low color

lighted wall at night


One thing that continues to amaze and confound me is the amount of black & white photography you see everywhere these days. On my streams at Google+, Tumblr, and Flickr, it’s sometimes almost half of the photos that appear, even from photographers who often or usually do fine color work. And for what reason? I mean, I understand the whole argument that BW is already an abstraction from reality and that it can emphasize the structure of a photograph. That was certainly true for much of photographic history when that was the main choice people had. I respect and appreciate that, from a historical viewpoint.

Today, though, is there really a point, other than nostalgia and aiming for some kind of retro ambiance?

Most of the time when I see contemporary B&W work, my mind adds the color, because I know of, and/or do, similar work in color. When that happens, I just feel a lack, a complete and utter surrender on the part of the photographer to something other than their own visual sense and perception. Call it follow-the-crowd-ness, or worse.

I’m not really including in this those artists who work with film or antique photographic processes. This is a whole other area and I think wonderful work is being done in that area, by artists from Sally Mann onwards. This isn’t an area I find personally interested in pursuing, but the idea of using old processes in ways that accentuate the art over representation has opened up new visual areas for exploration, not only through using those processes but even for those who, like me, seek a more complex surface, a surface where the elements are not always recognizable and that interact in unplanned and visually expressive ways. I have done experimentation in this direction where I have achieved similar effects in the camera and without using layers in Photoshop. (See, for example, this earlier post.) It can be done.

Now, when all digital cameras record color as their raw data, to remove it completely in post-processing seems precious and evasive. People use b&w and all the easily applied antiquing filters as a veil, a cover, a filter, aiming for that hip Instagram look. (I’m guilty of it myself, for some of my phone snaps.) Certainly, there are times when dialing down the saturation is useful and appropriate; but to do so completely removes too much. The world that we perceive contains both color and luminance information for our brain; it’s important to use that for expressive purposes.

So, here, we have a photo that perhaps many photographers would automatically think of making b&w. But in that case, the intense, though subtle, warmth that the photo has would be lost. And to what gain? In this photo, the structure is still completely clear. Plus, there are the color cues that are the main elements creating the mood. Without those subtle blues and oranges, what is there?


About Ron Wiecki

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