Natural Colors

Three rolls HP5+, Xtol 1+1

A few weeks back, on a recommendation from Moleskinerie (or was it 43 Folders?), I picked up a copy of Howard & Barton's 1988 writing book, Thinking on Paper. At its core lay three fundamental propositions about writing. I think that the use of "writing" in these propositions is easily swapped-out with just about any expressive/reflective activity: writing, painting, singing, gardening. This is PhotoRant.com after all, so let's try it:

1. Photography is a symbolic activity of meaning-making;
2. Photography for others is a staged performance; and
3. Photography is a tool of understanding as well as of communication.

Works for me, especially #1, which both accepts and challenges the usual nominative function that so dominates photography (and computer graphics, an industry obsessed with "realism" — though its greatest successes, such as The Incredibles, wisely use realism merely as a point of departure and occasional familiar grounding for their audience (some folks think of computer graphics as just another form of photography...)). Only photography and writing have such a broad range, from startling immediacy of its simulations to abstract aesthetics almost totally removed from their nominative subjects.

On balance, the middle ground — artful description — tends to be the most fertile. Even when the subject of a work is non-physical — say the social orders in Nikki Lee snaps, or the internal states hinted at in, oh, Elina Brotherus portraits. As Avedon says, all you really have is the surface. But by using its characteristics as a symbolic language, we open up a world of possible meaning.

A favorite personal saw is to say that every aspect of a photo has the potential to mean something, from the way the camera is aimed to the brand of printing paper. The photographer can sort through these meanings to extract, one hopes, their own points (or questions). Striped socks or solid? Large format or a blurry security camera? Paper or plastic? All can be mined for meaning, given an appropriate subject and sensitive eyes and imagination. Some veins are likely to be richer than others, of course.

Has the Great Black and White Mine tapped out? To wander fine art galleries these days, or to peruse the web, one could well believe it (even stalwarts like Michael Johnston, perhaps a bit disingenuous when he writes: "black-and-white is just a property, a result of photography's early difficulties with recording color"). It's becoming increasingly difficult to find anyone doing innovative work in B&W, rather than vividly re-visiting theses and themes from photos and days gone by.

Poking "black and white" as a keyword into the photoblogs.org search engine brought up dozens of links, but when looking through the most-popular of these supposed B&W sites themselves, I could see nary a monochrome image. Color, color. Pick through the listings on Conscientious and the B&W seems like an afterthought — not because Joerg doesn't like B&W but because it's a vanishing breed. Pick up the current issue of 8 and yeah, it's got a B&W cover, but inside, the pages are mostly dominated by reds and blues and browns.

Great stuff, don't get me wrong here. Is it possible that the best new work really is all in color?

Or is it just a swing of fashion? Joerg also points out this interview with Duane Michals:

"Really, I'm so bored with photography that I cannot tell you! And I'm so bored with new photographers because it's just old photography, except it's bigger and more boring and in color and much more expensive. No new ground has been broken in photography in ages. All those German photographers are just doing very large photographs of parking lots in Tokyo."

Personally, I don't think B&W is dead, though its familiar mannerisms are tough to overcome. When Digital Photo User published their special B&W issue (#76) they tagged "A Touch Of Class — Add a timeless feel to your photography." In other words, play to the familiar, to the sense of authority and age that nostalgia itself can lend to B&W imagery (and ironically, most of the B&W master photographers that Digital Photo User profiles — Ken Grant, Steve Pyke, Jack Picone — are still using film, rather than digital cameras). I can't help but feel that the popularity of Leica-toting "wedding photojournalists" reflect as much a desire to make a wedding album that looks like a record of some 1953 NY society event as it is to get a "more genuine" record of an important familial ritual. One can almost imagine seeing Jaqueline Bouvier in the wings.

The iconography of the B&W image has 150 years of social inertia. This can be useful or strangling, depending on how you approach it.

But not quite dead yet. As I've written before, I think B&W is as basic a part of our vision as color, with a lasting role in visual arts. In the latest PDN "30" issue, profiling 30 up-and-coming photographers, at least three of them presented portfolios in B&W. 10% isn't bad in a world where editors and buyers will tell you no one wants anything but color.

"Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected." — Robert Frank

If readers have any examples of what they think is forward-looking B&W work, let me know.

(Link to Part 2)

Comments on "Natural Colors"

Martin Taylor
March 22, 2005 07:20 PM

I'm not sure he would be described as forward-looking but I couldn't imagine the work of Sebastiao Salgado in anything but B&W. He seems to continue to champion B&W without ever even mentioning it and his new Galapagos work seems as relevant as ever (even without the people and with the move to medium format). I realize that I'm relying on cliches here but B&W seems to add continuity, authority and weight to Salgado's work. His pictures easily stand alone but there is always an underpinning of activism beneath the surface - there is also the assumption that, if it's Salgado it's B&W.

This is a great article and thanks for the link to the Duane Michals interview.

Dirk
March 23, 2005 02:15 AM

While I agree on the Germans and Tokyo parking lots (hard not to include those actually, as you well know), I think they have their place in photography, if you like it or not. In fact, funny that the above comment mentions Salgado, as I think he is on the opposite end of the spectrum. For the Germans it is all in head, for Salgado all in the heart - or so we are led to believe. I am not comfortable with either really, because both seem contrived to me, but that's a personal choice and still covered by the license of arbitrary meaning-making.

Now as for forward-looking B/W, I cannot think of anything. There is a chance that the digital craze will produce some innovative de-saturators. Or maybe not? Perhaps I don't really care. I use it because it serves my meaning-making needs, which is a reason as good as any other.

 

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