The other day when I was trying to convert some images from RGB to CMYK I inadvertently hit the grayscale button. I have not worked with black-and-white images for a long time now, and was all the more amazed when the result of this involuntary action appeared on the screen: what a pleasant change from the colourful hotchpotch on my desk. The Apple computers in their retro 60s-look aluminum grey are bliss enough for tired eyes, but it took this simple image for me to realize how much we miss out on with 16.7 million colours.
Our eyes handle spatial vision using 120 million rods that respond only to light and dark, in other words are responsible for black and white. By contrast, since the days we roamed the Steppe as upright hunters, 6 million rods have sufficed us for colour information. The spatial quality of an image is defined by its range of contrast. And it was not for nothing that printers once referred to the color black simply as “key“. Without black the image would retain its colour but would be lacking in depth, making black the Key colour, i.e. CMYK. Black is a more important factor in perception than colour. Like wandering souls in the fog we are lost without depth. There are predators only capable of distinguishing blue and yellow, while others are almost colour blind, but can still see their prey in the dusk. Even those images with few details and lacking in colour still make sense to us. Technical imagery is objective, devoid of emotions, black-and-white.
But if evolution has decided that attractive colours are not vital to our survival, why do we go to such technical lengths, using four print colours in an attempt to emulate the colourful world? Obviously colours are more than information, they appeal to our emotions. Since time immemorial persons in authority deemed to be neutral have worn black and white: priests, lawyers, referees. Hardly surprising then that nobody trusts their new shrill successors (football referees in pink!) to give an objective judgment, and everyone thinks they can buy off these birds of paradise for just a few tokens. I, for one, have had enough of this amount of unpredictable colouring.
Black print on white paper was always and still is the most legible, and as of today I shall only be using good old black-and-white film in my (digital) Leica camera.