Newton, Scriabin , Leopold & God, But Shirley Wasn’t Always Blonde

Synesthesia, a condition wherein one experiences sensation in one sense in response to stimulus in another.

Alexander Scriabin’s Colour Keyboard

In his autobiographical Recollections, Sergei Rachmaninoff recorded a conversation he had had with Scriabin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov about Scriabin’s association of colour and music. Rachmaninoff was surprised to find that Rimsky-Korsakov agreed with Scriabin on associations of musical keys with colors; himself skeptical, Rachmaninoff made the obvious objection that the two composers did not always agree on the colours involved. Both maintained that the key of D major was golden-brown; but Scriabin linked E-flat major with red-purple, while Rimsky-Korsakov favored blue. However, Rimsky-Korsakov protested that a passage in Rachmaninoff’s opera The Miserly Knight supported their view: the scene in which the Old Baron opens treasure chests to reveal gold and jewels glittering in torchlight is written in D major. Scriabin told Rachmaninoff that “your intuition has unconsciously followed the laws whose very existence you have tried to deny.”

The single most significant product developed in the Eastman Kodak laboratories was the result of an equally serendipitous set of circumstances. Sometime in 1921 or 1922 George Eastman received a letter from Frank Damrosch, the brother of musician and conductor Walter Damrosch. Would Eastman be interested in meeting two young musicians, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, who in their spare time were experimenting with color photography? Eastman, who over the years had been shown dozens of color technologies, agreed to the request. He was impressed with their work — not enthusiastic, however, to make any sort of commitment to Mannes and Godowsky. The History of Kodak by Douglas Collins, 1990 Harry N. Abrams Inc. New York

As some who read this might know, Kodak and the Leopolds did, in the end, work together and as Douglas Collins writes: Mannes and Godowsky alternated between careers in music and science. As schoolboys they had collaborated in hundreds of color photography experiments, none of which were completely successful until after the 1030 decision to join the staff of the Kodak Research Laboratories. Sometime whistling classical music to time darkroom operations, “Man and God,” as one Kodak staffer called them, succeeded in 1934 in developing full-color Kodachrome film.

Leopold Mannes & Leopold Godowsky

I am sure that both of the Leopolds might have known of Scriabin’s odd foray into the idea that music had colour. I would doubt that Scriabin would have served as inspiration in their research. But I place Scriabin here simply to assert how we photographers (and this writer is one) and many musicians have a keen and lasting association with our perception of colour in every day life. It was in grade school that I first learned of Newton’s experiment with light. And it was only in the last few years that I learned that had Newton not written Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica he would have still been revered for his Opticks — Or, A Treatise Of The Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light (1704).

Most will remember the prism bending a ray of sunlight into the colours red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo and violet. What they did not teach me back in grade school was how we humans view those colours. But most of us know that as children we choose red as our favourite colour. The reason for this is that while we can discern those colours from red to violet we can see the reds, oranges and yellows better than the greens, blues and violets. Most might remember having arguments about turquoise. Depending on your personal sight you will argue that this colour is more blue than green or vice versa. Few ever agree o turquoise but will see red as red. With the exception of Surrey, BC (they are limegreen or parrot shit) most fire engines are red for visibility. Stop lights are red for that reason. And in the Arctic and the Antarctic airplanes and rescue equipment all have some orange markings.

What they did not teach me back in grade school was that Newton’s spectrum was the visible human one. They may nave mentioned the invisible infrared to the left of red and the equally invisible ultra violet to the right of violet. They did not mention that animals see these colours with shifts towards one end or the other. And now I know and have known for a while that b+w film, colour film, video tape, and digital sensors while being sensitive to our human spectrum of colours they “see” it with a shift to the right, towards the ultra violet or UV. Film, video tape and digital sensors can see UV and particularly when the objects seen are lit with light sources that produce UV lighting. These sources include TV lighting. One who found out too late was the Republican candidate for the presidency of the US, Richarn Nixon. His complexion was not a good one and unlike Kennedy who sailed and had a “healthy” (healthy in the perception of his age) skin colour, the TV lights produced lots of UV light which penetrated into Nixon’s skin making him look more awful than he did. Kennedy himself had Max Factor pancake makeup. Max Factor (a real man!) had noticed the problem with TV lights so he had simply modified sunblock (a UV block) with lanolin, pink colour and some perfume and then helped make Kennedy president and then made millions with his product. With that in mind I remember how in school, in high school they taught us about what happens when you stick a long rod of metal into a fire. We found out that the rod will go from red to orange, to yellow, to white, and if the metal does not melt and the fire is hot enough the metal will turn blue. From here we learned that this very colour shift from red to blue marked the very classification that astronomers use for stars. The hottest stars are blue or white stars. The coolest are read while our own sun is uninspiring in comparison orange.

My 6x7 format Shirley

From here we photographers understand that we must not confuse that as humans we perceive reds, oranges and yellows as warm colours while blues and greens are cool or cold colours. It was Lord Kelvin who gave these stars a measurement that related their internal heat to their colour. The measurement came to be known as Degrees Kelvin. Using this method to classify the colour of our light sources (but not their radiating heat) we see that incandescent light bulbs, which we photographers call tungsten lighting (some of these bulbs use tungsten filaments that can burn bright without melting) produce a light that we all perceive as warm (as in reddish) and that indeed will photograph as red by most colour film or digital cameras where prior correction for that lighting (custom white balance) has not been indicated. We photographers and painters all instinctively know that light has colour. People who dislike florescent lighting (I hat it!) don’t like it because of the sickly greenish cast of its light. That green is perceived as a cool colour.

When Leopold and God perfected Kodachrome, the order of the day was to calibrate film to light. Since by the early 30s the United States of America was in ascendancy Kodak chose Washington DC as the location for the calibration. In the early 30s black people and other people of colour were not “seen” by the establishment. The same could be said for women. So a white man, wearing a white shirt was photographed on a midsummer noon day (free of pollution as there were not that many cars in that nation’s capital). Tests were made, with some tweaking of the film emulsion, until a reasonably accurate skin colour was achieved while still managing to get a white shirt. Kodak then established 5400 Degrees Kelvin as the calibrating colour temperature (remember Washington DC at noon, midsummer) for all its colour films henceforth. Those readers who ski must know that up in Whistler snow is not white but has a blue cast. This is because light at higher altitudes (humanly cool) is blue and it is “star” hot. In fact the colour of light if seen as white at the equator gradually becomes blues as you go up in latitude. So if you shoot your Washington DC balance colour film in Vancouver your pictures will have that slight blue cast.

THE NATURE OF LIGHT AND COLOR Color Temperature for Various Light Sources Artificial Light Match Flame 1,700K Candle Flame 1,850K 40-Watt Incandescent Tungsten Lamp 2,650K 75-Watt Incandescent Tungsten Lamp 2,820K 100-Watt Incandescent Tungsten Lamp 2,900K 3200 K Tungsten Lamp 3,200K (movie sets and TV studio lighting) Photoflood and Reflector Flood Lamp 3,400K Daylight Blue Photoflood Lamp 4,800K Xenon Arc Lamp 6,420K

Incandescent (tungsten) 60 watt bulbs Daylight Sunlight: Sunrise or Sunset 2,000K Sunlight: One Hour After Sunrise 3,500K Sunlight: EarlyMorning 4,300K Sunlight: Late Afternoon 4,300K Average Summer Sunlight at Noon (Washington, DC) 5,400K DirectMidsummer Sunlight 5,800K Overcast Sky 6,000K Average Summer Sunlight (plus blue skylight) 6,500K Light Summer Shade 7,100K Average Summer Shade 8,000K Summer Skylight will vary from 9,500 to 30,000K Note: Do not confuse sunlight with daylight. Sunlight is only the light of the sun. Daylight is a combination of sunlight plus skylight

My 35mm format Shirley

How do Canon and Nikon calibrate their digital cameras? To Washington, DC? Tokyo? I leave you with that doubt. What this all means is that if you had a roll of Kodachrome (scratch that as nobody processes it anymore) Ektachrome and took pictures in different cities of the world at different latitudes, degrees of pollution, and time of day you would never get your white Uncle Billy’s shirt to ever really be white. This is because light has colour. What this all means is that if you point your Ektachrome film camera or Digital camera (without tungsten white balance correction) at Uncle Billy by a 60 watt light bulb you will get a red face. It means that if you use a relatively good flash with Ektachrome that is rated at daylight (5400 Degrees Kelvin) or point your Digital SLR or digital point and shoot, set on flash (5400 degrees Kelvin perhaps?) and your flash is rated at around 5400 Uncle Billy’s shirt will be white. What that means is that if you sneak into a TV set or film set and take some pictures with your Ektachrome film camera or your Digital SLR not set to Tungsten White Balance, you will get warmish, yellowish cast pictures.

Those who know and shoot film will use Tungsten Ektachrome balance to 3200 Degrees Kelvin which is the universal standard for movies and TV. Most digital cameras will convert, if you tell them to, to what is called Tungsten White Balance. And your famous Uncle Billy in the TV studio will be wearing a truly white shirt. The “problem” with our perception of colour does not stop there. If you happen to want to print those old Kodachromes, new Ektachromes, colour negatives, or your digital portrait files you have to know under what lighting you will view those pictures. Lighting will affect how those images will look. Also the printing of a white shirt on to colour print film, or inkjet paper will not guarantee a white shirt or acceptable skin colour. You first have to calibrate your printer. If you are viewing your digital files on your computer monitor, you have to calibrate your monitor! And if you happen to trust the colour of the little screen in the back of your digital camera you are in trouble! If you are a purist you would have to calibrate that, too!

Before the advent of digital photography Kodak invented the Shirley. The white man with a white shirt was much too boring. So the folks at Rochester picked a beautiful blond woman and they repeated their Washington DC calibration in a studio using a professional flash set at 54000 Kelvin. They had this woman (might the first one have indeed been called Shirley?) pose holding a gray card (a card that absorbed 82% of light hitting it and reflecting 18%) and some colour bars. They would then create many negatives and slides, all the same and ship them to laboratories all over the world that would use these Shirleys to calibrate their equipment. As labs got more advanced the calibration became more complicated but machine colour prints would look pretty good thanks to Shirley.

But picture jazz pianist Oscar Peterson (a fabulous amateur photographer) taking a roll of colour negative film into London Drugs in Toronto. He would have pictures of his grandchildren. The Shirley calibrated London Drugs processor would convert Peterson’s black relatives into something close to purple. A similar problem would have occurred in Mexico, India and anywhere else where there was a dearth of Shirleys.

Of the picture above taken from Color — Life Library of Photography, page 14, had me stumped for about a year until I finally figured out that the colour (with a u!) blue was a colour I had no idea existed. And this is photographic blue which tends to be purplish! Those photographers who shoot with digital cameras and then have to colour correct (or balance) the colour of their pictures since so many variations are at play with light, or those photographers who shoot colour film but then scan them, have to deal with the fact that in photography colours are not always what they seem. In most colour correction programs in Photoshop or in the also popular Lightroom the usual one is commonly called RGB. This is a process called additive in which red, green and blue, depending on how they are used, will produce all the colours of the human-visible spectrum. These three colours interplay with three others that are called subtractive colours. These are cyan, magenta and yellow (CMYK).

For the first time calibrator there is the perception that few of us really know what cyan looks like or the fact that the photographic blue is quite purplish. So if a person’s face is warmish it could be that it is too red (so you must add cyan) or it could be that it is too magenta so you must add green) or it could be a tad yellow (so you must subtract yellow and add blue). Pictures that look too yellow sometimes are so because they are too cyan and green!

My Kodak Color Print Viewing Kit

I laugh at all the above because I learned to print colour negatives and slides in my darkroom in the late 70s using several generations of Kodak Shirleys. Above you see the kit I used to view my test prints. But memory was terrible and after a while a picture hat was too yellow would look good. I would put the picture away and have a cup o tea. I would return to look at the picture while flicking the above filters until I knew how to correct the filtration of my enlarger colour head to produce an acceptable print. But I had to decide then and there where the picture would be viewed and under what lighting as that would affect those who looked at it. The Holy Grail of the colour print has always been the portrait of a lovely redhaired woman. I never achieved it. It was and I believe still is the limitation of film. I have seen many of my better students achieve this Holy Grail with intellingent and selective white balance control of thier digital single lens reflex cameras! This knowledge enables me to make most of the pictures that you see here look a just about the right colour. But then when was the last time (if ever) that you calibrated your monitor? Or is you monitor in a dark room? Or is daylight seeping in from the side? Or do you have those new fangled fluorescent bulbs? Or do your eye glasses have slight UV correction with a slight pink cast? And I could go on and on!

With that above knowledge, weigh the consequences in your mind of having an opposing party, publish posters or create TV ads of Harper in which they slightly shift his face skin colour into cyan/green. You will dislike the man more if you already dislike him without knowing why.

Alexander Scriabin would have understood. Colours as we see them affect our emotions. Music has colour. Faces have colour. How me make those faces appear will affect how we will emotionally affect others. And those who like Rosemary and I made a run on buying as many incandescent light bulbs that we could find, last week, might suspect that as much as people have discussed the pros and cons of fluorescent light bulbs few in the media have discussed how we perceive the light they produce and how it affects us in our everyday life. Scriabin might have explained it to us, but then so could have Thomas Alva Edison.

For anybody who might want to pursue this further the best source, beautifully explained and illustrated is Color — Life Library of Photography. These are out of print but readily available at good used books stores for about $15.00

Gordon Lafleur

Our Perception of Colour

Link to: Newton, Scriabin , Leopold & God, But Shirley Wasn’t Always Blonde

Originally published at

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at:

Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: