Friday, March 02, 2012

Black and White ain’t Outa sight

Someone mentioned on a rather well known, social media website recently that the only real photography was black and white. This, I decided, was quite a statement.

Still, judging by the flurry of comments said statement received, there seem to be plenty out there who would agree with this.

So,  I started giving it some thought.

In years gone by, and in fact, when I was still a teenager myself, black and white was all that was available unless you were one of those enviable souls who had enough money to make colour transparencies. In those days, colour was a luxury in photography. People who made colour slides, as they were known, were so thrilled with the results, they showed them off at parties. They set up projectors in darkened rooms. They invited friends and family to view a feast of photos and all were in awe at the beauty of these rare, and coloured, images.

Black and white? Well that was normal - boring even.

When I went to art college, then, black and white was still the only medium available. This was in the late 1970's. My photography course was designed to teach me to make beautiful studio photos. I wasn't very good at it, actually. In fact, I was rather ignominiously thrown off the course.

The thing was I had a real problem with dark rooms. I've always kind of figured that if we were meant to do things in the dark, he who designed us would have given us a few helpers - like built-in night vision, or some such - but no such luck. I for one seemed to have less aptitude than most when it came to working blind. It was awful. We had to fumble around putting sensitive 6 x 4.5 sheets of film in these flimsy holders ready to go in the back of the camera. All in the dark. The trouble was, I couldn't feel whether I'd only got one sheet or more, and dark was really dark, so seeing anything was impossible. When on one occasion I succeeded in putting four sheets of expensive film in a holder meant for one, and then getting it jammed in the school’s best camera, my long suffering tutor propelled me none too gently from the class and suggested, even less gently, that I should find some other pursuit that didn't involve using anything more expensive than a pencil.

I hasten to add this had nothing to do with my artistic and creative abilities. I was merely, how can I say, technologically challenged.

The point is, though, no one thought of black and white photography as being particularly arty or special because that was all there was. For sure, photography students did wonderfully arty things with photos, and because of the lack of colour, they played with grain and shadows and depth of field to make these potentially boring photos more interesting (okay, strike me dead now for my blasphemy).

So what about today? Well, now it seems that if you want to be taken seriously as an artist in phtogoraphy, you absolutely, totally, and without any doubt have to do it in black and white. What I want to know is - why?

The thing is, I've watched a photographer or two at work. I happen to spend rather a lot of time with a particularly talented one. One of my first serious relationships was also with a photographer, so I’ve had a bit of time to observe these things. From what I can see, the real skill is in getting that perfect colour shot. It seems to be incredibly challenging to find the right balance of darks and lights, blues, reds and other hues. I watch in awe as Koos checks his histograms carefully to make sure his settings are just right for that best of colour shots. And judging by the response he receives, most people think he's pretty good at it.

But sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes, the colours just aren't right, or they're all the same. Sometimes, these photos are a failure. The image is good, but the colour is bad and what's worse, there's that dreaded enemy of the digital photographer. Noise.

So what to do? Well, I know... and I suspect you do too. Now. The great solution that covers a multitude of sins and mistakes. Make it black and white. The histograms drop neatly into an almost straight blue line, the noise looks interestingly grainy and the imperfections are all instantly erased. Brilliant.

But what does this say about art? Not a lot really, and even less about the skill needed for great artistic photos.

Indeed, in the end, the message of this story is simple: if the colour ain't right, make it black and white.

Now tell me what the only real photography is...


Anne-Marie said...

It's a bit like saying that you can't make music on electric or digital instruments, or you can't write or make art on a computer... Tools sometimes make things better, sometimes make things worse, and sometimes make things different, Lots of room for all of it.

Great post.


June's World said...

it's sort of like when old movies are 'colourized'. It just isn't the same. I do admit, if done right, a black and white photo can be absolutely brilliant. But, again, a photo can be brilliant with colours....if done right. Or in my case, "luck" when capturing a sunset...Mother Nature helps out. But that is no skill, it's nature's beauty. I am not photographer, by any means, but I have noticed when editing photos, if I take a colour photo and make it black and white, it adds something different.
I do love a black and white photo, I don't know what it is, or why.
I believe either way, it's the eye through the lens that captures the splendid in the photo.


VallyP said...

Yes, Anne-Marie and thanks! I have to say that although I like some b&w, I'm really a fan of good colour, but then maybe that's because I'm a sunshine, blue skies and vivid colours kind of girl. I hate grey B&W days, so that probably affects my level of appreciation.

Grace, the old movies were great, but I still prefer movies in colour. B&W always reminds me of war movies and winter...grrrr and brrrr all at once :) BTW I can't seem to comment on your blog. Is that something new?

June's World said...

that's true, the B & W movies do have that reminder of war. hmm, I am not sure why you can't comment, I haven't changed anything, maybe it has something to do with Google's new change? I ll take a peak at the settings.

Hans said...

I got to love B&W when I was young to the extent that I got into tone-separation by using graphic film and in the end everything went black and white and nothing in between. :)
Then I bought a Nikkormat ft2 when my first som was born and turned to colour slides.
B&W and colour are two sides of the same coin from my point of view. I completely agree with Anne-Marie

Dale said...

Point and shoot.
Black and white - with a bit of colour thrown in, perhaps?
I enjoy both!

But where does noise come into the picture? Does sound actually affect a digital photograph?

And I whole-heartedly agree with AM!

VallyP said...

Anne Marie, yes there is lots of room for all of it, but I do get irritated by all those who seem to think that B&W is the only medium of relevance when it comes to photographic art.

Grace, I understand what you are saying, but for me, colour will always be best, and b&w, well, I've said my piece now.

Hans, I can imagine that if you did your own thing that would have been tremendous fun. You've done so much, haven't you? I love this idea of using graphic film. Great!

Dale, someone told me last week I should get out more....:)

Marthamrbd said...

Point and shoot. Black and white - with a bit of colour thrown in, perhaps? I enjoy both! But where does noise come into the picture? Does sound actually affect a digital photograph? And I whole-heartedly agree with AM!