Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Power of the Both/And

Thanks to K.S. for his comment on my entry on The Tyranny of the Either/Or, noting extremes are important: Black and white are needed to make a beautiful photograph.

It's a wonderful analogy! The beautiful Ansel Adams photographs that so many of us enjoy have an incredibly rich range of grays between the deep black and bright white extremes. (One of my treasured experiences was taking a 1-week photo workshop in Yosemite, offered by the Ansel Adams studio.)

How would his photos look without the grays? Fairly stark. Of course there are questions for which there are properly only yes or no answers. R.S.V.P.: Will you be attending the event? But many other questions involve nuances - shadings of choice. Those who try to polarize the public are very skilled at recasting complex, nuanced questions into stark either/or, black/white forms. It's a lot simpler to pick between 2 choices. Alas, often that's a false simplicity because the answer is "it depends."

An even greater challenge is when we're offered no choice: It's either all black or all white. What dull pictures those make! (Even Ad Reinhart's totally black Abstract Painting at MOMA - one of my favorites - is made of very subtly different shades of black.) If our worlds were all black or all white, we'd be blind and reliant on others to guide us. That's the danger that Adams, Jefferson, and others warned against in founding the U.S.A. We must be educated well enough to make our own judgments or we risk becoming relegated to being subjects of totalitarian government.

So the answer to the Tyranny of the Either/Or must at least be Consider Both/And. That answer doesn't quite do it, though, because we need to be discerning enough to see the multiple shades of gray. We'll need to find a pithy way of saying that, though.


  1. I always look at Ansel Adams' Moonrise and wonder what made this photo so beautiful. I believe Ansel did a lot of "Dodge and Burn" jobs in his darkroom to make black blacker and white whiter. No one wants a flat gray photo. It is the contrast between the black and white that makes his photo beautiful. However if the contrast is too strong, no one likes it either. This is why the gray comes into play. A rich mid-tone gray with two strong extremes will make any photo look nicer.

    Today the world has been, or will be, digitized. Everything will be either 1 or 0. We cannot live without the two extremes, but it is the in-betweens that make our life rich and interesting.

  2. Ansel was definitely heavy on the post-production -- lore has it that many of his negatives look nothing like the final prints... and so many frown upon "photochopped" images these days...

    But we digress... to your original sentiment, nuance matters! Hopefully each pixel in this digital age will have enough bit depth to capture the subtleties that society thrives on, rather than flattening information into bigoted binaries!

  3. So I enjoy the patterns of snowflakes. Leaves of daffodils are bursting out of my garden ground. Listening to the birds’ messages, it will soon be spring!