The Color of a Place’s Soul

Orhan Pamuk dedicated a whole chapter of his memoir Istanbul to the theme of “black and white”. He says he has “always apprehended the city’s soul in black and white” (37), and for him the black and white of photographs of the city emphasize the decay of the glory of the Ottoman Empire, of Istanbul’s height.

“To see the city in black and white is to see it through the tarnish of history: the patina of what is old and faded and no longer matters to the rest of the world. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul” (39-40).

I had a very similar experience when I spent a couple of days on Juist, an island in the North Sea, with two friends. For many of the photographs I took there I set my camera to sepia because I felt that this hue would capture and reproduce the island’s “soul” much better than its real colors could. Juist is 17 km long and 1 km wide; half of the island is sandy beach. There are two villages, and almost every house has guestrooms for tourists. There are no cars there; the only people who have motored vehicles are the fire department, the Red Cross and doctors. Everybody else walks or uses bicycles or horse carriages. We went there in late summer – too late for beach weather, but it was still beautiful, windy but sunny on most days.

In many ways, this island seems like a timeless place – no cars, only leisure. Maybe this is the reason why I thought that sepia would suit it so much better, could capture our mood in a way that the lively colors of our surroundings could not.



For this week’s post I took a couple of pictures of the Vanderbilt campus. I loved how the morning sunshine illuminated the trees and buildings, how everything had this spring vibe and warmth and light.

For some reason, the same set of photographs doesn’t work for me in black and white. Yes, these pictures still have a certain charme; yes, they look timeless. But they lack the vibrancy of the beautiful spring colors, of sunshine. Black and white just won’t convey the mood the same way. The only two pictures that don’t lose their essence in black and white are the stone of former Kissam Hall and the interior of Kirkland Hall; but both of these places stand for the past and are there to keep memory alive. Black and white suits them.

But what about the Occupy Vanderbilt tents? They represent taking action against injustice, they are as much part of the present as anything can be. In black and white, the tents almost get lost in the trees, they don’t stand out at all. But this is not a camping trip. In much the same way, I could not bring myself to make the colors of the rainbow flag of the Office of LGBTQI Life fade: taking away the color there seemed like making the building’s purpose invisible.

Vanderbilt’s soul isn’t that of “a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years” (42); black and white won’t do the university justice in many cases. Taking away the campus’s colors feels like taking away something of Vanderbilt’s vibrant soul.


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