Tuesday 28 February 2012

On black and white

In her Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and The Imagination 1830-1880, Isobel Armstrong has this wonderful reflection on 'black' and 'white':
White paper in full moonlight is darker than black satin in daylight, or a dark object with the sun shining on it reflects light of exactly the same colour, and perhaps the same brightness, as a white object in shadow. 'Grey in shadow looks like white' ([P.H. Emerson,] p. 110). The whiteness of paper and the blackness of satin are not absolutes: their values can be reversed to the darkness of white paper and brightness or even pallor of black satin according to the relative intensities of the light both reflected and falling upon them. Or the antithesis between dark and white can be cancelled out by the intensity of light in one case and shadow in the other. Or bright light brings out the brightness of some objects as dark of dark objects. In addition 'Atmosphere greys all things' (p. 111). '[T]o all these difficulties are added those dependent on the subtleties of light reflected into shadow, and the thousand-and-one changes of colour due to the numerous shadows cast by objects in nature' (p. 113). Wittgenstein's understanding that a natural history of colour would be temporal, examining the juxtaposition of snow on white paper (which would look grey), or hazarding different words for matt and shiny black, is latent in Emerson's theory, which presupposes that thought animates the camera lens.

p. 352


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