HAWTHORNE BLUE HOUR - ALL ABOUT COLOR
OR IS IT? HAWTHORNE BLUE HOUR B&W
It's no secret that I am really a fan of black and white photography. I am not a religious fanatic about it though - I just think it can be a very useful tool in your photographic arsenal, providing a really attractive alternative interpretation for some images. While I did a small share of work in the darkroom just before the advent of digital photography, I was happy to leave the world of chemicals behind for post-processing on the computer. Part of this was due to the fact that my darkroom skills were not very good, and that I was more interested at the time in working in color, which had never really been an option before the computer age. I can remember evenings spent at U-Develop, a remarkable Portland photographic institution at the time, which had color darkroom facilities of a sort. The trouble was that no one really knew what they were doing, except for the sages behind the counter, who would cryptically suggest you "add a little magenta" after you had waited in line after yet another unsuccessful print. This was a very expensive hobby, especially when I realized that everyone else seemed to be a professional that was not worried about costs since their bosses or clients were paying for all this anyway.
OLD GROWTH, NEW GROWTH IN NATURAL MONOCHROMATIC GREEN
OLD GROWTH, NEW GROWTH IN ABSTRACT BLACK AND WHITE
Thus black and white was not really romantic, nostalgic, or cost effective in my environment of trying to achieve a perfect, or even just mediocre color exposure. I never really paid much attention to black and white except for some experiments with Ilford XP2, the first black and whiter film which could be developed by the minimum wage worker in the one hour kiosk. Yes, it was black and white, especially when the machine was properly calibrated, and it had zero grain, which was also revolutionary. But the one-hour guy still didn't have any capacity to really make a quality print, and since it was really "color" film, I still had to head back to the line at U-Develop.
I DO MISS THE LONE RED STICK, BUT I LOVE THE BLACK WATER
Just about the time that traditionalists were declaring that "film is not dead", I discovered that even though my new digital "negatives" were in color, I could use the computer to render them in black and white. It took a number of years for the software industry, and even more time for the revolutionary home photo printers to be able to create black and white prints that were any better than embarrassing, but they eventually did. While there is another segment of true believers that still use film while no doubt listening to their long-playing records in the darkroom, most people have moved on. My prints that come out of my home printer are so much better than anything I could ever achieve in the darkroom, and to tell you the truth it is just as magical when they emerge from that printer in my well-lit study as it ever was in the tray of chemicals in the dark.
IT'S REALLY ABOUT THE PORTLANDIA SIGN, AND I COULD UP THE CONTRAST
But for the most part I was still a color photographer, since I was mostly observing the real world of color and there was still quite a learning curve involved in converting a digital color photograph into black and white. There was one real reason that I started trying at all - it was that sometimes I just didn't like the colors in the real world! I am one of the few Portlanders who actually doesn't love the green of the St. Johns Bridge, so it was only naturally perverse that when I finally got around to exhibiting my image of that ubiquitous Portland symbol, I insisted on black and white. It was also fortuitous that the green, now silver bridge actually stood out against the green, now black woods in Forest Park.
INTO THE WOODS IN BLACK AND WHITE
So now I created black and whites when I didn't like the real colors, or when I realized that the colors were so unimportant that it didn't really matter if they were gone. But now that I had enough black and white images customers started to ask "whether I had that one in black and white as well" so they could assemble a black and white portfolio. I started to develop my style in black and white imagery, and to see what it could do for my photography.
GOTHAM CITY SHOULD BE IN BLACK AND WHITE, DON'T YOU THINK?
Over time I learned a few things about photography in general and my imagery in particular. I had always been more interested in interpretation than in documentation, and as I developed my skills in post-processing black and whites I realized the truth that the old masters had known. Black and white allowed for much more latitude for interpretation than color ever did. Colors could be wrong, or even weird, but the abstraction of no color seemed to allow you to get away with things like black skies or contrast that would be completely "unrealistic" in color. In the further reaches of interpretation bordering on abstraction, the absence of color seemed to be the one abstraction that most of the public seemed to really accept without question. I also learned that even though the world does exist "in color", a lot of it is really pretty monochromatic. The key is to see "in monochrome" rather than in "black and white." If my trips to the forest are really into a world of many shades of green, does it matter if they become shades of gray? Those coast scenes of blue skies and blue water might just as well be monochrome gray as monochrome blue. As an urban landscape photographer, a lot of my world was already in shades of gray, even in the natural world.
THIS PORTLAND CITYSCAPE IS REALLY ABOUT THE FREMONT BRIDGE, AND BLACK AND WHITE ALLOWS ME BOTH TO EMPHASIZE THE BRIDGE IN TWO DIFFERENT WAYS BY MANIPULATING THE TONES AND THE MOOD
It was about this time that I created a secret identity for myself. I decided to start showing my work on the website 500 Pixels, which is really a very high falutin Instagram - think much better photographers and mercifully no videos. Even the very few cat photos are really good cat photos. I tell people all the time that if you want to see what a very good photo of "x" might be, search for it in 500 pix and you will quickly find an example of what you should aim for, no matter the subject. But when I decided to join, I also decided that I would only show my black and white images. I wanted to see if I could attract some attention from those who only thought in black and white. Suddenly, and very nicely, I was attracting likes from all over Central and Eastern Europe from guys who had probably never taken a color photo - they accepted me as another old codger. It took a while, but I was running out of black and whites, and my new secret identity was in danger of exposure. I began to search my archives for more images to convert to black and white to keep up the charade. It was now that I really learned something, when I began to convert images to black and white that I had thought "were all about the color." What was shocking was that there were very few great color images that could not be great black and white images. Certainly different, but not without value. It was almost always not "about the color", it was really "about the contrast." Color photos are in fact really about color contrast, and if you can preserve that contrast in the black and white interpretation, in the absence of the color wheel, then you will preserve the power of that contrast. The trick is to manipulate the different shades of gray to create contrast between colors that shout "contrast" in color but are really about the same brightness as shades of gray. The photographer must decide that the yellow must be brighter, or the blue sky should become darker, to get back the contrast.
EVEN SUCH A SIMPLE GRAPHIC IMAGE IS ALL ABOUT THE COLOR, UNTIL IT ISN'T
BLACK AND WHITE CONTRAST CAN SUBSTITUTE FOR COLOR CONTRAST WITHOUT BEING SO LITERAL
It took about a year before I ran out of black and white photographs, and I slowly started to introduce some color imagery without provoking an international incident in Eastern Europe. But the important thing I learned for myself is that for the most part a good color image has every right to be a good monochrome image. So give it a try - there is no right answer, but you might be amazed how different, and wonderful that an image can look without color. and it's no problem if you like the color rendition better in any case.
THE ABSENCE OF COLOR CAN COMPLETELY CHANGE THE MOOD. "STUMPTOWN EVENINGS", AN EXCITING VIEW OF GLAMOROUS PORTLAND AT THE ADVENT OF A NIGHT OUT, BECOMES "STUMPTOWN NAKED CITY" EVOKING A DANGEROUS URBAN MYSTERY