Billy-Bob Thornton: ...I always feel that black and white...black and white in a way looks more like real life than color does, even though real life is obviously in color.
One of the Coen brothers [I can't tell their voices apart —MJ]: Yeah, there’s something hyper-real about it.
OotCB: Yeah you’re right.
BBT: Somehow black and white it makes you feel like you’re in the story more, somehow...I don’t know....it creates such a mood.
OotCB: Yeah, who was it, was it Orson Welles? —Who said that black and white was the filmmaker’s friend?
BBT: It’s really true.
—Billy-Bob Thornton and the Coen brothers in the commentary track on the DVD of "The Man Who Wasn’t There," shot by Roger Deakins in black-and-white. The film is one of the few for which the Coen brothers recorded a director's commentary track, with both brothers and Billy Bob, the star of the film, participating.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Softie: "As regards why some artists choose B&W, I think B&W is integral to the modernist sensibility, and if that's the kind of work you like or want to do, I think you'll be naturally drawn to it. I think B&W gets you closer to Zukofsky's idea of a work of art as an object at complete rest. And as Ezra Pound said, 'DICHTEN = CONDENSARE.' Apropos to photography, Man Ray noted that painters often liked the (B&W) photographs of their paintings better than the actual (color) paintings. (Of course, Man Ray also said that all critics should be assassinated....)"
Featured Comment by Paul Pomeroy: "You hear it said every once in a while that whatever is not working for a composition is working against it. Color often falls into this category. The brain relies primarily on light/dark values to determine what it is seeing. This has been explored and experimented with by many artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Alexej Jawlensky. Take Jawlensky's Head of a Woman, for example:
"Even though the the colors are all 'wrong' we still know what we are looking at. To understand why, just open the image up in something like Photoshop and desaturate it. The sharp contrast, for example, of the magenta on yellow on the lit side of her face completely disappears when desaturated because the values of the two colors are almost identical. You cannot do this the other way around; you can't keep the right colors and use the wrong values.
"Colors are not always unimportant. We assign emotional content to them; we see some colors, like red, as standing out (closer to the viewer) than others and as having more 'weight' when it comes to creating a balanced composition. In part, what Jawlensky was doing with his art was making the colors in them more important than the 'correct' colors would have been.
"And when you're dealing with the work of a colorist, like the pastel artist Margaret Nes, the colors are essential. But when color is not key—when it's not adding to what the artist or photographer is trying to convey—it can be removed and the result is often a more pure version of the message."
Mike replies: Very interesting and enlightening, Paul—thanks for that. My take on color in photography is much simpler, but similar—it's that you can either photograph for color or you can photograph for meaning and values, but it's rare when all those things align at once. So if you photograph for meaning, colors are arbitrary; if you photograph for color, then meanings are arbitrary. It's very different from art (or color in the studio), where you can choose what colors to use and make them intentional.
The only time this isn't an issue is when people are photographing things in which the colors are verities—i.e., always or often the same or "right." Birds are always the colors they should be, and skies and trees too. Pure colorist photographers that photograph something other than those kinds of subjects are very rare. The recent discovery Robert Bergman is one—he does portraits of randomly encountered people on the street, but all of his portraits are essentially coloristic compositions as well as revealing portraits. It's a tough act to pull off outside of the studio—which might help explain why his body of work is so small and took him so long to build up.