BACK TO BLACK

Over the cen­turies colour has gained a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing cheap and tawdry. Monochro­matic black, white and grey, on the other hand, are still as­so­ci­ated with so­phis­ti­ca­tion and cool. But why?

Esquire (Singapore) - - Portfolio | Feature - words by josh sims

In­sta­gram is a fan of colour. If you want to get more likes for your pho­tos, it has ad­vised, use a pop of blue, which we as­so­ciate with open­ness. What­ever you do, don’t use a black and white im­age—that is said by some to sug­gest the user may be de­pres­sive. In a cul­ture that al­most psy­chot­i­cally craves at­ten­tion, the value placed on bold colour might well be ex­pected to be in the as­cen­dant. Colour is eye-catch­ing. And yet it’s not cool.

Rather it’s the mono­chrome—specif­i­cally that of black, white and shades of grey in be­tween—that is most closely as­so­ci­ated with cre­ativ­ity in film and pho­tog­ra­phy that as­pires to art; trashy, flashy colour only to the dis­pos­able Ko­dak mo­ment, mu­si­cals or fan­tasies. This may ac­count for why, some 80 years af­ter the in­ven­tion of colour film, this decade has seen sem­i­nal movies the likes of Frances Ha, The Artist, Ida, Ne­braska and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night all shot in black and white.

It’s mono­chrome that is most closely as­so­ci­ated with so­phis­ti­ca­tion—in smart fash­ion and chic in­te­ri­ors; with rig­or­ous­ness in de­sign—min­i­mal­ism is re­garded as the hard pin­na­cle of civil­i­sa­tion’s ef­forts to civilise it­self, even if our his­tory is weak, since min­i­mal­ism orig­i­nally em­braced the com­mer­cial colours of pop art, just as clas­si­cal Greek stat­u­ary was once ar­rayed in daz­zling hues; with, yes, ef­forts to tap that in­ef­fa­ble thing called cool.

“It’s strange isn’t it, be­cause there are lots of good pho­tog­ra­phers work­ing in colour, even if peo­ple have it in their heads maybe that all of the great pho­tog­ra­phers worked in black and white, that film be­ing what they had ac­cess to,” says pho­tog­ra­pher Fen­ton Bai­ley, whose fa­ther David used stark black and white to make some of the most iconic por­traits of the last half cen­tury. “There are prac­ti­cal ad­van­tages to shoot­ing

in black and white. There’s a greater dy­namic range, and once you take colour away from re­al­ity an im­age can be­come more ab­stract. But why is it that sepia is con­sid­ered old-fash­ioned, yet the mono­chrome of black and white isn’t?”

This no­tion, the un­der­pin­ning of this grey rev­o­lu­tion, is not new. Na­ture, as Her­man Melville noted dis­ap­prov­ingly, “paints like a har­lot”, but we pre­fer the man-made to be more un­der­stated. In­deed, the dis­trust of bold colour can be al­most patho­log­i­cal. There is even a term for it: chro­mo­pho­bia, be­ing at one with so­ci­ety’s ex­treme if il­log­i­cal prej­u­dice against colour, it be­ing re­garded as es­sen­tially in­fan­tile—think of candyfloss and kids’ toys, fine for Bar­bie, less good for that D’Agostino hi-fi sys­tem; cos­metic—con­sider rouge and lip­stick, with their his­toric sug­ges­tion of hid­ing the pox; su­per­fi­cial—a hin­drance to see­ing the ‘ truth of form’ be­neath, as Aris­to­tle reck­oned; and, per­haps above all, vul­gar or cheap.

Af­ter all, a sig­na­ture shade is fine if it’s Fer­rari red or even Lambo yel­low, but oth­er­wise... The best­selling colours for cars last year? Black. And that knocked white off the top-spot. White is now in third place—and that’s af­ter grey. As Henry Ford’s dic­tum had it 110 years ago, a buyer of one of his Model T cars could have it “painted any colour that he wanted, as long as it’s black”. That might sug­gest a hard-nosed en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit, but be­lies the facts. The Model T was launched in four colour op­tions. Ford only added black a few years later, in re­sponse to de­mand; his cus­tomers said they as­so­ci­ated black with a lux­ury that, then, car own­er­ship it­self sug­gested. These days a black car sug­gests the dark-win­dowed pres­i­den­tial mo­tor­cade, the colour still able to play on be­ing that of face­less au­thor­ity—of the warder’s in Kafka’s The Trial— but also of anonymity—the men in black of UFO lore.

“From a psy­cho­log­i­cal per­spec­tive we crave any­thing that pro­vides clar­ity—as the mono­chrome does—and we as­so­ciate that clar­ity with so­phis­ti­ca­tion be­cause that’s some­thing we can pro­ject our­selves into,” ar­gues Soren Stauf­fer-Kruse, a psy­chol­o­gist with a more than usu­ally deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion of glitz (he’s also one half of a span­gly dance duo called Sugar Dandies). “We spend most of our time in­side our own minds, which tend to

be very colour­ful places. It doesn’t have the sin­gu­lar essence that, for ex­am­ple, a black and white photo strives for, which we still con­sider to be a higher form of art than a colour photo. I think you can see the same phe­nom­e­non—a search for clar­ity—in the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of other art forms too, from bal­let to cou­ture.”

It’s a search that is only in­ten­si­fy­ing, he sug­gests. Far from our in­creas­ingly vis­ual cul­ture mak­ing us more ap­pre­cia­tive of busy­ness and colour, rather we feel in­creas­ingly over­whelmed by the con­fu­sion it gen­er­ates. “There’s a crav­ing for mono­chrome sim­plic­ity,” says Stauf­fer-Kruse. Per­haps this is a prod­uct of it lit­er­ally be­ing hard to per­ceive, for all that we might as­so­ciate it with strong, stark lines. Grey tones are clearly dif­fer­ent to (at ei­ther ex­treme of the scale) white or black, for ex­am­ple, and yet the im­pres­sion on the retina of a grey sur­face un­der il­lu­mi­na­tion may be iden­ti­cal to that of a white sur­face in the shade.

Grey is ar­guably the de­fin­i­tive base colour but not eas­ily the star of the show. Gi­a­cometti painted only in shades of grey. “I see ev­ery­thing in grey, and in grey all the colours which I ex­pe­ri­ence,” the artist said, which makes one won­der if an eye test might have been in or­der. “Bet­ter grey than gar­ish­ness,” as In­gres would note. “Of all colours, only grey has the qual­ity of rep­re­sent­ing noth­ing,” as Ger­hard Richter would add—and he meant it as a com­pli­ment—in ref­er­ence to his ‘Gray Pic­tures’ from 1962 on­wards, in which the painter sought to re­move all the his­tor­i­cally de­ter­mined rep­re­sen­ta­tional value of colours and fo­cus on form. Grey al­lows shape and sur­face to take cen­tre stage.

Con­trast the con­fu­sion wrought by colour, which some of the great minds of the 19th and 20th cen­turies, Kant, Rousseau and Reynolds among them, had it in for. Colour, they thought, is in­fe­rior, even threat­en­ing. The an­thro­pol­o­gist Claude Le­viS­trauss noted colour’s fluid, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory con­no­ta­tions around the world. His­tor­i­cally red, for in­stance, is the colour tra­di­tion­ally worn by pros­ti­tutes and ex­e­cu­tion­ers. And yet it was adopted by the Catholic Church as a colour of high rank. In the west ‘royal’ blue be­came con­sid­ered the colour of no­bil­ity—the Vir­gin Mary’s shawl was al­ways de­picted as be­ing blue—while in the east it was re­garded as the colour of the worker, their clothes dyed with the cheap indigo from which denim would later get its hue. Colour sends mixed mes­sages de­pen­dent on shift­ing cul­tures. It’s safer to say noth­ing—and ev­ery­thing—with black and white’s blank can­vas.

It’s cer­tainly calmer. In­deed, colour, in con­trast to the mono­chrome, dis­turbs the brain, al­beit sub­lim­i­nally, and in ways not yet fully un­der­stood. Red, be­cause of its as­so­ci­a­tion with blood and our in­stinc­tive re­ac­tion to that, may be stim­u­lat­ing—es­pe­cially of the ap­petite—but it can also cause headaches. Or­ange has been found to aid di­ges­tion, but can hin­der rest­ful sleep. Green, per­haps be­cause of its con­nec­tion with na­ture, is rest­ful, hence its use in hos­pi­tals—though up to the 1920s these were typ­i­cally white, un­til the re­sult­ing glare was found to be hard to op­er­ate un­der—but it also brings on ap­a­thy. Yel­low boosts con­cen­tra­tion, hence its use for le­gal notepads, but in some also cre­ates feel­ings of dis­tress.

“Here in South­east Asia, a typ­i­cally colour­ful place, the mono­chrome is con­sid­ered a western thing, as a sign of in­ter­na­tion­al­ism and is even em­braced or re­jected—so there’s al­ways a ten­sion around it,“says Rus­sell Storer, deputy di­rec­tor of cu­ra­to­rial and re­search at the Na­tional Gallery Sin­ga­pore, and the man be­hind its re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion Min­i­mal­ism: Space, Light, Ob­ject. “But with so much noise ev­ery­where, no won­der there’s a de­sire to get back to ba­sics, back to the fun­da­men­tal.”

No won­der that we pe­ri­od­i­cally turn back to what can feel like the de­pend­abil­ity and se­cu­rity of the mono­chrome, and why a flight to the mono­chrome is also con­sid­ered an eco­nomic in­di­ca­tor. Dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion there was a marked shift in de­mand for con­sumer goods in som­bre shades, much as global in­se­cu­rity now might be fu­elling a mono­chrome re­vival. No won­der too, that as the spec­trum of con­sumer goods be­comes more widely avail­able, we seek dis­tinc­tion by re-fo­cus­ing on shades as­so­ci­ated with high class and ‘good taste’.

“For the same rea­sons it’s why the back­lash against bright fash­ion colours dur­ing Vic­to­rian times was in­evitable. As new dyes al­lowed ever more con­sumers to en­joy bright colours, the up­per classes recog­nised they had to do some­thing to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them­selves from the lower classes—and so ‘good taste’ was re­con­structed about a new palette of un­der­stated hues,” ex­plains Regina Lee Blaszczyk, pro­fes­sor of his­tory of busi­ness and so­ci­ety at the Univer­sity of Leeds and au­thor of The Color Rev­o­lu­tion.

“Think of the colo­nial re­vival houses of up­scale Amer­i­can suburbs, with ex­te­ri­ors painted in white and in­te­ri­ors filled with beige fab­rics and walls,” she adds. “The Colo­nial Re­vival style was the epit­ome of the up­per-class back­lash against the taste of the work­ing classes. The monochro­matic Bauhaus palette of the 1920s rep­re­sents an­other ef­fort by cul­tural elites to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween their ideas of good taste and the pop­u­lar taste of the masses. Of course, colour fads come and go. But bright colour has long been as­so­ci­ated with prim­i­tive cul­tures. And even to­day the bat­tle be­tween the classes is played out in colour.”

It’s not just a kind of ex­clu­siv­ity that a pref­er­ence for the monochro­matic sug­gests: from the 16th-cen­tury Span­ish court to Johnny ‘Man in Black’ Cash, from myths the likes of Drac­ula, or even Satan, to leather-jack­eted biker gangs, be­ing dressed in black has de­noted not only so­bri­ety, per­haps to the point of pu­ri­tanism, but dis­ci­pline, death and power too; through which, of course, it would also be­come the colour of the erotic.

Of course, it’s not for all. In 1891, when the wear­ing of the monochro­matic had be­come once again es­tab­lished as a the de facto style for gen­tle­men, Os­car Wilde wrote to a news­pa­per to com­plain about “the uni­form black that is worn now [which is] dull and te­dious and de­press­ing”. He was per­haps re­call­ing

colour sends mixed mes­sages de­pen­dent on shift­ing cul­tures. it’s safer to say noth­ing —and ev­ery­thing —with black and white’s blank can­vas.

that it had once, not long be­fore, and for cen­turies, been en­tirely nor­mal for men to em­brace bold colour and pat­tern in their dress.

“It is not [mono­chrome] the in­evitable uni­form of our suf­fer­ing age, car­ry­ing on its very shoul­ders, black and nar­row, the mark of per­pet­ual mourn­ing?” added Honore de Balzac, no fan of the style ush­ered in by the stripped-back, black-clad dandy Beau Brum­mell. “All of us are at­tend­ing some fu­neral or other.”

Within half a cen­tury, black (and later dark grey), had not only be­come the de­pend­able colour of min­is­ters, the pro­fes­sions, of busi­ness and pol­i­tics—this western trope em­braced as far off as im­pe­rial Ja­pan—but of ris­ing fas­cism in many coun­tries, no­tably the UK, Italy and Ger­many, where Hitler’s pro­tec­tion squad, the SS, orig­i­nally wore brown shirts with their black uni­forms, but soon switched to the white ones all the bet­ter to be “se­verely smart”, as John Har­vey notes in his bril­liant book Men in Black.

This mono­chrome style was meant to be ter­ri­fy­ing too. “I know there are some peo­ple who get ill when they see the black tu­nic. We un­der­stand that and do not ex­pect to be loved by too many peo­ple,” as the SS’s leader, Hein­rich Himm­ler pointed out. But for the mem­bers of the SS—as for other men in black— mono­chrome at­tire was a means of ex­press­ing a stand­ing apart from the wider com­mu­nity and its es­tab­lished class strata, as the priest­hood had long done, while at the same time es­tab­lish­ing a new elite. This stand­ing apart from the main­stream is surely a large part the ap­peal of the mono­chrome in fash­ion now; rais­ing the wearer above fleet­ing, un­se­ri­ous sea­sonal trends, mak­ing fash­ion—like those stereo­typed ex­is­ten­tial jazz mu­sos—the stuff of in­tel­lec­tu­al­ism.

In­deed, as in pho­to­graphic prints in mono­chrome, so in cars and bach­e­lor pads and movies and tech hard­ware: the lack of colour brings at­ten­tion to form and tone, to com­po­si­tion. It cre­ates a sense of the his­toric and of the dra­matic. It has pres­ence.

“When it comes to cloth­ing, the mono is in­scrutable and so am­bigu­ous, which adds a de­sir­able air of mys­tery to an in­di­vid­ual. Black is clas­sic and, of course, it’s slim­ming too—both be­ing at­trac­tive qual­i­ties,” ar­gues Vic­to­ria Tis­chler, pro­fes­sor of arts and health at the Univer­sity of West Lon­don. “But more broadly mono­chrome evokes a sense of class and time­less­ness. In our hy­per-stim­u­lated, multi-colour world, it’s the bold con­trast of the mono­chrome that’s mem­o­rable.”

View through the en­trance gate of a church in the Taos Pue­blo, New Mex­ico, 1941, by Ansel Adams. Through his black-and-white images, Adams brought the mag­nif­i­cence of na­ture to his view­ers withthe ul­ti­mate aim of push­ing for the preser­va­tion of Amer­ica’s rich ex­panses of wilder­ness.

Some of the world’s most (in)fa­mous dic­ta­tors are also known for their love of neu­trals. Clock­wise from far left: Mao Ze­dong, Ben­ito Mus­solini, Joseph Stalin and Kim Il-Sung.

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