Seeing in Black and White – Follow Up

From the Ministry of Odd Coincidences…

This evening I watched this week’s Horizon, which, by remarkable assonance with my blog, was on the topic of the perception of colour. The programme made it clear that colour perception varies widely and subject to personal and contextual forces. However, given my post this morning, I was most interested in the fact that colour perception is strongly linked to the vocabulary you have to describe colours and their differences. The Namibian tribe who have words to describe slightly different shades of green, but who lump blues and greens together under a single word, can see the former, but not a blue/green variation.

Now I’ve always had a very good physical ability to remember and match or discriminate colours, but when I first met my wife I couldn’t articulate this. To exploit my colour vision in conversations with her (such as answering “do you think this will match X?” :)) I learned a more powerful vocabulary, and in turn further developed my colour visualisation skills.

When I took up photography seriously a few years ago I became aware of the colour of light, but again really got on top if it when I learned appropriate vocabulary to describe lighting causes and effects.

So maybe my visualisation skills relate to my ability to describe (even internally) what I see or the resultant image I want. I can do this in colour because I have developed an effective colour vocabulary. I don’t “see” in monochrome because I don’t mentally describe scenes using monochrome terms, unless I’m forced to because it’s all shades of grey, or just a single colour.

The great photographers of the early twentieth century developed the vocabulary I need. Ansel Adams’ Zone System was designed for exactly this purpose, and in his writing, such as Examples he actively describes scenes using the zone terminology. I understand the theoretical concepts, but I haven’t developed the habit of using them as linguistic tools to describe a scene. Clearly I could train myself to do so, but I don’t want to lose my skill with colours as a result. The interesting challenge is whether I can become visually bilingual.

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