Black and White
by Steven Guarnaccia and Susan Hochbaum
Published by Chronicle Books
256 pages, 2002
Buy it online
What's Black and White and Read All Over?
Reviewed by David Middleton
Think of all the things in our lives that can be described using only black and white. Not that many you say? More than you may think, I say. Newsprint, X-rays, eye charts, piano keys, eightballs, dice, white lines on a black road, a priest's collar, zebras, a chess board, penguins, dominoes, ace of spades, fingerprints (should you be so unfortunate as to have them taken) crossword puzzles, Dalmations, chalk on blackboards, tuxedoes, referees, skunks, the stars at night, Holstein cows. And so much more if you think about it. We used to actually watch the world come into our living rooms every night on a device that didn't even fully represent all the colors of the spectrum. And we thought this was normal -- well at least it was if you were living in my family in the late sixties.
So when I picked up Steven Guarnaccia and Susan Hochbaum's little book Black and White I wasn't so much surprised at how many things in our lives can be relegated down to simple positives and negatives, but that no one had thought to collect them into a book before now.
Black and White puts aside basic color theory -- how red is supposed to make us angry and blue is supposed to instill a calming effect -- and just concentrates on some basic emotional theories. Blacks and whites are the off/on switches of the psyche, the yes/no answer to a basic question. While none of us sees the world in black and white, there is comfort to be taken in the fact that so many things can be relegated into the simple terms black and white offers us. We need not see the entire spectrum to get the point. Black and White makes this point eloquently and takes a look at the black and white -- but not so simple -- world of black and white and the constantly shifting perspective we have of these polar opposites.
Emotionally black is seen as the negative (thinking dark thoughts?) and white the positive (look on the bright side!). Black is usually regarded as the lack or absence of color, white is the all or totality of color. Yet in print, where the majority of what we read is black type on a white background (like you are reading here), black becomes the positive and white the neg. When you look at it that way these seemingly simple colors suddenly take on ambiguous and shifting meanings. If the good guy wears the white hat then why are nuns and priests dressed in black? If white is the conglomeration of all colors, then why can't I create it using every one of my Crayolas?
Being a visual artist, somewhat sensitive and, some would say, moody, I have a propensity toward a wardrobe consisting of dark and black and if my clothes are sufficiently new enough: dark black (unlike the well-worn uniform from my art school days which after successive washings has faded to a less gothic shade of pewter). Like the beatniks of the 50s and 60s, the poets from name-any-century and the rest of the vampires that haunt the sleazy gin joints and all-night art supply stores, black seemed to be the color of choice among the tortured artiste set. During the evening hours black helps you blend in with the dimly lit corners: it makes you all but invisible save for your ghostly pale face which rarely sees the light of day and on those rare occasions you happen to venture out into the blinding white light, the all black wardrobe helps to keep those who do not know you at a safe and quiet distance. For once they get a look at your get-up and the black cloud which doubtless incessantly hangs over your pasty visage -- that and the black pits which substitute for your eyes -- they give you a wide and cautious berth. So, to me, black not only represents comfort and security, it also makes my ass look smaller.
But you could argue -- and you'd be right to do so -- black would be nothing were it not for white. Where black can be seen as heavy and somber, white is seen as light and cheery. Weddings, mornings (which my eyes have never gotten used to), cleanliness, virtue, honesty, goodness; all represented by white. The yin-yang symbol: its curving teardrops chasing each other's tail, locked in an eternal circle, its black half and its white half each containing a drop of the other in the knowledge that either would not -- could not -- exist without the other, and that within each the understanding of the other.
Black and White is made up entirely of black and white -- not a single other color in attendance. We even know that the ambiguous gray tones in the book are still made up of closely spaced black dots: the halftone only creating the illusion of an interloping third shade.
Within Black and White' s 265 pages are a wide range of things that can be described simply by touching black ink to white paper. It even gives some imaginative answers to that age-old riddle: What is black and white and red all over? From a vintage ad for makeup to black and white photos of basic judo holds -- plus some interesting quotes and tidbits about black and white's place in history and our lives -- down to its beautifully basic eyechart-style cover, Black and White is a wonderful resource for designers and a just plain fun read for those of us who find rainbows to be gaudy and highly overrated. | April 2002
David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine and he just thinks that black makes his ass look smaller.