by Lilly Schwartz
For years I used to say that my brain works mostly in monochrome. Then one day I decided to go to a Joel Meyerowitz retrospective and as I stood open-mouthed in front of stunning dye transfer prints and large colour prints behind acrylic I suddenly felt reminded of that day when my parents bought their first colour television set. It was as if I finally found a hidden switch that activated the colour mode of my brain. Suddenly I saw colour everywhere when before I only saw tonality, structure, light and shade.
Walking out into the real world again after leaving the exhibition I stumbled into a beautiful picture postcard sunset, dazzled and confused by all that unbelievably rich colour in Meyerowitz’ Cape Light prints. My brain was on the fritz, naturally there was only black and white film in my bag and I found myself grabbing the only thing I had capable of producing colour: A digital camera that I used to carry for backup when I still had less confidence in my film work. When I came home that night, and looked at my all too digital sunset pictures it was as if something snapped. It was probably the moment when I decided to drop digital altogether. No matter what they say, digital colour just doesn’t look right. The more I tweaked that sunset, the less I could envision what kind of colours I even wanted to get, since they just didn’t seem part of the possible spectrum of digital photography. Whatever happened to my brain when I stood in front of those wonderful Cape Light prints, just didn’t happen when I looked at the flat digital images on my screen. Frustrated I gave up.
My frustration resulted in a decision that has tormented me ever since: I wanted to shoot 6x6 in colour, preferably on slide film. Obviously this was an impossible task for a black and white photographer, but still, I bravely made my way down the rabbit hole that would hopefully one day lead to some rather psychedelic Alice in Wonderland colour experiences.
I started by buying and shooting a brick of cheap Fuji drugstore film and developing my first batch of C41 film in the sink with Tetenal C41 chemicals. The results were so unbelievably unspectacular that it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Apparently my typical style of street shooting just doesn’t work in colour. To produce meaningful colour street pictures, the colour must serve a function and preferably the result is very focused on the purely visual aspects of the picture. Since I shoot with a narrative in mind, I tend to ignore colour. In 99.999% of my street pictures colour has no place whatsoever.
Only after confronting my discomfort head on and shooting an entire 50+ roll trip on colour film did I finally start making sense of it and I could see which street pictures work in colour and why. I came to realize that shooting colour generally doesn’t make sense for me in most situations, because the few times that I actually keep the colour don’t warrant the added hassle of colour development. Unless I travel to a place that is inherently more colourful than the average European city, my street work still happens in black and white 95% of the time.
This actually also mirrors the experience I had when I was walking through that Meyerowitz exhibition which had switched my brain to colour mode: Although I’m primarily a street photographer it wasn’t Meyerowitz’ colour street photography that impressed me the most, it was actually his large format work.
The difference lies in how the colour is used in the pictures. Black and white pictures of street scenes often seem out of the ordinary already by taking away the colour. In black and white only the content matters and the form is secondary, unless there are stark contrasts, structures or geometry to grab the attention of the viewer. A colour picture of a similar scene will usually seem more ordinary and the colour distracts from the content rather than that it elevates it. The only street pictures where colour works is where the colour becomes the focus or a facilitator of the story. A summer mood, a visual pun of colour repetition, a certain cinematic aura, all can be added with the use of colour. If that special mood is missing though, colour breaks the magic rather than to enhance it. In some of Meyerowitz’ street photography in colour that special mood or primary focus on colour is definitely missing, which is why I prefer his early black and white street work.
The way in which Meyerowitz used colour in his Cape Light series is much more extreme and this is why it impressed me so much more. The work focuses precisely on those rare moments, when colour and light come together to create a perfect moment. The colour seems otherworldly and beyond anything that the real world has to offer most of the time. When I imagine Meyerowitz working on the series I imagine him standing in a spot for a long time to wait for the perfect light to take the shot. A lot of thought must have gone also into the perfect composition. These pictures focus much more on form than any street picture should. What’s especially striking is that the actual content – maybe a swimming pool or a few houses – isn’t actually what these pictures are about at all. It’s the light that falls on the houses or the swimming pool. Colour doesn’t just facilitate anymore, it becomes the content itself.
For me as someone who has primarily focused on narrative, such an approach to picture taking is a step into a completely different direction. Shooting with a focus on form rather than content is the exact opposite of what I used to do before, which is why I was so disappointed with my first attempts to integrate colour into my workflow. I needed to shift my way of seeing and this obviously can be very difficult.
It wasn’t the only difficulty I faced shooting colour though. It also took me quite a while to get consistent results in development. Colour film is actually much easier to develop than everyone thinks. However, I made the mistake of buying some chemicals that weren’t meant for hand processing and therefore ran into problems. If you’re planning to develop your own C41 film in the sink, do yourself a favour and stick with the Tetenal kits!
What happened with my slide film goal though? Well, not long after my first few bricks of C41 film I already wanted to tackle slide film in medium format. I purchased a couple of pro packs of slide film along with a good handheld light meter and a batch of Tetenal E6 chemicals. However, I only got around to developing the film after more than a year. I shot and developed more than 150 rolls of C41 film in the meantime, bought a Jobo CPE-2 to solve my development woes and figured out where colour fits into my regular practice. I wasn’t actually afraid of developing the slide film – it really isn’t any different than developing C41 film. The problem was that I just don’t shoot that much low ISO film and therefore I struggled to integrate the slide film into my shooting habits. In the end it took me all that time to collect enough slide film to warrant mixing up the E6 kit!
The result of my journey into super saturated Velvia land is displayed alongside with these musings. As you can see, there are barely any street pictures included, not only for the above mentioned reasons but also because Velvia tends to give people a distinctly Martian sunburn and I haven’t developed most of the rolls shot on Provia 100F yet. Tetenal now only sell bigger kits that are enough for 30 rolls of slide film. Considering that it took me more than a year to collect 12 rolls, I will probably have to wait quite a while before I can see more results.
Of course there were a few failures in this first batch that resulted from my own inexperience. There were plenty of examples showing off the Martian sunburn and a rather horrible looking roll of Rollei CR200 where I didn’t like the colours at all. Turns out that this film stock was originally meant for aerial photography and has way too much yellow to counter the blue of the atmosphere. Apparently it does better cross-processed in C41 chemicals, but I haven’t tried this yet.
In general I was blown away by the results of my experimentation though. Just looking at a bunch of 6x6 slides on a light table is an experience! The scans don’t really do the slides justice, but still show you a taste of what lovely colours slide film has to offer.
Yes, shooting colour when you are a black and white photographer can be an extremely frustrating experience and I had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how colour fits into my practice. I also had to resolve quite a number of technical problems with the colour development before I could expect reliable results. However, I believe it was all worth it, because it expanded my horizon! It taught me a different way of seeing and how to switch my brain from black and white to colour mode as fast as I change the roll in my camera. My world has become richer thanks to these experiments and I have learned a lot in the process. If you shoot primarily black and white, I would definitely encourage you to take up colour as well, even if it’s just to expand your horizon a little.
By the way, I also encourage every colour photographer to tackle black and white. Go look for that secret switch on your brain and start experimenting! It won’t be easy and at times you will feel like giving up, but if you stick with it, then it will open up a whole new world to you.
Lilly Schwartz is a documentary photographer based in San Sebastián, Spain. She has a broad interdisciplinary background in Cultural Studies, Philosophy and Robotics, and enjoys the whole range of film photography, from the perfectly developed negative to the serendipitous accident. You can learn more about her and see more of her work at www.lillyschwartz.com