Playing With Colour

The poet Goethe wanted to be forgotten for his poems (in the running for the greatest in the German language) and remembered for what he said about colour. He said a lot of things about colour, most of which lead all the physicists astray into frustration, confusion and dismissal, but one thing they missed went something like this…

Filbert Tree in the Early Winter Sun

With all its catkins out for all to admire. The ladies come out at winter’s end, with less show.

With a plea for forgiveness, because I had to make this image with a machine and wasn’t able to lead you here to see it with your own eyes, as Goethe would have preferred (and as I would have preferred, too, because we could have a cup of tea together and share some time on this earth), Goethe suggested that light was one indivisible stuff, which took on colour and differentiation when viewed by humans in a manner consistent with their mood, health, age, character, and so forth. Outwardly, it seems to be pretty poetic stuff. It wasn’t. He was reacting to Newton who showed that white light could be divided into a rainbow, and then put back together again into white light. Goethe’s point was that such an approach saw only division, not unity, and so missed the real story, which was indivisibility.

Lombardy Poplar Catkins in the Spring

Newtonian physics points out that all wavelengths of light are absorbed by these catkins, except for those which radiate in the red and purple spectrum. Goethe tried to point out that it is the same light. The visible differences were, in his view, indicative of more than just wavelengths of light.

Colour photography, however, is a Newtonian technology, not a Goethean one. For most of its history, it has worked much like a phonograph, which turned sound into vibrations, which could be turned back into sound. In terms of photography, if light can be taken apart into primary colours, as Newton did with prisms, it can be recreated by laying sheets of those primary colours on top of each other. The total will produce “colour”. Until computer technology, this was how colour printing was done, sort of like this:

Red and … (hang in there, I’m going somewhere with this…)

Red and green and … (keep hanging on, those are sturdy branches there…)

Red and green and blue and … (by the fingernails, if you have to…)

Red and green and blue and black (for the shadows and the ooomph) make …


Which were really the 1950s until the 1970s. I even had a 1950s bathroom with tiles the colour of that sky once, with wallpaper that also had shells and fish and stuff.  Anyway, by the 1960s colour photography had become pretty sophisticated. If our filbert tree were processed on a Kodak print back then, it might have looked like this.

By the 1970s, colour was even better…


Brought to you by the ultimate in German chemical technology. I tell you, it was exciting at the time. One felt that one was walking in a European calendar, all of the time! Which was a very dreamy thing, for sure.

Then things went nuts. First there were postcards, which tourists could pick up at every gas station or castle, depending on one’s continent….

Postcard Style

Grab ’em, extract the cash, and wait for the next sucker. Humans really went for this stuff. For humans, it was like the chocolate chip cookie of the soul. This was before the invention of supersize fries, of course.

The techno boys were onto something. Humans are biologically wired for difference, and when it’s difference in colour and light it goes straight to the reptilian brain and humans start looking for canoes full of British explorers out in the main current of the river of life, that they can slide over to and ambush, so to speak. Well, after that, of course, came the pixel, that could do all of these colour overlays all on its little own, and the electronic camera, and the kind of image that appears everywhere now as an image of nature, like this:

Just Slide the Saturation Sliders All the Way to the Right and …

… you have the planet as tourists see it, which now looks like a permanent state of affairs. This makes contemporary humans go, like, “Wow!” It’s infinitely seductive.

Here is the technique again in a government approved tourism photo:

Kelowna Vineyard

British Columbia Government Photo. Source. This is not the earth. 

Goethe was trying to prevent that. He was aiming for a way of seeing which remained with the world and with human relationships to it, as part of it. Here’s the photo again, a little less intrusively, although I must say it’s impossible to humanize what a machine has dehumanized, but at least it’s a little closer to the world (but just a little.)

Failed Attempt to Rehumanize the Machine

Oh, well. I succeeded, I think, in making it look like a drugstore photo print from 1981.

To Goethe, the question of whether science and poetry, or science and art needed to be reunited was absurd. To him, there was no difference, because they came from the same infinite living source, that this life force, this energy, was the story of the universe, and led to this kind of thing…

Looking Across Okanagan Lake to Short’s Creek Canyon

A blue world for the blue season, in the emotional and spiritual sense as well as the physical one. The light glowing from the lake is part of this spiritual story, as are all the subtle gradations in it, as apprehended by the human eye that doesn’t separate it into wavelengths before viewing it, but views it from within itself.

To Goethe, there was one world, and the subtleties of human reactions to it could uncover its deepest secrets in a process of growth that would not end. There are a number of deductions that could be drawn from this. One of them is that claims by some contemporary physicists that they are on the verge of cracking the mysteries of the universe are about to prove Goethe right. The next is that claims by many contemporary humanists that Indigenous peoples have an intimate relationship with nature, and are part of it, whereas Europeans are not, is just plain ignorant hokum. If I may speak so plainly.

Tomorrow: What happened to it, and how to fix that.

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