This is a guest post by Suzie Eckl, one of Greta’s top student writers for Spring 2007
Forget color television.
Before we had color, we had black and white. Before we had movies, we had photographs. And before photographs we had…
Prior to August 19, 1839, the date Daguerre and Niepce revealed that they had created the world’s first photograph, artists had all the control in reproducing the world as they saw it. Many artists chose not painting or sculpture but engraving. They carved their images into wood or burned them into metal.
In a fascinating analysis, Danielle Zavagno and Manfredo Massironi have uncovered some key differences between the techniques used by engravers and the photograph. It shouldn’t be surprising that an engraving lacks certain qualities that a modern photograph would have.
The most obvious quality is color. Both black and white photography and etchings lack color. However, color may be translated through shades of gray. For example, lighter colors might be portrayed as lighter shades of gray and darker colors likewise.
Check out the following painting The Land of Plenty (1567) by Pieter Bruegel. (Keep in mind that the painting was originally composed in color but has been gray-scaled.)
Through the use of a continuous scale of grays we can infer color differences: the circular shingles appear in different shades of gray, as do the men’s pants.
But now take a look at this second image, an engraving that reproduces Bruegel’s work.
Pieter Balten, the likely creator of the work, copied Bruegel’s piece by engraving it and then flipping the engraving over to print. In this way, it appears as a mirror image. In his reproduction, Balten certainly used different shades of gray, but these shades do not correspond to color. Nor are the grays continuous. Instead, the transition from light to dark is sudden, not gradual. Look again at the shingles and pants. You can see that they appear to be the same color.
In this second image, we see the second way in which grays may be employed in engravings: they suggest brightness, not hue.
Engravers generally preferred using grays as a signifier of brightness rather than color. When worrying about brightness in an engraving, the artists often neglected color information. They did this mainly because of the small-scale nature of their engravings. An engraver’s materials were almost always portable. When using such a small area, engravers found it difficult if not impossible to produce dot patterns that would result in color information. Any laser printer today can produce a small picture made up of hundreds of these dots indicating color, but the engravers did not have the necessary tools or space to do so.
Zavagno and Massironi note that with the advent of photography in the nineteenth century, engravers considered their art in a new light. Imitating the subtle changes from one shade of gray to another found in photography, the engravers avoided strong contrasts in their work, therefore including more information about color.
Today, we can watch black and white movies and television shows and become so engrossed that we don’t recognize a lack of color. Both color and brightness are translated into shades of gray that captivate us on the big screen.
But here’s one more thing to think about: not all color information can be recorded in a black and white image. While brightness is readily preserved, color might not always be. Look at the red and green boxes below.
If we gray-scale these images, we get the two boxes below.
They look the same!
As the squares above demonstrate, you can’t keep all color information when using black and white photography, but engravers realized quickly that you can get close. With photography around, engravers found that their realist reproductions were no longer unique; the camera had replaced their work. But it didn’t completely replace them. Photography brought about modernist explorations in engraving, Zavagno and Massironi say, and probably in many other areas of art.
As for the camera itself, it too continually evolves. We’ve all seen what black and white film can do. The small losses of color information in black and white photography are certainly no reason to shy away from it. Even modern photo processing software like iPhoto still offers an option to convert color photos to black and white. And who’d want to watch Casablanca (1942) in color, anyway?
Zavagno, D. & Massironi, M. (2006). Colours in black and white: The depiction of lightness and brightness in achromatic engravings before the invention of photography. Perception, 35, 91-100.