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Photography and Reality is a course exploring light and color in nature and art. By engaging both art and science, philosophical questions arise from contemplating the act of photographing the world. Through monthly readings, discussions, and assignments participants will become physicists in the sense originated by Aristotle - as "students of nature." By studying nature we learn to study ourselves. By studying ourselves we come to understand our place in the world. Emerging out of these epistemic questions is great puzzle of why  artists we choose to "capture" scenes in nature and reproduce them for other humans.

The class will meet monthly over the course of the year as a guided study group. Each month contains a set of readings on a particular theory or philosophy of color. There is also a 'color experiment' or 'color assignment' to engage the ideas in the reading. The year begins with early color theories before spending many months traversing the rise of the science of color in the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, it will end in the 20th century with the color ideas of Erwin Schrödinger and the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

Photography and Reality - Year of Color - is a suggested donation course. Feel free to join for the entire year or for a few classes. However, the best experience by far is to participate each month and to engage in the year long Light Study assignment. All lectures will be recorded and provided to registrants. A course resource page is forthcoming. Please register in order to receive the class link and so we have an idea of attendance.

Class is on Saturdays from 14:00 to 17:00 EST

(I tried hard to balance between multiple time zones!)

Once a month for the entirety of 2022 - See schedule below or in the Syllabus

Course Resources

Syllabus - pdf

This course is donation based. You can donate anytime at:

Venmo: @John-Arkenberg​​


Aristotle / Leonardo

22nd of January

The earliest written 'color theory' is Aristotle's On Color. This text remained influential throughout the Medieval era and into the Renaissance. In his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo expanded on Aristotle's ideas and inventoried many scintillating observations on color in nature. This first month takes a 'naive' view of color with its readings and assignments.



19th of February

Newton initiated color as a science with his famous experimentum crucis - where he separated the rainbow through a glass prism. This month looks at his famous Opticks and his linking the spectrum into the first 'color circle.'



19th of March

Goethe's Farbenlehre is not so much a developed color theory, but a catalog of color phenomenon that cannot be explained by Newton's Opticks. Goethe's phenomenological viewpoint is fundamental to our experience of color. Also, his criticism of Newton's experimentum crucis proves that color is a psychovisual phenomenon.




16th of April

Rarely mentioned in color theory texts is Schopenhauer's On Vision and Colors, his response to Goethe's color theory. Schopenhauer's argument that color is a 'part of daylight' proved influential to Wilhelm Ostwald, Erwin Schrödinger, and anticipates the Opponent Color Theory of Ewald Hering. The assigned color experiments will explore this psychovisual aspect of color experience.

Leaf Green


14th of May

Michel Eugene Chevraul was a renowned chemist who was thrust into the depths of color theory when asked to solve a problem with colored dyes for the Gobelin Manufactory. He initiated the concept of the just noticeable difference (JND) and simultaneous color contrast. Using his book The Harmony and Contrast of Colors we explore one of the first confluences of science and art.

Sea Green

Maxwell / Helmholtz

11th of June

James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz are associated with the Trichromaticity Theory of Color Vision - that we see color by three discrete 'color receptors.' However, they are two sides of the same coin. Maxwell worked assiduously on the 'space of beams' with his color wheel establishing the additive primaries of red, green, and blue. Helmholtz pioneered the field of psychophysics and the physiology of vision proposing that we see based on red, green, and blue sensitive cones. Explore these ideas by building your own color disk and replicating Maxwell's famous experiments.



9th of July

Ogden Rood's Modern Chromatics is a seminal text synthesizing and building on the work of Newton, Chevraul, and Maxwell. His work continues our 'scientific' thread of color theory. Continuing the use of our color disks we commence the mathematical exploration of color.




6th of August

Albert H. Munsell produced his famous 'color tree' as a means to codify and educate others about color. He also developed within his system an entire set of principles of balance. This class covers Munsell's ideas in order to create works of art that are 'perfectly in balance.' 



3rd of September

Wilhelm Ostwald pioneered physical chemistry at the turn of the century. Late in his career he turned to color theory and produced one of the most ingenious and misunderstood color systems. He originated color definitions that tie colors to concrete concepts and developed a novel colorimetry. Using his only publications in English we can explore his famous color solid and analyze a work of art through its 'molecular structure.'



1st of October

By the mid-20th century The International Commission on Illumination had established many different color spaces and color standards. Reviewing different standards and spaces we will learn about the mathematics behind each space and its relation to the qualia of color. Here we will discover a level of technological empowerment in quantifying color, but also a problematic lack of understanding about the experience of color.



5th of November

Returning to the thread from Goethe to Schopenhauer and through Ostwald, we will look at the color solid of  Erwin Schrödinger. The 'rounded cube' of Schrödinger's work on physical colors is a sorely missed topic in color theory. More importantly we look to the future to see what mid-to-late 20th century color scientists are uncovering and explaining.



3rd of December

Finishing our exploration we turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most opaque philosophers, and his unpublished Remarks on Color. For an entire year we have grappled with many of the same questions as he asked in this unique book. At this juncture can we answer any of Wittgenstein's questions? Do certain questions take on new dimensions? Or are his statements mere paradoxes one can climb out of?

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