What is White?
Today’s Average Temperature: 17.78˚ F
Today’s Average Wind Speed: 13.42 mph
Feels Like: -2.35˚ F
“A colour is never merely a colour, but the colour of a certain object …”
Maurice Merleau-Ponty (from Phenomenology of Perception)
The luminous expanse of the ice fields tempts my eyes to peer out toward the boundless horizon, as if trying to redefine the periphery of my own vision, enticing me to look beyond the limits of my former perceptions. There, hanging on the diaphanous line between land and sky, I see only endless snow and ice. Even in the direction of the mountains to the south, where the nunataks of the Ahlmann Ridge Range break the flatness of the terrain, it is the insistent presence of snow and ice that prevails.
It would be natural to presume the whiteness of such a landscape, and yet the more time I spend watching the environment each day, the less I believe in white at all. While there are momentary glimpses of something that feels like white, as when the mid-noon sun pushes its strong rays against the landscape so that the sheer brightness of its downward angle eliminates all hope of color, in truth it is luminosity that reigns. White, then, seems to become only a vehicle for the action of light upon the landscape, yet what is persistently baffling is that white can only exist as a consequence of light.
The idea of white is rather like the idea of zero. In a sense they are both elusive, and at the same time they each define entire systems, in science and mathematics, respectively. While they themselves are intangible, they give birth to their own infinities. Both white and zero each contain within them their own intrinsic paradox: white appears to the eye as the absence of all color, and yet it can be scientifically proven that it is comprised of all color, while zero is the sum total of nothingness and yet it can be proven to exist. Interestingly, they have both in various ways referred to the idea of the void. White and zero are lone wolves, isolated, like the continent of Antarctica itself, from the very things to which they are intrinsically connected.
White is not, itself, a color in the visible spectrum of light, but rather the sum total of them all. If you take all the color frequencies in the observable gamut, which range from 380 to 750 nanometers, you would get white light. Sir Isaac Newton, standing on the shoulders of earlier optical scientists, showed us these basic principals in his legendary prism experiment. By placing a prism in the direct path of the sun, he saw that white light divided into the pure spectral colors otherwise known as violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, red.
If white is the summation of all spectral color, then why do we experience white to be the absence of it? While Newton’s discovery furthered science in extraordinary ways, what of this theory of quantitative differentiation tells us of the millions of other colors we experience that have no name? The world as we see it with our senses is not merely comprised of these six colors.
Philosophically, white has always been attributed to the “blank canvas”, new beginnings, and is a beacon for peace and purity. Yet, is anything actually white? When we think we perceive white, we actually can still see bits of other colors, as light reflects and refracts across objects and surfaces. For instance, observe an average white-painted wall throughout the course of a 24-hour period. At first you take for granted that it is white because you expect it to be white. However, when you look more closely, and with time, you will see how slightly bluish the wall is by the window at midday, and slightly yellowish it is by the lamp you turned on after sunset, and how an orange chair is reflecting slightly onto the wall, making a glowing orangey spot of color appear.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the great philosopher and color theorist, was less interested in separating the spectrum into its divisible parts, as Newton was, but investigated instead the vague space between the pure colors, where the clear delineation between one color and the next was more mysterious. He looked not to the individual wavelengths but to the merging of short-wave light and long-wave light. He looked to where light interacted with itself. His research began with the notion that color, or light, was in fact a perceptual act that necessarily included a more introspective interpretation.
Looking out toward the horizon, with the subtle hues of colors blending and overlapping before my eyes, I begin to see the wisdom of his thinking. This complex system of light, and our seeing of it, maintains that the world of natural phenomena lies quite beyond the mind.
“The observer does not see a pure phenomenon with his eyes, but more with his soul. Information from the eye depends on the disposition of the organ at the moment, on light, air atmospheric conditions, matter, manipulation, and a thousand other circumstances.”
Goethe, January 15, 1798 (From Goethe’s Color Theory)
Observing, then, pure phenomenon itself, like the suns rays bouncing off the snow, or refracting through suspended ice crystals that are blowing in the strong Antarctic winds, I don’t perceive just one color, but many simultaneously. These substances – ice and snow – are prisms in their own right, and so display for us a myriad of colors as the result of light passing through them as they mingle together throughout the land and sky. But, then, the question remains, what color are all the individual frozen water crystals themselves? Are they white?
Physiologically, white is the perceptual experience which is elicited by light, and which subsequently activates the three kinds of color sensitive cone cells in our eyes in equal amounts. There is virtually an endless number of combinations of colors in the visible spectrum that will stimulate these cones in such a way – in other words, the illusion of white can be accomplished by an almost infinite number of luminous color circumstances. So then where does white exist? Is it a function only of our mind?
As I watch, minute-by-minute, the way the light interacts with the ice, snow and floating crystalline particulate, I am ever fascinated by the realization that what is purportedly “white” before me, is truly anything but. Explicit indigos, barely pale blues, vague, misty yellows, severe and subdued pinks, impossible violets and lavenders, farouche grays. These, and a million others, are the colors that pervade the sky and land here. Even if they are ever so softly imbuing the surface of the pale ice or snow, the color is present, and changing subtly throughout the day. Virtually everything in this landscape is a refracting surface, waiting to scatter and reflect light. Antarctica literally holds light within it. As coherent sunlight (white light) moves slowly throughout the environment here, it shimmers across and beneath the ice and snow, making everything luminous from the inside, and displaying colors that seem unimaginable.
Looking out again to the landscape as if for some clarity, I watch the deep interplay between light and crystal and find respite in its mysterious nature. Goethe reminds me, “…the highest is to understand that all fact is really theory. The blue of the sky reveals to us the basic law of color. Search nothing beyond the phenomena, they themselves are the theory.”
Photo and Video-Based Artist, USA
Copyright: Erika Blumenfeld 2009