Tuesday, October 28, 2014

akrəˈ matik

Debates on linguistic relativity to the side, we communicate with one another with words. The more specific and refined the words, the more detailed the communication can be. Whether a lack of specific words affects our cognitive ability to perceive, it certainly affects our ability to effectively communicate our perceptions to one another.
How many colors can you name with precision?
Many studies of language have centered around the vocabulary of discrete colors. But we face an equivalent problem in the world of black and white photography, starting with the compound noun "black and white."

Precision matters, and of all the words to describe images without color, "black and white" is about as imprecise as one can get. Even using the term sets up a lack of appreciation for the tones and textures involved in an image without color. We need a better term.

"Monochrome" is an improvement because at least it's a single term and it at first brings to mind something more than just the two colors of "black and white." Not for long, though. The suffix "-chrome" at least implies the concept of a range of tones, even if it means color ones. That advance, however, is destroyed by the prefix "mono." From the Greek μονόχρωμος (monókhrōmos), "monochrome" means a single color. For example, a cyanotype is a monochrome image—it's just one with shades of blue. Leica's marketing notwithstanding, "Monochrom" is not the word for an image without color. (Losing that "e" costs about $8,000!)

For historical reasons that I do not know, "black and white" and "monochrome" won the popularity contest and entered the photography lexicon. But they're inaccurate, and it's time for them to go.

The correct term for what we do as artists when we create without using color comes again from the Greek—but this time with the right prefix: "achromatic." In Greek, the prefix"a-" means without. "Without color" is what we create when we use a range of tens of thousands of tones of gray from solid black to solid white.

ach·ro·mat·ic
/ˌakrəˈmatik,ˌākrə-/

An achromatic palette allows for a kind of photograph that just wouldn't work in color. Shadows, highlights, textures, shapes, forms, depth—all visible once the color is gone.




So, if you shoot the #fujimonochrom, process your Tri-X yourself, or even post-process your color images into images without color, you decidedly do not create "black and white" or "monochrome" photographs. Instead, you are an achromatic shooter. Say it loud and say it proud! Welcome to the club.