I see in color or I see in black and white. But it’s never at the same time.
And just as I see the world with whatever lens focal length I am using, I see differently when shooting with black and white than when I do with color.
With color I see aesthetics. I move more slowly, deliberately, processing colors, as if crossing a busy intersection. With black and white I work more intuitively. It allows me to think less and feel more. I feel my way into pictures.
Today most newspaper photographers are expected to shoot color stills alongside video and post dozens of images to online galleries. Too often there is little time for craftsmanship. Rare is the photographer who can produce storytelling stills and meaningful video simultaneously. Even rarer is the photographer who can shoot in black and white and color at the same time without compromising the quality of one or both. Color and black and white may be twins but each has a unique personality and voice. Each deserves our full attention and it’s a matter of compromise. Quantity over quality and expense over craftsmanship gets you less, not more.
I began shooting both black and white and color in 1969. I soon realized my voice was in black and white, and the things I wanted to say were better said without color. Some of my peers even called me a “ black and white” photographer. In telling stories, emotion and human relationships are what stirred my soul and eliminating the distraction of color helped me get there.
Deliberately shooting black and white film is a very different act than shooting digital color in raw and converting files to black and white in post-production.
Purists will argue that converting black and white from color is a lesser artistic act than deliberately choosing to shoot in black and white. Surely the latter requires more courage and commitment.
Laying that argument aside, how we present images can be the difference between reader apathy and engagement.
My favorite photojournalist, Carol Guzy, who now works for ZUMA Press, shoots exclusively in color these days and occasionally converts her work to black and white.
In 2018, Guzy won the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award for a series of gripping portraits -- “Faces of Mosul” -- made in the Northern Iraqi city. Shot in color, her compassionate portraits were converted and presented in black and white.
More recently, Guzy was editing her work from the Migrant Caravan in Mexico. Scott McKiernan, founder of ZUMA Press, suggested that she assemble pictures of just the children of the caravan. “It just didn’t work. It did not work in color,” she said. “Then Scott suggested I convert many of the intimate color portraits to black and white. As soon as I converted those faces into black and white, the power was so astonishing. I mean, it took my breath away. It felt so different to look at the same image.”
“Most of my career I saw everything in black and white,” Guzy said. “Even when the (Washington) Post went digital and I started shooting color, I still saw everything in black and white. I have always been a black and white photographer. I think I just lost my way there for a long time with color.”
Eugene Smith’s Country Doctor, Ansel Adams’s Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico or Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother would not have been as powerful in color. I don’t believe color would have strengthened Eddie Adams’s chilling execution picture from Saigon or Joe Rosenthal’s flag-raising at Iwo Jima.
Consider the 1940s classic films like “Citizen Kane” by Orson Welles and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” or most recently “Roma” by Alfonso Cuarón. Would color have enhanced these stories?
“The few times I have converted work to black and white it helps remind me of the power of black and white,” Guzy said. “You are forced to see the moments and the content. And I think it actually forces people to see something deeper in black and white.”
“When it’s black and white there is a natural harmony and all you are left with is the moment. There has got to be a moment. If it’s not there, it’s not there. You can’t make some stylized pretty picture which I think, unfortunately, we’ve gone that way, way too far,” Guzy said. “I have always felt that way and I will feel that way until I die. It’s about a narrative of others. It’s not about us making pretty pictures.”
Guzy added, “It’s getting harder and harder to reach people, and they are getting so inundated with visuals from every different direction. I think we have to do the most we can to make the moments and make the packages as powerful as can be to get their attention.”
Having judged dozens of contests and most recently the Pictures of the Year International in 2018, without flinching I can say that well-toned black and white images have an advantage. Most veteran photographers know this. Not only are emotion-laden stories more dramatic, but photographers can also hide poor color balancing.
And because black and white photography clearly embodies a timeless quality, it also serves the artist well. Without certain clues like automobiles or modern-day inventions, one would be hard-pressed to know when a photograph was made.
I miss the darkroom – the process of developing and printing, of being a craftsman and trying to create in a print what I felt when I pressed the shutter. Alone with my thoughts in a peaceful darkroom is the opposite of sitting for hours in front of a computer screen, which drains my energy and hurts my eyes. And the process of developing film and making prints often provided the much-needed time to process what I had witnessed and photographed. The images, once they appeared in the tray of chemicals, often helped shape and even clarify what I was feeling.
But what I miss most is that quality time, that wonder-filled “latent’ space between pressing the shutter and the birth of the negative or print. In our digital world of instant gratification we have traded this deep, this valuable, this magical time and experience for immediacy. I truly love what digital can do, but I would gladly trade the speed and convenience of today’s photography for the craftsmanship, community and pace of the past.
I think Steber says it well: “What we have done with the digitalization of life is, in the making of everything easier and easier, is, well, the machinery has stripped the soul out.”
There are things we do for our belly and things we do for our soul. And if we are lucky, occasionally the two intersect.
In the end, we must eat. But if we hope to find happiness with our photography we must also be true to our heart. Compromise always comes with a price.
In a world of color, black and white might still be top dog. ■
David LaBelle is a photojournalist currently in Athens, Ohio, teaching with the Athens Photo Project, a mental health
recovery program. His new book "Bridges and Angels: The Story of Ruth" was released in March. He can be reached at [email protected]
Bill Steber’s website: steberphoto.com