Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2011/01/04

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Subject: [Leica] B&W or Color
From: lrzeitlin at (Lawrence Zeitlin)
Date: Tue, 4 Jan 2011 20:50:51 -0500

Most discussions of photographic "truth" tend to obscure the fact that ALL
photographs, color or B&W, are abstract representations of an external
world. The obvious limits to photographic depiction are inherent in the
photographic process itself. An photograph represents a three dimensional
moving scene as a two dimensional static image. Lens resolution, color
range, contrast compression are just a few of the constraints on image
fidelity. Motion picture and three dimensional photography remove some
limits but add others. Printing and reproduction processes add still more.

When Margaret Mead showed Tahitian natives black and white photographs of
themselves and their village, they rotated the photos this way and that,
shook their heads, and handed them back. "Nice designs", they said, "but
what are they?" Mead then realized that photographs were such abstractions
that only long experience enables their interpretation. We see the image as
a depiction of reality because our experience enables us infer the scene
from its abstract representation. Mead's natives did not.

Our standards for photographic reality are ever increasing. Audiences
recoiled in horror when the first full length motion picture (The Great
Train Robbery) showed a speeding locomotive heading straight for them. To
get a similar audience response today requires IMAX and 3D glasses. In a few
years year realistic depiction might require moving holographic images, and
ultimately, a Startrek type Holodeck in which viewers are allowed to fully
interact with the images as a form of controlled hallucination. But, of
course, visual fidelity is not essential for creating an emotional impact.
The history of fine art over the last 150 years has been a constant retreat
from "photographic" reality and an increase in emotional abstraction. In
this age of ubiquitous cell phone cameras, formal still photography may be
following the same path. Who needs a Leica (except Luggers) if an iPhone
suffices? Right Kyle.

So the discussion of which image technique, color or B&W, is "better" is
largely irrelevant. Good photographers use both. It just depends on the
scene and the degree of abstraction that you want the viewer to tolerate.
B&W was ascendent in the early days of photography, not because of its
artistic merit, but because the technology for reproducing B&W images was
cheaper and far more available. But the playing field has leveled. Does
anyone have a B&W TV anymore?

Larry Z

Replies: Reply from richard at (Richard Man) ([Leica] B&W or Color)