NHK has a feature called Blends where they have performances of modern music performed with traditional instruments and styles. Mana Yoshinaga plays Madonna’s 1989 hit Like a Prayer on a traditional Japanese koto. It it quite beautiful (as is she.) The performance begins at about the 55 second mark after an introduction.
Haiku (俳句) is a well known style of short Japanese poem that has become popular among English and other speakers. We’re taught that haiku has three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables. An argument can be made that 5-7-5 isn’t exactly correct and that haiku can’t be the same in English as it is in the original Japanese.
古池や furui ike ya At an ancient pond 蛙飛び込む kawazu tobikomu the frogs go bounding into 水の音 mizu no oto the sound of water
by Matsuo Bashou, 1686, translation W. Milberry*
Haiku was originally first stanza of a style of old Japanese collaborative poetry called renga (連歌). These short first stanza’s became popular themselves and became their own short poems, haiku was born from them. They were written in the specific style of 5-7-5. However, ‘syllable’ means something a little different in English than it does in Japanese which throws the necessity of the 5-7-5 pattern into question when haiku are written in English.
The entirety of the Japanese language consists of a finite set of vowel or consonant-vowel combination sounds. There is a total of only 139 sounds in the enirety of the Japanese language and they can all be spelled out using the Japanese Hiragana alphabet seen below.
All Japanese words, including those which are written with complex Chinese kanji characters (漢字), can be spelled out with the Hiragana alphabet characters above. Haiku’s 5-7-5 pattern derives from how many Hiragana sounds are needed to write out each line.
Where Japanese phonetics differ from English is that adjacent sounds never combine and each Hiragana is pronounced with the same time duration making it not quite line up with the way English speakers see syllables in words. For example, the word ‘haiku’ is spelled out with three Hiragana sounds: ha-i-ku (はいく) but only two syllables (hai-ku), to English ears. Other well known Japanese words that we miscount syllables on are the city names of Tokyo and Sapporo. We hear these as three syllables (To-ky-o and Sap-po-ro) but they are both actually four Hiragana sounds (とうきょう or To-u-kyo-u and さっぽろ or Sa-p-po-ro.) In Sapporo you can see the effect of the small ‘tsu’ (っ), which doubles the following ‘p’. This is a distinct sound to the Japanese but one that English ears are blind to.
Because of this difference in the way the two languages interpret their basic units of sound (Hiragana for Japanese and syllables for English), you can ask if it is really meaningful to adhere to a strict 5-7-5 syllable pattern when writing haiku poems in English? Perhaps it’s better to focus on the other distinguishing characteristics, namely their invocation of natural imagery and simplicity which invites the listener to imagine.
Japan’s national broadcast station NHK has a series called Haiku Masters where they invite people to submit haiku in English. Above is the haiku of the month for 12/2016. It, like many others, doesn’t follow the 5-7-5 format but instead focuses on the more meaningful aspects of haiku. Phonetic pattern, rhythm, and rhyme in poetry is something the English world focuses on somewhat more than other languages. The frequent explanation of haiku being 5-7-5 syllable poems above being described as the invocation of natural imagery and the reader’s imagination speaks to this.
If you’ve ever wanted to write haiku but have difficulty adhering to 5-7-5 give it a try without being so strict about the form and you might create something small but full of beauty like the haiku by Marion Clarke above which makes us think about bees and how they live their short lives to fullest.
* The haku by Matsuo Bashou at the very top of this post is a well known haiku and has been translated hundreds of times. The Japanese language doesn’t apply a plural form to nouns so it’s linguistically not specified if the author was thinking of one frog or many. Haiku is meant to invoke images of nature and is intentionally simple to invite the reader to use their imagination. Only about one out of every two dozen or so translations of this haiku uses plural “frogs.” To me plural “frogs” invokes a stronger feeling of being in a place full of nature. It reminds me of a frog filled lake outside of my hometown that my departed grandmother and I used to visit during summers when I was young. Since I placed this haiku early in the article prior to any explanation I did stick to 5-7-5 syllables but would have preferred to have written the second line “a frog goes bounding in” rather than “into” if I wasn’t adhering to 5-7-5.
In the year 2000 the college that I was working for at the time politely asked me if I could move my web pages elsewhere because they were generating excessive traffic due to the growing popularity of my anime music videos. I had been using the name Aluminum Studios for a while but it was at that time aluminumstudios.com was born.
Over the years the site was home to my anime music videos (AMVs) and pages on digital video editing, then photography, and a photoblog. Now with this redesign I plan on producing much more significant content.
Since I started the site all of those years ago I’ve learned Japanese, lived in Japan, taught English, traveled all around Asia, married a wonderful Japanese woman, worked for the government, and now work in higher education. I’ve gained a lot of insight into Japanese and Asian culture and language and want to write and produce content about it with the same interest and zeal that drove me to do AMVs all of those years ago.
I like to create my own designs and presentation so I chose my own site as a home for this project as opposed to social media where you have no long term control over your content and censorship seems to be on the rise.
I’ll have both blog posts as well as longer articles on a variety of interesting Japan, Asia, and technology related topics. I also plan on sharing a number of ESL lessons and worksheets I created while teach English in Japan.
This will take a little time but I plan on working steadily on it with this site redesign being the first step. So please bookmark the site and stop back or subscribe to my RSS feed.
An older Australian friend in my little Japanese town who I enjoyed meeting for a cup of coffee and chatting with from to time asked me “What makes black and white special? Why do we regard it as artistic?” He and another friend had been discussing the topic and trying to quantify why black and white (b&w), photos have an artistic feel to them and why interest in them endures long after the advent of color photography.
This wasn’t a naive question. The man had worked as a professional photographer in his younger years and had a keen understanding of it all, but hadn’t quite been able to put an answer to this question. I thought about it for a long time and found myself taking a bit of a scientific perspective to find an answer.
In brief, while projecting images in pinhole camera-like boxes was described in antiquity, the science and ability to take a permanent photograph got it’s start in the first half of the 1800’s with several French and English inventors who knew that certain silver compounds would darken when hit with light. Once processes to prevent silver images from rapidly darkening and fading away were nailed down, the photograph was born. A surface treated with silver compounds and stored in a dark box could have an image projected onto it through a pinhole or lens, then once treated would retain the image which formed where light triggered a chemical change that darkened the silver compounds.
The first technology to take photos was intrinsically black and white. No matter what color of light hit the silver compounds it reacted the same by turning black.
While innovative ways of taking multiple black and white images with different color filters then projecting them with color lights were dreamt up early on, it wasn’t until Kodak’s commercial introduction of Kodachrome film in 1935 that color photos started to become more common. Color films work on a similar concept to black and white, except they have layers with filters between them and different sensitivities, so as light shines through the film, one layer is exposed by blue light, another layer is exposed, by green, and another by red. The development process dyes these layers and washes away the blackened silver leaving a color image. Many variations have existed (negative film, positive film, print paper, etc), but this is the general design concept of most color films and papers.
Digital camera image sensors are similar to black and white film in that they are sensitive to light no matter what color. To make a digital sensor distinguish colors, rather than having color layers like film, individual pixels have different color filters over them. A typical pattern of red, green, blue pixels in common use is pictured to the left. Because these pixel-level filters are integrated into the image sensing chip, this means that all consumer digital cameras are intrinsically color and post-processing is needed to convert a photo taken by a digital camera into black and white. When a digital camera is set to b&w mode, the sensor still sees in color, processing is just done by the camera’s processor to convert the image to b&w.
Photography makes use of light to create art. So if we think about the nature of light a little, we might gain some insights into the way we perceive it and it’s role in art and aesthetics.
When you get down to the basics, light only has a handful of properties that are relevant to photography. Light has intensity (brightness), wavelength (color), polarization, and we’ll also include focus because even though it’s not really a “natural property” of light, it’s essential to photos. Of these characteristics, polarization is not essential to capturing an image using light so let’s exclude that. Of the remaining characteristics, focus is necessary because without focusing the light there is no image. Intensity is also necessary because without distinguishing light and dark we can’t make out objects, their details, or boundaries. Color however is not necessary to form a clearly recognizable image. It’s only necessary to focus the light and record its intensity to take a recognizable photo. This places color into a category of lower importance and essentially makes it “optional.” Because it’s optional, I suspect that even if the first photographic process had been color, black and white is still something that people would have chosen to work with. I think this is especially true when you consider the following:
If we look deeper into color and what it means to vision, we’ll find that humans have better color vision than some other segments of the animal kingdom, (but not all.) Color vision is determined by how many different kinds of color light receptors (called “cones”), an animal’s retina has. Some animals only have one type of light receptor, which gives them monochrome ( essentially black and white) vision. Many mammals have two kinds of color receptors (aka “dichromatic vision”), which gives only partial color vision. Such animals are often red-green colorblind, but that can vary by species. At some point in post-dinosaur evolutionary history primates (including human’s ancestors), developed a third color receptor giving us fuller color vision than other mammals.
Even though we have good color vision, the color receptors (cones) in the eye’s retina have limited light sensitivity and are accompanied by another type of receptor called rods. Rods don’t help to distinguish color, but rather provides us with greater general light sensitivity and supply us with a majority of our night vision. You may not realize it, but our night vision in very low light is mostly monochrome (although you might interpret low light as blueish.)
“our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color.”
Considering the fact that full color vision is an evolved trait that our evolutionary lines didn’t always have, and that our night-vision is largely monochromatic, it’s reasonable to conclude that our brains are still fully wired to interpret images without color. An image without color is completely natural to us and something our brains process without any quandary.
It’s theorized the enhanced color vision evolved as an improved survival trait in stressful times so that primates could identify ripe (red, orange) fruit, fresh light green growth, and such visually. Another theory was so that primates could identify states such as anger or illness in other primates by identifying skin color changes (such as blushing). Either way the fundamental idea of the various theories of color vision evolution all entail giving animals greater detail about the world as opposed to providing the fundamental mechanism of vision.
I think nature’s intended purpose for color vision can help us interpret color’s role in aesthetics and photography.
Black and White’s Effect
If we take into account the realizations above that color is not necessary to record a detailed image, and that color vision is an evolved enhancement which gave animals (in this case primates and humans), extra information about the world, we can start to look upon color not as a fundamental aspect of light and sight, but rather an extra, a type of detail that is optional.
If this idea seems unclear, let me draw a comparison: We live in a rich world of sound with the voices of family, the sounds of nature, the artistry of Beethoven, the voice of your favorite singer, etc. Yet we hear far less than cats and dogs do with their ability to hear into higher frequency ranges. Despite knowing that we don’t hear the extra details of higher pitches which exist, we don’t think that we live in a less rich world sound-wise. Likewise when looking at black and white photos, most people don’t feel that they are having a less rich experience than when they look at a color image.
Since in many ways color can be regarded as a detail, it’s absence frees our eyes, attention, and mind to focus on other aspects of the photo. Without color, some clutter is removed and other aspects of the content such as shapes, textures, contrasts, and smaller details in the photo are free to step forward and claim more attention that might otherwise be taken by color. Often, these smaller subjects can wind up conveying as much or even more than colors can.
Below is an example of how what your attention is drawn to can differ between color and b&w. If you move your mouse cursor over the following image you will see it in color. In color various items such as the blue plastic in the background (right above the man’s head), the red scroll on the ground to the left of the man, and the yellow reflector on the cement post on the right draw the attention and less time is spent focusing on the man. (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version. (opens in new window))
Another way in which color is different from black and white is how visual relationships are set up within the image. In color both the color hue AND brightness contrast matters, but in black and white there is only brightness contrast. So in b&w directing attention within an image is a little more simple and direct. This allows more attention to go to contemplating the subject rather than visually decoding the image and relationships within it. This alters the impression an image has on us.
It’s important to clarify that categorizing color as a detail and not as something fundamental is not dismissing color’s importance or role. It plays a critical role when it is thoughtfully incorporated into an image. Color however does lead us to process the image differently and thus a color and black and white version of the same image can have different feelings and interpretations.
Take a look at the following black and white photo and note which figures your eyes are drawn to and what impression it has. Does it look like a moment in time? An action in progress? Then look away for a moment and move your mouse over the picture to show it in color and look at it again. Try to notice where your eyes go. Do you take it in differently in color vs black and white? (If mousing over the image doesn’t work in your browser click here for the b&w and here for the color version (opens in new window).)
To illustrate how color can affect perception I’ll explain how I see the above image. In my case the black and white version looks like a moment captured in time. My eyes are drawn towards the illuminated man with his mouth open near the center triggering me to imagine his voice as he sings, and then my eyes are drawn to the silhouettes of the women with lanterns on their heads which are mysterious and all facing left or right with some kind of order or intent. These elements take the focus, engage my imagination, and draw me into the scene. In the color version, the blue’ish screen in the background is a different color from the white stage lights slightly visible above it and the red floor the musicians are standing on below it drawing my attention the fact that the scene is on a stage. The alternating red and white of the four lighted umbrellas above the stage also draw my eyes’ attention resulting in less attention going to the singer and female silhouettes. The added detail of color triggers me to analyze the scene more than imagining being there. This prevents me from entering the moment as deeply.
“color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.”
I describe this (admittedly subjective), experience as “color photos show what something looks like and b&w photos show what something is.” Each has its use and I’m by no means saying color is less than b&w. This is all an attempt to explain why black and white retains a special, heavily used place in the photography world.
Because of differences in how color and black and white are processed by the viewer, black and white shouldn’t be considered a treatment or an after-the-fact editing choice. A good artist decides if they are going to shoot in color or black and white, then thinks in accordance with that when visualizing and setting up shots. One of the reasons for using black and white film is, because unlike digital where you will have many options available for how a digital photo looks when converted to black and white, film will lock you into the look and qualities of the film (and development method) that was chosen. This forces the photographer to think more before the shutter is pressed and this leads to better results than after-the-fact editing. (Personally, I think limitations make artists work better and more carefully with tools, so in addition to other aesthetic values it brings, I’m a huge fan of film.)
This discussion has been from a somewhat science based perspective. There are many more discussions to be had about the aesthetics and artistic principles involved in black and white. For now though I’d like to review the three key points I focused on here:
When thinking about the nature of light, color can be viewed as an optional detail which is not necessary to consider in order to produce a clear and understandable photographic image.
Color vision evolved as a mechanism to give some animals (including humans), additional information about the world. Even with this, we retain an undiminished capacity to understand visuals without color.
The presence of color alters the way we view and interpret photos and thus the impact that they have.
I would like to leave you with an interesting thought that I had while thinking about b&w. Unlike the ideas above, I have no evidence to support this and it’s open for debate, but its an interesting topic to consider: Nostalgia has no counterparts.
Nostalgia has no counterparts: Black and white photos tend to have a strong nostalgic or old-time feeling to them. Most old photos are black and white, so many people assume that b&w reminds us of those photos from the past. The idea that b&w=old is deeply ingrained in our psyche and could certainly be part of the reason. But could there be an additional aspect to this feeling? Famed Japanese photographer Moriyama Daido said that black and white photos have a stronger element of abstraction and symbolism, and this can play a role in transporting your mind to another place. Perhaps because the past can be seen more clearly than the present or the future, we often romanticize bygone eras, and there is no future or present counterpart for the feeling of “nostalgia”, an old-time nostalgic feeling is the default feeling that comes about when a b&w photo successfully draws us in? Let’s also not forget, that by definition every photograph is of some past event or place, even if it was only yesterday!
To keep my articles a readable size I give just enough background information to make things relevant and understandable. For more information about some of the topics discussed you might wish to check out the following links:
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Hikaru Utada has long been one of my favorite JPOP artists. Her voice is more dynamic than many other Japanese female signers and her lyrics are a little more metaphoric and deep than typical JPOP. She has a history of making very unique and creative music videos as well, and this one is no exception.
Translations are provided for educational purposes only and to provide analysis and deeper understanding of the artists work. If you are interested in Hikaru Utada at all please purchase her work.
If video stutters or stops, pause it for a minute until it has a chance to buffer.
Mt. Aso in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, is one of the most beautiful places William Milberry has ever been to. I’ve been there four times, two of which on scooter, and the landscape awed me each time. It is one of the largest volcanic caldera in the world. In ancient times a massive volcano erupted there causing the entire surrounding area to sink. The land is twisted and rippled with lots of natural countryside. Only soft-looking, short shrubs and grasses grown on some of the volcanic hills due to the nutrient poor soil which is mostly volcanic ash. If you ever visit Japan’s Kyushu region, Aso should definitely be put on your list of places to go.
Photographing landscapes is a challenge for me because it’s tough to capture the awe that amazing places inspire and their grand scales in a single image, especially with a DSLR. Landscapes demand a much larger imaging surface such as medium or large format. Landscapes also demand a very careful, technical, methodical approach. I’m very capable of this and engaged in such work a lot in the past, but in recent years I’ve been finding my inspiration in a more Japanese style wabisabi aesthetic which is a very different mindset.
Kome Zuka (lit. ‘Rice Mound’), is a volcanic cone found in the Aso caldera – William Milberry
Centuries of erosion cause deep grooves in the volcanic hills
Sparse vegetation on the rocky, volcanic, landscape
A while ago William Milberry went to a flea market in the Hakozaki district of Fukuoka city. Like all flea markets the places was full of old and interesting things from the past. I found an old roll of Fuji 35mm color film in a box of junk. It wasn’t in a canister and was fully rewound, so it seemed as if it had been used.
I couldn’t resist the curiosity and struck up a conversation with the old man running selling the stuff. William Milberry: 「この古いフィルムはどんな写真が入っているかな。。。」 (I wonder what kind of photos are on this film?…) old Japanese man: 「さあ、分からん。」 (I don’t really know.)William Milberry: 「気になるから、百円はどう？」 (I’m curious, how about 100 yen?)
old Japanese man: 「（笑）いいよ。」 ((laughing) Sure. )
I took the film home and decided to develop it as black and white in HC110 – a developer which is pretty decent at cross-processing as well as working on really old or damaged film. The film itself was out of control curly, it had obviously been wound up inside the 35mm canister for years if not decades. It came out of the developer almost jet black. I was able to scan two images off of it …
Forgotten Memories 02 (found film) – by William Milberry
These photos are very intriguing because they offer a little window into a past, forgotten time. I’m very much a follower of the wabisabi aesthetic and accept and enjoy the deterioration in these photos because it was imparted by time. It invites me to imagine the film’s history and journey from some Japanese person’s camera, to the flea market, and now around the world to my home in America.