Saturday, December 8, 2012

In Living Black-and-White

Consider the glories of classic Hollywood in black-and-white.

I'm going out on a limb to say the the greatest lighting and photography in the history of motion pictures was put on film before the advent of color.  Look at the picture of Alan Ladd above.  Not only is it brilliantly lighted, composed, and shot, but it also tells you every single thing you'd need to know if you're trying to  decide whether to see that movie.

To find color motion pictures that compete in terms of image quality, you really have to ransack the catalogue.  David Lean's movies, especially "Lawrence of Arabia" (but that's no better pictorially than his "Great Expectations" in black-and-white), Rueben Mamoulian's musicals, and (obviously) a bunch of others.

Gloria "We had faces then" Swanson in "Queen Kelly"

But--and here's part of the point--films where the color photography really stands out tend to be "big" pictures.  In the days of black and white, they created miracle images on a daily basis for B pictures.  In some cases (film noir, for example) some of the most creative lighting was designed to hide the fact that there was barely enough budget to dress the set.

The same held for portraits.  What mattered was the picture, not the importance of the subject.  Anna May Wong, the first major Asian-American film actress, was never really a star.  But the most creative still photographers of the 1920s could not stop pointing their cameras at her, and I think you could argue that she was one of the best-photographed of them all.

Look at the composition, look at the light.  I mean, come on.

Why was black and white so great?  I think it's mostly because they didn't have color.

Max Reinhhardt's "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

I don't mean that in a flip way.  What they had to draw the eye, identify the star, set the mood, and hold the audience were light, shadow, and movement.  In color you have a million variables, whole color themes, hues with emotional value, color contrasts that make it impossible to look at anything other than what the colors say.

In black and white, they had light, shadow, and movement.  At the beginning, they didn't even have dialogue.  From the '20s into the mid-'40s, every film had directors, lighting directors and camera operators who had worked in silents.  They knew how many things a single shot had to do to be worth shooting; it had to please the audience, tell them where to look, show them who was important, convey the mood, clarify relationships, further the story.

Is there anything important you don't know about the couple in this shot from "Citizen Kane"?

Orson Welles famously said that black and white was an historical accident--that if color had been invented first, we never would have bothered with black and white; it would have been too abstract.  We only grew to like it because we were forced to get used to it--it was all we had.

But he went back to B&W over and over again.  And I think there's something for artists of all kinds, writers included, to be drawn from the best of black and white.  Every element in your picture/paragraph/poem has to pull its weight -- draw the eye, set the mood, show the reader where to focus, further the story.  Every element.

As long as this piece is, I could do four more that are all pictures.  I love these images.

Tim -- Sundays


  1. Tim and Jeff, I met you both at Bouchercon. Great blog site. I'm hooked! Janet

    1. I'm sure Tim joins me thanking you Ray and/or Janet:) Hope to see you next year in Albany (at Bouchercon) if not before.

      And, Tim, my whole life is in black in white at the moment as B has taken to working solely in charcoal. Arrghh.


  2. So... is there a proper analogy in writing? Not just style (ie, Hammond and Chandler vs. Poe and Doyle and Christie), but a substantial difference where the 'technology' affects the focus and telling of the story (whatever analog there might be for 'technology' in writing).

    I suppose one analogy would be the shift from manual typewriters to, first electric, but more importantly to computers. When manual typewriters were de rigueur most novels were about 60,000 words and 90,000 was a blockbuster mammoth of a novel. Especially with the advent of computers, novels have bloated to 200,000 and 300,000 words and far larger. While some of these much-bigger books take advantage of the space to become far more intricate or sweeping or name-your-favorite-adjective, far too many of them are just poorly written and/or poorly edited. When you had to re-PUNCH each key of that physical mechanism, finger-by-finger, letter-by-letter, the writer tended to be much more focused and TIGHT with words, it seems.

    Food for thought, anyway. Thanks, Tim!

  3. Thank you for explaining why black and white movies strike me as so hypnotic. They truly draw me in, and when I catch a movie on TCM, I just want to sit down and watch. Very nice blog.