“Bar / Caffè at the entrance to Piazza San Marco,” San Marco, Venezia, Italy, September 2016
I will use this photo to hammer home a point we’ve been making on our Art website, RawNakedArt.com, for some time: black and white photography is relatively easy. In fact, I will go so far as to risk stepping on a few toes by saying it’s a cheat. Now, if you are a b&w aficionado please don’t be offended. I’m not saying that producing monochrome takes no skill. I’ve attached the above photo to attest to this. Let me tell you, even though you can’t see the sharpness of the original (which scales to 4 by 5 feet) it is one of the best photos I’ve ever taken. The light was challenging, the shadows overwhelming, and the subjects were all walking toward me at full tilt as I tried to catch them as they emerged into the sunlight, all the while hoping not to blow out the background past the bridge.
I killed it.
And that, my friends, is what I’m preaching. Too often, shooters use monochrome to mask shitty shots, having neither appreciation for nor understanding of when and how b&w should be used. I’ve used it here as the compositional elements of the photo are highly structural and would be enhanced by mono. The delicate lace of the young woman’s dress was overwhelmed by her dress’ red hue. The garish pink of the mother’s purse called my eyes’ attention as did the colors of the ice cream in the signs at the lower left. Instead of the man in foreground being a large bird with blurred wings, in color, his jacket was a navy blue distraction. All of that would be fine if I weren’t more interested in the knackered state of the tunnel and the relationships between the three people in the center of the photo. True, in b&w, I lose the lovely turquoise of the Bar / Caffè sign, but that’s a small price to pay.
Having decided on monochrome as an aesthetic choice, I pushed the contrasts and added grain to make a point. In fact, I’ve rendered the final shot in the style of Robert Frank’s The Americans, with its disdain for both color and greyscale. This world is black and white, all emotion and energy, and focuses the viewer on the people at center, with their environment rendered into its structural elements. We’re not looking at Venice, Italy anymore: this is nowhere, everywhere, and its the story of four people in a tunnel with things to do. Now, I’m in no way trying to say I’m as good as Robert Frank. What I am saying, however, is his style is easy to emulate. It’s dark, arty, dingy at the seams and full of contrasts, just like the man himself. Like me, he wasn’t shooting the world, he was shooting himself and showing other people what he looks like inside. He saw conflicts; I see relationships.
Monochrome has its place, but displaying reality isn’t it. Shooters used to choose b&w because color was too difficult and too expensive to develop themselves. If you shot a lot, monochrome was your only realistic choice until the 1970s made color mandatory for magazines trying to compete with the vibrancy of television. It was still hard and expensive, however, and fewer and fewer periodicals successfully made the leap. Black and white fell into disuse by the casual user, and old-schoolers (and newbies wanting to emulate them) chose mono to distinguish themselves from the influx of amateur shooters.
But here’s the thing: do you know how to distinguish yourself from being a rank amateur at anything? Work at it until you’re good. This isn’t the best photo in the world, and maybe it’s not even my best, but it is part of the culmination of 42 years’ worth of shooting, developing, and editing. Life gives you one shortcut: die, and then you can (perhaps) learn everything through divine enlightenment. I’d recommend taking a pass, however, on that path. You’d miss a lot of good shit here where it’s dumb and dirty.
Life is full of color. Get you some.