The light was different a century ago

Until the turn of the century, noticing the interplay of light and dark and the myriad effects of interacting color across the landscape meant engaging in the study of chromatics, sometimes called gentleman’s chromatics or ladies’ chromatics by professional artists, but often called meteorology by well-educated people who knew that weather included far more than rain or wind.  A stunning collection of “atmospheric effects,” everything from mirages to double rainbows to over-the-horizon glimpses called looming, figured in the education of well-to-do children lucky enough to get beyond the one-room schoolhouse and prepare themselves for analyzing art, especially painting.  Meteorology, art history, and geography combined to explain the wealth of meaning implicit in phrases like “the light of Tuscany” or the heritage implicit in colors like raw umber or chartreuse.  So long vanished that even historians of the visual retrieve its fragments with difficulty, education in visual acuity explains both the origins of careful tourism and the care with which many people not only designed and built houses and gardens but supported efforts to beautify cities, suburbs, and even villages.  Educated people looked acutely and valued landscapes and paintings and even furniture that rewarded scrutiny.

Visual education suffered first from the burgeoning of newspapers and magazines and dime-novels, all of which deflected interest toward typeset knowledge, and from lithography and other inexpensive methods of reproducing images, especially advertisements.  Around the turn of the century, the proliferation of inexpensive black-and-white photography, then the spread of cinema houses, further deflected interest from exploring ordinary outdoor surroundings.  The 1930s introduction of color photography for amateurs and cinematographers alike skewed attention further, but by then physics professors intrigued with Einstein’s theories had catapulted college students, and high school students preparing for college, across Newtonian physics, especially Newtonian optics, to a science consisting largely of equations and interminable problem sets.  By 1940, the old relation of visual acuity, physics, and analysis of art lay shattered, its only schoolroom artifact being a few minutes of instruction with a glass prism, a prism making a rainbow of colors in which few students ever see indigo, let alone wonder why Newton saw the color made by a New World dye found by accident.  Only now and then does someone rummaging among heirlooms notice that amateurs seem to have made much better photographs a century ago, that the faded images show an eerie attention to composition and chiaroscuro, certainly an attention lacking in most contemporary snapshots and homemade videotapes.  Going for a walk became progressively less interesting even to educated people in the 1930s and 1940s, simply because even educated people knew less and less about mysteries of light, shadow, and color that cloak and accentuate ordinary landscapes.

John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic 14-16

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