Updated: Apr 20, 2020
It’s pretty well documented that I’m an art book hoarder in the many articles that have been inspired by what I’m currently reading and one of my current obsessions has been war photo books. I’ve been into war photos, particularly from World War II and before, because it’s an extremely pure form of photography. There’s no fluff, photos taken purely for the documentation of an event are an art totally separate of photography as we know it today. For centuries stories were told through word of mouth or through drawn image, but those stories all fall victim to individual interpretation and are often skewed by the storyteller in some way. Yet, once photo arose there was suddenly a pure and direct form of documentation of events. Early photography was simple, frame the shot to tell the story and that story alone did what it needed to do.
I’ve always been one to call out modern photography as being really overproduced but it was when I flipped through one of my current favorite photo books, Blitzkrieg by Robert Warnick and the editors of Time-Life Books, that I noticed something really odd about old photos. This book is all about World War II, so the photos are from the 30’s and 40’s which means they’re in black and white. But there’s a section of colorized photos that made me realize why historical shots in black and white seem so jarring and why color photography is so much harder to get a point across; we (the viewer) relate colors to certain emotions.
Black and white photos eliminate any outside influence, it’s an inherently emotional style of photography. Especially as we understand it today, when we see an image in black and white we know that each element is important and without colors creating focal points we take in everything and decipher from there. Color takes control of how the image tells the story, if it’s meant to be a harsh one, then bright colors can take away from that heaviness. This is what I noticed in the colorized shots of World War II images, scenes of destruction and damage in black and white are gut wrenching but in the colorized shots, since there was limited photo equipment, we realize that a lot of the images of destruction and death were taken on really nice days. It’s hard for me to take in the carnage of a post-battle city when the sky is clear pale blue and the sun reflects a warm orange off of the buildings. Deep down I know that this image is supposed to be a scary reality of what war is, but my mind immediately creates a connection to these colors that inspires nice feelings. That’s why black and white photography is easier to convey that message, the image can be taken on the clearest, nicest day but since that color influence will be eliminated that pure reaction to what’s in the image is all that occurs.
So maybe modern photography isn’t overproduced, it’s just more challenging. To truly convey the emotion of a scene in an image, the photographer must manipulate the elements we as viewers recognize as good. It’s easy for a painter to alter something like that, they look at the scene on a nice day, they just make the sky a little gloomier, but a photographer has to find a way to work around what they have and not lose their image. The more I look at the ins and outs of photography the more I’m fascinated by the techniques of photographers and this is an element that I’d like to study more, across more subjects.
Is black and white photography easier to inspire emotion? Does that make it a cop-out?
Is color manipulation of a scene overproducing? Or is that telling the story more effectively?
These are questions that I’d love to explore more across different methods of photography and while I don’t think the answers will be so black and white (see what I did there?), I think it could give us more insight.