Oh, half of what’s out there is worthless. The only pictures I like are the ones I’ve taken. —William Eggleston
I had difficulty choosing pictures to go with this article. I just finished reading the New York Times interview with William Eggleston that was published yesterday. Times writer Augusten Burroughs calls Eggleston, “The pioneer of color photography.” I’ve also heard of him referred to as the godfather of color photography. Whichever title one chooses to use, the man has done a lot to further color photography. So, choosing images that really match that topic involved a mental argument as to exactly what color photography represents.
Being brutally honest, I’ve not always been the world’s biggest Eggleston fan. I’ve seen the images from his 1976 exhibit at the New York Museum of Modern Art, which the article casually glosses over with little more than a side mention. I understand why critics at the time weren’t impressed. Eggleston’s work has, at times, been the sort that one looks at after a few years and thinks, “Oh, now I get it.” Just casually browsing through his images without taking the time to understand them can, depending on one’s level of photographic comprehension, leave one disappointed and unimpressed.
What Eggleston’s work did, though, was bring color photography legitimacy in a world that was stuck looking at things in black and white. As color film and processing changed over the years, color pictures changed our perspective of life. We were forced to look at things differently, something that a lot of people don’t find comfortable.
The Color Of Emotion
Photographers who have never shot film, and there are millions who haven’t, don’t understand the challenge of having to choose whether to shoot in color or black and white. Digital cameras inherently take color pictures. Even if one has a camera with a black and white setting [which is never a good idea, in my opinion], the sensor still “sees” in color and then makes the conversion. When using film, though, one has to make a decision before the pictures are taken, often before one even stops onto the set. Sitting in art meetings over the years, whether to use color or black and white film was almost always one of the first arguments the team would face. Opinions both directions tend to be strong.
Critical to this discussion is understanding that color changes the emotion of pictures. If I were to set two pictures side-by-side, one color, one black-and-white, your opinion hinges not on different qualities of processing, but on how the different images make you feel. Consider the image at the top of this page. Here it is processed in black and white:
The question is not whether one version is better than the other; both have their distinctive qualities. What matters is which version best communicates the emotion I was attempting to capture with the image. In this case, I prefer color if for no other reason than the striking contrast of red blood in the water.That aspect is so muted in the black and white version that one might miss it entirely if just casually glancing at the photo.
One can argue that either version of the picture is better than the other and be technically correct. Are we shooting merely for technicalities, though, or are we taking pictures that allow people to feel something? When we choose color, we make a choice in how we want to direct viewers’ emotions.
Color In A Black And White World
Because photography started out monochrome, there have been, and always will be, those who are strongly adamant that black and white is the only legitimate format for professional photographs. The Times article makes that point when the author asks Eggleston what he thinks of Ansel Adams. Eggleston replied:
We didn’t know each other, but if we did, I’d tell him the same thing: “I hate your work.”
The sentiment runs both directions, though. The article recounts a conversation between Eggleston and renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in which the latter tells the former, “You know, William, color is bull shit.”
Not everyone wants to see the world in color. Not everyone wants to feel the emotions and challenges that color brings to pictures. Black and white gets straight to the point, emphasizes the facts, and allows some things to become lost in the shadows. We all know people who are the same way. The rules are the rules and either one follows them or they don’t. People who view the world in black and white tend to be very precise in their judgments, they appreciate the clarity of strong, well-defined lines and the clean contrast that black and white affords.
Color brings more freedom to the world, and to imagery. Color opens up possibilities that maybe the rules are bendable, or not necessary at all. Color lets us see what’s lurking in the shadows, enjoy the subtle gradients of light, and feel the warmth, or the coldness, of an image. You almost certainly know people who are colorful, who take chances without regard to the consequences, who explore beyond traditional boundaries, and are very open about how they feel. Their emotions are obvious and their communication often louder than we might appreciate.
If I have a favorite quote from the article, and Eggleston provided plenty of good ones to save for the archives, it would be this one regarding critical discussion of his work:
The only thing one can do is really look at the damn things. It’s just not making much sense to talk about them.
We are guilty, far too often, of analyzing both photographs and life to the point that they begin to lose any meaning. We too often need to justify our reasons for either liking or not liking a photograph, or a situation, or even a person. Some of us are color people. Some of us are black and white. And there are many who cross back and forth, constantly wrestling with the emotional and visual exchanges between the two.
I’ve no problem admitting that I am of the latter camp. I find pleasure in both forms of photography and both forms of people. While mixing the two doesn’t always work, I would hate to live in a world where either one fails to exist. What Eggleston’s work teaches us, if anything, is that we need both. One might be more appropriate for a given situation, but fundamentally neither is better than the other. They are, simply, different, and that difference is wonderful.
Life is the same way, is it not? The sooner we accept that both color and monochrome has value, perhaps then we can get on about the business of loving and caring for each other rather than this stupid arguing we’ve been doing. We’ve not been making much sense with our petty picking and fussing. Enjoy the pictures of life. We’ll all be better for it.