V. Contrast / Social Contrast

Technically speaking, “contrast” in the pictorial realm is the ratio between the darkest dark and the lightest light in an image. “Soft” contrast at one end of the continuum indicates that there’s very little difference between the lights and darks, the extreme being a “muddy” or “flat” image, gray overall—as in the image below.


In between the extremes of contrast is “medium” contrast, what we’re accustomed to regarding as “normal.” Contrast is never one thing, it’s the difference between two things. Below, there are bright whites, deep shadows and a full range of grays in between.


At the other end of the continuum, “hard” contrast is where the darks are as black as the medium can accommodate and the whites are as bright as possible, with no grays in between. Here, a duplicate of the negative was made on Kodalith film, a process emulsion that only “sees” pure black and white. Of course, a different composition was necessary in this case. Had the boat been in the center, the image would have been too static.


When considering a film negative, photographers speak of “Dmax” (maximum density, where no light passes through the film) and “Dmin” (minimum density, or clear film). In the digital world, cameras have a built-in histogram that displays brightness levels that can be adjusted for each of the primary colors. Whatever the medium, Dmax and Dmin are devoid of detail. Being able to control contrast is both technically and aesthetically important because it determines the amount of detail that will be visible in the shadows and highlights. 


Aesthetically speaking, low contrast evokes a calm, flat, or soft sensibility. Such images are not seen very often because they’re not generally appealing. Extremely high contrast images are bold, evoking a sense of starkness and clarity. Commercial and fine art photographers working in black & white used to say the contrast adjustments were “right on” when the photograph exhibited “snap,” the full spectrum of tonalities—pure white and pure blacks with a full range of gray tones in between. Ansel Adams equated the tonal scale of photographic prints with that of a piano octave, and his ability to accomplish the full range of tones on photographic paper earned him a reputation as a master craftsman. For that reason alone, his original prints are far superior to the reproductions in books and posters. Seeing many of them when he spoke to our class at RIT, was a formative experience me.   


The first determinant of contrast is the light on the subject. The general rule is to not exceed the camera’s extreme brightness capacity—except in a few areas where it may be desirable or can’t be avoided—and then, look to see that there’s enough detail in the shadows where you want it. To get more detail, add more light. Controlling contrast amounts to adjusting the light on the subject or changing the exposure on the camera. Sometimes both. With film and photographic paper, contrast can also be increased by lengthening the development time.

Reflections On “Social” Contrast

There are innumerable social contrasts I could talk about, but the “elephant” in the nation at this time is politics—the contrast between “liberals” and “conservatives,” “Democrats” and “Republicans.” In the first posting of this series on the aesthetic dimensions—abstraction—I observed that one reason for the political polarization in this country and what sustains it, is the lack of agreement on the meaning of abstract words such as “liberty,” “freedom,” “justice,” “welfare,” “prosperity,” “militia.” Even simple words like “great,” and “fake” can have a wide spectrum of meanings. The assumption that everyone understands or agrees on the meaning of such words contributes to social contrast.

From photography, we can observe that low social contrast, where there’s little interest in public affairs and even less political engagement, a nation’s enthusiasm goes flat; the contrast range becomes contracted and dullness sets in. Feeling disenfranchised or helpless, citizens become disengaged and defer to the preferences of their representatives. The first image above represents this situation. The elements are all there, the subject matter can be recognized, but the expression lacks vitality.

On the other hand, when enthusiasm turns to fixated passion to the extent that neither side can abide the perspectives of the other, the contrast becomes so extreme it results in a war between the representatives, relationships become contentious and the system becomes dysfunctional. Extreme political contrast—represented by the last image—identifies citizens as either a black or a white pixel. You can’t be gray. Extreme contrast is militant: “Choose one position or the other and defend it!” There’s no detail, no middle ground, no substantive perspectives or open-mindedness in either of the positions.

Recent episodes of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods on television provided demonstrations of how extremely high political contrast can be reduced to a functional level. In both instances, the characters representing the extremes fully expressed their perspectives with well-reasoned arguments, making sure their positions were clearly understood. (In formal debate, the first order of business is always for the participants to define their terms). With the point of disagreement clear, the characters came together and negotiated terms—in detail—that would satisfy both. They compromised and reached a workable, win-win arrangement. 

An argument is reasoned when it’s based on sensible thinking and logic that flows from statistical analysis or proven facts rather than an emotional appeal. For instance, an argument that begins, “The American people want… or know…” is the hallmark of an emotional appeal. Nations are constituted of diverse people having too many perspectives and preferences to be lumped into a single philosophical category, despite what surveys or poles might say.   

At the end of the Blue Bloods episode, Frank Reagan, the NYC Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck, rebuilt a contentious relationship that had developed between him and his daughter, Erin Reagan, the Assistant District Attorney played by Bridget Moynahan, by citing a particularly nasty hockey game where the players on both sides shook hands after the game. Respect was regained in that situation by acknowledging that, although the game was difficult and people got hurt, the higher ideal of sportsmanship was maintained. I represent that situation in the middle image above.

Social contrast, like pictorial contrast, has to be managed. In the first place, that can only happen when both extremes loosen their grip on how to accomplish a common goal. That requires the participants to have open minds. Once the goal is clearly articulated and agreed upon, the means toward achieving it have to be presented in a reasoned argument on both sides, and that requires full concentration, understanding, respectful questioning and listening, again with an open mind. Finally, and critically important, the participants must consider the maintenance of their relationship as more important than winning any single argument. Shaking hands, having a meal together, meeting each other’s families, frequent personal interaction—these ensure that the next game will be played well.

“Thank you” to the writers, producers, and the cast of Madam Secretary and Blue Bloods. They are prime examples of television that’s socially responsible—showing the full range of tones, not just the extremes.

The critical contrast between seeing and looking-at cannot be overestimated. Seeing touches the heart. Looking-at is cold hearted. The difference may be a matter of life and death.

Fredrick Franck (Artist)

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”



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