We humans are quick to embrace new technologies, aesthetics, techniques and trends. We are equally adept at discarding the old ones. And, while few of us would choose to live in the past, its wanton abandonment comes with a heavy price — ignorance.
In 1905, George Santayana elegantly summarized one manifestation of this ignorance when he wrote, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
A second manifestation of ignorance, stated much less elegantly but dating back to at least the 15th century, says “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.” It’s a curious phrase with murky origins, so I’ll translate it into photographic terms: “Don’t ignore black & white simply because your camera shoots in color.”
Photographs are an exaggerated reality. A captured moment passes in an instant but, by freezing that moment, we allow the eye to explore it at a leisurely pace — discovering tiny details while, simultaneously, using our own prejudices and proclivities to fill in those that are missing. Because of this, photographers need to direct the eye through a photograph — helping the viewer identify the most important elements. One way of doing this is to make sure that no unwanted elements are included in the frame. A good photographer will always carefully consider the geometry and perspective that best conveys his message. Just because a wide angle lens captures a greater percentage of the world in front of your camera doesn’t mean you should use it. After all, the wider the field of view, the more likely you are to photograph elements that are of no importance to the ‘story’ you’re trying to tell. The harder it is for the viewer’s eye to find the subject, the less impact your photo will have.
Which brings us to color. Just because your camera can capture a color image doesn’t mean that color is an important element to that particular photo. In much the same way that an inappropriately used wide angle lens captures unimportant and distracting detail, so too can color be a distraction. Unfortunately, since most humans see the world in color, they expect to see the same vibrant hues in photographs — rejecting anything black & white, and thus limiting a photographer’s ability to tell a story.
When I produce an image, I let the photograph, itself, tell me whether it should be black & white or color. If color detracts from my message, I’ll process it in black & white. This is why most of my street photography is monochromatic. Look, for example, at each of the images in this article.
The four little girls dancing beside the stage attracted my attention for two reasons. First, they were absolutely adorable. And second, they were as oblivious to the audience as the audience was to them. I want the viewer to be aware of only two subjects: the little girls (primarily) and the background audience (as a single entity). Including color in this image would ruin it — the audience would no longer be a homogenous object but, instead, a cacophonous sea of multiple colors. Brightly colored balloons, banners, and clothing would all compete for the attention of the viewer’s eye — attention I want directed at the girls.
The same reasoning applies to the ‘street corner therapist’ photo at the top of this article. There are, again, two important elements in this photograph: the woman holding the sign, and the reaction of the crowd upon seeing it. Nothing else is important. It doesn’t matter what color her jeans are. It doesn’t matter that the leaves on the trees are starting to change color. The passing car is equally as insignificant — so why bring attention to it by showing its color? The impact of this photo is diminished significantly by color.
Look at the night photo of the club-goers. The image is about expression and body language. It’s about the confident attitude of the woman and the sheer delight of the two men. If it were in color, the eye would migrate away from the trio and toward the multi-colored neon in the background. But that’s not where I want the viewer’s eye to focus. Again, color would distract the viewer from my intended subject, so I’ve chosen black & white.
It’s unfortunate that, in the name of ‘progress’, photographers have been forced to abandon one of their most important tools — the ability of black & white to create a kind of visceral impact that color can’t always provide. New technologies, aesthetics, techniques and trends are, ultimately, a good thing — but not if they come at the expense of those that came before.
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