Black and white vs Color (part three)

This is the final of three blog posts exploring the question of using color vs black and white in photography. To date, I have shared work that was intentionally made in color and later converted to black and white for comparison purposes. I also shared work that was made in color, but was intended to be experienced in black and white. After sharing those two sets of work I also wrote about factors to consider when choosing between the various media. In this last entry, I will offer some other, last thoughts on the two media. These points, and in fact all three blog entries apply to both looking at existing work and to making new work.

In no particular order:

When you look at a given set of photographs, if you become too aware of the role of color vs black and white that may be a problem. The choice of media, like the choice of lens, the photographer’s position, etc., is only a tool to give the viewer of the photograph a specific experience. Any tool that calls attention to its self can take away from the message that you (the photographer) are trying to convey to the viewer of your photograph. Unusual angles or lenses certainly have a place in good photography but only do so in service of the image’s message, not as freestanding gimmicks.

So much of how we view and experience images is unconscious. Every classic black and white film that we see gets written to what I like to think of as our database of mental images that we all have. If you found the use of black and white in the film Citizen Kane as compelling as I did, then subconsciously we are both layering that experience of black and white over the photos that we are looking at today. The same can be said of color films that have unusual uses of color or distinctive color pallets, such as the film Traffic. The use of color in the film, Witness for example, appears to be unimportant on first blush. That is, until you realize that the full color imagery of the film tends to humanize the Amish who are at the core of the movie. This flies in the face of how they are often photographed in black and white, a strategy based on the idea of using a “simpler” media to mimic their simpler culture.

On this question, Jason Nicholas, a regular reader and commenter on The Wells Point wrote: “I’ve always thought of color 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 color and all I have to see is tones, I must subconsciously fill in the rest.”

Black and white, almost by definition, carries a very strong nostalgia factor for many people. Viewers who experience monochrome that way may not be able to (or willing) to enunciate that, but it is there. As the photographer creating the work and directing the viewer’s experience of that work, you have to keep that in mind. It is neither about what you personally prefer, nor can you please all of the people all of the time. It is about what the end viewer should take away from the work.

Images are graphic representations of reality. That seems obvious but thinking about them that way is VERY important. Photographs have a strong tendency to abstract and/or simplify the thing that is being presented in the images. Black and white does this one way, usually around shapes, patterns and textures. Color, not surprisingly, does this very differently, typically based on the colors in the image. Another thing to remember is that many colors prompt subconscious reactions. For example, green suggests either spring (or nausea.) Red suggests blood (or a stop light.) I can go on but you get the idea.

In terms of my own work, I started out working in black and white, which at the time was essentially the only option for a high school student. I have previously written about my transition to color, particularly how a couple decades of exploring the aesthetics of black and white naturally led me to want to explore the aesthetic of color. All that work in black and white also taught me the important discipline of carefully organizing my compositions. If you look closely at much of my black and white work you will see I often place the primary point of the image (the subject or center of attention) against a background that is often darker, out of focus, or without much texture. This strategy keeps the viewer’s attention on the main subject and away from the background. In the foreclosure project, I am often using that same strategy, placing the primary point of the image against a subdued or secondary background in order to keep the viewer’s attention on the main subject and away from the background.

Clearly, doing assignment work and later building a stock photography business pushed me towards working in color. That is a given. On the other hand, I became more and more interested in color the more I worked with that medium. For me, color gets the images that I make closer to my goal of fully mediating my experience for the viewer. Recently, after more than a decade of exploring the aesthetic of color, I started to wonder where my work would go next? Back to black and white seemed logical but not that compelling. Having explored non-silver processes, large format work and a dozen other genres during the formative stages of my photography career, I was not likely to go back to any of those specialties. And lately, I have been working in multi-media, which I am enjoying a great deal. It gets me even closer to fully mediating my experience for the viewer, which is exactly what I want to do with my photography. That last point about defining exactly what you want to do with your photography should always be the starting point any time you are making large decisions, whether about your choice of media, a gear purchase, workshop attendance, etc. All of those things are tools, means to an end and nothing more.

So, is my thinking about the differences between photographing in color as compared to black and white finally “resolved?” I suspect it will never be fully settled, but I do have a better understanding of the question after three blog posts, numerous comments and e-mails. While nothing is final, I can think a bit more clearly in terms of which media to use for which project(s.) More importantly, I have started to better appreciate the thinking process that I go through as I am deciding which approach to use. What about you?

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