Belize is all about the colors. So, why shoot it in black and white?

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This was the view from the deck of Island Tackle Bar & Grill in San Pedro on Sept. 23, 2016. I felt a cold chill on my neck and turned around to see this “monster” moving across the island toward the reef. Even in color, it is the dark aspects to which your eye is drawn. Is this the end of time. All else below is fragility. I tried another version of black and white that seems even more menacing. I will post it at the bottom of this blog post.

If God wanted Belize to be a black and white photo, he would have called it Lower Manhattan.

If ever a country was born to serve up every smudge in the global color palette, it is Belize. Even during an overcast day, Belize pops with colors unlike any you will encounter elsewhere in the world. Clearly, a special light is cast over the country.

Especially here on Ambergris Caye.

So, what’s with all the black and white photography?

This image is also a favorite. Black and white took it from bird of paradise cliche to something abstract and unknowable. The shadows and light invite you deeper into the mystery. The photo was taken in Merida at the beautiful Casa dos Lirios bed-and-breakfast retreat of friends Steve and Sue Blair.

I’m just as culpable as the next person. I, too, succumbed to the “seven black-and-white photos in seven days” challenge. By now you surely must have been tapped by someone to post seven black and white photos. Oh, and you can’t add context or skew the impression of viewers in any way. The images and the viewers must engage in a pure, unfiltered, raw experience.

I had my doubts. But I did it anyway. And I think I learned a thing or two about actually seeing what is before me.

I think the term for it is “fresh eyes.”

This one became one of my favorites in black and white, mainly because the change from color was most dramatic. I come here often, mostly to keep Moppit from hoovering up all the left over fishing bait. It is her go-to spot when we walk. She has a thing for sun-dried anchovies. I think the many textures and shapes here really pop when color is removed. And hidden qualities emerge. What do you think.

Upon turning 50 years old, writer Christine Denker dedicated the entire year ahead to only black and white photography.

Why?

“When I look at color photos,” she writes in Art + Marketing, “there is so much to see that often the details get lost.” When she filters out the color, Denker says, “suddenly I see the essence of what is there.”

This is an old image from the municipal wharf in downtown San Pedro. I have long appreciated it in color. Not sure yet whether black and white brings anything to the table, except more outrage from people who see this as some kind of assault on the environment, rather than the livelihood of humble fishermen.

Denker is using the filtering out of color as a metaphor for her life intentions after turning 50 — filter out distractions, simplify life, focus intensely on the small details, being in the moment.

“When I look at the color filtered out, I’m left with something rich, detailed, and eye-catching,” she says. “It’s simple. I slow down. And I really look. I see it almost as if I’m viewing it for the first time. Fresh eyes. And it is magnificent.”

I imagine that many people who took the seven-day challenge experienced some of what Denker is expressing here.

I made it more complicated for myself. To come up with seven black and white photos, I decided that they had to be at least as interesting as their full-color versions. If not more interesting. I rejected many, many images in pursuit of “simplification.”

The color is subtle in this image from a decaying old resort/cult center in north Ambergris Caye. The whole place is a treasure trove of decaying structures, blighted statuary, mystical motifs and haunted hollows. A photographer’s dream, especially in black and white.

In some cases, I think that worked.

I also found myself experimenting with the kind of black and white that might work best with individual images. Simply filtering out color, or pressing any one of several instant variations in a photoshop program isn’t enough. Between black and white, there are at least fifty shades of gray. Striking the right balance can elicit unanticipated emotions from a viewer.

I took one photo of a particularly trashy spot where locals love to fish; Caribbean plastic floats in by the ton; and barges offload the steel, sand, and concrete blocks that are heroin to the local building boom. Not an especially pretty location. Until it turns black and white. Then the exquisite lines of crumbling seawalls, dappled sunlight on the water, shifting textures of the ground, and evidence of previous lives come into focus.

Well, for me anyway.

Ever read Mario Vargas Llosa’s “The Green House”? This black and why has all the elements of the disorienting decay embodies in this novel. Sadly, this was once a popular restaurant up north, The Capricorn. You can see nature reclaiming it, piece by piece. Black and white reveals the atrophy. Color disguises it.

One reason I ventured into black and white was — well, three reasons, actually — three photographers whose non-color work I admire greatly. Karen Brody is a San Pedro photographer who excels at black and white portraits of San Pedranos. Even her portraits of people I know feel like I am seeing them for the first time. I find myself staring into these faces, reading stories into every careworn line and wrinkle, admiring the strength and pain and history in those eyes.

The other two are colleagues from the newspaper industry whose works I have admired for decades, Michael Franklin and Jerry Rife. Both shoot dramatic images in color but both are keen professionals who know when black and white will elevate a photo to the next level. Both of them capture emotion when they shoot. Mike spent some years exploring the soul of Havana and China before that, and now lives in Colorado. I feel that I learn something new from each place and every photo that he publishes, especially when he goes to black and white.

Jerry is known well around San Miguel de Allende in Mexico for his rusticated straw hat and ever-present camera. His color images are always stunning in a city that seems built of color, but when he goes to black and white you never doubt his decision. Your own emotional response shows you immediately why he made the choice.

Photographing clouds have become a favorite thing for me, perhaps because the opportunities are limitless and the canvas is so large here. Sometimes a shift to black and white can dramatically shift the mood, unveil menace not noticed earlier.

When I published my own photos in black and white, some got a strong reaction, some didn’t. Which, in retrospect is probably just right. This is, after all, an experiment. Failure is a powerful teacher.

Not all of my photos came from Ambergris Caye. A few were from the gorgeous Yucatan city of Merida, where even decay and graffiti have a certain artistry.

What I’ve done here may be heretical, but I’ve cast some of my black and white contributions side-by-side with their full-color genesis. I’m not sure why. Maybe this is taking the black-and-white challenge to a next level.

Here is a case of black and white time travel, to me. In color, this is good old Boca del Rio with its bars and boats and lumpy sandy street. In black and white, it is a trip back to the 1960’s.

I personally don’t like seeing pictures on Facebook that lack context. People who post with no caption are as bad as people who post things like “Oh, god, this has been one of those days” or “Feeling beaten down.” I call that negative engagement. You are supposed to plead for more information, against your stronger instincts. But that is another blog post, isn’t it?

One final reason to celebrate this challenge, personally: For the longest time I feel like I have stopped seeing the beauty that is around me. I can go out for long walks with Moppit and come back with not a single photograph.  Trying to see the world around me differently, trying to see the world for what it isn’t which is black and white,  has reawakened my awareness to what it is.

And I like it again. A lot.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.Perhaps if the wood had more texture, the black and white would have popped with some depth. As it is, I prefer the color version if only because of the one tiny splotch of red buried near the center of the pile. The pallets were piled behind a five-story building going up here on the north side of the island, a first for the Tres Cocos area.

 

Did you take the seven-day, seven black-and-white pictures challenge? What did it do for you? Any insights? Did you shoot any images directly in black-and-white mode, or did you ‘drain the color” later? Share your experiences in the comments section below! Thanks!

My preferred image editor is PicMonkey. The free version gives you seemingly endless ways to manipulate or improve upon a picture. To open access to the entire program is ridiculously inexpensive. Anyway, this picture. A B&W option called “Holga” adds dark ting around the edges and pumps up the light in the center. Remarkable and menacing mood shift from simply draining the color, I think.

 

 

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One thought on “Belize is all about the colors. So, why shoot it in black and white?

    Karley York said:
    November 23, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I concur. There is a time and place for B&W. (Citizen Kane? Mapplethorpe?) The island sings with color. No conceptual trick photography needed. Point, snap, and Wah Lah👌 And for the record: I could NOT handle Mapplethorpe in color. hahah

    Like

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