Back To Tanizaki
The Tanizaki book that I wrote about a couple of posts below continues to smoke around my brain. I see a link with something that Barthes says in La Chambre Claire: “I have always had the impression that in any photograph, colour is a coating applied after the event to the original truth of black and white.”
You might think that the opposite was true: that black and white is a style applied to a world of colour. Don’t you see colour all around you after all?
Yet when I get up each morning for my meditation session something curious happens. Here in northern Europe at around 6.30 am in winter it is dark. I settle into meditation and the world that I see through my half-open eyes is monochrome.
My rudimentary understanding of the physiology of sight is that in low light levels the eye makes use of rod cells – which do not perceive colour, only black and white. The greyscale in between those two extremes is the rod cells’ version of colour, known as “ghosting in”. As the meditative minutes pass, the sun comes up and, even on a rainy day, light levels rise. Cone cells then come into play and replace the monochrome of the rod cells with colour. The same happens in reverse in the evening but artificial illumination masks it. For that reason it is much clearer in the countryside than urban areas. So we see in monochrome or colour depending on the amount of light available.
The decline of black and white photography might be seen as coinciding with the increasing use of electric light. Since we are drenching the world in colour that is what we replicate photographically. In older buildings the subtlety of shadow has profound effects. In churches, castles, old houses, old farm buildings the eye seems often to revert to the monochrome world. Other senses are brought into play then. It is a more complete world because it does not rely on acute vision alone.
Seen in this way, colour photography is not a technological advance producing a more accurate view of the world. It is a regime whose account of the world is a construction. Your saturation slider therefore has its Faustian aspect: you can have fun - but the price you pay is dazzling. Tanizaki’s lament for the shadows of his youth and Barthes’ insight into the nature of photography lead us inexorably to this conclusion.