Black and white vs Color (part two)

In my last blog entry, I started exploring the question of black and white vs. color photographs. Specifically, I was talking about how a photographer should think clearly about the intentional choice of using one or the other for a given project. To get started, I suggested that readers look at a set of my photographs, exploring the foreclosure crisis, in both color and in black and white. The set of work that I offered in both media, was made in color and later converted to black and white. While those photos were intentionally created and presented in color, what about work that was made in color but was intended to be seen in black and white?

An example of the latter situation can be found starting at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuColorBWBW/index.html

The color originals of that same work can be found at: http://www.davidhwells.com/docuColorBWColor/index.html

That work is from the tail end of my project exploring the complexities of the relationship between Israelis-Palestinians. I made those images in color because I knew they would have more resale potential as stock images if they were in color. But as I made them, I also knew I was going to convert them to black and white to fit within the larger body of work that I was in the process of completing, which was all in black and white.

As I started that project I chose to work in black and white for a few reasons. Most notably, the relationship between Israelis-Palestinians is in itself a duality and black and white, by definition, suggests and even encourages that kind of duality. Also, black and white imagery is less likely to feel as if it is brand new. I wanted the viewer of the work to look at the interactions between Palestinians and Israelis as a long-term process, not fixed to any one moment. Black and white also gave me flexibility in terms of working in mixed light with different color temperatures. Although it also gave me more control in terms of printing, I am not sure how much that mattered because, my black and white photography tends to be fairly representational, meaning that what I show in the prints is a fairly straightforward representation of what was in front of the camera.

(A technical note about what you saw from the Middle East. The original images were made on color slide film. The color digital scans were made from those originals and/or from duplicate slides, which may have added a bit of contrast to the process. The black and white digital scans came from black and white slides that were made by directly duplicating those same color slides on a unique black and white slide film called Scala, which was made by Agfa. I loved Scala. To me it was the perfect film. It gave me a slide, which was easily scanned for publication, yet it needed no dodging/burning/printing in the way that a black and white negative does. Once you understood the film’s peculiarities, which all films have, you could make slides that were stunning in their tonal scale. The great thing was that those tones were locked into place because it was a slide, not a negative.

So the black and white images you are seeing are exactly what came out of my film camera when I was copying the color slides with the Scala film. They are not de-saturated or altered in any way via Photoshop. That is important, because other photographers might have manipulated the images going from color to black and white. I did not. This is not for any higher moral or philosophical reason. Rather it was simply for speed and ease. The differences in cropping/framing between images in color and those in black and white reminds you of how these were made, duplicating one image onto another piece of film.)

Michael Colby is the correspondent whose comments spurred the last blog entry. Upon first seeing the color versions of the foreclosure work he wrote me:

“The incongruity of the juxtaposition of almost Kodachrome-esque colors with the sad settings of the residual flotsam and jetsam of the departed residents is very powerful. I take it these photos don’t have anywhere near that tension if done as black and white?”

He went on

“… is ironic in itself because often color images reduce the tension or take off the “edge” compared to B&W mages because color can “pretty up” or provide a tonal distraction in an image compared to a tonally rich B&W version. I like the color ones better. The jarring effect of the cheery, bright, somewhat oversaturated colors with the settings of the leftovers of people’s lives is much more powerful than the black and white, at least for me. The only one that I prefer in black and white version vs the color version is the pair of discarded high heel shoes.”

Another friend seeing the work wrote:

In the foreclosure project the…“work is made more powerful by its lack of literalism and its attention to chillingly mundane objects.”

The first posting, sharing the foreclosure work in both media, generated many comments which can be seen starting at the bottom of the page at http://thewellspoint.com/2010/05/07/black-and-white-vs-color-part-one/

I decided to use color for the foreclosure project (and most of my recent projects) because in my mind’s eye, color feels more contemporary. Yes, there is the risk of a bright color derailing the viewer’s attention but that is not something that happens often in this particular work. It may be that those overly colorful images are edited out of my final selections. (Or maybe they were never made when I was shooting, as I may subconsciously shy away from subjects with too much screaming color.)

Other recent projects produced in color include my project exploring the lives of immigrants from South Asia in the United States. Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis etc., are a relatively new and important immigrant group in this country and I thought that photographing them in black and white would not do full justice to their experience. The color of their clothes, food, skin etc. would be lost in monochrome. They are new Americans and the lives they live here are in color.

Similarly, my first big personal project in color was on an Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva (school for boys) in Philadelphia. So much work that I have seen of Orthodox Jewish communities is done in black and white. I have done plenty of that myself. I am guessing that is a collective effort among photographers to mimic the black and white of their clothing. The Orthodox Jews that I know live in the same color-filled world that you and I do, so I thought it would be limiting, if not stereotyping, to only photograph them in black and white.

My preference to work in color is a preference, nothing more. It is hardly an aesthetic rule. Anyone who tries to make such an absolute rule about the choice of media (or much of anything else in photography) should be avoided. The only rule I would make is that the choice of which media, color over black and white, or vice versa, should be made very intentionally.

Some people viewing these two sets of images (the work on foreclosures and on the relationship between Israelis-Palestinians) will have strong preference for the black and white. Other people will gravitate overwhelmingly to the color. Some folks will split the difference.

Does the foreclosure work provoke a historical reaction in you? Would that generally suggest you have a tendency towards black and white? Does the work from the Middle East feel very contemporary to you, suggesting you have a preference for color? Does your age have any impact on how you look at the comparison of color vs. black and white?

There is no right or wrong preference. They key is to think about how you look at photographs and what you bring to them. In the final of these three blog posts on the question color vs black and white, I will offer some other thoughts on the two media. They will apply to looking at existing work and most importantly, to making new work in the future.

2 responses to “Black and white vs Color (part two)”

  1. I’ve always thought of colour photographs presenting the world ‘as it is’ (more or less as, obviously there are a whole range of legitimate manipulations involved in the process) and black and white presenting a component of reality that requires the viewer to contribute further thought to the scene. When an image is stripped of its colour and all I have to see is tones, I must subconsciously fill in the rest.

    This is akin to some considerations I’m having now about something as basic as frame format. I used to shoot day in and out with a Hasselblad (which was my first serious camera then I worked with them in a studio..assisted, etc.) I sold the system I had to go to 35mm as I wanted something lighter and more travel-worthy. However, I’m beginning to realise (ten years since) that I prefer to see things in squares; my eye is just drawn to the square format. I’ve never fully been comfortable with the proportions of 35mm.

    Again, not something that has any more merit one way or the other, but there is a consideration beyond ‘oh, you can just crop that later or remove the colour and make it black and white.’

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