Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2011/04/16

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Subject: [Leica] Re; Barcelona in color - not!
From: lrzeitlin at (Lawrence Zeitlin)
Date: Sat, 16 Apr 2011 22:26:04 -0400

All I asked was why Lluis took so many B&W photos in colorful Barcelona.
Rather than a simple answer to the question, the LUG was treated to a
barrage of overpowering assumptions about the merits of B&W. I apologize if
my polemic seems to be mostly directed at Dr. Ted but his response was the
longest, had the most arguments, and was the best target. Sorry, Dr. Ted.

It is amazing how many red herrings B&W advocates have managed to drag into
the discussion of B&W vs. color in photography. Had most LUG colorphobes
been consistent, the herrings would have been gray. As far as the picture
viewing public is concerned, however, there is no contest. Color photography
is the runaway winner. Even though film sales have plunged to one seventh of
their volume of ten years ago, color film outsells B&W film by 20 to 1.
Preference for B&W or color may be a judgment call but there are valid
reasons why B&W was used in the past and color predominates today.

For me, and most of the country's movie audience, the choice between color
and B&W came with the release of "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939. I was taken to
see the film as a birthday present on its local premier in a big Chicago
movie theater. To this day I remember the collective gasp of the audience
when Dorothy stepped out of her B&W Kansas home into the Technicolor land of
Oz. In 1947, only 12 percent of Hollywood films were made in color. By 1954,
that number rose to over 50 percent. Today over 90% of commercial films are
made in color. Despite the objection of Hollywood purists to the colorizing
of old B&W films, the public demands it.

Now about the technology. Color photography has a history almost as long as
B&W photography, dating back to James Clerk Maxwell's demonstration of three
color photography in 1861. But until the advent of integral tripack color
films in the 30s (Kodachrome), color photography was quite difficult. Back
in the day I fooled around with the carbro and wash off relief processes. It
took me a full day to make a single print. Compared to color, B&W processing
was dead easy. But B&W photography largely vanished from the public domain
with the advent of the digital camera. As far as I know no consumer B&W
digital camera has been offered to the general public since the .09
megapixel Logitech Fotoman of 1990. You can use your digital camera to make
B&W photos but it seems a waste of two thirds of the camera's resources.

I agree with Ted that content is the most important characteristic for news
and documantary photographs. But I completely reject his assumption
that disasters
generally look worse in B&W simply because the content is usually violence
and death. B&W provides a degree of abstraction that insulates the viewer
from the emotionality of the event. The color of blood in B&W is black. The
color of brain matter is gray. The real colors are far different. The two
photos he cites from the Vietnam war, photo of the police officer shooting
the VC through the head and the young girl running away from the Napalm with
her clothes and body burnt would have been even more striking in color. As
would Capa's photographs of the D Day landing. Contrary to Ted's view that
"colour wouldn't have added anything," I feel that color would have added a
great deal. Blood is red, Napalm burns bright orange. Neither is in B&W.

So why weren't the pictures in color? First, printing color images in
letterpress is a difficult and time consuming process. Even B&W printing is
a challenge. Matthew Brady's pictures of the Civil War never appeared in
newspapers because the halftone process wasn't available until 1881, a
decade and a half after the war ended. My old paper, the Boston Globe, used
a 65 dpi halftone screen until 1960. Leica image quality certainly wasn't
necessary and color was out of the question. Run-of-press color was not
common in general circulation newspapers until the mid 70s. Quite a long
while after the dramatic pictures that Ted mentions were taken.

Ted tries to support the dominance of B&W as preferable in news photography
by saying "the 280,000 images in the National Archives of Canada collection?
It's probably 75% B&W, 25% colour. Again simply because of the assignment
and whether magazine assignments, travel or tourism or whether the client
asked specifically to shoot in whatever medium." To put it bluntly,
newspapers and news magazines did not demand color photos because of the
merit of B&W but simply because it was less convenient and more costly to
get color pictures printed when most of Ted's pictures were taken. That's
not the case today.

Second, very few news photographers, particularly those in combat zones,
shot color in the field. I know this for a fact. As a Korean war vet
attached to Conarc Board 2 (the Armored Center) and the First Cavalry, one
of my military assignments was to photograph Army armored vehicles in
combat. Color films were slow and difficult to get processed. The only way
to get color film processed was to send it to Japan. All it took to develop
B&W film was a TriChem pack, a suitable dark space, a film tank and a couple
of liters of water. It was easy if you were not too busy dodging bullets. I
am sure that much the same conditions held in Vietnam ten years later. I was
there, I know.

Finally, most psychologists hold that while meaning can be conveyed by a B&W
image, the emotional affect is largely conveyed by color. Remember, blood is
red, not black. Vomit is green, not gray, Flowers are not B&W but are a
Crayola box of color. B&W is so seldom seen in commercial imaging today that
it is attention getting by its rarity. Perhaps being different is the reason
for success of the apocryphal portrait studio that Ted mentions. The image
consuming public has spoken. B&W photography is a fossil technology largely
supported by fossils such as inhabit the LUG. Remember, if color images
offend you, you can always turn down the saturation on your computer screen
or view them on your B&W TV.

Just the facts.

Larry Z

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