By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST OF THE LOUDEST ARGUMENTS ABOUT THE USE OF COLOR in photography have, over the past sixty years or so, been turned on their heads. Before color film became the dominant medium for amateur shooters, roughly after WWII, elites within the fine art community, that is, the people operating at the Ansel Adams level of control and command, frequently debated whether color was of any value at all. Part of their argument stemmed from the primitive processing technology of the time, which made many photographers feel that color either exaggerated reality to an intolerable degree, or, worse, that really great color work looked flat or inaccurate in magazines or prints.
As I say, though, two thirds of a century can make a big difference, and for some time now, color has been such a prevalent default choice that it’s the decision to work in monochrome that is now questioned. Certainly b&w has not vanished from the earth, but, while it was thought of as a medium of imagination and fine control before color, it is now seen by some as limiting, “less than”. And that’s too bad.
Black and white invites speculation, an additional layer of interpretation on the part of the viewer. He or she must supply, out of their own imagination, something which is not stated in the original. Nearly everyone has some mental concept of colors, personal palettes so ingrained that we can seem to “see” them even when they are not shown to us in an image. That is, we have an internal way of visualizing color where there is none.
I keep detailed presets for both color and mono shots stored in my camera, so that I can switch back and forth between modes with very little delay. As a result, some of the images I shoot in color have an almost 100% compositional convergence between the b&w and color versions (see examples here), giving me the ability to shoot and evaluate quickly in the field, while the subject is before me in real time. If a subject is important to me, I nearly always ask myself whether it is better served in one medium or the other, and usually shoot it in both as a mental insurance policy against my own indecision. I mention the presets because I believe that sculpting the precise degree of contrast, sharpness, etc. in camera is far superior to merely desaturating a color shot later in post-processing.
Eventually, it’s freeing to arrive at a place where neither color or mono are “givens” for every situation but have to earn their use in each particular frame. All tools can be used for anything, but no tool will work for everything.
COLOR AS REAL ESTATE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OCCASIONALLY YOU SEE ARTICLES PROCLAIMING THAT THE SELECTIVE DE-SATURATION OF COLOR IN PHOTOS is “finished”, that the process ran the entire gamut from novel to creative to “over it”, and that nothing fresh or new can be accomplished in what should now be considered a fad. I don’t know why some of us are perpetually in the pronouncement business, but I think it’s (a) short-sighted and (b) unhelpful to go around telling people what tools are or are not au courant. It’s also the opposite of the way art develops in the mind.
Just as the use or absence of color over an entire frame is a fundamental creative choice, so must the partial use of it. Rather than think of an image as having one color scheme that operates from end to end, I prefer to think of color as part of a multi-use piece of real estate, with multiple choices to be made as you walk the entire area. Color may be just what this lot needs, but not the yard next to this house. Every piece of visual real estate must be independently “developed”, whether in coordination with the overall picture or as a specialized visual traffic cop directing the eye for specific reasons.
In the top image, the department store counter surrounding the advertisement is nearly empty, due to the area being almost totally closed down (stock situations, apparently). The exposure time was fast and the ISO was low and so the ambient color framing the ad was decidedly warm. Other than that, the color doesn’t serve much of a purpose as either narrative or atmosphere, so in the second version, all attention was centered on the model’s face, which carries more raw information than the rest of the frame. I think the picture is more immediate with the change, or at least more so than either a full-color or monochrome version would be.
Look, I get it. Photographers, no less than the writers of articles and op-eds, can get into the habit of seeing things in polar opposites. Still, anytime you refer to your method on a photo as “something I always do” or “something I never do“, you’re limiting yourself needlessly. And when it comes to making pictures, there are enough boundaries imposed on us naturally without our arbitrarily installing more.
ALPHA / OMEGA
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I USED TO THINK THAT ONE CLEAR DIFFERENCE BETWEEN AMATEUR AND PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHERS was that the amateurs recorded almost exclusively happy things, while the professional chronicled life’s grimmer moments as well. The “ams” were weighted on the side of weddings and birthdays, while the “pros” also threw funerals and war into the mix. Of course, I now see that as a gross over-simplification, albeit one which applies less and less with the aging of our world.
I do believe that the average shooter still hauls his/her camera out mostly to freeze incidents of joy, but, to a greater degree, all of us occasionally turn our gaze on the failures of the human animal as well, with raw physical destruction, intended or not, as a huge pictorial draw. When people (or their dreams) fail, there is often a spectacular visual result. Smashed walls. Craters. Wanton destruction. In such pictures we catch ourself in the act of discarding or destroying things that, in some way, represent dreams that have ground to a halt.
All across the world, the willing disassembly of our various infrastructures, such as this image of an old mall being wiped out of memory, is something of a cultural apology, an admission that, sorry, this just doesn’t work for us any longer. The amateur in us would gladly have snapped this place forty years ago, say, at its grand opening. The pros among us, or at least the growing number of us that are thinking more and more like citizen journalists, want to document the moment the vision perishes of old age, or just plain irrelevance. In the case of this particular place, the ground is merely being cleared for what will be a bigger, newer version of the same fake-community concept that gave rise to what’s being torn down, so, lesson not learned.
We always are interested in the ribbon cuttings, the alphas of things: however, in creating a record of the omega phase, of the end of the trail of those things, we are doing more than just making “sad” pictures. We are making a document of hope and loss, and all the temporary realities sequenced between those two historical brackets.
THE MONTH I GOT MONO
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MY FIRST DAYS AS A PHOTOGRAPHER occurred just after color film had almost completely supplanted black and white for daily use. Certainly, many snapshots and news images were still shot on b/w, but, as my father was a slide shooter all the way, I cut my teeth on Kodachrome and Ektrachrome and what NBC used to call “living color”. I was also heavily influenced by View-Master travel reels and scenic mags like Arizona Highways, and so, again, not a lot for the mono side of my infant brain to feed upon.
Later on, as I educated myself on the Old Masters, I grew to appreciate grayscale at its finest, but still tended to shoot primarily in color, with the exception of the odd side project. With that in mind, it occurred to me recently that, while I had done several lengthy shooting walkabouts over the years in order to speed up my learning curve with various bits of gear, I had seldom, if ever, done a long stretch purely in black and white. A newly acquired camera seemed the perfect time to give myself mono for a month.
One thing which interested me in expanding my visualization in b&w was that the latest cameras can do so much more than just shoot “without color”. Grayscale can be so much more nuanced than merely the absence of hue, and today’s in-camera settings can allow more attenuation in contrast, sharpness and tone than was ever possible in the past. Another selling point was the ability of most recent full-function cameras to place a complete custom configuration of settings at your fingertips by, essentially “storing” them on a dial-able slot in the mode wheel (U1, U2, U3 modes for Nikon, C1, C2, C3 for Canon, and so forth) This allowed me to quickly shoot with both sides of my brain when needed, dialing between, say, manual mode (in full color), and a U1 mode pre-programmed with every little flavor ingredient I want in a mono shot.
The take-home is just this: the mere increase in ease of operation made me shoot more, and with greater enthusiasm, in black & white than I would typically ever do. With just a little prep, my eye got used to consistently composing for what mono does best, getting me used to thinking primarily in that particular tone palette. And, although I know that many prefer merely to take a master shot in color and convert it to mono later on at their whim, I believe that deliberately conceiving a grayscale shot in-camera is a distinctly different experience, one which is helped greatly with the use of electronic view-finders, which let you see precisely what the sensor sees.
Going forward, I will probably budget more mono shots into my overall output than I ever have before, all through the expedient of using the camera to, well, get out my own way. And, as I frequently assert, reducing the steps and hassle between conception and execution is the true superhighway to better pictures.
READING THE ROAD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMPOSITION IN PHOTOGRAPHY IS NEVER MERELY A MATTER of rearranging the deck chairs on the good ship Take-A-Snap. Yes, at first, there is the frame to be dealt with, and with that, the crucial decisions on what stays in and what gets left out. And then there is the front-to-back and side-to-side staging of the image, the visual coding you build into the picture to tell your viewer where to look and how to prioritize what he sees, a process influenced as well by contrast, depth of field, and other shooting settings.
But there is another crucial way to instruct the viewer’s eye on how all this information ranks within itself, and that is the decision to shoot in either color or monochrome. It’s true that, merely by landing on one or the other, you haven’t added or subtracted any visual elements that weren’t already in the frame. That is, you didn’t stick in four more trees or yank out the ocean shore. However, pictures in these two opposing modes convey information in distinctly different ways, and so both will confer certain qualities on the objects in the frame based on how the eye takes in that information. This can either make your picture pop with dimension or sink into murk.
Color assigns a rank to things and relegates objects to either shadow or light, foreground or background. Monochrome does this as well, but in a far subtler manner, meaning that some color shots which are clear in their message might appear muddled or muted when rendered in black and white. Conversely, something which is direct and contrasty in mono might appear either weakened or magnified in color.
In the case of the two renderings seen here, the tangly busy-ness of the color shot (top) seems, in monochrome (above), to make a very dense photo much harder to read. There is so much texture in the color version that just becomes mushy in grayscale, so that the mono version does nothing to simplify the shot….quite the opposite. The Color/No Color decision can either make or break even a well-balanced composition by making the “look here” rules for the viewer too ambiguous or unclear. Reading the room can help pictures communicate cleanly.
MORE IS LESS IS MORE
A color master shot that I later converted to mono, an operation which is perfectly suitable in many occasions.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE ARC OF MY EARLY CHILDHOOD PARALLELS ALMOST PERFECTLY the photo world’s universal switch to color, with my earliest images still rendered in living monochrome, and pictures from my teens giving way to the bold hues made possible by cheaper and faster consumer films. That switch meant a profound change in how one could evaluate light and shadow through the viewfinder, because for the first time, even as you saw your subject in color, you could safely assume that your final picture would more or less look the same.
Think about it what a change that was. If your first rolls were shot in mono (as is still the case with some photo students), you actually had to frame in color, even while you trained your brain to “see” in black and white. After some practice, you might be reasonably sure of how the tonal balance of your work might register once it was rendered in shades of gray, but you couldn’t be certain until you had the results in your hand. And while lab manipulation, including processes like dodging and burning, were possible, the universe of “post-production”-oriented photographers was much, much smaller than is the case today, meaning most of us got….what we got.
The post-processed mono conversion. Would I have made different decisions had I been mastering in black and white?
Things are much easier for monochrome fans today because, not only is it simple to shoot in black & white on purpose on nearly any camera, previews on LCDs and electronic viewfinders (EVFs) allow you to compose in mono as well. EVFs are even more of a revelation for people coming from DSLR or traditional rangefinders, because you are looking at precisely what the sensor is seeing, making for a smaller gap between your conception of the shot and what you actually get. Since moving to a mirrorless camera, I have become quite spoiled by this extra measure of control. Never mind the fact that, in the Stone Age, I had to wait three days for film to be returned from the processor just to learn how many shots I’d botched. Now both the waiting and the botching are distant memories.
And we have a question from audience: why not just shoot in color all the time, and convert shots to mono as needed (see examples, above)? Well, because you have a more pronounced mindfulness about what will work in mono when you preview and plan in mono, just as you have a better record of what happened from keeping a diary during a trip than in trying to reconstruct your memories later. Or such is my experience. The point is that deliberately doing a day’s shoot in black & white can teach you patience, restraint, and how factors other than color can determine the drama or impact of a shot. But photography is all about how many different roads there are to Oz. As long as you eventually get to the Wizard, it’s all good.
PLAYING IN THE RIGHT KEYS
Listening For The Lark, 2022. A monochrome conversion from a color master shot.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME OF OUR PHOTOGRAPHS CERTIFY THEMSELVES TO US AS “RIGHT” OR “WRONG” over time, not registering instantly as either keepers or pitchers, but slowly making the case for their final disposition. These are the truly tricky shots, the ones whose success or failure is not readily apparent upon first, or second, or even fifth glance. Such images go in and out of the workflow bin again and again, sometimes over years, while we decide whether we recognize them as our own offspring.
Sometimes it means we partially embrace a shot, loving it in spite of a slight technical miscalculation or a composition that’s slightly off. Other times, we trust/mistrust our original intention, which is French for “what was I thinking?”. In recent years, as I’ve returned to the tonal range of my first days as a shooter, I often stick pictures in the “still under consideration” pile over the choice of whether to re-render them in monochrome. I often think of color and b/w as two different arrangements of the same theme, or maybe a song played in one of two very distinct keys.
The color original.
Since mono was the default of my earliest days, I naturally learned to shoot in it first. Once color became the go-to for most photography, I deferred to that. I don’t intentionally shoot my master shots in mono because it means pre-empting a choice that I might want to exercise later. You can easily go from color to no color, but,…. well you know the argument, and so that seems to mark me as a conversion person. Black and white is a choice, but not if you had no other choice in the first place, right? Mono has its own tonal vocabulary and creates a separate mood or priority of light than color. And for that reason, as well as the need to weigh and re-weigh my options pretty much forever, many of the pictures I can’t decide to love or hate hinge on the strengths and weaknesses or the two tonal “keys”.
Is color more bold, or can a more dramatic statement be made in its absence? Does monochrome tantalize, tease the appetite for more information, stimulate the imagination, and does it do so more effectively than a garish explosion of hue? Which of the two modes is, for me, in this particular instance, more “authentic”? And is that what I even want in the first place?
There are lots of images which cry out to be completed, to have their case file marked “closed” with a final determination of their value. But if art is about forcing flexibility where some would favor rigidity, then it’s probably a desirable thing for us not to rush to judgement on some of our pictures. Maybe they came into the world fully formed, and maybe not. But maybe, after all, it’s us who need to become more complete, in a variety of ways.
WHO SHALL I SEND?
Central Los Angeles, 2013. Is color the right “messenger” for this night shot, or will the monochrome version, seen below, do the job more effectively?
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMMUNICATION IS ABOUT TAILORING MESSAGES WITH THE MESSENGERS THAT DELIVER THEM. In conveying ideas and information, we work both to shape its content, and to send it under the care of the correct carrier. Some messages are best transmitted in pure sonic terms, fitting the formatics of, say, radio or telephone. Other have truer impact in visual media. And within the overall scope of visual media, in that special folder marked “photography”, we make additional choices. Because, even after we’ve chosen a still image to get our point across, there remain more specific decisions within that folder that may enhance the delivery of our idea. And the most fundamental of those decisions revolves around the simple choice of color/no color.
There certainly must be a reason why, more than 75 years into the era of convenient and available color media, many photographers still deliberately choose monochrome as their primary messenger. It can’t be merely for the novelty or nostalgia that it can evoke. Indeed, black and white is much, much more than the mere absence of the full color spectrum. We need to weigh this choice just as carefully as we do exposure or focus, because there is something about either option that describes an aesthetic, a way of seeing the world. You can probably recite the various claims yourself: color is more “natural” or “realistic”: b&w is more journalistic, authentic: mono streamlines the impact of an image, simplifying its readability without distraction: color allows the fine-tuning of mood. And so on.
Is the absence of color here equal to the absence of impact?
Some of us shoot in mono as a default, while others master their images in color and make postmortem decisions to desaturate them in post. Some of us have returned to film, solely to reacquaint us with earlier colorless versions of our camera eye. Even in the age of full-color graphics in any and all publications, part of our monkey memory still imparts a certain authority to black and white, disdaining color as too “pretty” or decorative. The argument is endless.
My point here is that, since our cameras and apps can now make anything look like, well, anything, we need to examine the message we’re trying to transmit and match it as perfectly as we can to the messenger that best gets the idea across. We need to, as with the kings and emperors of old, ask not just about what we want to convey, but “who shall I send?”. We have more choices available to us than any other generation across the vast history of photography. We never need to weaken the power of our images by dressing them up in the wrong suit.
COLOUR MY WORLD (OR NOT)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
This camera costs $8,995 and cannot, will not ever, take a color image. How many would you like?
EVERY PHOTOGRAPH EVER CREATED BY A DIGITAL CAMERA, regardless of subject, technique or approach, begins as the very same thing: a black-and-white image. Even in an era of saturated and custom-manipulated color, our cameras originally create everything in tones of grey. Aesthetically speaking, that’s about as hard-wired a bias toward monochrome as you can imagine. And this means exactly what, and to who?
The science of how this happens is all rather basic, at least in the horrendously oversimplified way I’m going to explain it. In addition to the camera’s pixel-covered sensor, that assigns tonal value for a photo file in black and white, there is, in most cameras, a second sandwich layer, called a Bayer filter array, that combines with the sensor to assign color to those tones. This all happens without many of us giving it much thought, since black and white, at least mentally, is no longer the default mode for most of us, merely an effect that we achieve either by changing a setting on the camera’s shooting menu or converting color shots to b/w in post-production after the fact.
Where this gets interesting is when an affection for both mono and technical perfection meets the niche camera market, resulting in the creation of cameras that shoot nothing but black-and-white, inciting some wags to intone, “at last!” while many others query, “what are you, nuts?” Those who vote with the skeptics point to the fact that the pro-sumers who opt for such a machine, such as Leica’s M10 Monochrom, will part with nearly nine thousand clams for the privilege of enjoying one less feature than even the cheapest camera delivers. Wait, they say. You took something away from the camera and you’re charging more for it? Well, I gotta bridge I wanna sell ya…
On the pro-sumer’s side of the argument is the trickier, tech-ier underbelly of the issue. Turns out that the Bayer array actually degrades your images, reducing the amount of light that gets to the final file, compromising both sharpness and ISO performance in low-light situations. That in turn means that removing the Bayer array from the camera boosts its fidelity in a significant way, resulting in less loss in both cropped images and enlargements. Do these benefits register as must-haves for the average shooter? Does the romance of shooting in black-and-white only, which, as we’ve pointed out, used to be the default status of all cameras way back when, still have the allure that it once did, and for how many consumers? This is the part of the program where you do your own math and makes your own choice.
Now, let’s be honest. I love me some elite toys, especially the ones I would never, in a million years, actually purchase. I love $3,000 direct-drive analog turntables mounted in virgin-forest koa. I love $500 counter-top appliances that only de-vein and parboil jumbo shrimp. But the turntable can’t make my old Black Sabbath albums any better musically (nothing can, sadly), not can the shrimp gadget confer Wolfgang Puck status on my random kitchen meanderings. Could I take better pictures (whatever that phrase means) with the most technically advanced camera on the planet? Only if I can take good pictures with anything, from a cigar box pinhole to a NASA telescope. And, if you spend years failing to develop the eye for making pictures that connect with people, it takes more than a $9,000 bandaid to make that not be so.
ADDITION BY SUBTRACTION
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
“THE EYES HAVE IT” went the old maxim, a phrase which was a kind of bookend to another chestnut about the eyes being the “window to the soul”. Both sayings relate to most of our earliest photographic training, with scads of manuals and tutorials dictating that all portraits must focus (literally) primarily on the eyes, even at the expense of sharpness in the remainder of the picture. This rule has also been enshrined in the eye detection focal systems of even the most rudimentary cameras.
All of which has served us well, apparently, during these days of the Great Hibernation, when masks have concealed many clues to our personality, even as they have protected us against contagion. Indeed, in many social situations, the eyes have become almost the sole messenger for people’s inner thoughts, intentions, moods. And depending on how you view the situation as a photographer, that’s either maddeningly frustrating or grandly intriguing. Still, the idea of making a formal portrait of a person while they are masked hasn’t really occurred to me as a legitimate means of measuring the self of said person. I am always waiting for the gauze to come off, for the “complete” person to be revealed.
That’s why, recently, I was truly surprised when, out of about a half dozen snaps of my wife Marian as she visited with a friend, I chose the one with the least amount of her face in view as my favorite. There’s was something…call it mystery, call it minimalism…about the way her hand momentarily fanned across her features in much the same area that a mask might cover. Why was this interesting? Why is anything interesting? The point was that her eyes were, indeed, a perfectly reliable barometer of her mood, prompting me to ask, how much face is enough face for a portrait? Are we more fascinated by what is left out of a picture? And, if so, are there many more remarkably veiled faces to be explored before the Age Of The Mask fades away?
BY MICHAEL PERKINS
THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ADVANCE IN PHOTOGRAPHY OVER THE PAST SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS, at least for me, is the fact that everyone, regardless of gear or budget, shoots in color as a baseline default. I am old enough to remember when the opposite was still true, when most people shot primarily in monochrome, either because of the cost, or the slow speed of color film, or the fact that labs were still not great at delivering natural polychromes, or, in some circles, because the medium’s artists disdained color as too brash or distracting. The digital era completed the conversion to color as the starting place for a master shot, in that the camera will always shoot that way unless you deliberately tell it not to.
And that’s a choice I don’t fully understand. I always make every master shot in color and then decide which of those will be more effective without it. Because then my choices are unlimited, whereas, if I’m forced to shoot masters in mono, I can’t second-chance the shot back into color later. Even more confusing to me are the high-art cameras that are manufactured to shoot black-and-white only, cameras that are typically twice as expensive as ones that shoot in both formats. It’s like paying twice as much for a steak that someone’s already taken two bites out of.
Most of all, I like grappling with certain shots. I dig the inner quarrel that goes on as to whether color will complete or compete with a picture’s power. Some color images have an immediacy that is simply too muted in b&w, but there are times when the message of a picture will be diluted if something too loud or pretty fights with it for dominance. That’s why they put more than one foot pedal on pianos.
For instance, the “before” and “after” versions of this storefront have been haunting me for several weeks now, and I still can’t declare a clear winner. Is the contrasting mixture of bolder colors a comment on the changing phases within a business block over time, or does the removal of color call more attention to texture and shadow? I consider that the practice of mastering a photograph in color, for many years a luxury, remains my favorite control option today. In a medium where messages are measured by so many factors, the color/no color decision might, at least on occasion, be the most important call a shooter can make.
THE YEAR OF UPHILL WALKING
By MICHAEL PERKINS
LIKE MANY, I WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME pinpointing the first photograph I shot after formally going into the Great Hibernation of 2020. The designated do-or-die date for heading ourselves into the bunker was fairly elastic, person-to-person, with some of us taking cover early in the spring, while others were forced to stay in-pattern for longer. I can determine, from the very type of pictures I took in this strange year, which were shot After The Before Times, but it would be mere guesswork to say that this image or the other was the first “confinement” photo per se.
But I can detect a change in the subject matter and viewpoint of those first days. I will always recall the realization that, as my world proceeded to shrink, my photography would become more introspective. This meant that my reaction to the sudden flood of spare time was, at least on good days, to luxuriate in the freedom it gave me; the leisure to select, to plan, to choose in the process of making pictures. As a consequence, in reviewing the year’s photographic yield, I find myself not so much choosing “favorites” or “bests” from the thousands of snaps I took in quarantine, but instead looking for the truest depictions of where my head was, and still is. This is all to say that I resisted getting in a year-to-year contest of some sort with myself over technique or skill and tried to concentrate on emotional accuracy.
This picture is not technically distinctive by any measure, nor is it particularly original, but it is true to where I was when I made it. In what could be called The Year Of Uphill Walking, it projects that struggle to just keep climbing, across rocky, barren terrain, in anxious anticipation of what may lie over the next horizon, and without the blandishment or warmth of color. No destination is sure, or even promised; no arrival time is predicted; only the journey itself exists. If I had to deliberately try to show what 2020 felt like, I couldn’t have found a more appropriate visual metaphor than this picture. This is not me being a superb planner of shots. This is me, months after the fact, marveling that some measure of this madness somehow organically made it into my camera. I never went out formally looking for a way to give expression for my feelings; I merely let the process happen through me, to be a barometer of what I thought it important to see and record.
Maybe that’s the way I should always make pictures. Sometimes I think I understand my process and other times I feel like it’s leading me around by the nose. I hope to re-discover genuine hope in 2021, but, if I…we, have to settle for less, I pray that I’ll at least find a way to tell stories about how that felt. And I hope I’ll remember how to put one foot in front of the other.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS FAIRLY SOLID CONSENSUS, among those who teach the basics of photographic composition, that the path to success lies in reducing a picture to its simplest terms. Removal of extraneous distraction, proper placement of a subject within a frame, depth-of-field calculations…all these techniques work toward a common goal; to help the eye engage the photo efficiently, to lock onto its essential story without being confused or deflected toward something less important. Often a cleaner composition is just a matter of cropping, or merely limiting the number of elements contending for the viewer’s attention.
But there is one approach to basic composition that may not be instinctive to us all, and that’s the role that color plays in our pictures.
Color is the current instinctive default for most of our photos. It took a long time for it to be technically capable of taking that mantle from monochrome, which was, by necessity, the palette that shooters painted on for over a century. Color is seductive, and seems like a more “realistic” medium for our very personal universes of family and friends. However, in the composition of any picture, it must be reckoned with as another object in the frame, no less than a tree or a cloud. It is one more thing in there that demands our notice, and, for many images, it certainly earns that attention. However, color can become the message of a picture, not just the way the picture is rendered, drawing off the viewer’s eye in exactly the same way as extra props, extraneous scenery or other clutter can.
Some would argue that black and white is more nuanced and subtle in the rendering of emotional directness, or texture, or contrast when compared to color, and yet some of us think of monochrome as somehow incomplete or unfinished. Try telling that to several dozen Pulitzer winners, some of whom, admittedly, worked before color was practical (and therefore not a real option), along with others who continued to choose b&w even after it became the minority medium. And this is not about unilaterally choosing sides, forever pitting the Kodak Tr-X crowd in a pitched battle against the Fuji Velvia cadre. It’s only about choosing the right tool for every picture, and not getting so locked into the global color default that you refuse to peer into the opposite camp. I continue to master every shot in color to this day, but a full fifth of my final output consists of mono conversions, with modern post-processing giving me every bit as much control over the results as in the old darkroom days (as seen in the illustrations). The best course, I believe, is to form the habit of looking at all your pictures both ways. Often, you will just stick with the color original, because it works. And other times you will play in the other playground because, for some pictures, that works.
Color is an object within your pictures, no less than a mountain or a chair. Think of it as another piece of visual furniture fighting for dominance in the frame, and deal with it accordingly. Monochrome is not photography’s simpler, poorer step-kid. Sometimes, it can be the pride of the family.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST AS THE TAKING OF A PHOTOGRAPH IS ACCOMPLISHED IN AN INSTANT, so too is the messaging that the resulting image conveys to the viewer. The impact of a picture is immediate, established within nanoseconds of the eye’s initial contact with it. Additional viewing and pondering may, certainly, reveal deeper truths about a photograph, but I firmly believe that the main love it /don’t get it choice about a photo is made by the brain at first glance.
That said, information must be arranged in such a way as to expedite this choice. That’s the art of composition. What stays in, what is excluded, where the frame hits, and what its limits imply. The nature of the information is determined by the impact of light, which shapes and defines. That is in turn aided by texture, which adds dimension and context in how new or old, rough, smooth, substantial or ethereal things appear in the image. And finally, mood and aesthetic are established in the range of color or tonal data.
All of these elements are created by a series of decisions on whether “to do” or “not do”. Which is to say that all photographs have an assembly process. Steps. Priorities. More of this, less of that. The fact that the best photographers learn how to navigate all these decisions instantaneously is really a kind of miracle. Take the truly fundamental choice of color, for example. Not only do a picture’s hues have to be conceived in the mind before they’re attempted in the camera: they must be refined enough for the shooter to choose how all the shaping elements described above work in conjunction with each other. Think of the graphic equalizers on our old stereos, each ‘band” or part of the hearable spectrum trimmed or maximized to get a “mix” most pleasing to the ear. In visual terms, color is a key choice because it is an element that can shape so many other elements in turn. In the above image, color can resonate with memory and emotion. It can render what we term “warmth”. It also aids in the perception of depth. Consider as well that color has only become the default option for our photography in about the last sixty years. Before that, due to technical challenges for film emulsions and printing processes, it was a luxury item, even a novelty for many.
“Going back” to monochrome, the original default option for all photography, means actively recognizing what kind of information is lost and what kind of impact is gained by eschewing color. Is the image strengthened or weakened with its removal? Is converting a color shot to b/w as an afterthought (as I’ve done here) less effective than intentionally shooting the original in mono? Are the remaining tones strong enough to convey your message? Is one tonal palette more reportorial or “authentic” than the other? And, above all, what if the choice you’ve made (color or no color) isn’t the choice your viewer makes (in the case of this pair, for example, my wife prefers the color version, although “they’re both nice”)? Photography is about making decisions and learning to live with them. Or just canning the entire thing and trying again.
“We must remember that a photograph can hold just as much as we put into it” Ansel Adams once wrote, “and no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium”. Which is a lot like God saying, “hey, don’t get hung up on making just one kind of tree”. The possibilities in making pictures are indeed endless, but each are rooted in our very purposeful choices.
WHO, ME? (ME, WHO?)
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I WOULD ARGUE that most of the photographs commonly referred to as “self-portraits” are anything but. The tidal wave of daily images in which the photographer is also the subject are, in the main, merely our own cheery faces stamped onto whatever locale we choose as background. They are certainly recordings of us, but seldom much more. Portraiture, as painters came to use the word, is intended to penetrate, to comment, to reveal. Selfies testify that we were here: self-portraits attempt to explain why it matters.
Taking one’s image is not merely about putting up an endless string of publicity releases to reaffirm to the world that we’re still happy, healthy and young. It shouldn’t merely be the latest opportunity to display our most practiced social masks. That’s not revelation: that’s camouflage.
I’m no less vain than the next person. I would love every photograph taken of me, by myself or others, to be flattering. But the photographer in me insists upon more: I need also to make images that show me as uncertain, bloated, fearful, tentative, even alienated from my own internal idea of how I appear outwardly. Moreover, I need to monitor the distance between that surface and what I feel, or, in the words of the old Steve Winwood song, when I am but a stranger to myself. No brave face, no “smile for the camera” can do that.
I’m not comfortable with image you see here. I chose selective focus and monochrome for it because I feel that way at present, just as my expression is one of someone in a transition, and a rather awkward one at that. I don’t mind grinning for a snapshot, certainly. But a portrait should intend something different. And it’s okay if, on any given day, I don’t feel like pretending that life has is one big endless party. We are all the world’s foremost authorities on who we genuinely are. Our photography should endeavor to give testimony to that truth.
WHEN COLOR IS ALL
By MICHAEL PERKINS
JUST A LITTLE SCROLL STROLL THROUGH GOOGLE will show just how long and how intensely the debate over color has raged in the photographic world……that is to say, whether color should be used at all, or whether, indeed, it was the spawn of Satan, turning the art of imaging into a crude carnival trick. Today, we routinely concede that both monochrome and color have distinct uses in the making of images, each bringing singular strengths to the process. But it was not that long ago that the two camps went at it like Hatfields and McCoys.
Many still feel that color should only be called on to help complete or “sell” a picture, a finishing touch of sorts. “In black and white you suggest”, wrote Paul Outerbridge in Modern Photography. “In color, you state.” Others, like myself, believe that there are times when color is content, complete in itself, regardless of the “official” subject of the image. Or, as Alex Webb writes, “Color is very much about atmosphere and emotion and the feel of a place.”
The photos seen here show how, if color is a compelling enough messenger, most of the visual information in a picture can be pared away to let that color message breathe. The master shot of a street vendor at sundown (seen at directly above) might have worked out if I had done one or two things better, but upon later examination, I realized that the long horizontal string of neon-hued ukuleles at the top of the shot could work if cropped loose from the less effective uber-shot (as seen at top). Better still, the color in the cropped shot is not actually about “ukuleles”, since a string of tropical fruits or a rack of hats with the same tonal palette would sell the image just as well. This is truly a case of color “just because”, conveying Alex Webb’s “emotion and feel” without assistance.
A lot of the photo world’s resistance to color, which ended barely more than a generation ago, stemmed in part from a loathing for the limited printing processes which made it harder to predict or control results compared to monochrome. But there was also the fear that untalented shooters would use it as a sensational crutch to boost mediocre work. Now it seems clear that color, like any other technical element, lives or dies based on what it is called upon to do, and how well the individual artist makes his argument.
JUMPING OFF THE TOUR
By MICHAEL PERKINS
VISITOR ATTRACTIONS CREATE THEIR OWN KIND OF PECULIAR GRAVITY, in that many of them develop an “official” way to take in their delights, pulling you toward what they believe to be the center of things. From the creation of tourist maps to the arrangement of signs on paths, many famous “places to see” evolve systems for how to “do” parks, recreation areas, even ancient ruins. Some hot spots have even been so obvious as to mount signage right next to the “Kodak moment” view that, of course, you will want to to snap, since everybody does. And from here, folks, you can clearly see the royal castle, the original temple, the stunning mountain vista, etc., etc.
But predictability, or an approved way of seeing a particular thing, is the death of spontaneity, and certainly a danger signal for any kind of creativity. Photography is the visual measure of our subjective experience. It’s supposed to be biased toward our individual way of taking a thing in. Grading our reactions to visual stimuli on the curve, taking us all down the same path of recommended enjoyment, actually obviates the need for a camera. Just freeze the “correct” view on the gift store’s postcard assortment, and, presto, we can all have the same level of enjoyment. Or the same low point of banality.
Recently I visited the amazing Butchart Gardens, a botanical bonanza on the island of Victoria in British Columbia. If ever there was a place where you’d be tempted to tick off “the sights” on a mental checklist, this cornucopia of topiary choreography is it, and you will find it truly tempting not to attempt your “take” on its most photographed features. But an experience is not a triptych, and I found my favorite moments were near the fringes or niches of the property, many of which are as stunning as the most traveled wonders along the approved paths.
To my great surprise, my favorite shot from the tour wasn’t one of the major sites or even a color image, but a quick glimpse of a young girl hesitating in the narrow, arched portal that separated one side of an enormous hedge from the other. She only hesitated for a few seconds before walking into the more traveled courtyard just adjacent, which is, itself, recorded thousands of times a day. But that brief pause was enough. She had become, to me, Alice, dawdling on the edge of a new Wonderland. The arch became all mystery to me, but the picture needed to be simplified to amplify that feeling, relegating the bright hues to secondary status. And while it indeed seems counterintuitive to take a black and white image in the midst of one of the world’s great explosions of color, I gladly chose the mono version once I had the chance to compare it to the original. Some things just work.
One thing that never works is trying to make your personal photographs conform with what the designer of a public place has recommended as the essential features of that place. Your camera is just that….your camera. Shoot with someone else’s eye, and you might as well just frame the brochure.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THERE IS, ALMOST CERTAINLY, A STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOGRAPH BELOW. Unfortunately, I don’t know what it is. And probably never will.
Images often state or at least imply a narrative, allowing the photographer to relate a dimensional story within the confines of a flat, static frame. It’s kind of a miracle when that happens, but there are also those pictures in which, although part of a story has been captured in mid-flight, the whole of the tale will never be revealed. Sometimes it’s because I flat-out don’t possess the skill to tell it properly. Sometimes it’s because, although I set out to tell something in a coherent fashion, I mucked it up in execution. And, in the most interesting/frustrating of cases, it’s because the photo simply contains too little content or context to make a story emerge.
Yet, these are the images that, perversely, I find myself returning to, as if staring at them multiple times will somehow solve the puzzle. It usually doesn’t, but that’s okay, since these “quandary” pictures also become some of my favorites. Maybe it’s because they’re orphans. Maybe I actually like that they defy explanation. It’s like reading Ulysses. I don’t get it, But then again, nobody else does, either.
This particular question mark of a picture was snapped in Boston on a day soaked in enough rain to chase my wife and myself off a local walking tour around the Commons, trading squishy sneakers for butt lumps on a bus that spent 10% of its voyage hipping us to the local scene and 90% gridlocked in Beantown traffic, which is about average, as I understand it. There was, as a consequence, plenty of time to snap things out of the windows, even though the rain played serious hell with both focus and resolution. After a while, however,even the doomed task of trying to shoot anything usable became a kind of pastime all its own, especially after the driver was forced to retrace the same circle of traffic hell for a second or third go-round.
The scene you see here is in front of a historic graveyard right in the heart of the commons, a “who’s who” of honored dead, where, so say the locals, you can sit in a bar drinking a cold Sam Adams, and gaze out the window at (say it with me) a cold Sam Adams. What inspired the ragtag orchestra you see marching in front of the illustrious headstones, sans any insignia, uniforms, or sense of self-preservation is, and will remain, beyond me. What they were marching for, who their intended audience or cause might be….all of it is forever a befuddled “huh?”. Bonus round: what with the light being so meager amidst the downpour, I had dialed down to a pretty slow shutter speed, so even basic sharpness was DOA for this particular frame.
Somehow, however, I love this picture, even more than if it made any actual sense. Unmoored from reality, I can make up a dozen might-be scenarios that explain it, and so it actually has more entertainment value than many of my so-called “successful” photographs. Or maybe I just like sitting in a pew at the Church of Weird every once in a while. And, on particularly dreamy days, I can stare at this band of gypsies and wish I could take up a tuba and head their direction for a bit.
After all, they know where they’re going…
WORKS IN PROGRESS
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IN REVIEWING YOUR PAST PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK, you are bound to find shots that you have, for lack of a better term, outgrown. Unpack that word, and what you’re really seeing is the passage of time since you originally visualized a picture, along with the immense distance your eye and mind have traveled en route to the present day. Thus you are both benefitting and suffering from the luxury you enjoyed in being allowed to freeze time. You have not only immobilized a moment, but you have also preserved a record of what your “best practices” were at the time.
This painful but necessary re-assessment applies not only to the techniques used to create the initial image, but, in the incredibly speedy evolution of post-processing, all editing systems as well. Quite simply, if a picture is worth taking, it is worth fighting for…first by being as mindful and deliberate as possible in the taking, and then in a constant re-evaluation of how best to enhance its impact through editing. Therefore, if the first commandment of photography is Always Be Shooting, the second should probably be Never Stop Processing.
The above image is an example of this continuing dialogue. it was originally taken in 2012 and I have revisited it at least annually since then. At the time I first shot it, it was part of a three-shot bracket of exposures that were originally blended in an HDR program to try to get about the same degree of detail in both highlights and shadows….a look which can look great if done with a maximum of understatement, but which often winds up looking like an old Yes album cover under black light. From HDR, I moved on to a series of detail-enhancing programs which were more natural-looking, but still failed to deliver the punch I got from viewing the scene on-site. In one iteration, I added enhancement to a single shot alone, rather than a combination of all three bracketed images. And in 2016, I went back to the trio, mixed this time in an Exposure Fusion blender. And there’s no end in sight.
Ansel Adams, of course, famously re-visited his master negatives with up to a dozen re-mixed versions of the same scenes over decades, re-thinking his own revolutionary “zone system” for measuring exposure for every single particle of a subject, then mastering its application in the lab via burning, dodging and other means of print manipulation. I don’t work with those particular (and essentially film-based) techniques for several reasons, most of them economic. However, that still leaves me plenty of editing choices, with more gimcracks coming online every day.
Point is, pictures that are truly worth working for are also worth re-thinking, and a growing array of tools can give photographers endless ways to re-mix the hits. Of course, you will eventually come to a point where enough is enough. Historically, it’s a good thing that the Pope gave Michelangelo a deadline, or else he’d still be up on that ceiling.
HUE AND HUE ALONE
A monochromatic, and yet full color, image.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
MOST DISCUSSIONS ABOUT PHOTOGRAPHY begin with a body of commonly held terms, the basic and uniform names given to things. Such common ground is vital if we’re to understand each other. I can’t expect you to hand me a hammer if I ask you for a wrench. And so we base all our conversations about making images on words that mean generally the same to all of us….focus, aperture, exposure, etc. Makes sense, doanit?
And yet, over the years, we can disagree on what some of those words even mean, and that can slow down discourse.
Take the word monochrome. Most simply translated from the original Greek word monochromos, it means “having one color”, just as a monopod is a one-legged tripod. Seems a simple enough concept, and yet, in recent years, photographic journals, camera manufacturers and, Lord save us, blogs have increasingly begun to define the word as something that is color-less…that is, black-and-white. I know, seems like a really nit-picky point to raise in these complicated times of serious issues. And yet, if we allow imprecise speech to creep into our communications, we eventually get discourse which is imprecise as well.
Black-and-white, or grayscale is monochrome, but not all monochrome is black and white. The image seen here consists of varying tones of a single color, and so, strictly speaking, it is monochromatic, but is certainly not grayscale. Since photography was exclusively b&w for almost a century before films could produce a complete range of hues, we tend to think of the medium as being divided into two eras, Before Color and After Color. However, shooters who worked nearly their entire careers in grayscale, or, let’s say, a good 2/3 of an Ansel Adams’ lifespan, black-and-white was not “colorless” but a kind of color all its own, as legitimate as blue or red or whatever have you. Under the present understanding of these things, however, my image of a warm orange railway bench would be summarily tossed out of any image sharing site that defined itself as monochrome-themed. And that would be wrong.
Yes, I know……
Can’t you think of anything else to obsess over on a Sunday morning, old man?, I hear you moaning. Well, yes, yes I can. However, a 400-word treatise on why my poached eggs were runny at breakfast wouldn’t exactly leave readers riveted either, so, for the moment, let’s not call a wrench a hammer, and let’s not pretend that only grayscale is monochrome.
February 28, 2021 | Categories: Commentary, Opinion | Tags: Color, Monochrome | Leave a comment