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.