Photo Essay

India in Black-and-White

A Man and His Dog

"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 the 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—every one 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.

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