Sunday, January 18, 2015

Joel Meyerowitz — Black-and-White vs Color

From his street photography in New York to his soft seascapes on Cape Cod, Joel Meyerowitz’s pioneering work has been crucial to the acceptance of color photography among curators and collectors. The notion that color was somehow less worthy than black-and-white may seem quaint now, but it was a serious question in the 1960s. This is always an interesting question – to use color or black and white in a photograph? What are we trying to describe and which does it best?

Joel demonstrates his thoughts with 6 images that are in both color and black-and-white in an article on the New York Times Lens blog, so you can see/feel/tell your own story of which impacts you more and how...
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From my first moments as a photographer — the very first roll of film, actually — I worked in color and believed in its potential. Why wouldn’t I? The world was in color! There was no question about what film to use and, besides, in that passionate first moment of discovering photography I wanted to see what I had made photographs of as fast as I could get them back from the lab.

Of course, at that time I was young and inexperienced and wasn’t aware that there was a nagging issue about color in the serious world of photography. Color was thought, back then, to be too commercial, or too much an amateur’s material, or too damn colorful. On top of that, it was almost impossible to print it yourself in your own darkroom. Of all of these reservations, only the last was true: processing and printing color was difficult, especially if you were a young photographer without deep resources.

By 1965 I began to carry two cameras every day, one with color film and the other with black-and-white. But I had never tried to make a side-by-side comparison of two nearly identical frames, and by doing that to see for myself which one carried the argument about color to a conclusion that I could be comfortable with. Around that time I read something that John Szarkowski had written in which he said that all that a photograph does is describe what is in front of the camera. That simple statement made me think more seriously about the idea of description and how the accumulation of information in the photograph is its primary state regardless of what else the photograph might seem to be about.

During 1966–67 I spent a year in Europe, where I had the opportunity to do just such a test for myself, and when I came back home I was able to examine and analyze these pairings. 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. And while that reduction had provided us with more than a hundred years of remarkable images, we were entering a new era and color, for me anyway, seemed to offer a challenge to the conventions that always undermine every medium.

Color film was more demanding — one’s exposure had to be perfect since there was little forgiveness, as there was with black-and-white. But it 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. At least when I started thinking about it that way it began the process that then became the way I read and understood my work. I had the sense that colors mean something to each of us, historically as well as in the present moment.

We carry color memories just as we do smell memories (smell being our purest sense), and they evoke sensations. And from that recognition, we develop our own vocabulary of color responses. Who knows why we choose the colors we live with, or wear, or why one color makes us feel calm and another irritable? But these biases are there for all of us and have played a role in my instinctive responses when I make photographs, and I have trusted that their power underlies and informs all my work. The color and black-and-white pairings that follow suggest some of the ideas that appear as soon as one questions why a photograph should be made in one medium or another.

Man and Goodyear Blimp: “This photograph tells its joke well in either black-and-white or color. But I feel the color image presents the whole place more fully. When I look at all the flat grays of the black-and-white print, it all becomes duller to me, joke or not. I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp, the color of the air and water, the shadows on that pinkish-tan wall. I hunger for the information!” — Joel Meyerowitz

Bride in Park: “It is the sense of dimension that color description brings that pleases me here. There is a fullness that, in spite of the flatness of the light, tells me so much. Perhaps most importantly, the small tree gives me pleasure to look at it. Moving back and forth between the nominal subject of the photograph — the juxtaposition of bride and the man — and returning to the tree, it's as if the photograph was about the tree and, coincidentally, these other two happened to be there.” — Joel Meyerowitz

“We carry color memories just as we do smell memories (smell being our purest sense), and they evoke sensations. And from that recognition, we develop our own vocabulary of color responses. Who knows why we choose the colors we live with, or wear, or why one color makes us feel calm and another irritable?” — Joel Meyerowitz

Mother and Baby and Fish Window: “Both of these frames sustain a touch of the absurd about them. Perhaps it's a toss-up which one works the best. But the fact of the hour being the onset of evening, as described by the tone of the sky and the neon lights in the background, makes all the difference for me, as it gives me that extra bit of information about the moment this strange group came to be in the same place together.” — Joel Meyerowitz

Orangerie Couple in the Window: “Though both photographs work for me, I always return to the color image because of its capacity to describe the dreary quality of the day outside, which these two tough old Parisians are living through, a quality that is less visible in the black-and-white image.” — Joel Meyerowitz

Man Looking at Garden: “I remember feeling that the image with his back flat to the camera was the more compelling moment, reminding me of a Magritte-like figure. Months later, I felt that the Kodachrome better described it. The variety of the garden, the delicate color of his raincoat in after-storm sunlight, the dimension and pressure of his figure over the space of the garden all pleased me more than the black-and-white image.” — Joel Meyerowitz

(All images © Joel Meyerowitz, via New York Times Lens blog)

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