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Friday, 11 March 2011


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When I think B&W a number of legendary B&W photographers come to mind and for each there is an icon image which I can quickly picture in my minds's eye. When I think color I can name a few exceptional photographers but image wise only Afghan Girl comes to mind. I couldn't name another famous color photo though I know they exisit.

For me B&W is still the classic way to practice photography. Don't get me wrong I like color photography but Ist class color is hard to come by.

I used to work exclusively in B&W before the advent of digital and once had an exhibit of two dozen B&W images that traveled to three locations. I later met someone who had seen the exhibit. The comment they made on meeting me was that "the colors were wonderful". Now that is "audience participation". :-)

I wonder to what extent BW has ever really disappeared. There is a reason, after all, why manufacturers add ever more elaborate BW modes to their digital camera lineup.

I think black and white holds high esteem in part because it was here first and photography established itself as art using it. The people who became really good with color, all the medium format Velvia guys of the 80's and 90's, you can't help but think, sure, it's pretty, but "been there, done that." Now digital ends up aping both the Velvia crowd, and the earlier B&W West Coast movement too. You have to wonder how many digital landscape photos will be hanging in museums in a hundred years. More likely you'll see early iphone photos.

I couldn't agree more that the "right" horse should be chose for the course. But it's a new world.

Color is intrinsically harder to present well as compared to b&w. Aside from color's technical and logistical challenges the fact is that many people are hampered by pitiful color judgment. So eliminating color is, for many folks, the simplest short-cut to adding a faux sophistication to their pictures. Even a crap b&w photo immediately echoes photography's legacy and suggests, at least to older viewers, that the snapper has an appreciation for what has been considered "good" in photography's history.

Nevertheless, beyond form, no image attribute offers the potential impact that color offers. Additionally, unlike the "olden days", it's never been easier to use color, to experiment with color, to print accurate color, to make mistakes and corrections in color, to embrace color as a core element of your imaging.

Indeed, any survey of new notable works in photography quickly reveals that color is the new B&W. Browse through next week's AIPAD show in NY, for example, and you'll likely see quite a bit of pricey b&w, mostly as legacy/antiquarian offerings. But the new and most creative works by young people will likely nearly all use color.

Yes, monochrome imagery will remain an important style of photographic presentation...as it should. But today's young artists have come up though a new world where b&w is just one tool in their visual arsenal. Through better tools, through broader and deeper exposure, through better visual education, today's young photographers see and think in color.

Us old humps can growl from the porch at what we see as the garish parade of vulgar color photography. But it's a new and richer visual world out there. And than goodness for that!

Another anachronism:
"Rather than continuing to subject them to the ubiquitous and mindless bombardment of electronic rainbows, tune your television to your favorite dramatic series and turn off the color for at least he next hour"

Can you turn off the color of an LCD TV? I'll have to try mine tonight.

"In retrospect I realized that the film’s transformative power had as much to do with the medium as the message: this tale of blacks forced to live by white rules had been told in painfully revealing shades of gray—as seen through the lens of childhood innocence."

I do not think it is possible to make a better, more accurate comment about that film. Thank you!

MJFerron- I have to wonder where you've been since ohhh... circa 1976 or thereabouts. If you haven't seen or can't think of examples of good color work out there except for one portrait, I really have to... well, let me put it this way- I really envy you, because there is just so much great (color) work out there that you have yet to discover, appreciate and savor (and I shoot B&W exclusively).

I remember telling incredulous friends about 10 years ago that I thought digital would pretty much kill film... except for black & white film. I stand by that prediction still, though it's a lot less controversial now.

And speaking of movies that were made in B&W even after color had become dominant, I can think of two other great films that were made in black and white specifically because their directors *wanted* them shot that way: Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960) and Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" (1964). Very different films, but both would have been much diminished, I think, by color.

Most interesting and beautiful image of Ship Rock I have ever seen, thank you for that!

I shoot raw + B&W jpeg. That way I can see the image in B&W. I regard this as one of the great pluses of digital photography. If I want to print the B&W image, I often convert raw to B&W to get better quality.

Ken's really right - Color is BRUTALLY hard to do well. Perhaps that's why many of the best photos are B&W: just because doing a truly excellent job of taking, processing, and printing a color photo is so incredibly difficult that it's more rarely done. If you pressed me for my favorites, they'd be the Hurrells and Mapplethorpes - but Galen Rowell's work is an incredible inspiration, and the task he set himself was Herculean in its difficulty.

"MJFerron- I have to wonder where you've been since ohhh... circa 1976 or thereabouts"

You've got me wrong. I can point out plenty of good color photographs taken by "known" photographers. Pete Turners work has the wow factor. Another guy (a bit less known) who comes to mind is Darwin Wiggett from Canada. The color in his landscapes is about as good as it gets and he's landed the cover of Outdoor Photographer magazine more than once. I've been familiar with his work for 10 years now and Darwin has been kind enough to critique a photo or two of mine in the past. Are his photos collectable? Time will tell but I doubt it.

That's my point. Yeah we have known color photographers but how many color icon photos are there? Maybe I'm naive and concentrate too much on the B&W scene? Maybe the days of icon images are dead in general? Maybe it's all disposable fluff? Someone tell me.

I have always had an appreciation of black and white photography, I have been creating black and white images for the past twenty years or so for my personal work, I find there is something about black and white that satisfies my creative soul.

> Stan B.

I have a story to tell about color vs. B&W but I will save Mike's bandwidth and do it on my blog later. However, I also don't recall the COLORS of any the great color works except for the Afghan Girl and may be a small few others. I don't know whether it is the same reasons as MJ Feron's, but in my mind's eyes, I remember the shapes, the forms, the eyes (if part of the image) etc. i.e. the same characteristics that I remember from B&W work, except I don't have to distill the colors off :-)

Once upon a time I did my own developing and enlarging at the family darkroom and although it was a nice challenge I only really became a photographer when the feedback loop became a few orders of magnitude smaller thanks to chimping, quick viewing on the computer monitor, and getting nice prints in 10 minutes from an inkjet. Frankly, I say good riddance to the darkroom.

I did however pause when I read Dennis'comment and his mention of no longer being forced to think in black and white. I do miss it.

The pack-rat in me was always appalled when people would turn on the B&W modes on their point and shoots. Why throw away perfectly good color information? But then I remembered that the B&W mode on my DSLR, if it worked in RAW, should only really affect the thumbnail. After a quick change in the Sony A700 interface I now have a camera that chimps in B&W and yet still stores away the full color info. That should make for an interesting photo exercise without losing the option of going back to color on any given shot.

"So much great color work...to discover..." Stan B advises above. Yes: Alex Webb in still photography. And Kryzstof Kieslowski, the Polish-French film director whose trilogy, Blue, White and Red, are three films dominated each by one color which symbolize the French ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity. It's hard to describe, but the colors tell the story; they are not the icing on the reality cake. They are a masterclass in how to see. (Kieslowski also created The Decalogue on the Ten Commandments, shot brilliantly in B/W. I wonder if there is another filmmaker as adept in the entire spectrum?)

I think the tendency to oversaturate colour, which has been around at least since Velvia and continues with many digital expressions, has contributed to a great deal of misunderstanding about the potential for subtlety and meaning in colour photography. The book FRED HERZOG VANCOUVER PHOTOGRAPHS was one of TOP's bestsellers. For those who think colour can only be about cliches--"all the medium format Velvia guys of the 80's and 90's, you can't help but think, sure, it's pretty, but 'been there, done that'"--I suggest they study Herzog's book, or Meyerowitz's books. Better yet, take a look at what a B&W master, i.e., Ralph Gibson, did when he shot in colour: http://www.amazon.com/LHistoire-France-Ralph-Gibson/dp/0893814717

I love great colour. I love great B&W. To do either well is very difficult. There is no difference in meaningfulness or artistic merit, just different means to similar ends.

I quite agree that nothing quite evokes drama like B&W, but in a sense that makes it nothing other than an extreme form of visual manipulation that, for historical reasons, has simply become acceptable.

I sometimes wonder if reportage in B&W is actually valid for that very reason. The ability of monochrome images to impart a certain bleakness and broodiness could be seen as a deliberate attempt to over-dramatise. Valid as an artistic choice, but journalistically?

I feel unable to add much to what Ken Tanaka said above rather eloquently. I would love to see a more profound and intellectual discussion about the role of colour in contemporary photography.

I love old photographs, but I don't want to replicate the past. I want to improve my ability to see and use colour to effect and I would love to see more exposure of contemporary (art) photographers with this aim in mind.

When I saw the Vanity Fair exhibition in the NPG a few years back, it was always the colour work that grabbed me, especially this one...


The colour choice in this photograph is exquisite, for all the reasons a colourist would understand. Nothing about this shot would be enhanced if it had been taken in black and white.

By the same token, William Clift's shot in the original post while full of drama and impact is not really distinguishable from an original Adams in style. It does not move the game on in any way. If anything, it's pure nostalgia.


I don't think that I'd be very far off base to state that most reportage, fine art and yes, iconic imagery made in photography has, in fact, been made in color since the '80s. The following is but a very small listing of photographers ranging from street shooters to reportage to landscape to "fine art" that shoot in color (some exclusively, some not) and make some of the most memorable recent and current color imagery (you'll find many an iconic shot among them): Mitch Epstein, Jeff Mermelstein, Martin Parr, Alec Soth, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Zoe Strauss, Simon Roberts, Brian Rose, Nan Goldin, Luc Delahaye, Joel Meyerowitz, William Eggleston, Mikhael Subotzky, Rineke Dijkstra...

That's just your basic starter list of which I have no doubt left off some major names which will come to mind as soon as I send this, and untold less familiar names also making exceptional work...

William Clift's picture is wonderful. Thanks for putting it up. I don't know if it is looking backwards or forward and it doesn't matter much to me. It is magic and that's enough.
If I had to choose one or the other I would do black and white but for no other reason than it makes me extremely happy to do so. Fortunately I don't have to choose.
Years ago I thought black and white was more difficult and somehow more legit than color.
Looking at the work of Ernst Haas, Eliot Porter and Pete Turner disabused me of that notion. Color is not more difficult (anymore) but the skillset is different.
Art is an opportunity to wander around in someone's head.
I like to think when Clift pushed the cable release on that shot he had to do a little happy dance while a voice in his head said "we got a keeper there!"
I think that does move the game on but in a small way.

For iconic color images, you can look to Steve McCurry. I don't think color ever takes away from his photos; it probably helps in many cases, yet they don't rely on color, either. Even in his pictures with strong and effective use of color, I think I can easily see a great b/w picture. I admit that it's much easier to come up with examples of b/w pictures that I would call iconic than color pictures.

Jay & Pedro, thanks for the raw+jpeg(b/w) idea. If I decide to try my had at it again, that might help. But there's more to it than just the ease of previsualization. I really feel like it's not my thing despite a nagging preconception that as a photographer, it should be my thing.

Once or twice a year I'll shoot a B&W photo story for my newspaper's website. Invariably I get a couple of emails from readers thanking me and an email from the publisher asking me if my cameras are broken. I explain and she seems to get it, until next time.
Man, I miss both iterations of Camera Arts. Camera 35, too.

William Bresler wrote: "Man, I miss both iterations of Camera Arts. Camera 35, too."

Bill: Needless to say, so do I! -- Jim

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