15 January 2013
I. Part One:
Let me know which you prefer and why. Are you a fan of monochrome or tend toward reality? Or are you drawn image by image?
When I first gazed at Joel Meyerowitz’s photography of Cape Cod, his frames of architecture and seascapes did not evoke deep feelings. But they conjured the softer gaze that is found at seaside towns. A recent retrospective of his art has altered my view, clarifying the depth and breath of his vision of human nature and nature. From street photography of the 1960s to the Cape of the 1970s to continuous coverage of New York City (especially Ground Zero) his legacy is sealed in the annals of art history.
Meyerowitz said, “What I think is so extraordinary about the photograph is that we have a piece of paper with this image adhered to it, etched on it, which interposes itself into the plane of time that we are actually in at that moment. Even if it comes from as far back as 150 years ago, or as recently as yesterday, or a minute before as a Polaroid color photograph, suddenly you bring it into your experience. You look at it, and all around the real world is humming, buzzing and moving, and yet in this little frame there is stillness that looks like the world. That connection, that collision, that interfacing, is one of the most astonishing things we can experience.”
At seventy-four Meyerowitz has gained a stellar reputation. His popularity has grown glacially but steadily. His oeuvre, which dramatizes what we see against what we think we see, deserves its permanent place in the history of photography.
Recently, I read about his two-volume set, Taking My Time (Phaidon, October 2012, which includes his film, Pop), that was published in conjunction with exhibitions in New York (through January 05, 2013) and Paris (January 2013). What stirred my interest was the knowledge that he was instrumental in the 1960s as an advocate of color photography–a medium that, at that time, was considered inferior in art circles but a sensation in the commercial (weddings, portraiture) marketplace. Monochrome photography was heralded by the masters and color had not yet been accepted for its possibilities.
Meyerowitz has been consistent about his championship and use of color photography. In the early days of his career he was known to carry two cameras (one loaded with color film and the other with black-and-white). He was determined to understand the qualities of each for his own edification and work.
Meyerowitz concluded that color offered additional information, forcing him to pay more attention to every detail. Eventually he experimented with side-by-side comparisons. He forged through the wall of disbelievers and became an advocate of color. His work pushed the envelope, influencing the way color was viewed. In Taking My Time Meyerowitz continues the dialogue in the essay, “A Question of Color;” he uses diptychs to make his points. Still, there is a place in his work for the monochrome, and when it works he complies.
The drama of color vs. the drama of black-and-white photography can be a hard punch or slightly competitive. Sometimes it is simply a matter of personal preference. At other times the clarity of an image can make it easy to determine the best rendering of the content.
I’ve become such a devotee of black-and-white images. Partly, it’s my admiration for the masters and partly it’s my admiration for the effect. It helps me see what I have taken with a deeper visual inspection.
In the Lens section are four parts that set up a comparison between the two. Color can stagnate, black-and-white can stagnate. When the photographer makes the decision to convert to black-and-white, the contrast and tones must soar. They must complement all aspects of the image. The decision must boost the narrative, making a bolder statement than its reality.
When an object or portrait or scene becomes a monochrome, it has to make a profound statement that color may or may not be able to do for the same photograph. Often it can be a tough call. After all what I see and what you see are not equal or maybe even close.
Black-and-white photography remains a vital component of the art world. Its qualities can be a vast treasure trove for the visual senses. During the times when it works, it staggers my mind and makes my heart quake with joy.
Still, whether an image is black-and-white or color, its depiction and effects can change from silence to exuberance. When the correct aesthetic choice is made, that final visual interpretation can astound, viewer by viewer.
Note: As always I welcome comments about this post or any part of my blog.