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Color or black and white?

When it comes to photographs of landscapes, events, family or whatever else, sometimes I ask myself if it would look better in color or black and white. Lately I’m choosing black and white more.

Maybe it’s a function of age. In my early childhood years, almost all pictures were black and white, even our school pictures. A few years ago I was showing some family photos to my oldest granddaughter when she asked, “Did they have color when you were a kid?” My first response was to laugh, but half a second later I realized that was a good question.

About a decade ago, a vintage furniture retailer in downtown Charleston told me he was doing a good business in furniture from the 1960s. He said as people age, they tend to want things that remind them of their youth, and Baby Boomers had a fondness for the 1960s.

I don’t know if that’s true in photography, but I do know there’s something about black and white that appeals to some of us. I’m no expert in the art or science of photography, but I do know that when you strip the color from photographs, you are left with light, shadow and shapes. Those details reduce your image to basics and allow you to enjoy the visual details.

My aforementioned granddaughter has been the subject of some of my favorite photos. Seeing them in color puts them in her time, but when they are converted to black and white, they take on a timeless quality. When she was 4 years old, I bought her a simple blue dress and had her pose on the locomotive at Heritage Station. The pictures were taken in color, but when they were converted to black and white, you might not know what era they were from.

It was the same last fall when I took photos of people working on the steamboat Belle of Louisville while it was in drydock at Gallipolis, Ohio. In black and white, you might not know if those photos were from the 1950s or the 2020s.

The East End Bridge over the Ohio River at Huntington is a product of the 1980s, but it, too, looks good in black and white. In profile, it has one vertical line, one horizontal line and lots of diagonals. Catch it at the right time of day with the right sky in the background, and you can get some nice images.

An attorney of my acquaintance in Oklahoma grew up in the Gallipolis area and worked on the river in his younger years. He believes that all good boat pictures are black and white. I can’t agree with that totally, but he is correct that many boat pictures do look better in black and white.

Most of the photos I take are in color, but more often nowadays I process them in black and white, especially if they are for my own use and are not posted online. My grandkids look good in both, but sometimes black and white catches them at their best.

There’s a place for both color and black and white in my personal portfolio. It depends on what story I need a particular photo to tell. Sometimes black and white just tells a better story.

Jim Ross is development and opinion editor of The Herald-Dispatch. His email is jross@hdmediallc.com. He is on Instagram at instagram.com/jimross90 and Flickr at flickr.com/photos/ohio981/.

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