Does everything look worse in black and white?

Warabi, Saitama, January 7, 2004: click for larger image

Warabi, Saitama, January 7, 2004. Mamiya 645 Super, Mamiya Sekor 55mm f/2.8, Fuji 160 NPC.

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they’d never match
my sweet imagination
And everything looks worse in black and white

They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

— Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”


The other day someone posted to one of the photo-related mailing lists I’m subscribed to that they have been working on a photo series on Japan’s various public housing projects, and said about it,

To underline the hopeless atmosphere over there I started taking photos in black and white. Before I started this project I preferred to take photos in color. [Italics mine].

Now I have not had the fortune or misfortune to live in one of these danchi and so can’t really comment on whether the atmosphere is hopeless or not. I suspect for some it is, for others it is not, though I will go out on a limb here and suggest that if one wanted to look for hopelessness Tokyo’s housing projects would probably not be high on the list when stacked up against those in other parts of the world. (This said, recently our city made national news when a teenage girl committed suicide from the local housing project she lived in, apparently as a result of bullying at school — the same middle school Naoko went to 15 some odd years ago. But whether her living situation contributed to her suicide or was just the convenient means she chose to end her life by, we don’t yet know.)

But my intention isn’t to question the supposed hopelessness of Japan’s housing projects, but rather to draw attention to this particular photographer’s statement that they chose black and white film as a way to “underline” this supposed hopelessness. You hear this kind of thing all the time, folks choosing black and white film because they think it buys them grittier photos, or more life-like photos, or more of a “street” or “documentary” look. These same reasons are also proffered for the digital equivalent — shooting in color then de-saturating in Photoshop or some other photo-editing software — which in my book is far more troubling but I’ll save that rant for another time.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether black and white film would in fact make the subject matter seem more hopeless, I wonder what it says about the photographer that they would leave their underlining to their choice of film. In fact, that any underlining is even going on indicates for me a lack of confidence in the actual subject matter, or put another way, perhaps they have realized, albeit subconsciously, that the subject matter isn’t conforming to their preconceived image of it. (Now to be fair I have not seen any of this person’s housing project work — either online or in exhibition — and it may well be that the work transcends the naivete of the artist’s statement, but let’s just say I’m not optimistic it would.)

And what of this idea that black and white film somehow equates with, or at least enhances, feelings of hopelessness? Is that really the case, or more a case of the artist doing a bit of wishful glomming? Would the black and white draw out the supposed misery, or simply place banal but pregnant subject matter in lock step with received notions of how one is meant to understand black and white photos? Taking the reverse tack, would color somehow give the lie to the idea of this place, and make us think “all the world’s a sunny day”? Might we not “get it” (whatever “it” is) and somehow upend the artists best laid schemes?

Again the answers seem to lie within the realm of confidence, the confidence of the artist to let their subjects and subject matter speak for themselves, to tell the stories they’re meant to tell. And perhaps more importantly, the confidence of us as viewers to take in each image on its own terms, and to provide our own underlining, as best as possible unfettered by the handcuffs of the artist on one hand and history on the other, struggling mightily to do the underlining and captioning for us.

11 Replies to “Does everything look worse in black and white?”

  1. I have composed this piece of music, and to make it sound happier, I made it a really fast song… hat’s rubbish of course. And simply reversing the logic would mean that there are no happy pics in black and white and no sad or triste photos in colour. But the person making that statement hasn’t even thought that far.

    That’s why the statement is from a “photography-related” mailing list, because taking pictures with a camera is all we have in common.

    Much more interesting question: why am I or are you using black and white? I have to admit, apart from practicalities, I have no real answer. Which is better than something like “because it lets us concentrate on the essentials” or “it shows the truth better than colour”… yuck. So for now my answer is “because I like it better”, and that should suffice.

  2. There’s so many reasons to take any particular photo in a specific way. I love photography for it’s limitless possibilities. A rich palette or monochrome, each strike different moods in different viewers.

    To some extent, I think we are all culturally conditioned to equate B&W with a sort of gritty verity, a time-worn bleakness. It makes sense I guess since colour process is fairly new in the grand scheme of things, and we all grew up with powerful black and white images: notably some very bleak war images (vietnam, nagasaki stand out), remote and powerful landscapes, street and social photographers, and so on.

    But all of these images are powerful because of the story, the narrative they convey. It’s the content and context that provides an actual emotional response in a viewer.

    The choice of colour or black and white is just a part of the thinking that goes into making that image, regardless of whether it happens in the camera, the darkroom, or the computer.

    Or that’s what I think I think.

  3. I’m still convinced that B&W is an excellent medium for expressing verbs in photography, and is probably best used these days in portraiture (formal or loose). Color is almost always better at landscape, at descriptive spectacle. But *neither* is “real,” both are just formal aspects of the pic.

    Look at your own example — the green is the dominant subject, the rectangle of this green wall echoes the frame lines to reinforce it, and the passing human figure is reduced to an anonymous cipher. You’ve ended up choosing the shutter speed and the camera location based on the color. If the SAME photo had been made in B&W, it would suffer. But if shooting B&W there’s a good chance you’d have made some different shot, maybe a 3/4 angle on this person — a shot where the color’s value is deeply reduced (or at least changed), where instead something else might be worth the greatest attention — perhaps their looks, their relationship to the buildings or their neighbors, who knows.

    It all depends on the specific confluence of material and approach. Form is just form, it’s there to use.

    Could this person you describe be a preprogrammed dolt? Could be. Have they ever done anything of merit?

  4. By the way, I was just (coincidentally) listening to “Kodachrome” from Live in Central Park, and I noticed that they said that everything looks better in black and white, not worse. So I would say at best, take what Simon and Garfunkel say with a grain of salt.

  5. Actually, I do think “hopeless” when I look at AA’s Yosemite, but for different reasons than its lack of printed color 🙂

    Just came back to make a comparison (in classic AA style!) between photography and music. We certainly have minor and major keys in western music, and there’s little argument that IN GENERAL, minor keys have a quieter, more pensive, melancholy nature. Are we idiots for using minor keys this way, even after hearing, say, the 9th Symphony, which turns this notion on its head so brilliantly? Of course not.

    Cognitive shrinkologists connect musical feelings with the motor systems of the brain — so perhaps minor keys really DO have an inherent quiet sadness when combined with the brains of H.Sapiens. Could B&W have a similar effect on its mode of comprehension? I wouldn’t rule it out. Are photos memories, or immediate experiences? Why do shiite ayatollahs wear black turbans with white robes, and priests white collars under black jackets? Do B&W photos invoke a gray day, or a sunny one? Are W&B, as Frank once opined, the natural colors of photography: the extremes of hope and despair?

  6. my photo mentor always said this: black and white abstracts things – it’s about ideas, it makes us think. color is how things look, color is about specific real things, events.

    which like most generalizations you can him an haw all day about. but it’s a separation, a distinction that has always worked for me.

    whether it’s more sad or not? following the above logic — black and white is sad because the human condition, the existential condition can be sad. but color can be just as sad. with color, there it is. that is what it is/was like. color can be shock.

  7. I think you have quoted my sentence concerning the hopeless atmosphere at Tokyo housing projects, which I am expressing with black and white photos.
    I have written this statement without explaining, why the atmosphere seems to be hopeless for me. Let me add some more information:

    First of all I don’t want to state that the atmosphere at all Tokyo housing projects is hopeless.
    My project concentrates on danchi, which were built in the 60s and 70s. These buildings are in a very bad condition. However, due to housing policy in the time, when the housing complexes were built, some ramshackle buildings can not be demolished until the last tenant has left.
    I am preparing a detailed documentary on this subject for my next exhibition, which I will give next January in Germany. I will send you a copy of my essay and some photos.
    After getting more background information on this project you hopefully do not think anymore that I am just a superficial foreign photographer in Japan.


  8. Christine-
    Thanks for adding your thoughts (thanks to everyone else too!). It was indeed your statement that I was responding to, though I hope I made it clear in my post that I was responding to the sentiment about b/w contained in your statement — something that has been said many times before and will be said many times hence — and not your work itself, which I admitted I hadn’t seen, nor really about whether or not these danchi are hopeless.

    If you feel they are hopeless, then so be it. That’s your experience or feeling and that’s hard to argue with (nor do I really care to argue with it). But if you feel that b/w was best to document it, well, for reasons I wrote in my post, I’m sceptical. But I would love to be proven wrong, and so to that end, would be most appreciative of receiving your essay and any samples when they are ready. And even better, hopefully you’ll find a venue for the show here in Japan so I’ll be able to see it in person.

  9. While our non-superficial foreign photographer in Japan has explained some more of her motivation behind the project, she still failed to explain the originally claimed connection between ‘hopeless’ and black & white.

    But let’s not fear, all will be revealed automagically when we will have the copy of the essay and some photos.

  10. Comment to Dirk,
    Since Kurt has taken my quotation from the photo mailing list, I have sent my answer to the question, if everything looks worse in black and white, to the photo mailing list.

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