What’s black and white and red all over?

A different kind of noir mystery …

By popular demand, this post draws again on my museum book. On that same visit to the Pompidou on September 6, 2014, I also made a note about this photograph:

Palmeraie de Marrakech [=Palm grove in Marrakech]

Pierre Boucher, 1935

Original at the Pompidou

© Fonds Pierre Boucher
Photo credits : © Audrey Laurans – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Image reference : 4N89202
Image presentation : l’Agence Photo de la RMN


My museum book note says “printed as negative”, but that is incorrect, and I should have known better. But before we get to that, let’s see if we can address another mystery. The Pompidou has a couple other photographs by Boucher of palm trees, including this one:


Palmeraie [=Palm grove]

Pierre Boucher, about 1936

Original at the Pompidou

© Fonds Pierre Boucher
Photo credits : © Audrey Laurans – Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI /Dist. RMN-GP
Image reference : 4N90443
Image presentation : l’Agence Photo de la RMN


Note the date on the second photo: “about 1936”. Now take another look at the first one, from 1935. Don’t they look an awful lot alike? Lee immediately noticed that when I showed her the photos the other day (I was slower on the uptake…). In fact, it is possible to align them almost exactly, which suggests that the two photos are either different prints from the same negative (more likely), or two photos taken in relatively quick succession (less likely). So the date on the second photo should be 1935 as well.

Back to my note. As I mentioned, I thought at the time that the photograph had been printed as a negative, probably because of the white palm leaves. However, the trunks of the trees, which are brown in real life, would also have been light in a negative, so clearly both photos were not printed as negatives.

So what are these photos? The Pompidou says that they are solarized. The type of solarization they are referring to (as noted in that Wikipedia link) occurs when a negative is exposed to additional light while it is being developed. Man Ray‘s assistant Lee Miller (who became a famous photographer in her own right) accidentally did that and he liked the effect so much that they both used it in many works. Man Ray even did solarized photos of Lee Miller, like this one at the Pompidou.

One of the characteristics of solarized photos is that they have strong edges, dark if the photo is a positive and light if the photo is printed as a negative. Here’s an example (not by me). Notice the strong dark edges around the face. You can see the same kind of strong lines in that solarized portrait of Lee Miller.


solarized portrait by Adamo. License CC BY-NC 2.0

“Solarized Portrait” by Adamo Photography is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

See the original on Flickr

If you go back and look at the palm tree photos by Boucher, you’ll see that they do not have the characteristic strong edges of solarized photographs. So I think that the Pompidou got it wrong, too — so I’m in good company! So what accounts for their striking look? I think the answer is that they are near infra-red photographs.

Near infrared (NIR) photography is photography that (mostly) uses light that is just beyond what we can see with our eyes. It’s not the heat-related infrared (which is thermal), but it also has scientific uses, since materials reflect NIR differently than they reflect visible light. In particular NIR is used to study plant health, both by NASA and by individuals. NIR photography has also been used for artistic effect, and in fact I have experimented with it myself, long before seeing Boucher’s photos, so shame on me for not recognizing them. Speaking of his photos, the Wikipedia article on NIR photography says that it became popular in the 1930s, exactly the period when those photos were taken.

Now, take a look at this NIR photo of palm trees (not by me). Even though it was taken with a digital camera (as I did in my experiments) the principle, and the results, are similar to photos taken with NIR film, as I think Boucher did.


Near Infrared Palm Tree by Robert Crouse-Baker. License CC BY 2.0

“earthly delights” by Robert Couse-Baker is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

See the original on Flickr.

Notice that the palm leaves are very light, since the chlorophyll in them strongly reflects NIR. However, the trunks are darker, since they do not reflect NIR very well. This is what distinguishes a NIR photo of palm trees from the negative of a photograph of palm trees, where the light green leaves would be dark and darker trunk would be light. In addition, there are no strong borders — this is what distinguishes NIR photographs from solarized photographs.

Since Boucher’s palm trees have light leaves and dark trunks, they can’t be negatives (unlike what I carelessly wrote back in 2014). And since Boucher’s palm trees don’t have strong borders, they probably aren’t solarized photographs, despite the Pompidou’s description.

I think the mystery is solved. How about you?


Non-technical notes

The children’s riddle in the title has several answers (like “a zebra with sunburn”), but the original(?) oral version depends on a pun, which is always a good thing. The answer to that one is “a newspaper” (substituting “read” for “red”).

Noir means “black” in French, and it is has come to be used for a certain type of mystery, especially movies.

Posted in Art