Red, that brash, bleeding color of stop signs and bullfighters and aspirational lipstick shades women are always not quite pulling off — that one’s a bit too orange, love — is a hue that draws attention, sometimes the kind of attention one later regrets drawing. See: humanity’s biological red, the blush. ¶ It’s the color of luck in Lunar New Year parades, which will unfurl in the D.C. area this week, and the color of the countryside in places such as Liberty, N.Y., where the landscape is dotted with old wooden barns in various shades of red, in various stages of decay. ¶ In the District, red is officially coded in the the 1000 color block of the Federal Standard 595. In 1956, Washington, city of obscure regulations of obscurer domains, set about making order of the color palette. Fed-Std-595 was the military’s way of standardizing its paint and its supplies and its signage and whatnot, and over the years the Federal Standard has grown to include 650 federally recognized colors, including some 60 federally sanctioned reds.
Which is thoroughly beside the point of red. The point of red is its unbridledness, its pertness, its sauce. One cannot wade through a feminist studies class without tripping on Hester Prynne and her big red A, Scarlett O’Hara and her big red dress, Eve and her big red apple. What does red mean? the professor asks, and it always has to mean something. Post-heartbreak, nobody puts on Taylor Swift and dances around her apartment in her sweats, boldly painting a wall beige.
“It’s very recent in evolution,” this color thing, says Jeremy Nathans, a Johns Hopkins molecular biologist who studies why we see colors the way we see colors — which really aren’t colors at all. What we’re seeing is wavelengths of light, less than 1 percent of all light wavelengths in existence. Red exists at the longest visible wavelength, hovering around the 700 range. Dogs can’t see it, mice can’t, cows can’t — at least not the vibrant way that we do. Bees can, because they need the color variation to pollinate. And primates can. We primates need to see color variation to help us pick the unspoiled fruit from the spoiled, and to send each other garish heart-shaped chocolate boxes on Valentine’s Day.
The images in this collection by Washington Post photographers, who spent weeks exploring the color, represent red doing all of the sorts of things that red does best. It punctuates a statement — the statement being a white faux-fur jacket, the belt being the exclamation point. It adds whimsy to a place of work, and it adds drama to a flag made to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The brake lights reflected on an otherwise empty street illustrate how the roads of life are more interesting with a touch of something bright and bold.