It's all Black and White...or is it?

March 11, 2015  •  2 Comments

Color or Black and White?

 

That’s the question and it’s been the question for a hundred years. This isn’t some elementary exercise for first year photo students. It’s still a topic of discussion for veterans of the industry and those who put down their camera decades ago. Philosophies vary and some choose to not be philosophical at all saying “I don’t even want to see black and white” or “who cares, it’s digital, you can have it both ways.”

In my initial photography education there was no choice. We learned to develop black and white film and make black and white prints. Yes, color photography had been invented at that time (thank you) but we were learning to communicate in black and white. When we approached a subject the image we created had to have something to carry it other than a whole lot of a saturated color. Only if we continued our photographic education for years would we learn to shoot, process and communicate in color.

Maybe a decade later the subject came up in a studio photography class at Columbia College. We were learning how to communicate with various lighting techniques. This required thought and a sense of the subtle. The teacher talked about movies made in black and white (think Casablanca) where lighting and composition engaged the viewer. With the advent of color, he said, directors and still photographers forgot about beautiful lighting and compelling composition. No shadows were needed, no thought was necessary.

As newspapers embraced color things got confusing. Some would say “If there’s no REASON for the picture to be in color, then it should be black and white.” Think of a field of tulips. It generally requires color. Adding to the confusion was the fact that a lot of papers only ran color on the front page and that two types of film required two different processes. Photographers had to carry two cameras and make decisions as they were shooting as to whether an image should be color or black and white.

It shook the photojournalism world when the New York Times went to color. At the time, their creative director said (in effect) “In no other part of the paper do we systematically withhold information like we do when we choose to run an image in black and white.

What do I think? Some images communicate beautifully in black and white. Others communicate better in color.


Comments

2.Martin Bell(non-registered)
I like both. Thanks to very useful post.
1.Paul Willis(non-registered)
Tom...since you know me, you know I come from a similar place relating to color photography. Having been involved in newspapers moving to color printing in several situations in my newspaper life - I was focused on the technical side of color communication rather than the aesthetic side...as you mentioned - press limitations had more to do with the decision to publish a photo in color or black and white. A casual look at the photographs I post on Facebook will attest that I have nothing against heavily saturated color these days. I think we would all have LOVED to have our prints look that way back then, too - but weren't good enough in the darkroom to make it happen. Thanks for reminding me to still "see" in black and white once in a while!
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