Colour is both joyful and exhausting. It’s the signature of life: a signal to living creatures that we’re here on Earth instead of far away on a remote, monochrome moon.
Think of how the world would look if everything were in black and white, the two neutral colours of a legal document. It would look dead and lifeless.
Most animals, together with birds and insects, have colour vision. Dogs tend to confuse red and green, but they can certainly distinguish red from blue. Even cats — once thought to see only in black and white — can detect more colours than was once thought.
Our Colourful Vision
Human beings have sophisticated colour vision because of the number of cones in the eye. As a result, we can see that trees have a hundred shades of green in the spring and a thousand shades of red, yellow and brown in the fall. If we wait until winter, when life is hibernating, we see the countryside drained of brilliant colour, leaving brown branches, blue smoke, white snow and little else apart from evergreen trees, colourful man-made objects, and, of course, the birds.
Birds have better colour vision than we do. They see more colours and they have additional color cones in their retina, making them more sensitive to ultraviolet. Even to our eyes, birds appear to have colourful plumage, but to them the feathers of another bird are quite remarkable — and well worth a compliment in birdsong.
We’re Outclassed by the Birds
Don’t just take my word for it. Scientists have studied the colour vision of birds, comparing it to our own. Richard Prum, professor of ornithology, ecology, and evolutionary biology at Yale University, noted: “The startling thing to realise is that although the colors of birds look so incredibly diverse and beautiful to us, we are colorblind compared to birds.”
It appears that birds can see far more colours than they make in their plumage. However, over millions of years of evolution they’re gradually catching up, becoming more and more colourful. The same phenomenon is happening, not in human evolution (as far as we know) but in human culture — and far more quickly.
Professor Prum, with Mary Caswell Stoddard of the University of Cambridge, authored the 2011 paper: “How colorful are birds? Evolution of the avian plumage color gamut.”
It’s a fascinating read and raises all kinds of questions that are relevant to photography. For example, at the time of its publication, Professor Prum said: “Our clothes were pretty drab before the invention of aniline dyes, but then color became cheap and there was an explosion in the colorful clothes we wear today.” He added: “The same type of thing seemed to have happened with birds.”
Birds use colour for different purposes: not only as camouflage but also for social signalling and choosing a mate. But what came first: the avian visual system or the complex communication signals which led, via evolution, to increasingly colourful plumage? It’s not a “chicken and egg” situation! Scientists are reasonably sure the visual system evolved first and all the rest followed.
Likewise, we are filling our world with increasingly colourful objects: murals, paintings, bright plastic chairs, anoraks, tee-shirts, mailboxs, and brightly coloured vehicles. When Henry Ford said the customer could have a car painted any colour as long as it was black, he must have realised the policy would eventually have to change. We see colour and we yearn for colour, even when it’s garish and in questionable taste.
The Yellow Car
A while back there was an illustration of our modern attitude towards colour when hundreds of motorists driving bright yellow cars descended on the Cotswold village of Bilbury, in Gloucestershire. They were there in support of Peter Maddox, 84, a resident whose own yellow car had been vandalised by people who thought it looked out of place in the picture-postcard village.
Mr Maddox had no wish to offend and replaced the car with a grey one, but not before news of the dispute spread on the Internet. Hearing that tourists had deprived a pensioner of his car simply because it ruined their photos was more than other yellow car owners could bear. Like a swarm of angry bumble bees they arrived at Bilbury to make “a celebration of anything yellow“.
The story ends happily for some, but not for all. Today in England, you can have your car sprayed in “Maddox Yellow.” Thank you, Mr. Ford.
And the Conclusion Is?
For the street photographer, the only possible conclusion is that the world is getting ever more colourful — often in ways we find hard to accept. We can exclude colour and stick to black and white photography. Or we can embrace it joyfully, like the motorists who went to Bilbury in support of Mr. Maddox.
In my own experience I find a similar conflict between the subtle grey tones of traditional architecture and the garish additions of street signs, posters, graffiti, and brightly coloured hairstyles, clothes and accessories. This is especially true in the northern cities of Europe and North America, where the best policy for the street photographer is to be selective with colour, using it for contrast and emphasis.
In tropical countries, colour becomes more prevalent in human culture — as it does among birds. I still try to make sense of it when taking pictures in South-East Asia where I’m obliged to see the world primarily in terms of colour. I sometimes limit the range of colour within a single image, as in the featured photo (at the top). At other times I “let it all hang out” and include every colour in front of me (as below).
I don’t expect everyone to approve.