A Day’s Work, 2022 (original color master shot)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
A PARTICULARLY MISCHIEVOUS FRIEND OF MINE, when asked by his small child why all older films and pictures seemed to be in monochrome, decided to tell the kid that the world simply was in black and white back in those days, as if the planet at some later point finally ripened and a fuller palette of hues became the New Normal. The con might have actually worked, if my friend’s child had not, in fact, been far more intelligent than his father.
Thing is, we still think of earlier photographs as defining a world of little or no color. We may logically know that this cannot be true, and yet, when we compare mono and early color snaps of the same subjects, or see the hues restored to pictures that were made in color but often printed in b&w, there is a bit of a disconnect. And even after all of that, we learn to either use or withhold color in our work based on our concept of which subject matter “deserves” it. For some shots, we think of monochrome as somehow more incisive, interpretative.
A Day’s Work, 2022 (mono conversion)
Those of us who study photo history are well aware of b&w’s emotive power to showcase things that are haunting, stark, spare. We carry the grayscale images of the Dust Bowl and the Depression in our minds, unsparing, grim testimonies to human suffering that are etched in monochrome. Does this mean that some subjects deserve a kind of reverse color commentary, that they will always be more effective with a narrower variety of tones?
The ragged farm workshop seen here is, itself, a re-creation, a deliberately staged tableau assembled inside an enormous desert arboretum, a tribute to bygone settler days. The color master shot certainly contains all the texture and contrast appropriate to the exhibit, but I am still slightly more drawn to the mono conversion. But why? Does it please me that it almost looks like a Walker Evans or Arnold Rothstein assignment for a New Deal agency? Does it become more “authentic”, and, if so, in what way? And being that I’m photographing a replica, is my choice of tonal range a replica as well? A well-meaning tribute? A cute fake?
Or, as Alfred says, “What, me worry?”
I keep posing these questions as if they have definitive answers, when, in fact, the only thing that makes a photograph valid is the feeling it conveys (or fails to convey). It’s fun to spin the various arguments around their generation, as if it’s important, but the one thing that “qualifies” a technique in a picture is whether it worked, whether or not it made a connection beyond the photographer himself. The rest is merely debate.
Things are not always black and white.
Except when they are.