Tag Archives: black and white photography

Color and Photography

I’ve never cared much for color photography. Never shot it in the film era, don’t pay any attention to it in the digital era. Not that I’d be so militant as to buy a Monochrome; it’s much easier to simply chimp, edit and print RAW files in B&W. It’s partially a function of when I came of age photographically – the early 1970s, when B&W constituted the majority of both journalistic photography and whatever photography aspired to personal expression. Color photography was the product of the inconsequential snap-shot, the throw-away photo taken with the Instamatic. Color photographs were thin and transparent, lacking the visual ‘heft’ of B&W. They valued the superficial – color! – at the expense of the visually complex – form. I’ve carried these prejudices with me into the present.

Of course, that’s ancient history, certainly by the 80’s with the introduction of ‘professional’ color films, which was itself the result of larger trends in visual media – the rise of color television as the common visual medium, replacing print media like LIfe and Vu and Look as defining the visually normative. You see the change most obviously in the transformation of photojournalist imagery from the 60s to the late 70s and onward. Compare Larry Burrow’s B&W Viet Nam photos – while thematically distinct from the WW2 photographs of Capa etc, still sharing a common B&W visual language – with the late 70’s color work of Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Both are exceptionally skilled and thoughtful photographers; what differentiates their work is the medium they used. To my eye, Burrow’s work has an emotional impact that Meiselas lacks; it’s almost impossible for me not to aestheticize Meiselas’s work, even though some of it is remarkably gruesome. It’s the color, which seems to connote two things to me: banality, and cheap beautification. Understand, I’m not accusing Meisalas of cheapening what she photographs, rather, I’m reflecting on my own inherent biases and using them as an example of how each of us constructs meaning from photos.

Susan Meisalas, “Cuesta del Plomo”, showing a half-devoured body on a hillside outside Managua. Gross…but I can’t help thinking of how beautiful Managua’s landscape must be. Need to put that on my “to visit” list.

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Above is a photo that will probably find its way into Car Sick, the book I’ve been shilling for the last few weeks. While it looks like a B&W film photo (nice Tri-X contrast and grain) it’s from a RAW file taken with a Ricoh GXR (10 years old now, and “obsolete” or so I’m told, it remains a remarkable camera, especially when using the M-Mount mated with an older LTM optic; why anyone shooting “leica style” would need anything else is completely beyond me). The “original” leads off the post; a banal color snap of no visual interest. But monochromed, with some pronounced grain added, a hint of light fall-off at the edges of the frame, now, to my eye, it’s just right, the perfect confluence of B&W contrast and grain and film era optics to produce my idea of what a photo out a car window should look like. 5 years ago I’d have a vague sense that I was ‘cheating’; now I couldn’t care less. I’m tired of arguments about media and technique. It’s the image that counts; who cares how you get there (up to a point: see below for the usual qualifications). The point is the aesthetic. I understand and have internalized the B&W aesthetic, maybe in a way that photographers born after 1980 can’t. I ‘see’ in grainy B&W. Luckily for me, there’s seemingly no Instagram ‘filter’ for my look, so I get to claim it legitimately. Instead of selecting a random ‘filter’ on a photo app or social media site, I learned it the hard way. I earned it; it’s been incorporated into my vision. It’s how I see, not some pre-selected veneer I’ve made an arbitrary decision to paste over my subject. My style is, in some way, my subject.

What’s remarkable to me is how foreign this is to today’s photographers. Raised with the easy color capture of digital – but also raised in the visual language of color TV and the ubiquity of public advertising – color is their normative way of seeing, which it should be, right? Talk to them of B&W and they’ll reply, “The world is color. We should reproduce it as such. It’s B&W which is artificial, necessary only for so long as the technology hadn’t matured to the point to transcend it as a limitation. It’s no longer needed. we’ve moved past it.”

Except that, ironically, one can argue that this new visual language- the language of color that’s become synonymous with photography since the 1980s – is the ultimate artificiality now at the core of photography. It is so because it further obfuscates for us the inherent artificiality of photography as a medium. We hold a 3×5 piece of paper with 2D colored ink (or silver halide) representations engraved on its surface and consider it a transparent slice of the real. Its color is one more means of obscuring the fact of its artificiality, of its inherently constructed nature. It seduces us, the viewer, into thinking we’re seeing an objective representation of something real out there, when what we’re really looking at is a piece of paper of abstracted signs in our hand.

What we’re viewing on that piece of paper (or screen) is someone’s coded representation of their subjective interpretation of the real, subjective in the same sense that Cezanne’s paintings of late 19th Century French life were subjective takes on that life. And just like paintings, some photographs are more compelling than others, they being so not because they more accurately reproduce reality than that they create a coded reality that compels us as viewers. It’s why we venerate Robert Frank while laughing at the junk that gets posted on enthusiast websites. And it’s why some people – myself included – continue to shoot in B&W. It’s how we see.

Why B&W Photography?

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I really like Robert Frank. If I have a photographic mentor, it would be Robert Frank. He’s known mainly for The Americans, but I prefer his earlier European work – Valencia and England/Wales, both of which have a raw immediacy and lack of pretense sometimes absent from The Americans. You see him finding his style in his European work, mistakes and all. Sometimes the ‘mistakes’ are the best parts of his work. Frank has always been open to the serendipitous, the casual look, the throw-away visual remark others would pass up without seeing the meaning pregnant within. Even so, Frank can be remarkably inarticulate about his own work, as most great artists are. Its because Art comes from a place apart from reason or words. Great Art is pre-articulate. You can’t define it, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. So Frank’s comment, above, about B&W photography, is interesting, but it doesn’t tell us much about why B&W photography is evocative in a way not available to color photography. Once a necessity of technological constraints, black and white photography now requires a deliberate choice. Why, then, would a modern photographer opt to photograph in black and white?

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A visitor to Picasso’s studio, after looking at the discombobulated forms of a portrait Picasso was painting, remarked that in his opinion good painters should paint things the way they are — objective pictures, recognizable things. Picasso, silent for a moment, asked him what he meant by “the way things are”? The visitor produced a photograph of his wife from his wallet and said, “There, you see, that is a picture of how she really is.” Picasso looked at it and said, “She is rather small, isn’t she? And flat?”

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Gianni Gardin

I love that story. With one simple question it deconstructs the naive assumptions that underlie our perceptions of two dimensional representations. The ‘reality’ of paintings and photographs is that they are just flat bands of pigment on a two dimensional surface. The illusion of ‘representation’ is made possible by perspectival construction. The vanishing point is the beginning of the illusion, an illusion that the picture is really a window, something we look through and see to the reality behind.

What the viewer is really doing is mentally constructing a three dimensional representation by looking through the photo and constructing its meaning from his or her own idiosyncratic visual catalogue, much like a Rorsach ink blot. At bottom, the picture remains inert, two dimensional, not ‘representative’ of anything but its own reality. This, of course, is the simple theoretical statement behind abstract painting: the painting is its own thing, its own world, an object outside of and apart from its potential to represent something else. It ‘represents’ only what it is. A Jackson Pollock drip painting is something entirely autonomous, not in any way tethered to conceit of representation. As all true Art, it is its own representation.

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Jackson Pollock’s “No. 1, 1949” 

This simple fact becomes further confused when we examine a photograph. The photograph, by the very means of its production, aspires to be a representation of an existing visual state of affairs. Light from something (the ‘subject’) reflected from it to the film substrate via the medium of the lens. The photograph is that subject’s visual trace. So, a photograph is something different than a representational painting (that purports to ‘represent’ a visual state of affairs). There exists an indexical relationship between the photograph and reality that does not exist in representational painting – the photograph is itself a trace of that visual reality, “something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask.” With this comes the almost universal popular notion that a photograph is the faithful recreation of an existing state of visual affairs. Since photography’s inception, the photo album has replaced the written page as the primary means of fixing of memory, and this is because we believe in the veracity of the photograph, it’s ability to objectively reflect and fix the past. Its this naive belief that precludes many from considering photography  Art. But is this notion true? Is what is shown below what was, or is it something else?

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 Josef Koudelka

All pictures contain form. Form is independent of, and prior to, color. Color is a secondary characteristic. Color, when employed as part of an inherently representational medium like photography, is like windex to the pictures medium; it helps obscure the autonomy of the picture as a thing. Remove the color and you have one less step to abstraction. Black and White is a way to re-establish the the formal realities of a photograph, to emphasize the often hidden form over content, a hint of what is implicit in all photography but is so easily hidden by the indexical nature of the medium. With Black and White we can help bend back the photograph to its formal essence. Its content is seen for what it is, our projection onto the photograph of what we want to see. The picture by Ralph Gibson below is a perfect example: it can be seen as a picture taken out of the side window of a vintage car, or it can be seen in its formal abstraction while not precluding its view as a representation of something ‘real.’ Had it been in color, we’d probably have seen the first at the expense of the latter.

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 Ralph Gibson

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Photography, as Robert Frank has stated, is “an art for lazy people.” And it is an easy medium to master, more so now than ever. But really good photography, evocative images that have something to say, are still as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s always been that way with every creative medium. For every Mozart, a million Salieris; for every Robert Frank, a million photographers printing super large, vibrantly colorful, resolutely superb junk. The mistake comes from thinking that Art results simply from doing something competently. Its the mistake of the Salieris of the world. True Art, the product of a unique inspiration, uses the artistic medium as a way to make statements about itself rather than the subject in front of the artist. The best black and white photography, reducing images to essential visual elements of form, shape and tonal relationships, allows the viewer to see behind the photograph’s illusion as representation in a way not available to color images.