India in Black-and-White

Breakfast in Jaipur by Carey Winfrey

“To see India monochromatically,” Raghubir Singh, the great Indian pioneer of color street photography, told Time magazine in 1999, “is to miss it altogether.” I had never heard of Singh, who died of a heart attack at age 56 (also in 1999), when I first visited India more than forty years ago. But I not only would have understood his dictum, I would have endorsed it wholeheartedly. Returning to the United States after that first trip I remember waxing enthusiastically about the subcontinent’s colors. “Everywhere I pointed a camera,” I told friends, “a photograph begged to be taken.” (Hyperbolic to be sure, but not as much as you might think.)

And when my wife and I spent five weeks in India in 2011, it never occurred to me to shoot anything but color, which I did with abandon and with what I thought at the time was satisfying result; I must confess there were times I even fancied myself a poor man’s, Raghubir Singh.

But as time passed and I reflected on those photographs, I came to see too many of them as merely pretty pictures, colorful yes, but not all that surprising or moving. In fact, many seemed a bit clichéd: too many shots of fruit in markets, women in saris, brightly painted doors on brightly painted houses. Too many indecisive moments. I came to feel I had been seduced by color and used it as a crutch. I’d let color do all the work—with a sacrifice in composition.

 

 

So for our most recent trip to India—three weeks in Rajasthan and the Punjab this past October, I determined to shoot in black and white—not exclusively, I have to admit, but a goodly amount. My decision was motivated by my purchase of a new camera and an exhibition of stunning black-and-white images.

In assessments of the camera, a Fujifilm X100F, many reviewers praised its black-and-white film simulation feature called Acros which, they said, produced rich deep blacks to reminiscent of Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X.

The second motivator was a visit to the Rubin Galley, in lower Manhattan a few weeks prior to departure to see an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s stunning India photographs of 1947— everyone in glorious black-and-white. (I am not so pretentious as to have to have said, or even thought: “If he can do it, so can I.”)

In addition to my X100F, I also carried a Sony RX100, which allowed me to point-and-shoot color when my Fujifilm camera was set to black-and-white.

 

 

So how did it all work out? Shooting black-and-white in India is a challenge, no question about it, and I would have to say that there were more misses than hits. But a successful black-and-white photograph, of which I like to think I took a few, can deliver an impact that color rarely does. Or perhaps I should say that it has a different kind of impact. Additionally, I believe the exercise made me more aware of composition in my color work.

Of course, there were times, and places, where black-and-white made very little sense—the Golden Temple in Amritsar and the Pushkar Camel Fair come to mind,

Of the several thousand photographs I took in 18 days on the ground, I awarded some 150 of them three stars. Of these, about one in four was in black-and-white. Did my composition improve? I would like to think so, though I still have a long way to go. And while I don’t think I missed much of India by shooting monochromatically, as Raghubir Singh once warned, I came away with a keener appreciation of his Time magazine observation from nearly two decades ago.