Where Have All the Black-and-Whites Gone?

This is not really an obituary--not yet, anyway.

More in the way of an elegy, perhaps, a wistful and wishful lament for the dwindling away of the black-and-white photograph from our eyes' daily menu.

Museums are chockablock with them. The Getty Center has a hefty collection, as does New York's Museum of Modern Art. There are reverent and scholarly exhibitions of the chiaroscuro work of f-stop Michelangelos such as Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.

But on the proletarians' landscape--the news rack or the doorstep--the black-and-white photograph, which for some 100 years delivered to the nation the images of its wars and disasters and triumphs, has all but vanished. Newsmagazines and newspapers have practically abandoned black-and-white photography on covers and front pages. In their place is a distracting carnival of color, a photo-kaleidoscope that tarts up tragedy like garish ornaments on a dead Christmas tree.

Not being privy to publishing marketers' thinking, I can only surmise that it must go something like this: We live in a video age and a TV generation. Black-and-white looks old-fashioned or artsy. Our competition is television, and our readers want its razzle-dazzle immediacy and realism.

The grotesque dissonance of color photography and solemnity struck me a few years ago, looking at photos of the carnage of Oklahoma City. The enormity of the horror was diminished by its prettifying palette. The images from Kosovo reinforced that--the stark impact of a field of corpses was muted by the cheery hues of clothes and landscape.

When I gave it some thought, I couldn't recall a single color news photo that has endured in my mind and memory the way that the happenstance art of black-and-whites have--art that could be had for the price of a newspaper.

--Mathew Brady's classic images of Civil War battlefield corpses--no blue, no gray, in other words, no side or cause, just death.

--The deathless photograph "Migrant Mother," the face of the woman in 1936 Nipomo, Calif. In black and white, a study of stoic suffering. In color, I imagine, a jarring cartoon.

--The Vietnam War photo of a Vietnamese girl running naked down a road, screaming, after a napalm strike . . . the World War II photo of Marines hoisting the flag on Mt. Suribachi in Iwo Jima.

--The shot of the nameless soldier in the Spanish Civil War, taken at the moment the soldier took a fatal bullet, a pure silhouette of a man in the last instant of life . . . and the snuck photo of the electrocution of murderer Ruth Snyder, the voltage-jarred, haunting reality of judicial death.

--Bobby Kennedy, on the Ambassador Hotel kitchen floor, his face haloed in light, his body sinking in darkness . . . and student Jeffrey Miller, shot dead by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, a teenage girl alongside him on her knees, arms outspread, keening to the sky.


It is all but forgotten now that for a quarter of a century, the Academy Awards, hovering between two technologies, gave honors in several categories for black-and-white and for color. The first year it split the awards, for achievements such as cinematography, was ironically in 1939, the year of "The Wizard of Oz"--the film rendered partly in black and white and partly in vivid new color.

In 1957, when black-and-white films were disappearing, the categories merged again for a year; color was king, and black-and-white was becoming the boutique medium of foreign films, Woody Allen and a few others. Peter Bogdanovich remarked severely that compared to his black-and-white "Last Picture Show," color made a desolate Texas town in a later film look "kind of pretty."

Nothing better demonstrated that black-and-white images are not simply an absence of color than the 1939 winners in the two new cinematography categories: for color, "Gone With the Wind," its look as lavish and loud as the Reconstruction Era itself, and "Wuthering Heights," a dreamscape of shadow and mood.


There hangs on my wall a small painting of Yosemite by Ansel Adams' father-in-law, Harry Cassie Best, who had a studio in the matchless valley. It is exquisitely and accurately rendered, of course--that's why I bought it. The colors are ethereal and meticulous, yet Best's brush does not quite capture the splendor and grandeur of Yosemite; that fell to Adams, his camera and his black-and-white eye.

It was Walker Evans, the photographers' photographer, who declared, "Color photography is vulgar." Now, "vulgar" is a little strong, but it reminded me of a tale that still makes me laugh: the sheik whose Beverly Hills mansion featured replicas of classical Greek statuary. The neighbors didn't object to the white marble nakedness; but when the sheik had his statuary painted in realistic, even garish, color, genitalia and all, an outcry arose. Somehow, the house just happened to burn down, polychrome statues and all.


Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison @latimes.com

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World