My oldest daughter, herself a talented artist liking in the UK, challenged me this week to take part in a Facebook game, the “5-day black and white challenge.”
I don’t do a lot of Facebook challenges. I get very annoyed with people who come off as narrow-minded and smug in the virtual world by posting a meme with some message that is both self-serving and in-you-face rude at the same time, such as a picture of a kid saluting Old Glory, and a caption like: “Let’s see who among my friends loves America. Post this photo if you do. I bet 90 percent of you won’t.”
Count me among the 90 percent, the America haters, “friend.” I don’t feel the need to wear my patriotism or my heart on my virtual sleeve—yes, I know, that’s slightly contradictory for man who engaged in the self-revelatory form of writing known as blogging, but there’s a difference between an 800-word essay in which I try to make a point and a meme which is worn like a badge of self-honor. One can be thoughtful (you be the judge) the other is too often inane or simplifies complicated things.
But, what my daughter was doing was different. She wasn’t asking me to endorse a country or religion or political point of view by reposting the Party Line graphic of the day, she was indulging in a bit of artistic internet whimsy.
And there’s something cool and retro chic about the challenge.
I’m sure I held a camera before 1979 or so, but I’m sure I was pretty bad at whatever images I took before then. That fall, I enrolled in a photography course at Muscatine Community College, and I purchased a 35 mm Minolta camera for that class.
And I loved the class. It could be frustrating—many images were ruined in the darkroom. You had to, in total darkness, unload your camera and load the film onto a metal or plastic reel and then place said reel in a sealed container. Next, you could turn on the lights and pour chemicals through a baffle in the lid, gently agitating the container for certain periods of time, banging it gently on the countertop to dislodge any bubbles, and then pouring the developer out, rinsing the film once, adding another chemical to stop the developing and fix the image. After another rinse, the canister was opened and the film, now photographic negatives, would be hung on a string to dry.
The process was fraught with risk. The time of the developing had to be right, as did the temperature of the chemicals used, or the film would be under or over developed. And if you made an error when rolling the film onto the developing reel in step one, the film would “touch” and several frames would be irreparably ruined.
And the results were in black and white and had to be printed—remember the long line of trays? Back in the day, you could buy and develop color film, but it was touchier and more expensive and most newspaper photography was in black and white, so a 101 journalism photo course would be san color.
So the Facebook challenge took me back to my photographic roots, in a way.
And it was a reminder of the charms of photographs in shades of grey rather than in hues of color.
Color in an image is beautiful, don’t get me wrong. My blog is full of color photos of my gardens each spring and summer, and certainly we love flowers mostly for their color.
But the world has shape and form and texture, too—and those shapes, forms and textures pop out when a photograph is black and white.
I don’t know where the Facebook challenge came from. I Googled the term, and found that USA Today had issued its readers such a challenge in November, but I also found other examples from before that, so USA Today was using an existing idea.
In some of the challenges, you are to take a black and white photo each day, but in the simpler version that my daughter issued to me, you simply post one black and white image per day for five days.
I had fun with it. I hope to recall the lesson and use black and white a bit more. Black and white images are classy and timeless, they seem “quiet” compared to color, and reveal a world with features you don’t tune into when you’re distracted by pretty colors.
Photographers, real photographer who aren’t amateurs like me, don’t “take” pictures. They usually say that they “make” them. I, too often, am lazy and simply take pictures, but I have made a few. And some of those look best in black and white.
And now I long for the distinctive smell of fixer and the excitement of looking at a contact sheet.