When I bought my very first camera, and my photographer friend Josef took me around town to practice for the first time, he made sure I bought several rolls of black-and-white film. "Your first 10 rolls should definitely be black-and-white," he advised. "That's how you really learn photography. Black-and-white will teach you about texture and contrast in ways that colour never can."
That was back in 1994, and now, 20 years later, an admission: after Josef and I ran through that first roll of film that day and we said goodbye, I never used the rest of that film we bought together. The truth is that I've never much cared for black-and-white photography -- a statement that, for many photographers, is true heresy.
That's not to say that I can't appreciate a beautiful Ansel Adams print, or get lost in a Dorothea Lange portrait -- of course I can. But I've always felt like black-and-white, for all its contrast-y, texture-y glory, loses something from its lack of vibrancy. In my opinion, it loses a bit of life. I mean, take for example, this collection of colourized black-and-white photos. We've all seen photographs of Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain before, but is it me, or do the colourized versions of their portraits make them more real? Suddenly, they don't seem to be merely close facsimiles of historic figures, but rather exact replicas of real-life people. I mean, who knew Abraham Lincoln had blue eyes, you know? Or that Mark Twain's complexion was so ruddy? Unlike the original black-and-white images, which seem somewhat historic and distant, the colourized images invite me to imagine what it actually would've been like to have been in their presence at the time the photographs were taken. I wonder what we would've been talking about before and after the shot. I imagine myself living during that time -- it's like the colour is an invitation to fill in the blanks. So back when I was learning photography, if there were lessons to be learned about contrast and texture, they honestly didn't matter to me. I went straight for colour, like a child reaches for the Sunday comics while Mom reads the business section. (You know, if mother and child still actually read paper newspapers, instead of the internet.) (It's also possible I just aged myself a bit with that last sentence.)
This week, my friend Lola challenged me on Facebook to share 5 of my most favourite black-and-white photographs I've ever made. I will admit that my initial reaction was to ignore her tagging me, but then I realized that perhaps the very fact that I was resisting was a sign that I probably should do it. And so I've been pulling out some of my favourite shots from my archives, and reprocessing them, to see what they might look like as black-and-whites.
It has been surprisingly fun processing these photos, and in truth, I am noticing details in each that I didn't notice the first time I was processing them (like, for example, the people standing near the bottom left-hand side of the image of the Santa Fe trees -- I never saw them before today!). And I do love that the starkness of the photographs seem to add a sort of historical gravitas to the images. Still, I hate that anyone who is seeing these images for the first time would have no idea how clear and blue the sky was in Santa Fe that day, or how green that New York park, or that the dress under the Ethiopian woman's work coat was a bright pink, and the coals of her fire glowed orange. And for some reason, those details seem important to me.
I'd love to hear your thoughts: do you have a preference for colour or black-and-white imagery? Do you ever shoot in black-and-white? What informs that decision?
(And of course, keep watching my Facebook page for my final two black-and-white shots.)