When the digital tsunami overwhelmed the world of picture-taking in the mid-2000s, I bought various digital camera and used them for color work. However, I continued to take black and white film photographs. In particular, I slowly used my stash of Kodak Panatomic-X in medium format cameras. To me, the traditional silver gelatin photon-capture technology just looked better and more authentic for the my type of urban decay photography. I became re-familiar with an old friend, Tri-X, using it in Burma and Cuba. In the last couple of years, I have been using film almost exclusively.
Starting in 2017, I tried color negative film again after a gap of many years. This was in response to some scenes which jumped out and said, “I am in color!” So far, I have primarily used Kodak Ektar 100 but also some long-expired Ektar 25 in 120 size. The results have been very satisfactory. Sure, it is not as “perfect” as digital, does not have the dynamic range, giga-pixels, or all the other statistics, but so what? But then we have the photographer’s dilemma: when is it better to record a scene in color or in monochrome? Should I always emphasize forms and textures and record in monochrome? Is the color data sometimes such an important part of the scene, I should embrace it it? Here is an impromptu experiment to compare color with black and white of the same scenes. I will not say which I prefer in these examples, but comments or criticisms from readers are most welcome.
This is the now-unused railroad station in Corinth, Greece. The old 1-meter rail line from Athens to the Peloponnese has been closed and partly replaced by the new Athens Suburban Railroad. The new train uses a different right-of-way, so the old rail yard sits unused, slowly being covered with grass.
This was a brilliant sunny day, and the Greek sun makes any site cheerful. I took digital images here in 2011 on a gloomier day.
Romania is full of interesting old fortified churches. This one is in Viscri, a traditional village north of the Transylvanian Alps. You can climb several sets of steep steps to access the guard balcony in the steeple. In the example below, one photograph is 24mm while the other 35mm, so the comparison is not quite the same.
I looked through my files and found two 4×5″ frames of a long-abandoned restaurant on Highway US 80 near Vicksburg, Mississippi. In its prime, the sign must have been quite spectacular, blazing with hundreds of incandescent light bulbs and neon lettering.
South of Vicksburg, an abandoned rubber reclaiming factory sits at the end of appropriately-named Rubber Way. Mountains of tires and inner tubes are lying on the ground. The mosquito habitat must be horrible in summer. It is probably good snake habitat, as well, and by now, some alligators may have moved into the ponds. (For you non-Southerners, this is not a big deal. We have alligators in almost all water bodies; they are rather cute, but just don’t mess with them.) The comparison below is from different focal length lenses, so the coverage is slightly different, but I hope the ambience (dead factory ambience?) comes through.
I passed an interesting little restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Here, the only color image in my files was a digital frame from a Fujifilm X-E1, but the monochrome was from Kodak BW400CN film. Santa Fe during the monsoon (mid-summer) can have spectacular skies.
The mannequins in Kathmandu are very interesting. Most resemble European ladies with 1960s hair styles. My anthropologist friend said they look like European ladies because they were European – recycled from the fashion and department store industry. But there are so many in Kathmandu, I suspect most now are mass-produced in India, complete with these interesting hair fashions. Without further ado, here are some of these lovelies.
Dear readers, I cannot make up my mind. In some locations, the colors jump up and say, “Photograph me!” But in others, monochrome helps me concentrate on the textures and shapes.
Maybe I should use both media, the best of two worlds. From a purely technical point of view, with 135 film, I can pack an extra camera body; they usually are small enough. With medium format, I could buy a second back for my Hasselblad. With 4×5″, the film holders are reasonably compact and easy to switch when the camera is on a tripod.
Robin Wong, a photographer in Malaysia, recently wrote some thoughts on monochrome. He wrote, “I find it liberating to strip all colors away and go straight to the core of the image – the idea, the message or the emotion.” Well-expressed, indeed… but most likely I will continue to experiment and use both media.
You can keep track of my photographic wanderings at Urban Decay. Thank you all for reading.
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