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Black & White vs Color

Joel Meyerowitz
Garry Winogrand

Which one is closer to reality? Black & white, or color?

Many say black & white has little to do with how we see things. After all, we perceive in color, not grayscale tones. But for some reason, I always found that argument a little pretentious. What does it mean color photography is closer to reality? How would exactly a black & white photo lie about what describes more than a color photograph? After all, a house in a photograph, is still a picture of a house, whether it’s color or not.

On the other hand, it’s also common to hear that black & white is somehow purer. It removes distractions and gets to the essence of things.

A while back, I read a book titled “Towards a Philosophy of Photography” by the philosopher Vilém Flusser. I recommend this book to anyone interested in photography, and to those who want a better understanding of the image/word paradox.

Among the fascinating concepts Flusser explores, he tackles the dichotomy of black & white VS color. Here are some of the thoughts he shares:

[…] the colours of photographs are at least as theoretical as black and white. The green of a photographed field, for example, is an image of the concept ‘green’, just as it occurs in chemical theory, and the camera (or rather the film inserted into it) is programmed to translate this concept into the image. It is true that there is a very indirect, distant connection between the green of the photograph and the green of the field, since the chemical.

[…] concept ‘green’ is based on ideas that have been drawn from the world; but between the green of the photograph and the green of the field a whole series of complex encodings have crept in, a series that is more complex than that which connects the grey of the field photographed in black and white with the green of the field. In this sense the field photographed in green is more abstract than the one in grey. Colour photographs are on a higher level of abstraction than black-and-white ones.

All in all, I find this debate superfluous. Stating that color is superior for “physical” reasons is irrelevant. As Flusser put it, color is still a construct of our mind.

And what about the color-blind people? Or, to put it more simply, what about the way each and one of us interpret the same color differently?
I don’t see what truth color is supposed to represent.


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