I am part of an interesting generation of photographers: one of the ones who learned on black and white film using a traditional darkroom. That was bulk-loaded rolls of T-Max and Tri-X film. Bulk-loading was grunt work and low on the totem pole, that was one of my responsibilities. 🙂 To this day, I love black and white. I still include it in my editing. Some clients like it, some ask for it, some probably don’t care: it’s one of those things that I do as an artist because I am compelled. Monochrome has an elegance to me that is both rich and beloved.
Tonight I watched a video on colorizing historic images. One of the things the narrator said is, “What I love about these photos is they show people and moments in history that have never been seen in history, except by people who were actually there.” He went on to say that the colorized images were able to make years of separation disappear and that the images seemed to “come to life.” If you’d like to watch it here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vubuBrcAwtY
One of the first colorized images I saw and instantly loved was a portrait of Walt Whitman, one of my favorite poets. Here are a few other links to galleries that show this kind of work.
The best thing about black and white photography is that it allows one to see compositionally. For a photographer learning on black and white that means learning to think compositionally. Colors are beautiful, but they can be a distraction. Imagine a sunset photo you’ve seen that someone posts to Facebook. Telephone poles and wires, bits of the street, parked cars those go unnoticed and people love the image because all they are seeing is the colors of the sky. Convert that image to black and white and suddenly all the compositional mistake become glaringly obvious. That is how black and white teaches composition.
On a more personal note, I have always found black and white photos to have a clarity and a power that color can lack. One of the photos shown in the video is a colorized photo by Dorothea Lange from the series of a homeless mother in California in 1936. This is the photo from that series that I’ve always like best, and I found this colorized version online. I like the colors this artist picked, even if they failed to color in the third child (that’s a baby in her arms). Both of the images are strong. That’s the power of the composition. It’s a great and lasting photograph because it is truth rendered beautifully. But does the colorized version make the mother seem more real or more relatable? And if so, does that justify adding one’s best guess to historical evidence?
When it comes to whether or not colorizing should happen, one photographer wrote: “Black and white is its own aesthetic. It doesn’t need revision. Photographers of the historic era were thinking in black and white. They knew what they were doing. Their intent was what they achieved. Their photographs are part of history. They don’t need to be ‘enhanced.’” One one level I agree with him. But earlier I referred to the reason I still do black and whites as something I feel compelled to do. It is an artistic choice that speaks to me. When I look at these artists, the ones who are diligent and faithful, I see the same compulsion flowing in the opposite direction. They aren’t trying to lie of deceive or falsify. They aren’t advocating a “revisionist” version of history. They are making art. And when it comes to what justifies their work the simplest truth is, art is done for its own sake. Art needs no justification.