I have been following with interest several posts over the past few days that deal with how to respond when candidates are not closely matched to our ideals of what a candidate should be or what or whom they should represent, what to do about elected officials whose policies are not closely enough aligned with our values and interests, and what to do about people "opting out" of electoral processes. Reading through the comment threads, I was constantly reminded of a conversation I had with my wife last spring. She is a college instructor and we were discussing one of her student's desire to see everything in absolutist terms, that every decision for him had to be black or white. We talked about how she might approach this student with the goal of getting him to open up to possibilities beyond "black and white." What follows is an outgrowth of the conversation that evening.
Black and white. Consider them polar extremes. The alpha and omega, if you will, of luminance or reflectance. What they do for a photographer is establish the tonal limits of what is possible in an image. Absent any other consideration, that is all they do. Imagine for a moment. an image of a white square posted on a white web page. You would not even be able to find it. However, if you where to impose two criteria on "black," that of dimension and position, you could create a black border around the image of the white square. The boundary of the image would become apparent, and the image would be revealed against the background. So, extremes can also provide the boundaries that help us place the image, that separate the image from its background or context, so that we can see it for what it is.
It is possible to render something recognizable out of a purely black and white image. Imagine a black silhouette against a white background. Depending on the familiarity of what was being depicted, black and white would do quite nicely in letting you identify the silhouette as the profile of Abraham Lincoln, taken from the everyday penny. It would not, however, allow you to identify me. Being able to identify people, objects, activities, processes from simple black and white information is dependent upon education, acculturation, and exposure to the original. It can be done, quickly and accurately, if the the subject matter is familiar enough, and if a superficial understanding is all that is required in order to act.
So what do we need to do to increase our understanding of the subject? If we allow ourselves eight shades of grey, and a whopping 252 total squares to hold them, we could recreate the experiment done in the Bell Laboratories in 1973, and be able to identify a portrait of Lincoln with sufficient information that we could tell that the image was not derived from the portrait on a penny, but most likely from the portrait on the five dollar bill. What would that image tell us about Lincoln other than the barest bit of context from which the image was derived? Not much.
So what happens when you create an image that incorporates a thousand shades of grey? This is what creates the artistry of the photograph. Think of the majestic tonal range of the photos of Ansel Adams or Edward Weston. The artistry of these men revealed something of the world to us that we had not contemplated before. Now think back to the early daguerreotypes of the young Lincoln. Suddenly, a whole host of impressions come flooding to mind. Beyond Lincoln's general appearance, there are hints at what genetics provided him, as well as the effects of his life, both physically and emotionally, that were shaping what nature had provided him at birth. The sinewy strength, the sharpness in the eyes of a placid face that already has witnessed much sorrow. In each successive portrait throughout his life, we can track the the changes in the man. We get a sense of all that transpired, the cost of every decision, the toll of every hardship that befell him and his family. What would you have to say of the man if you only knew him from a black and white silhouette? How do a thousand shades of grey change how you might see the man from whom the silhouette was drawn and cut?
Life is not black and white. It is not even a thousand shades of grey. Each moment, it presents to us ten thousand shades of grey. Life is not a photograph. It is not a representation. Life is - in all its glorious shadings from unfathomable darkness to blinding whiteness - simply life. It is the ten thousand shades of grey that vex us as much as inform us. We are challenged constantly to make judgments, make decisions, and act upon those decisions, in ways that can be matters of life and death. Most decisions are not presented in black or white, for life is not either/or. Black and white may define the range of what is possible, but it is the shades of grey that we must discern and place and judge that we may decide how to move or what to do or to not do. How much information is required to make a decision? Are eight shades of grey and 252 pixels enough? Does the consideration of 10,000 shades of grey overwhelm and thereby paralyze me? That is the challenge, and it is a very personal one, with a different answer for each person and each situation. You can limit yourself to eight shades of grey. You can shoot for 10,000. Know that your choice can, at one extreme, ill-prepare you to make a decision about a complex situation. At the other extreme, you may simply have too much information to place within a meaningful context such that you can make a decision. But one thing is true. This conundrum is what life confronts us with every day. Sentience does have a price. But it also has its rewards. It is precisely the 10,000 shades of grey that bring nuance, vitality, artistry and so much more to life.
And so, when confronted with candidates who don't "fit my bill of particulars," actions that I disagree with by officials I helped elect, or people who "opt out" with comments like "Voting is for suckers," I try to understand that nothing is as it seems when reduced to a silhouette or caricature, and sometimes eight shades of grey at 252 pixels is not enough to help me know how to respond.
Epilogue... There is one place where it seems black and white are sufficient to communicate nuanced information - the printed word. I hope that these musings have been a fair example of that.