Color, as a perceptual experience, does not exist in the outside world. Leaves are not intrinsically green, the sky is not blue, and strawberries are not red. The phenomenon of color is generated inside your head. It is an illusion created by the interaction of 50 billion neurons, starting at the back of your eyes and ends in an elaborate and precisely timed network of activity distributed broadly across the brain. Color manifests from the trillions of computations that happen between neurons and this information allows you to presume that apples, generally speaking, are indeed red. Luckily, most humans are made up of very similar DNA and proteins (and, subsequently, our brains behave about the same way) so that we can agree on the basic components of what we see.
The light units that allow us to see are called photons, described in terms of energy and wavelength. Photons from some light source (e.g., the sun, street lamp) hit some object in the real world, such as a leaf, and the object absorbs some of the photons and reflects others. What we see is the reflected light. So, depending on the color temperature of the light source, the color of the object can change. This is precisely why we need to apply color correction on most of our photographs. Our brains use a number of different methods to apply ‘color correction’ including our memories of those objects (“That wall was yellow earlier today so I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be yellow this evening!”). However, photographic film and digital sensors have no such brains, so it’s left up to us to sort out the what the real color should be.
Although neuroscience has made significant progress in our understanding of visual perception, how our brains create color perception is still very much a mystery. Currently, color vision is best explained by understanding how individual cells in the brain respond to light, but the real magic comes from the communication between cells. Keep in mind that the eye and brain is not like a camera sensor – it doesn’t just simply absorb light and give an output. Neurons from your hippocampus tell these cells what things looked like before, Wernicke’s area tells you the name of the object, and auditory cortex tells you the sound it makes (if looks like a lion, and roars like a lion, is it a lion? Maybe not if it’s green!). All of these different brain areas contribute to our visual perception, not just our eyes and visual cortex. Your mood influences the way your see things. Even the “value” of an object can change how your visual system responds, even at a very basic level. So, the next time you’re out making photographs, keep in mind that you are indeed influencing the image. You are not capturing an image. You are creating it.
Parts of this particular blog post has been re-digested from an article written by Peter Gouras, an ophthalmologist at Columbia University. The original and more detailed article can be found at Webvision.
I was interested in people not only as images, but also as human beings. In stories that they would tell me or interviews I had with them. It seemed to be it was an important part of what I was trying to communicate. — Jack Delano
The stock market crash of 1929 unemployed 25 percent of the American workforce. Millions were homeless. The farmlands of Middle America were destroyed by unforgiving, and poorly timed, droughts. Simply to survive, people became nomadic, wandering from place to place, looking for work. As part of the New Deal by Franklin Roosevelt, The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was created in 1937 by the Department of Agriculture to assist poor farmers and migrant workers during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
There was a special Historical Section within the FSA created to document this national concern and supply photographs to newspapers, magazines, and books. Headed up by Roy Emerson Stryker from 1935-1942, a photographic troupe within this Historical Section created 77,000 B&W and color images (now housed in the Library of Congress). This group included a number of now-famous photographers including Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Jack Delano, who contributed significantly to this collection of images, was perhaps lesser known than Evans and Lange, but no less influential, particularly to the art of color photography.
Stryker hired Delano as one of the FSA photographers in 1940. Like many of the FSA photographers, he traveled throughout the United States (including Puerto Rico) documenting the American way of life through its toughest economic period. Roy Stryker also gave Delano very specific photographic assignments, including one of his most famous involving the country’s train system. Jack Delano died in Puerto Rico in 1997.