Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Black and White? (Distracting Color)

Incan Gang
In May of this year, I posted a discussion of the first criteria I apply when deciding if a shot should be converted to black and white - “Is there sufficient information in the color to warrant keeping it?”  This post will explore the second criteria I apply - “Is the color distracting?”
Making good color photography is difficult.  One of the many problems color can introduce involves distraction from the subject.  Color can be overwhelming.  The concept of applying the criteria of “distracting color” is pretty simple, and for many photographs the decision is simple.  However, this can easily become a matter of taste.  What I find distracting may not be distracting to you.  That is ok.  I’m not offering the organic rules of photography. I am offering the benefit of my experience, and my opinion.
In the examples that follow, I show photographs I feel were improved greatly by conversion to black and white.  In each case, the primary reason for doing so is my judgment the color information is distracting.  As you view the pairs, ask yourself if you agree with my judgments.  And if not, why?
This shot was taken in Grenada days after Hurricane Ivan devastated the island in 2004.  This particular photograph comes from the warehouse of the Grenada Cooperative Nutmeg Association in Grenville.  This man and others were working hard to save the crop that had already been harvested while lamenting the loss of many Nutmeg trees.
In the color version of this shot I found the bright orange and yellows of the staircase coupled with the out of place blue fan blades distracting.  Upon shifting to a tinted black and white, the fans nearly disappear, and the stairs actually serve to frame the shot and lead the eye from the bottom right up through the middle of the composition.
Fertilizer Processing at Cumana Fish Plant-2
Fertilizer Processing at Cumana Fish Plant
This is a shot taken at the “fertilizer end” of a fish processing plant in Cumana, Venezuela.  In the color version, I find the yellows and oranges dominating the color palette and distracting from the gritty industrial feel of the composition.  After stripping away the color, the photograph becomes more cohesive and has an appropriate “feel” with the blown out highlights (upper right corner) mist, and steam wafting through the machinery.
This is another shot taken just after hurricane Ivan hit Grenada.  If you are a sailboat owner and have your boat at the True Blue Marina, this is not a sight you ever want to see. 
One of the tragically comical experiences I had during this period happened several weeks following the hurricane when one of the lesser damaged hotels was able to gain the services of a generator and partially reopen.  As I was sitting at the partially operating bar one night (where I learned to appreciate rum and ginger ale), I took count of the people in the room after having made an effort to make small talk with nearly all of them.  I concluded that among the people visiting Grenada as a result of Hurricane Ivan, the insurance underwriters and adjusters nearly equaled the number of international aid and relief workers.  My innate distrust of the insurance industry proved to be true for the most part…their purpose in Grenada was dominated by a need to calculate their losses, and secondarily to assist their clients.
Back to the photograph:  I found several distracting areas of color in this photograph including the red hull on the left, the blue and green overturned hulls in the foreground, and the orange/yellow barrels on the right.
The painting on this wall is a historical remnant of the 1983 US invasion of Grenada.  On October 25, 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada under the operational codename “Urgent Fury.”  The roots of this conflict stem back to March 1979 when the New Jewel Movement leader, Maurice Bishop, directed an armed overthrow of the government of Eric Gairy who led Grenada to independence from the United Kingdom in 1974.
Following the coup, the Bishop government quickly aligned itself with Cuba and other communist governments.  In early October, 1983, a splinter of the NJM led by Deputy Prime Minister Bernard Coard seized power from Bishop and placed him under arrest.  General turmoil and rioting in the country ensued until the army, led by Hudson Austin, formed a military junta to rule the country.
During this period of instability, Bishop was murdered.  Following the invasion, a new government was appointed by the Governor-General Paul Scoon and the constitution reinstated.  Ironically, the principal airport in Grenada, Point Salines International Airport, was renamed in honor of the deposed, murdered, communist aligned coup leader, Maurice Bishop on May 29, 2009.  This move to memorialize Bishop leads me to the inevitable thought…”there must be more to this story!”
Back to the photograph:  While not normally the case, in this shot I found both the blue sky and the green grass distracting from the photograph.  The red cloth caught in the grass is another distraction.  I find the black and white version much easier to view and explore.
I have a number of photographs from the Hurricane Ivan devastation of Grenada and Angel Falls, Venezuela.  I promise to dedicate individual posts to these subjects.
River Colors - 3
This shot is near Angel Falls in Venezuela on the Gauya river.  This represents a bit of a segue from our subject, yet relevant.  In this composition, the color in the mountains was muted, and the midfield trees included a number of green hues…neither of which were very interesting, and bordered on distracting.  On the other hand, the foreground water, plant and sand colors mark the area I want to draw the observer.  In the end, I decided to retain the color in the bottom 1/3 and apply a de-saturating gradient to the top 2/3, thus eliminating the distracting color elements.
Air Shot Leaving Canaima - 2
Air Shot Leaving Canaima - 2-2
This is an aerial shot of the Churun River located in the Gran Sabana of Bolivar State, Venezuela.  The color version has all kinds of odd things going on.  This is largely a function of the the lighting at that time of day along with the interesting reflections that happen at altitude.  The colors are horribly distracting.  This is a completely different photograph in black and white.
Bird Lady Bogota-2
Bird Lady Bogota
This shot of a woman watching the birds was taken in the principal plaza of the old part of Bogota, Colombia.  I think this is a great example of distracting colors.  The red shirt, the wine colored blanket and the blue shoes detract from the focal point of the photograph…the gaze of the woman as she surveys her flock.
Armless Barby-2
Armless Barby
Finally, this shot of a girl playing with her armless doll was taken in Cuzco, Peru.  I found the scene extremely sad – an un-bathed young girl wearing ill-fitting and dirty clothes, playing with an armless blue haired Barbie.  Given this mood toward the photograph, I found the pink dress and blue hair of the Barbie distracting.  As well the red hair band, and the group of colors in the upper left corner.
I hope you learned something valuable from seeing examples of how I make my decision to keep a shot in color, or convert it to black and white.  I was just talking with a fellow photographer about just this subject over a frosty kool-aid this week (oddly, it came from a tap and looked nothing like kook-aid).  I confessed that I find good color photography so difficult that rather than applying the decision criteria I have presented to you here and in previous posts, I am gradually coming to the position of having to argue in favor of keeping a photograph in color.  My default preference is increasingly and consciously moving toward black and white.
Go make some photographs!

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