“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” —Edgar Degas
I think black and white is the best choice for my photographic palette. The process by which I came to this conclusion—that removing color was the right path for me—is the result a lot of trial and error with printing, shooting and developing images both new and old, and through a lot of tedious struggling to reconnect with my work after a bad case of photographic writer’s block.
Naturally, black and white isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone. I’m not one who subscribes to the idea that one tool or palette or technique in photography is the right one versus the wrong one. I think it depends on many things. A set of tools, palettes or techniques are simply a means to an end, which is subject to the goals and aspirations of the individual photographer.
I make this distinction because although black and white is working for me, I’m not suggesting your creativity will flow by simply turning color off. In fact, I can safely say my move to black and white was a byproduct of a lot of fighting through a photographic block by way of much self-reflection. I spent a lot of time paying attention to the kind of photos I have been making and struggled to have clearer intention about the kind of images I want to create. I pondered things like: “What am I trying to say with my work? What is my work about, and are the techniques and palettes I use effectively working to support these ideas?” I’ll try my best to explain what I’ve figured out, but as I said, black and white emerged as a byproduct of this process.
One way I like to think of photos is that they are an abbreviation of an idea or an experience, and my images mostly come from working with, or in, our oceans. I have always loved ocean habitats, and I feel privileged to have been able to take my camera underwater for most of my career. When I house my Nikon in a waterproof, pressure-proof box (more expensive than the camera itself), put on my wet- or drysuit and my mask and fins, I get the privilege of diving into another world that goes beyond sight—it’s an environment that intensely envelops all of one’s senses.
A diver’s body is under pressure from the water, harnessed to a self-contained breathing apparatus, seeing things with less light and with almost all color removed, and through a mask narrowing one’s peripheral vision. Sounds can be more intense, and divers feel loud noises with their body almost as much as they hear them. It’s an alien feeling, going beyond sight, and, boy, is it fun. With that said, a two-dimensional photograph is a crude tool for translating such a multi-sensory experience.
For a more terrestrial example, if you were to take one of Ansel Adams’ iconic images of Yosemite, such as El Capitan, even with his masterful ability to interpret what he saw and felt, the final print was a condensed version of what he experienced while actually being there. The grandness, the smells, the sounds and the feelings we might get by being either in front of a subject or in an alien-like underwater environment is not something I feel I can ever perfectly translate in a photo. And yet, I know it’s my job to do so. My photographs are abbreviations of what I saw and experienced, and color stopped feeling like the right tool to translate that.
Ironically, the ocean is already a relatively monochrome habitat. When diving, everything I see is varied shades of either greens or blues—one color or the other depends typically on how nutrient-rich the water is. Yet, when looking at most underwater photography, the ocean is shown as an intensely colorful place, which is certainly the way I have photographed it historically. This common portrayal is a result of photographers bringing strobes underwater to illuminate critters and landscapes that would otherwise be dark and colorless. I think my issue with this, over time, is that shooting underwater scenes in color revealed something not typically seen but didn’t best translate the experience I was having while diving myself.
Here’s a thought that may help explain this. One of the most wonderful and hypnotic things to see and experience in the ocean is a giant school of fish. More than anything underwater, I get mesmerized when I see thousands of fish rhythmically and cooperatively moving through the water together. There’s something melodic about it; it feels like an organism that’s exhibiting a choreography that no solitary animal could possibly display. A lot of the ocean gives me this feeling—of many things harmoniously being together—which is an experience that has nothing to do with color. In fact, color distracts from it.
Black and white thus helps me best translate the feelings with which the ocean leaves me. Black and white helps me portray the ocean as a place of textures, patterns, shapes, light and dark, subtle tonal gradations and fine details. The ocean is about life and its energy, cooperative and destructive relationships, a deeply mysterious place.