The world is not black and white, but until fairly recently, photography was. For most of its history, the art was an art of silver on paper, spread from inky blacks through velvety grays into pristine whites.
There had been attempts to add color, either by painting on top of the monochrome image, or by various experimental techniques to capture the color directly. But even after the commercially successful introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, photography as a museum-approved art continued to be primarily in black and white.
(In cinema, Technicolor predated Kodachrome by about a decade, but that process was essentially three different black and white negatives overlapped through color filters to create the effect. It was an expensive and difficult process and relatively few films, percentage-wise, were made with the process until after the commercial success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939.)
I have been a photographer for at least 50 years. I have had shows and my work has been published. But for most of that time, I worked in monochrome. I “saw” in black and white. My photographic heroes worked in B&W, the techniques I mastered were silver techniques. I became an excellent printer. But I seldom used color film. It seemed an unnecessary noise to bring to the purity of the medium.
I was hardly alone in this. When I was younger, even museums shied away from color photography. It was seen as not “permanent.” It’s images faded over time (I’m sure you all have old family snapshots turned rather magenta with age). The real artist-photographers used silver or platinum and made glorious images.
Back then, art in general was seen with more precious eyes. We thought of “archival processing,” and even paintings were carefully preserved and curators looked down on some artists — such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko — who used non-archival pigments or unprepared canvases and whose works, therefore, had begun to deteriorate.
In current times, few artists or galleries worry much about such things. Art can be made on newsprint, or can even purposely self-destruct. Concern for the permanence of an artwork is seen as elitist. After all, no matter how careful you are, the art is going to be gone eventually, even if it lasts till the sun explodes.
And besides, color is now no more or less permanent than black and white: Now they are both nothing but ones and zeros. Silver is dead; long live digital.
Yet there is still a difference between color photography and black and white. It is a difference not simply of technique, but of thought. Thinking in color is different from thinking in black and white.
The part of vision that deals in color is processed in a different area of the brain than the part that concerns itself with darks and lights. (Vision is ridiculously more complicated neurologically than you might think — the information on the retina is broken down into many separate components, processed by differing regions of the brain and then re-coordinated as a gestalt.)
And so, some people pay closer attention to the hue, others to the forms they see.
The fact is, black-and-white photography and color photography are two different art forms. To be successful in both requires a kind of bilingualism. Most of us have brains that function best either in seeing forms and shades, or in seeing hues. The two photographies emphasize those different talents.
One has only to consider the work of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Most of their meaning comes through the color. Take one of Eggleston’s best-known images and suck the color out. What have you got?
He made this photo of a ceiling and light bulb. The red is overwhelming. But imagine it as a black and white image.
He also made a similar image of a brothel ceiling painted blue. Also overwhelming. The two are nearly the same image, but with very different emotional and sensuous meanings.
But if we make them both black and white, they very nearly merge into the same thing.
Color can by itself separate forms. Here are four squares in four colors; as distinct as can be. But the exact image, unaltered except for the draining of all color from it, leaves a confused mess, barely a separation between grays.
Black and white photography requires the separation of parts not by hue, but by contrast: Lights agains darks. It’s what makes great silver prints sing. Where color photographs separate forms primarily by hue, black and white shapes form with contrast.
I am not saying a color photograph has to be garish. Far from it. But the color will carry a good deal of the meaning and emotional resonance of the image. Even in a color photo that has hardly any color in it.
Many years ago, I tried an experiment. Like so many others, I loved the waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. But I wondered if they would make as much sense in black and white. Is there a structure holding the pictures together, a design or composition, that didn’t depend solely on the rich color.
So, I began making photographs in black and white of water lilies.
The most successful of them clearly relied on bright highlights and strong shadows. The shapes made the picture.
If I tried an overall design, like Monet’s the picture lost its strength.
I did the same experiment with one of Monet’s paintings, rephotographing it in black and white.
Did it hold up? It is certainly a very different beast.
Then I went back to one of my own color photographs of his waterlilies in Giverny, a photograph that imitated Monet’s paintings, with color, sky, reflection, shadow and lily. In color and side-by-side, in black and white.
What I discovered shouldn’t be a surprise: Monet was much more effective in color. But I also noticed that because my photos were well-focused rather than impressionistically fuzzy, they translated better into black and white: Black and white is meant to clarify shapes. Color identifies “areas” rather than discrete textures.
And so, while I have spent the majority of my photographic career making monochrome images, along with many others now working in digital media, I switch back and forth between color and B&W. They do, however, require different vocabularies. They are different languages.
While I have always made visual art, I made my career in writing about art.
As an art critic, I had the unusual need to be bilingual in an odd sort of way. As a journalist, I needed to be good with words, but in writing about art, especially visual art, I needed to know how to use my eyes.
I discovered very early on how these two talents were seldom granted to the same person. All around me were reporters who knew a gerund from a copulative, but who often seemed almost infantile when discussing pictures. They could name the subject of the image, but not go much further than that.
A photo editor of my acquaintance once explained photojournalism this way: “I need to know it’s a house; don’t trick it up with ‘art.’” This was image as ID photo.
But on the other side, so many artists I knew couldn’t explain themselves out of a paper bag. They effused in vague buzzwords, words that changed currency every year or so. I once taught a graduate course in writing about art for art students who needed to prepare so-called “artist statements” for their exhibits. Most of what they wrote before the course was utter blather, obscure and important-sounding without actually meaning anything.
Words and images: Worlds seldom interpenetrable. I call the talent for riding both sides a form of bilingualism.
I do not know if the ability to deal in multiple “languages” is something you are born with, or that you learn early on the way you acquire language before the ability to do so closes off in adolescence. But somehow, I managed to do it, at least well enough to write about it without embarrassing myself.
The mental juice necessary to process each seems walled off from the other, except in rare cases. One either runs a literary program, based on sentence and paragraph structure, linear words building a whole out of alphabetic parts; or one comprehends shapes, lines, color, size, texture, and frame as carrying the information required to convey meaning.
This doesn’t mean that visual people are illiterate, nor that literary people can’t enjoy an art gallery, but that their primary modes of understanding vary. The squishiness of an artist’s gallery talk can drive a writer bonkers; the flatness of a word-person’s understanding of a painting can leave an artsy type scratching her head: “Can’t you see?”
Nor does it mean that either side can’t learn, although it will remain a second language, without native understanding of idiom and customary usage. A word person can be trained to see shape and form, but it will always remain as I learned Spanish. No one will ever confuse me with a native speaker.
This split between word and image, though is only one of the bisections. Musicians can think in tone the way painters can think in pigment. Yes, there is a language that can describe the music, but for non-musicians, that language is usually impressionistic and often visual — what the music “makes you think of,” or the “pictures in your mind.”
For the musically trained, there is also language, but it is completely opaque to the civilian: Dominant-seventh, voice-leading, timbre, reed trimming, tenor clef, Dorian mode, ritornello, de capo, circle of fifths. But even these are merely words to describe the non-verbal reality of the music itself, which can convey meaning through sound alone. The words are not the music.
The ability to think in the terms of each mode is essential to create well in that form, and a mighty help in understanding it for the audience. If you are not in love with words, the rich cream of Gibbons or the organ tones of Milton can leave you cold. If you have no eyes for color, the nuance of Turner or the pears of Cezanne can zip past without notice. If you think of pop tunes as music, the shifting tonal centers of Schubert are inaudible, the orchestration of Mahler merely noise.
We each have a frequency our sensibilities are tuned to, and can receive it loud and clear; we may think we understand the rest, but too often we are only fooling ourselves. Do you really inhale the contrapuntal movement of a Balanchine chorus? Do you notice the rhythm of editing in a Spielberg film? Each is a language that its practitioners and connoisseurs understand profoundly, but zip past the mass of those sitting in the cheap seats.
It’s a different language
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