Photoquotes – Colour versus black and white

London alley at night

In this occasional series I’ll look at a selection of well-known photographers’ views on a particular aspect of photography, through the medium of quotes.

There’s a certain snobbery around when it comes to black and white photography versus colour photography.  Although colour photography has been around in a useable form since the early 1900s, it was technically challenging and expensive and didn’t achieve widespread use till the 1950s onwards.  Most professional photographers continued to use black and white for quite some time after this – some still do – and it may be the association of black and white with professionalism, as opposed to the amateurish colour shots taken by the masses, that has left its imprint.  On top of this, colour photography was enthusiastically adopted by the advertising industry quite early on, and it therefore became associated with banality and commerce.  I don’t suppose it helped.

‘Color is vulgar’, said Walker Evans, who then went on to add ‘beauty is unimportant and nature is trivial’. Somehow I don’t think we’d get on……  It’s hard to understand why some people are so anti-colour. Evans really is the most vehement of them all – here are a couple more quotes from him:

‘Many photographers are apt to confuse color with noise, and to congratulate themselves when they have almost blown you down with screeching hues alone—a bebop of electric blues, furious reds, and poison greens.’

‘Color tends to corrupt photography and absolute color corrupts it absolutely. Consider the way color film usually renders blue sky, green foliage, lipstick red, and the kiddies’ playsuit. These are four simple words which must be whispered: color photography is vulgar.’

This really is a man who likes his world black and white, or more accurately, grey – ‘I happen to be a gray man……..Gray is truer’.  His attitude towards colour did mellow very slightly in the mid-70s, but he never really came round to it.

Roland Barthes, one of the high priests of post-modernism, didn’t like colour much either.  In his seminal work, Camera Lucida, he announced:

‘For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses).’

Corpses??  In Barthes’ view, black and white was ‘truth’ and he regarded colour as a kind of overlay that obscured reality/truth, an attitude that’s surprisingly widespread.

Colour is often referred to by those who eschew it as a ‘distraction’ (which it certainly can be if you want the emphasis elsewhere), but Sarah Moon goes one step further:

‘I believe that the essence of photography is black and white. Color is but a deviance.’

Phillip Jones Griffiths isn’t too keen either, but more because he thinks colour creates problems:

‘Once the camera is loaded with colour film, the problems begin.’

Personally I think this is one reason so many photographers prefer black and white – it removes one big variable (the handling of colour) from all the things that have to be considered when composing a shot. There’s a certain skill involved in visualising the final image as it will look in black and white – translating from the language of colour, if you will – but once you have that skill then black and white is very forgiving. When you post-process it you can push the contrast way beyond anything you can do with colour, giving dramatic results quite easily. And if you have someone in the background wearing a red coat, that isn’t the problem it would be if the image were in colour. This isn’t intended to put the black and white enthusiasts down – it’s a very real talent to be able to see well in black and white and not everyone can do it.

And it’s also true that it’s not easy to use colour well:

‘The difficulty with color is to go beyond the fact that it’s color—to have it be not just a colorful picture but really be a picture about something. It’s difficult. So often color gets caught up in color, and it becomes merely decorative. Some photographers use [it] brilliantly to make visual statements combining color and content; otherwise it is empty.’  Mary Ellen Mark

Moving on, William Eggleston, one of the early adopters of colour among professional photographers, is typically laid-back and laconic about the whole issue:

‘The way I have always looked at it is the world is in color. And there’s nothing we can do about that.’

Eggleston was happy to use colour and he used it very effectively.  Among his contemporaries was Saul Leiter, a street photographer accomplished in both black and white and colour, who said:

‘I’m mystified that anyone thinks liking color is a bad thing.’

Ernst Haas, another contemporary and early adopter of colour photography, simply says:

‘Color is joy.’

Haas loved colour – he felt that after what he called the grey years of the second world war, colour was a celebration and symbolised life and hope for the future.

There’s a noticeable difference in attitude between the black and white and the colour enthusiasts. The black and whiters often get very worked up about the whole thing and sometimes have a bit of a tendency to rant – the colour lovers mostly express slight bewilderment about the whole issue and just get on with it.

‘I still don’t understand all these problematic discussions about color versus black and white. I love both, but they do speak a different language within the same frame…………….There are black and white snobs as well as color snobs. Because of their inability to use both well they act on the defensive and create camps.’
Ernst Haas

Haas is right, of course – there’s no reason why we should ever need to argue the merits of one over the other. They’re different, in the same way that a charcoal drawing is different from a painting, but no better or worse for it. Some photographers were meant for black and white – if you’ve ever seen any of Ansel Adams’ colour photos then you’ll know that, while they’re extremely accomplished, they lack something that his black and white photography embodies.  In 1967, he wrote:

I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography.’
It’s an interesting thought.
Some photographers do both very well, such as Haas, and Leiter. And for some, like Pete Turner, nothing but colour will do. (And boy, does Turner use strong colour – Walker Evans would be turning in his grave faster than a chicken on a spit. This pdf download contains a selection of Turner’s images and a fascinating article about his work.)
For me, colour has always been my first love and my inspiration, but I’ve never really understood why there has to be a contest between it and black and white.  Sometimes I shoot in black and white and it makes a refreshing change, and sometimes a subject simply lends itself to black and white.  But if I had to make a choice?………momma, don’t take my Kodachrome away!

Kodachrome, it gives those nice bright colors
Gives 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 momma, don’t take my Kodachrome away
Paul Simon, Kodachrome

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