I am a color photographer. I love vivid, brilliant Technicolor that saturates many of my images almost to the brink of garishness. I love finding color on the street or dowsing a portrait shoot in a rainbow of gels.
That wasn't always the case.
Starting out in photography, I shot mostly in black and white, thinking that it made my work look more “artistic.” It took me time to understand that I was using it as a crutch, turning mediocre photos into a semblance of what I saw in classic photography books. Just as I was coming to this realization, a wise man (who shall not be named) at my MFA program referred to black and white as “art sauce.” Something clicked. I stopped draining my images of color and never looked back. Well, almost never.
Here’s the thing. Black and white photography can be amazing when done with a purpose. It can create a mood, focus the vision, magnify the contrasts. When used correctly, it refers to the history of photography, taking the image out of the here and now and leaving it suspended in time. Some of my favorite photographers shoot in black and white. But quite often, it is done carelessly and solely for the sake of aesthetics. Looking at black and white coverage of modern events, I am often left wondering why the current moment is made to look like historic images — the kind that, ironically, we are so giddy to colorize.
This was my mindset anytime I got asked to do an assignment in black and white. My answer was always a firm, unequivocal no. But when The New York Times Magazine sent me to photograph the women of big wave surfing in Mavericks, a famous beach 25 miles south of San Francisco, I was proven wrong.
The assignment was straightforward but intense. I had to convey the ferocity of two phenomenal athletes, Paige Alms and Bianca Valenti, riding insanely high waves. I had never shot surfing before, nor had I seen a 30-foot wave brush up so close to the small boat I was in.
It was both terrifying and exhilarating. Yet, when I looked over the shots at the hotel, they looked... pretty. The stunning blue of the sea and the sky made everything taking place on the waves feel somehow anodyne and postcard-like. Exasperated, I clicked the black and white filter. The transformation was instant. The waves metamorphosed into a giant rock, hanging ominously above the surfers' heads. By taking away the color, the threatening tension of the moment — as Paige and Bianca gracefully and fearlessly maneuvered through the water — became palpable. Dowsed with the right amount of 'art sauce', I got my shots.
Ironically, the black and white image of Paige Alms became my first cover of a major publication. I was thrilled, of course. But I was also a bit perplexed and began, once more, to re-examine my relationship with monochrome. Though I haven't found a proper occasion to work in black and white since, the door to that possibility remains beguilingly open.
Find me on Instagram @dina_litovsky