Black and white vs Color (part one)

One thing that I love about blogging (and teaching,) is how both have helped me take a half-baked idea and clarify it. Like most people, my head is a jumble of ideas that come and go. Certain ideas appear more often than others, and the most persistent ones eventually take on a life of their own. When they do that, they move from my head out into the real world, through my photography, my teaching or other behavior. One such idea that has been rolling around in my thinking for a long time finally crystallized this last week.

I started in photography in 1972 working in black and white (and using film,) like virtually all photographers “of a certain age.” Today, photographers mostly start in color and rarely start with film. I have written about that difference before, so I will try my best to spare you another rant. The basic argument that I would make for learning photography by first using black and white film goes like this: The unforgiving nature of film (in terms of exposure) and the graphic nature of the monochrome image both force aspiring photographers to be more disciplined in their craft. Doubly so compared to the contemporary strategy of working in color, relying on auto exposure settings and “Photoshop-ing” to improve the image.

Though I started in black and white, most of my work today is in color. For a couple decades, I held to an almost irrational mental divide that said color work was for money and black and white was for love. The starting point for that was the fact that for much of my career I was paid by publications to do fairly mainstream assignment work, largely in color. At the same time, what I loved, was my more in-depth documentary projects, which worked best in black and white. In about 1996 I finally let go of that rigid divide and since then I have been experimenting with color, trying to find my own aesthetic.

As I started to blur that dividing line, I would ponder how various images looked, both as black and white photos as well as in the form of color photos. In my teaching (and my own photographing,) I explored that further. My point was that the choice of using one or the other, color over black and white for example, should be intentional, not force of habit. Students often say, “I want to use black and white because that is what I am used to” or because “I like it.” I argue against that, saying that whatever medium they choose, it has to be with clear intention. Each medium has strengths and weaknesses and only by understanding those can a photographer choose the best one for a given set of work.

So, when I started my current project photographing inside newly foreclosed houses, I was sure that I wanted to do that work in color. I have long believed that color imagery feels more contemporary. With the idea of placing the work in this political and economic moment, I have been explicitly making the foreclosure work in color. In my latest newsletter, I mentioned that work to readers and I directed them to a web page to see some of my favorite images from that project. A regular reader/correspondent wrote me back with his reaction to the work. To see the work exact work he was reacting to, go to:

His reaction prompted me to convert the same set of work to black and white and to look at that entire set of work in both color and in black and white. To really appreciate the questions he raised, I encourage you to also look at the same exact work in both color and in black and white.

To see the pictures in black and white go to:

To see the pictures in color go to:

The very best way to do this is to have two web-browser windows open (or two tabs open in one web browser) with each of the two windows on the two different sets of work. Then you can toggle back and forth between the same images in black and white vs. in color, to really appreciate the difference.

To see exactly how I do that, click on:

and view the very short video there. I start out pulled back to the whole browser window as I toggle back and forth between the work in black and white and in color. In the video, I then zoom in to show how I am moving between browser tabs in Firefox. You can do the same thing in pretty much any web browser including Safari, Netscape and Explorer. To really expand the exercise, try viewing the black and white images first, then view the color images second. Reverse the order for other images in the set, to better appreciate the differences.

There are no right or wrong reactions to seeing the work in both media. What you like and do not like tells you something about the images, but it also tells you something about your own perspective on photographs. In order not to prejudice you, I will share his thoughts, and my own, on the two mediums, next week. Stay tuned!

3 responses to “Black and white vs Color (part one)”

  1. How is it that housing developments often have names like ‘Legacy Estates’ or ‘Heritage Trace’? It’s as if they are noting some lingering ghost of the family farm that was ploughed over to make McMansions.

    There is a development a quarter mile from my house with about three hulking box houses and twenty empty lots of eroding soil. They laid out all the streets but nobody is building (and I doubt they will sell the existing houses…who wants to live in a wasteland of suburbia?)

    Another developer nearby just cleared off a tract of land, when asked what they were planning on building they basically said, ‘Oh, we don’t know, but we had the equipment here and wanted to keep busy.’

  2. I think that when you as a photographer visualize the project in color, it would be more a matter of coincidence if you like the b&w as much or more as the color versions.

    On this specific case, I can see you, David, on the color photos, but the black and white photos are just not you, at least by now. It seems the photos were just desaturated from color to b&w, which, for me, is a bad movement.

    Take a look on the phone on the grass photo. In the color version, the photo seems to be about it, in the b&w, it is about a plastic something competing in lighting with the house?
    If the spirit of the color photo was the phone, I think it should be about it in b&w, but that would be reached by manipulating the photo other than some direct conversion like desaturating.

    Then, if after that, the b&w photos became stronger than color, we may talk. Until now, it didn’t happen.

  3. Acerutti, that’s a good point. David, did you just desaturate the color images to generate the B&Ws or did you adjust tonality on them other than just desaturation.

    I thought there were a few photos in there that worked on as B&Ws would be able to stand on their own as dramatic images.

    I find that generating a B&W from a color image (and for me they’re all originally in color since I will let my camera make those kind of adjustments or decisions) is a process of creating an image that is unique from the color version: usually with different tonal adjustments and specific selections of which colors to adjust to change the “look” and tonality of the B&W version.

    admittedly much of that, for me, is automated because I have many (did i say many, many) lightroom presets with various versions of B&W conversions and tonal adjustments.

    I think David might think of that as “fiddling” by pushbutton.

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