconnection and isolation from the world and other people.
My conclusion is that, for the majority, the black and white/colour decision is one that’s made according to how effective it makes the image.  Those folk happily switch from one format to the other accordingly.  And there are some people who simply like black and white a lot, for no particular reason.  But these people don’t usually make a big deal of it, and based on my own experience I do wonder whether the more emphatic black and white photographers are somehow threatened by colour because of its emotional component, and to shoot in black and white reflects their practice of keeping emotions at one remove.  I might be widely off the the mark here, but I think it’s an interesting question. I’m not for a moment suggesting that all dogmatically black and white photographers are suffering from depression – more that they may be more uncomfortable than most with emotions.  Depression is only one of many ways of numbing emotions, and I’ve concentrated on it here partly because there’s a great deal of literature linking it with lack of colour, and partly because I think it may be a component in my own turn away from  it.  But is this particular to me, or can it be more generally applied?  What do you think?
More reading

Researchers find choice of colour reflects mental health

Depression Colors the Way We See The World

The Colour Thief – a children’s book about a father’s depression.  From the back cover: ‘My Dad’s life was full of colour.  But one day Dad was full up with sadness, all the way to the top. He said that all the colours had gone.’

Interestingly, where a tiny hint of colour has crept into my own photography, it tends to be blue, as in the two shots below – another colour associated with low mood.

Lake water, with Lensbaby

Lensbaby branches, patch of blue sky