A Question of Color

A Question of Color

Before Joel Meyerowitz’s work came along, most curators and collectors focused exclusively on acquiring black and white photographs. In the 1960s Meyerowitz started challenging that norm; part of that process was for him to carry two cameras -- one loaded with b&w film and the other with color -- and photograph the same scene with both cameras.

Man and Goodyear Blimp: "This photograph tells its joke well in either black-and-white or color. But I feel the color image presents the whole place more fully. When I look at all the flat grays of the black-and-white print, it all becomes duller to me, joke or not. I need to see the color of his shorts, that belly, the silver of the blimp, the color of the air and water, the shadows on that pinkish-tan wall. I hunger for the information!"

Bride in Park: "It is the sense of dimension that color description brings that pleases me here. There is a fullness that, in spite of the flatness of the light, tells me so much. Perhaps most importantly, the small tree gives me pleasure to look at it. Moving back and forth between the nominal subject of the photograph -- the juxtaposition of bride and the man -- and returning to the tree, it's as if the photograph was about the tree and, coincidentally, these other two happened to be there."

"We carry color memories just as we do smell memories (smell being our purest sense), and they evoke sensations. And from that recognition, we develop our own vocabulary of color responses. Who knows why we choose the colors we live with, or wear, or why one color makes us feel calm and another irritable?"

Mother and Baby and Fish Window: "Both of these frames sustain a touch of the absurd about them. Perhaps it's a toss-up which ones works the best. But the fact of the hour being the onset of evening, as described by the tone of the sky and the neon lights in the background, makes all the difference for me, as it gives me that extra bit of information about the moment this strange group came to be in the same place together."

Orangerie Couple in the Window: "Though both photographs work for me, I always return to the color image because of its capacity to describe the dreary quality of the day outside, which these two tough old Parisians are living through, a quality that is less visible in the black-and-white image."

Man Looking at Garden: "I remember feeling that the image with his back flat to the camera was the more compelling moment, reminding me of a Magritte-like figure. Months later, I felt that the Kodachrome better described it. They variety of the garden, the delicate color of his raincoat in the after-storm sunlight, the dimension and pressure of his figure over the space of the garden all pleased me more than the black-and-white image."

via [The New York Times Lens Blog]

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Jens Marklund's picture

First two color. Third BW. Color. BW. BW.

Spy Black's picture

Assuming Meyerowitz was shooting unfiltered B&W, I can see why these B&W images look like they do. Optimizing these images for B&W would require the use of various color filters for some of the scenes, and possibly none at all for others. How they were printed is another variable as well. I suspect Meyerowitz was deliberately shooting bad B&W imagery to justify his argument. B&W photography is not as straightforward as it might seem. Color is color, however, and will typically add another dimension that will enhance a scene in a way B&W can't. There will be B&W images however, that when done right, will surpass anything you could do on the same scene in color. Actually, shooting good color requires even more work to make it right. Meyerowitz's color shots here are nothing more than a straight click of the shutter.