Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"B&W to Color Imaging Transition"

I recently ordered some historical DVD's of material from the 1930-1955 time frame, and the color material is fascinating to watch. The type of material I grew up seeing from that era tended to be (nearly always was) in black & white, and so the border between what looked like the "black & white era" and color seemed to fall right between my generation and the generation proceeding mine. But switch that older material to color, and add in the new factor that a lot of it was taken with privately owned small cameras loaded with color film (that had been sleeping in closets for decades - only recently becoming publicly available), and the double... not punch... the doubly strong effect of a more personal viewpoint combined with color, suddenly brought those black & white people from the past into the color world of the present. I felt I could probably step through a time machine and get along with the individuals with no problem at all. (Many black & white newsreels taken by professionals from previous eras seem otherworldly and out of reach in time & viewpoint, and... factor-X!)

This makes me wonder if there would have been less of a generation gap in the sixties if those children of Technicolor realized that their parents hadn't inhabited a black & white world in the past, but had actually lived among color as vibrant as at any time. Naturally there were far larger causes for the rift of the day, but the pictures representing the young period of those who came before me being mostly black & white didn't help. They had the effect of making the past look boring and - figuratively and literally - gray. With my own pictures, when I've taken things in black & white and I know what the scene looked like in color, still it's hard to imagine the scene in color when looking at the black & white print - even though it is something I saw in color with my own eyes. "Seeing is believing" even if it's an illusion?

Speaking of black & white film. My first several years of photography were mainly with black and white film for financial reasons. Color film was a bit more expensive than B&W and processing was a lot more expensive, so color was saved for special occasions. In San Francisco I also liked the effect of black & white, but still there was that financial thing hanging over me. If color had been the same cost, I'm sure I would have done some things at least in color.

The other thing that was a constant barrier to just doing what I would have liked to do, was the limitation of typically going out with three rolls of 36-exposure film, so once my 111 pictures (I always got 37 pictures per 36-exposure roll of film) were taken, I had to stop for the day. I drooled when I read about 300-exposure film packs, and then, when I finally got my mitts on a digital camera with a large memory card, it was as though I'd found a genie in a bottle who had granted me unlimited photo-taking ability. It's great to be able to get going in the morning on a photo-acquisition day, and be able to take around 1,500 pictures in a single day.

And so now - when I see people who have never experienced the day when black & white was the cheap film and almost no-one used it instead of color because they wanted to; and film is seen as artistic, instead of a limitation to free image making... I half shake my head and half reassess the advantages of black and white film taken with an old camera. The main advantage is just that you try harder with each individual image with film and then place a higher value on any given image (double exposures and some other technical things can also be nice). But if I assign a percentage to which I prefer - analog photography or digital photography, I would say 99 for digital and 1 for film (if that). For the film enthusiasts, I would say do whatever you like, but I have a difficult time sharing your enthusiasm for chemical photography. To use an expression I generally despise - "Been there - done that".

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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