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