Thursday, August 09, 2007


I noted long ago here and here the odd connection between the phrases black-and-white morality and black-and-white photography. It came up again today: “a black-and-white morality in which Father Knows Best,” said by a member of my generation (of course).

The 60’s boomer mythology was that the generations before us, especially our irritating parents, believed in a rigid, unthinking morality, which we labeled black-and-white thinking. They just didn’t get the sophisticated thinking we had, in which it was sometimes okay (now, for instance) for some people (me, for example) to have sex outside of marriage, sponge off others without a job, take drugs, or inflict your music and ideas on others.

We illustrated this by reference to TV shows for children, such as Leave It To Beaver or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, with their perfect, wise, two-parent families who always had to explain character issues to their children. (Personally, I liked The Donna Reed Show family better). By the 1970’s, our voices dripped with contempt for those oversimplified moral fables – real life wasn’t like that.* We suburban pre-hippies, who actually had to hear about Vietnam and were thus exposed to the sharp difficulties of life, knew better.

It was unutterably stupid, yes. But my point here is to note how this time overlapped exactly with the change from black-and-white photography to living color, for both TV and still photography. This mere technological improvement at a minimum reinforced, and was possibly even a major cause of our attitude toward previous eras. We were vibrant, fascinating, and alive. They were gray, stilted and boring.

Picture those sepia-toned photographs of families from the 1880’s and imagine what those people were like. You see? The technology which photographed them has given you a false picture of what they were like.

* The list of shows from that era where the children had, in fact, lost a parent is pretty extensive: My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Rifleman, Bachelor Father, My Little Margie


David Foster said...

Color photographs of previously-black-and-white eras have turned up, and are pretty interesting.

Re your theory that people are implicitly assumed to be like their photos: those pictures from the 1880s were not only B&W--the limitations of the technology also made the setting in which they were taken pretty formal.

Anonymous said...

No, no, no. The world *was* black and white back then. It wasn't until color photography was invented that the world became colorful.

Ask Calvin's Dad. He knows.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

david - great minds and all that. I posted on those photos about 3 weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Donna Reed, huh? What ever happened to Paul Peterson, anyway? Methinks you liked Shelley Fabres - she made an unexpected comeback in the show "Coach" in the 80's-90's.

Remember the first time you saw a TV show in color? I saw a football game on my uncle's color TV. The green grass was kind of blue, making the blue sky kind of green and, in general, it didn't seem worth the extra money. No wonder our views were so skewed - the colors were more like psychadelia then real world.

Anonymous said...

History tells us everyone bought color TVs so they could watch Bonanza. I think that's written into the Congressional Record.

RHJunior said...

Closing argument for your thesis:
The movie, "Welcome to Pleasantville."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Absolutely. As heavy-handed as one can imagine, and many noticed the technique without thinking through what it implied.