Aug 9, 2010

What are the colors of photography?

“Black and white are the colors of photography,” — Robert Frank
“Color photography is vulgar,” — Walker Evans
“If you can’t make it good, make it red.” — Ansel Adams

Anyone who has ever read my photo blog knows that I agree with Frank, and can understand the opinions of Evans and Adams, as I too truly prefer B&W photography to color. In fact, almost all of the photos that I post on my blog are toned in black and white. This comes from a belief that a good picture is a good picture (color or not), and more so, if a good color picture is just as good in B&W than it really is a good picture. Too often what makes a good color picture attractive is the color itself and not the content of the photograph. Color can certainly be a piece of the puzzle in making a good photograph, but without other elements like composition, moment value, quality of light or correct subject distance, it’s just a color picture of, well, color.
Anyway, with all this in mind, I came across something the other day that caught my attention and made me somewhat question my feelings on this. As has been reported by various outlets this last week, the Library of Congress has a collection of some 1,616 color photographs from the latter days of the Great Depression and World War II era America. Taken by government funded photographers for the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information, the photos depict life in the fields, the country, the cities, people working and people just being.
Now, granted color photography had been around since the turn of the century, though on a very limited basis, but most folks are far more familiar seeing the people of those days in good ol’ B&W. However, I found myself looking through this collection with great interest, as if seeing these glimpses of a very real time in history in full color kind of wiped away the nostalgic cobwebs a bit and made them feel a bit more realistic in a way. However, while it was the initial thrill of seeing this place in time in color, what I found was that many of the best ones still hit the mark on the other values of good photography and are indeed far more than just “color pictures.”
Below is a small collection of some of the photos that I particularly liked, and you can view the entire collection of all 1,616 photographs on the Library of Congress Website, HERE

I added the one below because it looks like Nahcotta today but was taken some 70 years ago in Conneticut.
Now, while in a funny way I kind of feel like I’m “cheating on my true love of B&W” with color now, no worries. I am already planning a pilgrimage to San Francisco this fall to see an exhibition of my favorite photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, that will be at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, from Oct. 30 through Jan. 30.

On a somewhat related note, in the last couple weeks I’ve been interested to follow the news of some old glass negatives that were found and thought to be that of the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams.
When it was first reported, people were saying that the negatives were worth upward of $200 million. But, come to find out a week later, they most likely were not Adams' the value thus dropped tremendously.
Not to discount the work of Adams, but anyone who knows photography probably knows that Adams real talent was in the darkroom and not necessarily behind the camera. It is what he did in his printmaking process that turned pictures of giant rocks into works of art.
So if Adams and, say, Joe Schmo took the same photograph, at the same time of the same said rock and then both made prints, it would be the prints that would look different and thus make one more valuable than another, not the negatives themselves. In the case of judging a landscape picture like this by a negative, it is somewhat like judging a half-finished painting. Unlike a photograph by say Cartier-Bresson, were the various elements that make the photo great are evident on the negative, an Adams negative is still a “work in progress.”
So here we find another instance of name trumping art. Is it good because it is good? Or is it good because it was taken by someone famous? In terms of art it should be based on its merits, but in terms of the art market, well I think we know the answer.

**ADENDUM: I just realized that I forgot to credit the genius photo editor Mike Davis with the sage wisdom of the "five pieces of the puzzle" of good photography. His blog is a great place to learn about the art of not only taking photographs but also how to find the best ones in your take.


1 comment:

K Schimmy said...

I wanted to let you know that I really, really appreciated this essay. Not only were the depression-era photographs stunning and surprising (I hadn't heard about this collection! I will be sharing this with my students), but I also echo your statement about B&W vs. color. Thanks!

(K Schimmy=Kelli Schimelpfenig, IHS art teacher)