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...