Friday, May 16, 2008

My arcane habit

My online photo viewing habits have changed pretty radically in the past few years. Five years ago my browsing was through photographers' web sites like this and this. Now it almost entirely through blogs such as this. I check in on a number of blogs through the week, including the ones listed in the right column and maybe 20 others on a more sporadic basis. I hardly ever check on a personal website more than one time. If the traffic to my sites is any indication, the trend away from regular sites and toward blogs is widespread. This blog, which I established just 6 months ago, receives roughly four times the traffic of my regular website which has had six years to generate readership.

There are probably a number of factors effecting this disparity but I think mostly what it comes down to is that the web craves novelty. Since blogs are more regularly updated than photosites, they attract more frequent traffic.

The king of frequently updated blogs has to be Jorg Colberg's Conscientious. Colberg is absolutely prolific, posting anywhere from 2 to 5 times every day. And unlike TOP, another prolific blog, it's only one person writing all the posts. I have no idea where he finds the time. In terms of influence too, Conscientious is right at the top. It has assumed somewhat of a curatorial role for online photography, pointing out worthy sites here and there as well as photo related articles. A mention on Consciencious is an instant vault out of obscurity and into the web's limelight (or, as the case may be, its soft LCD glow).

If Conscientious shows us the pulse of the contemporary fine art photo world, then it is pretty clear that black and white photography is passe. Color has finalized its slow 40 year trek from illegitimate form to complete dominance. A quick browse through the year's posts on Conscientious (2 to 5 posts per day, remember, for 130+ days) yields a scant 4 black and white images (excluding memorializing snapshots), three of which are not even contemporary (Civil Rights mugshots posted 2/6, an old Meatyard image posted 2/8 and an Avedon photo posted 2/11). Only one current image in the past four months, this shot by David Prifti, has been monochrome. That this last image is a wet collodian photograph tells something about b/w's place in the contemporary scene. It is seen of interest historically and to those pursuing arcane methods, but really its time has past. Now that color is just as cheap and easy as b/w, the general attitude seems to be why not shoot it?

As someone who shoots roughly 80% of my photographs in b/w, I find this a bit unsettling although not surprising. By this point I have succumbed to the probability of being permanently marginalized. Still, it wasn't until scrolling through Conscientious posts that I had such a concrete sense of how total was b/w's eclipse.

So why shoot b/w? I'll tell you why I shoot it. Because it injects a level of uncertainty that I can't seem to find using color. I can look through my finder at a scene, compose it, and get a pretty good idea of what the final photo will look like before I press the shutter. Yet when I see the image later, it is invariably different. It has been magically transformed into b/w, often in such a way that the raw structure of the image becomes more visible. If Ansel Adams preached previsualization, I subscribe to its opposite. If you can previsualize something, why photograph it? The whole reason to take the photo is, as Winogrand said, to find out what it looks like photographed.

Seen in this light, I can't help thinking that the general shift to color photography is a sign of some deeper societal shift away from mystery, away from uncertainty, and toward the staged and secure. Culture seems to follow a naturally reversed entropy toward order, dragging along with it all of the arts including, sadly, photography.

6 comments:

Fly on the Wall said...

don't give up the beauty of black and white because one blog is only posting color.

Anonymous said...

You may also notice that as well as blinkers for b&w Conscientious doesn't acknowledge Street Photography in anyway either.

Ben said...

Shoot B/W if that's what you need or want to do. It's like cats and dogs, they are so different, but both lovable.

I only started shooting color because I gave up the darkroom and could not make a decent B/W inkjet print. I hated color. Now that I have learned to "see" in color I like it but I also know that many photographers see color work as superficial, as characterized by the statement: "In color you see the clothes, in B/W you see the face." That's such bullshit. The prejudice runs in both directions.

To me, a color image can be as mysterious as B/W or more in that it is closer to the “thing photographed” but still an abstraction. As another photographer (me) once put it: "The camera always lies...and the more subtle the lie, the better."

I think Diane Arbus said that every picture she took came out better or worse than she thought it would. In my work, that is equally true for color as B/W.

Blake Andrews said...

Thanks for the Arbus quote, Ben. She articulated better than me what I was trying to say, which is that b/w negatives seem generally less predictable than color.

Does anyone out there know if Arbus ever shot color?

J. Karanka said...

Still plenty of good b&w out there, even if Jorg doesn't highlight it. And well, also lots of bad medium format colour portraiture as well :o)

Many times I find that the fact that colour seems to stick more to reality makes it ultimately limiting. I do like colour work, but it's just that it has its space along b&w.

Anonymous said...

I shoot mostly in b&w and also mostly like black and white photography (and am not very fond of some of the stuff Colberg shows (and other work in the Stephen Shore et al school of photographic boredom)). As someone noted above, there are a lot of good work, street photo being one, that Colberg rarely mentions.

This current trend towards colour could be something positive, in that it makes good b&w work stand out.

I was at a Mary Ellen Mark retrospective recently and there were many people there. B&w still has an audience.

Gustav