When I was at primary school a teacher told my class that there was no such thing as black paint or ink or dye: anything that was called black would, if you looked hard at it, turn out to be dark brown or blue or some other colour. Because black is not a colour, it is the absence of light, so it’s not something you can make. You can’t make an absence. If you say you can, you’re just playing with words or not expressing yourself properly.
When I used to do photographic colour printing – which you had to do in a totally dark darkroom, with no safelights, just a little glowing green light floating in space to tell you where the “expose” button on the enlarger timer was, and your memory of where you put the box of printing paper and the scissors and where the door handle was – I liked standing there with useless eyes. It wasn’t black, of course. I could watch the coloured dots and squiggles writhing about like tadpoles. When I read about photons popping in and out of existence in a vacuum, seething, as quantum physics says they do, I think about those coloured dots. None of the darkrooms was completely light-tight, though, so after a minute you’d begin to see cold white wedges where daylight was leaking in. A minute more and you’d see a bit of the wall lit up by the light. It would seem incredibly bright, but I knew that if the roof was suddenly taken off I’d be blinded. Then I’d think about how you can see a single candle flame at a distance of several miles on a very dark night, or so I had read. About how your eye can register a single photon of light.
I’d think about black velvet, the blackest thing anyone seemed able to think of. Or soot, the mattest thing I had ever seen. Or the black powder I used to make paint with.
Disappointingly, I had also found out that matt black isn’t as black as glossy black. But glossy black always exists alongside specular reflections, pretty much the brightest things you can look out without hurting your eyes.
A film editor once told me that to represent blackness in film, the frame had to have some light in it. She said there was a certain maximum ratio of dark to light. It was obvious, when I thought about it. You’re looking at a cinema screen, a highly reflective surface in a room with at least a couple of emergency exit lights on. If you film a coal cellar at night, you’ll get a negative as clear as it can be. If you make a print from it, you’ll get a print as opaque as it can be, which is not totally opaque. Run that print through a projector in a cinema and you’ll be allowing the minimum amount of light possible onto the screen – the projector light shining through nothing but film black plus the exit lights. But that’s still some light. Enough to see that the screen is a light-coloured rectangle, much brighter than than the curtains and walls around it. The same thing happens with video monitors. Turn them off and you see how unblack they are.
To represent blackness, you have to prevent the viewer’s brain from dwelling on the true lightness of the screen. You need to distract it with some kind of image, force it to accommodate a tonal range wide enough for it to see the darkest tone as black, give over enough of the screen to the lighter tones so that the brain doesn’t disregard them as simply a bright light, so that it looks for detail in them and adjusts its awareness of brightness levels accordingly.
Once I’d started to think about the problem of blackness in film, I began to notice how David Lynch’s films go much further than most in representing pure, unrelieved blackness. At moments of transition, we are led into a glimpse of total blackness, a vertiginous velvety blackness: when Fred Madison goes down an unnaturally dark corridor in his apartment in Lost Highway, or, in Mulholland Drive, when Betty turns the corner in her aunt’s apartment, and just before the dead Diane is found in her house, and as we fall into the inexplicable blue Alice-in-Wonderland box, and when the movie director Adam orders “Kill the lights” before kissing the notably and glossily brunette Camilla on set, or behind the diner after Diane has put the contract on her. Flirting with darkness.
A poem, or incantation, from Lynch’s Twin Peaks suggests that darkness allows a passage across otherwise unbridgeable gulfs:
Through the darkness of future past
The magician longs to see
One chants out between two worlds
Fire walk with me
The mystical. Which brings us to Mark Rothko. “Black-form painting” No.1, I think. A more glazed black next to a less glazed black. Which is the real black? Is either? Between them, as if by accident, a strip of a lower layer of still blacker, matter black is visible. To see that as anything other than real black, you would have to try quite hard not to look at the other, lesser blacks. The same trick that the cinematographer and print grader uses; while looking from one black to another, our gaze has to trip over that crack into what we cannot see as other than real black.