Sunday, November 09, 2008

Unrefined thoughts on b&w photography

Black and white photography tends to make me focus on shapes and spaces more than I would with color. B&W seems more concerned with layout and design than content.

Karl Benjamin shows that color can add a crucial element to the space/shape melange, even when space and shape appear to be all that matter at first.

Karl Benjamin is my favorite of the hard-edge painters. It is his work, in fact, that has raised my awareness of what differentiates B&W photography from color. He focuses on rhythm, space, and shape, as well as contrast, but in a way that B&W work cannot approach. It's like introducing a new dimension to B&W composition.

Black and white photography remains a vital tool in the artist's toolbox. It's an instructive tool. Sometimes a composition cannot be appreciated as readily by the viewer if he/she is distracted by the colors of it. When colors are introduced, the viewer can't help but consider them immediately, like whether or not the palate is agreeable, or how the flesh tones work, or the shades of light. With B&W all this distraction is stripped out so that only the shapes and spaces remain. The subject itself might even become secondary in some cases.

How well would Benjamin's work work if it included anything more than abstract shapes? Not very well, I think. This seems like a flagrantly obvious statement. What is a Karl Benjamin painting that includes an organic figure in it? It must include hard-edge objects. I guess that cubism, which preceded him, included this element. It's as if cubism came first, then its decomposition by different movements into its constituent parts. I guess this is true for all art, as realism came first, then its study by decomposition, which ultimately fell to abstract minimalism.

Unlike painting, photography started out in a decomposed state. Monochromatic photography was invented long before color photography, and the evolution continues with digital photography and supernatural, in the sense of surrealism, additions to realistic compositions.

1 comment:

skmckinn said...

Something else I thought of often in high school: It's easier to LOOK good in B&W. This is because of what you said about shapes, I think--faces become shapes more than a collection of gradations which can include pimples. (I'm not concerned about this now. I'm not so shallow anymore.)

Now that I think about it, though, that has more to do with picture quality and color (bad flashes! Bad! Automatic cameras these days are murdering light. And conversely, I mourn the passing of the polaroid.)

As far as "distraction" goes...hmmm...I really think that's a matter of composition. For instance this picture:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/60573987@N00/1370033670/in/photostream/

would be fine in color. Not so different. Except it would have more...temperature.

But this picture:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/emmetbyrne/2872062989/in/photostream/

would be confusing in B&W. Lack of color would make it LESS simple.

And as long as I'm showing you my Flickr, check this shit out:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/60573987@N00/3026419054/

My dad took that on a 35mm Minolta from 1975. That was the family camera, and thank jeebus--it made my childhood beautiful. I shudder to think what these newfangled things are doing to nostalgia. Can nostalgia feel the same when the pictures suck? THERE's a topic for an essay.