Sunday, March 24, 2013

Everything Isn’t Black and White

Garry Winogrand: I was at the premier retrospective showing of Garry Winogrand, a noted photographer and chronicler of life in the 70’s. He was one of many photographers who drew their inspiration from life on the street. From the lurid to the mundane, the photos represented a melding of a photographer's observation, timing, and technical competence. The exhibition included prints made from film that was never processed in Winogrand’s lifetime, making this retrospective quite unique.

In a discussion with my editor, she posed a question concerning street photography. She posed that a person with an iPhone could just as easily want the streets of a major city, snapping random images, converting the digital images to black and white, and would achieve results similar to Winogrand’s. On first glance this is entirely true, but if you compare “then” with “now” the answer to the question is much more complicated.
Let’s take the equipment. While I don’t know for a fact, the camera of choice was the black Leica rangefinder camera. This camera was totally manual with no electronics at all. Focusing was done by using a built-in coincident rangefinder (focus was achieved by juxtaposing two images atop one another) and could be used only if you actually held the camera to your face. Exposure settings, aperture and shutter speed, were also set manually, and the adjustment dials could only be seen when the camera was held at waist level. The actual aperture/shutter speed pairing would be determined by a hand held light meter, or in some cases using an adjustment to the Sunny Sixteen Rule. And lastly, the film in the camera had to be advanced manually after each exposure, meaning that even the fastest photographer could only squeeze of one frame ever second, if that.

The modern digital camera literally sidesteps all of these shortcomings. save two. At what physical location is the camera positioned, and at what precise moment will the exposure be made? Both are the domain of the person holding the camera. Perhaps the photographer brings a bit of restraint to the act of photography because he or she will determine when proper focus has been achieved, and at what exact moment the image will be captured. In short, the single most important influence in the photographic process is the experience that the photographer brings to the photographic moment.

In this classic Winogrand image, it is very obvious that a great deal of planning went into this image.  What exposure settings to use, where to stand, , where to place the plane of focus, and when to press the shutter are all decisions that the photographer had to make. A modern digital camera could only address exposure, and even that would be a guess. It is doubtful that this was a random grab shot. It is more likely that Winogrand felt that something was about to happen, positioned himself, adjusted his camera, and waited.

Street Photography: So much of the street photography genre is presented in black in white for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is the fact that the black and white film of the day was far more sensitive to light than color film. This increased sensitivity, reflected in high ASA/ISO ratings, allowed photographers to work in areas that were too dark for satisfactory color photography. This is perhaps the genesis for the available light movement, where only light sources available in the environment could be used.

As an experiment, I purposely printed to opening image without color in an attempt to simulate how the photo might have looked if Winnogrand had taken it. Notice that the viewer's  facial tones are washed out, while the images on the wall, particularly the one with the young woman, become much more prominent to the view. The direction and nature of the existing light worked against me, making the human subjects flat and devoid of any strong sense of three dimensionality.

Making Sense Of The Abstraction: Black and white images are actually abstractions, initially based on an actual physical subject. Through the limitations (or strengths) of the photographic process, the world is re-interpreted in terms of brightness and contrast. forcing the viewer to re-interpret the image in those terms. We become much more aware of form, the interplay between highlight and shadow that gives us the illusion of three dimensions. But without the distractions of color, the view is free to form a different interpretation of the photo's content. 

Let's take a closer look at one of the images from the opening photo, found here. Without color, the viewer must interpret the image through other means. The gaze of  they young woman, her quaffed hair, the apparent smoothness of here skin, the twinkle of the champagne glasses, and the obvious admiration of her companion, force the viewer to draw some intellectual conclusions about what is happening. A New Year's Eve party? A night club scene? What are they toasting to? 

Mood Vs. Situation: I believe that without color, we are not drawn into the mood of the photo. Instead, we are drawn into the situation. And like an abstract painting, the viewer is free to interpret the image any way he chooses. I think that when we see a black and white image, we are initially challenged to interpret the image based on visible shapes and an implied sense of form. This incomplete interpretation of the image allows the viewer to re-assemble the recognizable elements, minus the emotional contributions of color. I believe this explains our fascination with black and white photos, especially those that might appear commonplace at first, but after analysis and re-assembly, provides us with short phrases that give us the freedom to write our own story. It is McLuhan's ultimate Cool Medium.

The fascination with black and white photography goes far beyond the relatively simplicity of processing. It truly is a whole new way of seeing things, as it forces the mind the re-assemble visual scraps into a new "whole". I believe that color is the binder that allows the image to adhere to the subconscious. Without it, an entirely different interpretation is required.