Saturday, April 2, 2016

Where did Color Aesthetics Go?

I picked up an issue of a fascinating journal from the early 1991s ambitiously entitled "History of Photography" which appears to be an ongoing concern, somewhat to my surprise. In any case, I was skimming it and reading this and that (I picked it up for its "The mythology of the f/64 group is largely invented bullshit" piece, but there's lots more!). In there was some discussion of Impressionism and the invention of the Autochrome. Autochromes are the ones where there's a layer of potato starch grains dyed variously red. green, and blue, in front of a standard panchromatic emulsion.

Observations made at the time note that this is essentially Pointillism, and that it scientifically proves some various theories and ideas of the Impressionist painters. The idea that pure tones "blend" in the eye to produce various and sundry hues, while well known to scientists, was convincingly proven and demonstrated in a very precise way by the Autochrome, in a way the general public could easily understand. Interestingly, modern color emulsions (I think) are not Pointillism as such, since the dye blobs overlap and blend optically before they reach the eye, and I think the modern RGB monitor is also not because of the regularity of the pattern of dots. Inkjet might be back to Pointillism, though. That's kind of academic wankery, though, and quite beside the point.

This was also the era of the Pictorialists, who explicitly related themselves to Impressionism. Thus there arose at the time the color version of the usual debate. Should we strive for "true" colors in some technical sense, or should we strive to create the proper "impression" of color, or more generally seek to provide the proper "impression" of the whole thing, using color as one of several tools. The impressionist leaning photographers would naturally have been more or less the same chaps who advocated for a softer focus, for un-realistic tones, and so on. The whole Pictorialist gig. The "true and accurate" color people were the ones who would grow up to be Straight Photographers.

Where'd all this go?

These days we seem to be divided into two camps. There are the "you should calibrate everything" crew, and the "hey, I do what I want!" crew who seem to largely be about popping colors to increase likes on social media. The first bunch is arguably the Modernist "true" color gang, with all new members and all new technology. The second bunch, I dunno who those people are, although I guess they're sort of Expressionists. Or trying to be. The Impressionists seem to have no analog in today's photographic discussion. There is manipulation of color for effect, but rarely for impressionistic effect.

The debate seems to be between "technically accurate" color and "inaccurate color which creates the effect I want", without a "inaccurate color that creates a true impression."

I think we see the Impressionist idea groped toward, from time to time, by landscape photographers who are popping the saturation because that's what their Impression was. Popped the greens off the scale because that's what Hawaii's wet slopes feel like, that sort of thing. There might be a few other specific cases, but there doesn't seem to be an actual aesthetic position in play here. While I see people talking about specific colors in specific pictures, I don't see anyone making a philosophical statement that echoes the impressionist aesthetic.

I happened, just now, upon a forum thread that I think summarizes it all for me. Some relatively erudite fellow asked where people stood on Realism vs. Expressionism in photography. These are, really, they only two schools that exist (insofar as schools exist). Either you're trying for technical accuracy (essentially, Realism both as a noun and as a movement) or you're trying to express your own ideas about whatever it is, usually with saturated colors and cloning out a bunch of shit (Expressionism). The dominance of Impressionism as a philosophy (embraced by the Pictorialists and, notably, by Adams) seems to have simply vanished.

In case you're curious, the forum thread of course veered off into imbeciles talking about leveling horizons and how "ALL DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHS ARE MANIPULATED" and so on, because they literally cannot be bothered to spend 5 minutes on wikipedia trying to work out what the question is.

I'm not particularly advocating some two-party (or ten-party) system for photography, in which each of us needs to select a camp to belong to. I do think it's a real loss to not have active philosophical schools in play, working to define, refine, extend ideas about what we ought to be doing. It's possible that in "High Art" some of this is going on, but the masses on the street are very much in an every-man-for-himself situation. The arguments aren't philosophical, they're about whether you should use a ColorSpanker or a ParrotNinja to profile your monitor.

Nobody really wants a coherent Aesthetic of Color, or anything else. Not even me, but I am going to have to think about that some.


  1. I am terrible with color and really can't get very comfortable with it, although I do a fair amount of color[digital]photography.
    Do you remember the old Agfa film that to my eye was pretty bland/desaturated but 'realistic.' I think Agfa did away with it because Kodak and Fuji films all had prettier colors and thus were more popular.
    I think we have totally come away from realistic colors in photography. Calibrated or not does not matter, unless one somehow could manage to calibrate to the original. I just think we are a very 'long way from KMart' with how we deal with color photography.

  2. I understand that you're not into landscape photography, but please have a look at the work of the German landscape photographer Michael Lange ( Especially the "Fluss" body of work (to me) has a lot of impressionist aesthetic to it (and some Japanese aesthetic, but the impressionists had this influence, too).

    Best, Thomas

  3. Didn't color aesthetics move to filmmaking? There is lots of work done there to manipulate the color palette to give a particular mood to images. They also have software to do so which has no equivalent in photography.

  4. I think this is the year where color has done my head in. The more I read, the more I know, the less I understand.
    On a more serious note, do you have a B&H or Amazon link to a Colorspanker, I couldn't find one. Ta.

  5. Thanks to all for the links and ideas!

    Lest the point be lost, though, let me reiterate that I am seeing the loss of "schools" rather than of specific aesthetics. While Impressionistic photography is rare, it is out there.

    What's missing is any sort of schools, everyone seems to simply do what's best to them, mixing and matching ideas from other individuals, rather than adhering and rebelling against coherent philosophies that are "generally understood"

    Film is a good point, I do feel like there's something more like "schools" here, possibly organized around charismatic individuals but schools nonetheless.

    As always, I could be all wrong here or not even making sense!

  6. You will not find "schools" for color grading in film because the color is supposed to help the story. But you will find discussions on how to manipulate the colors, create LUTs while still preserving skin tones and why some color harmonies work better than others. And the available software will blow your mind when you will have understood how to use it.