Monday, November 12, 2012

color vs black and white

The color shot below is from my Vivitar Ultra Wide and Slim.
The b&w was made with my Mamiya C330.

I am prompted to write a little about the subject by the appearance today of an article by Joel Meyerowitz in the Lens section of the New York Times.  Here is part of what Meyerowitz has to say on the matter:
What I saw was that the color image had more information in it — simple as that! There was much more to see and consider, whereas black-and-white reduced the world to shades of gray...[color] was much more elegant in the way it described things. The sharpness and cohesive quality of the image compelled me to “read” everything in the frame more carefully, as if that small “ping” of color in the distance actually added something to the meaning of the whole frame, and it did.
The passages above and the whole article seem rather nonsensical to me.  I'll grant that a color photograph contains "more information in it".    Meyerowitz, however, fails to delineate the nature of the additional information in any meaningful way.  He might have pointed out, for instance that two colors can appear identical in a black and white representation of a scene if the surface textures and reflectivity are the same.  Instead, he talks about "sharpness and cohesive quality" and "that small ping".

Here's the thing, Joel:  Information is made up of observable and measurable facts.  There is an important  difference between Information and Opinion and confounding the two can have unfortunate consequences as we saw in some recent election analysis.  It is also important that in arriving at judgments we do not make unsupported assertions or conveniently ignore facts that don't support conclusions.

The assumption underlying Meyerowitz's argument is that more information makes a better photograph.  In my opinion the examples with which he illustrates his article are not at all convincing in regard to his thesis.  Some of the color pictures are very nearly monochrome, and I thought them all pretty forgetable regardless of chromatic considerations.  In any case, the idea that packing more information into a picture increases its communicative or aesthetic value is simply not defensible.  Meaning in art surely is mostly a product of being selective -- of leaving things out of the picture to emphasize what is important.  That end can come about by a variety of means including framing, selective focus, use of color or not, contrast control, filtering and many other useful techniques.

It is probably true, as the editor's introduction to the Meyerowitz article asserts, that collectors and curators were unwilling for a long time to to admit that photographic art might be rendered in color.  However, that is an argument long since buried.  To attempt a resurrection of the idea turned head to tail is about as productive as a zombie hunt.


Norman Montifar said...

I agree. Many times I find color becomes a distraction to what I want to emphasize in some of my work. If that happens I don't have any problem in converting the image into black and white even if they were originally shot with color film.

jon campo said...

Hi Mike,
A very thought provoking posting. I have learned much from your site as well as the blog, which I read often. I have been thinking about this subject lately, as I don't have good access to B + W processing on my very limited budget.
Thanks again for all erudite posts.
Best regards, Jon in Connecticut

Mike said...

I'll admit a slight bias toward b&w. However, I very often carry two cameras, one loaded with b&w and the other color. Sometimes, color is the subject and nearly the whole point of a composition.

I'll also have to admit to a bias against Meyerowitz; who I have found to have a talent for making interesting subjects dull. I bought his old book on street photography with some anticipatory enthusiasm as did many others. It eventually ended up in the free box on the sidewalk in my last move.

Mike said...

Many thanks for sticking with the program, Jon. It's very rewarding for me to see in the Feedjit log that people from all over the world are visiting the blog. Even nicer when someone takes time to make an intelligent comment.

Julio F said...

Many of us who started photography with B&W tend to evaluate color as a danger rather than an opportunity. Color adds information, but as you well say, the point of a picture is not information quantity. If you want to say something with the picture, color must collaborate with your idea - another dimension to tones, lines, shapes, whatever your picture elements are.

Then, maybe we old-timers exaggerate a bit. Color is out there in nature, it pulls our eyes. Often a picture works better because of color. And maybe younger people are better used to the "excess" information and just filter it out.

I am now focused on B&W almost exclusively, because of film availability, but sometimes miss old slide film.