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Saturday, 12 May 2018


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Huh, I hadn't even noticed the orange and other bright colors at lower right. Now that I do, I notice a bit of orange (or brown or yellow; that family) turning up on the handle of the comb, too, though a bit small to be a major compositional element I guess. (Huh; Firefox doesn't think "compositional" is a word.)

I really like Stephen Scharf's conversion of Emma. The problem (IMHO) in the color version is that her eyes and the comb are at war with each other. I can see the argument (mentioned by another poster) that the comb adds an idea to her personality, but her essential personality resides in her stance, her dress, her eyes and her general visage. (And the comb adds an idea to her personality even in B&W.)

I suspect that the best portraits go straight to the most essential parts of a personality, which wouldn't include a comb. So I don't think of the color version as a portrait at all; it's more of an artistic construction, one in which there is a struggle between her eyes/stance and the comb. I think Picasso would have chosen the color version; Degas would have gone for the B&W.

She is certainly a striking young woman.

Ah ha! I was thinking exactly along these lines for the last couple of days, but wondering how to express it in a comment. So, thanks, there endeth the lesson.

The thing about the “war” for attention between the comb and her face is that the comb loses big time after briefly catching the eye. More like a brief skirmish than a war. So it becomes a sort of character detail, not a distraction, maybe something like a framing element. In black and white it’s an artifact.

I comment as someone who nearly always prints and exhibits in B&W, but like others, occasionally I find that there is an image which needs be in colour. So I have given this a little thought. What do we mean when we say that an image must be in colour? In my experience there are two alternative possible meanings: (i) that the image is flat and boring in B&W, there's insufficiency tonal range and variation; or (ii) colour adds something extra to the image that you just can't replicate in even a very good B&W rendition.

The first possible meaning is a reasonably objective one. The image either works in B&W or it doesn't, although the skill of the person doing the B&W conversion obviously has an impact. I do worry a little about this category, as images that rely solely on colour for their interest often lack underlying appeal. I haven't tried to do any unauthorised conversions, but I suspect that at least two of your initial four baker's dozen images would meet this definition.

But not Emma by Jan Kwarnmark - an excellent image in the "I wish I had taken that" category. I'm pretty confident that I could create an equally compelling B&W rendition (but I haven't seen a sufficiently compelling one so far). But it would be a different image.

This is why my second possible definition is subjective. If both colour and B&W definitions are strong images, as can happen, to say that the image must be in colour is to say that the colour adds a level of interest that you simply can't replicate in monochrome. The image was composed in colour and not just shot in colour.

It probably also says something about what you think the subject should be. In the case of Emma, you think the comb should be as much the subject as she is, whereas those who prefer B&W prefer Emma as the subject, and relegate the comb to a supporting role.

Mike - I'd be interested to know which if either of these definitions you had in mind for this dozen.

[Brian, Thanks for your thoughts.

I was already accused of "sandbagging" when I wrote this post about the process:


So I think I shouldn't write any further about it. I've got to have Part II ready for tomorrow or there might be angry mobs. --Mike]

Since this is a topic dear to my heart, I will allow myself the rare indulgence of a second comment. When I said "I do worry a little about this category, as images that rely solely on colour for their interest often lack underlying appeal", I was trying to say the same thing as Ben when he said "I’d argue that it being a good picture in B&W is part of what makes it work in color. Because you have her expression, along with the light, the shadow, the composition, the tonality... this is the foundation of the image". A really good image should be good in either genre. If it only works well in colour, something is lacking.

The other comment worth adding is initial vs enduring appeal. It would be hard to resist doing Emma as colour image because that blue comb against the warm tones is so arresting. But I wonder if the impact of that would wear off, whereas the B&W image would be one of those that would continue to offer interest over time, in much the same way as Migrant Mother. Didn't you write about this at some stage, Mike?

Plenty of good thoughtful conversation on this first set of images, and particularly of Jan’s “Emma”. Some very good b&w conversions offer interesting aesthetic arguments.

But the “it must be color” theme should run much deeper that simple aesthetics. Of course this is Mike’s game and his court, so he sets the rules. But, most fundamentally, color represents information. Removing that information is, to me, no different than any other post-capture manipulation one might make in the interest of personal tastes or dogma. Sometimes color information doesn’t add to an image’s value or, worse, distracts from its message (just like an unwanted pole, garbage can, etc.).

Often, however, a b&w conversion throws-out the most essential elements of an image’s life. That would be the case with “Emma”. That blue comb might be distracting to the casual eye but it should be distracting. It probably represents a fundamental part of this lovely young lady’s identity and her spirit. She may have lived her entire life in abject poverty, she may be unwashed and her clothes old and soiled. But that bright blue comb front-and-center on that slightly tilted head with its proud gaze tells us that her spirit’s intact. The colors here are utterly fundamental to the image’s communication.

Ken Tanaka has useful things to say about the Emma portrait there (that is, useful things that I hadn't already thought of). I'd summarize it by saying that I hadn't looked deeply enough at what the photo is saying, and when you do, the importance of the color becomes much clearer. I think the man has a point!

As a (very) late postscript on the discussion of "Emma", I've come across a Ghanaian-American photographic artist, Michael Amofah, who intentionally applies such strong visual symbolism as the afro-comb in his staged work.

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