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Bill Pierce - Leica M photog and author

 

“Our autobiography is written in our contact sheets,  and our opinion of the world in our selects”  

"Never ever confuse sharp with good, or you will end up shaving with an ice cream cone and licking a razor blade."  

 

Bill Pierce is one of the most successful Leica photographers and authors ever. I initially "met" Bill in the wonderful 1973 15th edition Leica Manual (the one with the M5 on the cover). I kept reading and re-reading his four chapters, continually amazed at his knoweldge and ability, thinking "if I only knew a small part of what this guy knows... wow."  I looked foward to his monthly columns in Camera 35 and devoured them like a starving man.  Bill has worked as a photojournalist  for 25 years, keyword: WORK.  Many photogs dream of the professional photographer's  life that Bill has earned and enjoyed.  Probably Bill's most famous pic is Nixon departing the White House for the last time, victory signs still waving. 

 

Bill  has been published in many major magazines, including  Time, Life, Newsweek, U.S. News, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, New York Magazine, Stern, L'Express and Paris Match.  :His published books include  The Leica Manual,  War Torn, Survivors and Victims in the Late 20th Century, Homeless in America,  Human Rights in China,  Children of War.  Add to that numerous exhibitions at major galleries and museums.  Magazine contributions include  Popular Photography,  Camera 35, Leica Manual,  Photo District News, the Encyclopedia of Brittanica, the Digital Journalist, and now RFF.  Major awards include Leica Medal of Excellence, Overseas Press Club's Oliver Rebbot Award for Best Photojournalism from Abroad,  and the World Press Photo's Budapest Award. Perhaps an ever bigger award is Tom Abrahamsson's comment: "If you want to know Rodinal, ask Bill."

 

I met Bill in person through our mutual friend Tom Abrahamsson.  In person his insight and comments are every bit as interesting and engaging as his writing.  He is a great guy who really KNOWS photography.  I am happy to say he has generously agreed to host this forum at RFF  From time to time Bill will bring up topics, but you are also invited to ask questions.  Sit down and enjoy the ride!

 


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An unanswerable question
Old 11-26-2019   #1
Bill Pierce
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An unanswerable question

In the days when film was dominant, photographers often chose between black-and-white and color. After all, once you loaded up with bw or color film, you were committed. If printing your own photographs was important, it was easier to set up a black-and white darkroom. Printing color using dye transfer or even C prints was more complex and with more demanding controls. Even when affordable drum processors and other processes like Cibachrome became available, b&w darkrooms were in the great majority. (But those who committed to a color darkroom rarely turned back to black-and-white.)

Color received its real boost in two different photo worlds - snapshots and published work. Sending your snapshots off to the drug store for processing transitioned from b&w to color. And even printed publications that had limited themselves to black-and-white, like the New York Times and Time Magazine, turned to color when it became obvious that the ability to print color ads was a necessity. Time didn’t become “the colorful newsweekly” because the news was literally colorful. Quite often, if your news picture was on a printed sheath that had color for an ad, your news picture was in color. And even if you shot in color, if you weren’t, it often ran in black-and-white.

Both the snap shooters and the great majority of commercial, advertising and journalistic shooters relied on someone else doing the processing of color film. Boy, did digital change that.

Whether you are shooting with your phone, a Leica M9 Titanium or something in between, you can now choose after the fact whether the picture will be black-and-white or color. But, the one thing that modern digital technology has not provided is which is “better.” Obviously, it’s a decision you make on a picture by picture basis or on a series of related images. But. in many cases, I’m not sure which is best.

I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have, but it may be an unanswerable question.
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Old 11-26-2019   #2
css9450
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
Quite often, if your news picture was on a printed sheath that had color for an ad, your news picture was in color. And even if you shot in color, if you weren’t, it often ran in black-and-white.

Very true! I recall many shots printed in the magazines I contributed to, which wound up in B&W (on a page with all others B&W too). I never did figure out how they did it, if they were scanned, or something else. Some looked fantastic.... Others muddy and not sharp.
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Old 11-26-2019   #3
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There was Kodak Panalure (sp?) B&W paper that was panchromatic, specifically made to print color negatives. Otherwise it was duping the color print on black and white film.

I find usually when I have mixed lighting conditions (incandescent and daylight) I often find the black and white version more appealing but often because I cant ever get just the right color balance. Sometimes the colors can complement each other in some way but very often it just looks "off".

If the picture has a strong textural quality to it, that isn't "enhanced" by the light and color, I find the black and white version preferable.

Lastly, in low-light conditions, I prefer the "look" (especially in the M-E type 220) of the image in black and white because i'd rather look at noise in black and white then try to remove it in color.

For most everything else I take it on a case by case basis, but it is always worth a look to see what it looks like in monochrome.
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Old 11-26-2019   #4
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Why choose if you can have them both? I shoot raw and keep it as I would keep the negative. That is the starting point. You can always decide later, depending on the purpose or client's preferences.
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Old 11-26-2019   #5
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A cinematographer once told me, "Use B&W if you are trying to convey the emotion of your subject."

He felt that color, by being so visually stimulating, got in the way of conveying the clarity of the emotion.

YMMV.

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Old 11-26-2019   #6
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I always appreciated if some historical overview is given.

Back to newspapers time and darkroom common existence, my choice was simple.
ORWO slide. Reason - no darkroom, prints was needed. Take exposures, develop relatively cheap and easy, so was viewing by diafilms projector which was at every home anyway.
I didn't used bw back then. No space for darkroom.

So, then in 2012 or so we were getting house with enough room and it became obvious what film will be gone one day, I asked around and get free darkroom to print bw.

Of course by this time it was no technical limit imposed on me. And even before this I realized why bw. It is because it has no colors. Which might be distraction. Here is huge difference between street in color and bw or in the landscape. In both cases it helps to distinguish things which are live and which aren't.
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Old 11-26-2019   #7
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Different appoach for me: also when I shoot digital I usually already know if I go for color or B&W. I look for different things and compose in different way. My eyes and brains work in different ways.

Probaly because in the years I shot so much on film I find that it gives me better result in this way, paricularly when I'm in a B&W mood. Eventually if I "stumble" in a subject which really calls for color I have the raw file.
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Old 11-26-2019   #8
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I can like black and white or colour in any medium chosen ... it's of no consequence. What I can't abide is black and white images that have colourised!
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Old 11-26-2019   #9
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I prefer to shoot RAW because of image quality issues and hence my practice is of necessity to shoot in color and if desired, convert to black and white afterwards in post. I do, however, make my choice based on how a specific image looks once I see it on screen, though perhaps 80% or more of my images remain in color in any event. Some images happen to look better in color in my view and my eye is now more attuned to color especially as I greatly admire the work or photographers and colorsits like Saul Leiter (Who also shot black and white though its his color images he is really known for) And I must admit of course that some images happen to look better in black and white.

Admittedly when I first started shooting digital I did back then shoot in JPG till I came to understand how much more flexibility RAW offered and also built my post processing skills to the point where I was comfortable with post processing and could take advantage of that flexibility. During my early time I almost exclusively shot in black and white as it was "what serious photographers do". Many people still think this way I guess but later I found I actually preferred many of my shots in color - though almost never straight from the camera. I like to tweak things a bit before publishing to get a final image I like. One thing about black and white I have found (as many others have done) is that for images to work they really need certain characteristics to be present - strong well defined figures for example, otherwise when in monochrome they can often just look 'so-so'. This is a skill I still struggle with and it is largely to do with image subject selection and image composition and hence only so much can be achieved afterwards in post.

I must admit that it might be more than a bit tempting had I the money to throw around to buy a Leica Monochrom given it shoots and saves its black and white images in RAW format on a sensor dedicated to the purpose unlike any other camera I know (there may be some but I am not familiar with them). If I did that it's entirely possible that I would resume shooting in black and white much more often especially given that I think that camera produces amongst the nicest out-of-camera black and white images I have ever seen anywhere.
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Old 11-26-2019   #10
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"They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah"

Mr. Pierce didn't mention Kodachrome, so forgive me while I sing its praises.

For me colour was slides sent away for processing yes, but viewed as projected images with light shining through, just like digital today on the computer screen. Of course, professionals used chromatic films to print in magazines, but I never did. I choose colour digitally today to recover a love for the old fashioned "slideshow".

Although I often make digital B&W, I honestly believe B&W is what film is for.
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Old 11-26-2019   #11
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I remember when the local Midwest newspaper went to color in the late 1960s. Starting out with glossy paper inserts printed in the states biggest city. For smaller print shops that did their own film based color separations, color reversal film was the go to approach... Ansco color slide film was a game changer (5x7) because the photographer could develop the film in-house. If I remember correctly (outside the big cities) color television as making an appearance around the same time.

Obviously marketing was sold on color, and once the technology caught up there was no turning back...

From time to time I pick up a copy of the Japanese monthly magazine "Asahi Camera" (アサヒカメラ)... first published in April 1926 under the umbrella of the Asahi Shinbun newspaper (Tokyo). They almost always have a beautiful printed monochrome feature.

unanswerable...
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Old 11-26-2019   #12
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I never felt that committed. When I had to pay for film it was reasonable compared to my funds available (read not so much any more). I could rewind a partial roll and swap if it was that important. I can't ever remember doing that. Perhaps when I shot 'Chrome (Ekta or Koda) I was out for color and Tri-X was in there the rest of the time.

I'm old enough to remember using filters to shift some colors on B&W film, I'm pretty sure there are filters/adjustments I could do the same in PP in digital but haven't looked.

Of late (100% digital) I do think about B&W when I have more dramatic lighting and contrast but I'm shooting in color and then adjusting it after.

I would trade color for a much better dynamic range and great sharpness in B&W.

I a black-hole for money spent on trying to print color. After my fourth attempt (working in other folks darkrooms who had the heads and processors) I gave up. I never really liked the colors I got from the 4x6 prints and when I was shooting for me I shot 'Chrome.

I prefer the magazine prints (color and B&W) from the 50's and 60's so much more than the crystal clear stuff, it just had feeling/texture.

Yeah, unanswerable.

B2 (;->
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Old 11-26-2019   #13
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I shoot B&W most of the time but if I got a Heidelberg drum scanner I would ditch B&W and shoot color the rest of my life.
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Old 11-26-2019   #14
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I remember visiting the National Geographic labs back in the 1960s. Almost everything was shot on colour slide film and B&W negs, then prints in B&W were made in for photos selected for publication.
This was for layout when "cut and paste" meant scissors and glue.
It was a streamlined operation using an enlarger with a modified Kodak carousel stack loader attached to take 36 slides at a time.
Wonderful technology I was impressed.
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Old 11-27-2019   #15
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Returning to Bill's question, "Colour or b&w photo - which is best, given we can choose either easily with digital?"

I don't think digital has made any difference whatsoever to choosing to shoot in colour or not. So, answers to Bill's question are the same now as when asked in, say, 1979 or 1989.
  • Casual photographers take snaps in colour, as they did in the heyday of colour film, without any thought (albeit likely using a phone today rather than camera).
  • Serious photographers, including professionals, select colour or b&w today for the same reasons they did when using film - it suits the photo/idea better or its end use, or just prefer one or the other.
B&w is less common today for practical reasons, not changes in photographers' preference:
  • Casual photographers now far outnumber serious photographers (inc. pros).
  • Professional photographers' work has changed: (a) they do much less commission work for magazines, books and newspapers, and (b) colour repro is much cheaper now, so publications (even newspapers) use a lot more colour photos.
  • Technology: (a) digital cameras allow the choice of colour or b&w to be made at any time, and (b) inkjet printers do the same, easily and at home.
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Old 11-27-2019   #16
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Yesterday I visited the Amsterdam Photo museum with a beautiful exhibition of Brassai, a French photographer with Hungarian roots, obviously all in B/W. Very nice work.
This reminded me of a saying:
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and White, you photograph their souls!”
Personally I always photograph RAW + JPEG, with landscapes in color, People in B/W and cityscapes 50/50
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Old 11-27-2019   #17
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Usually when I "see" a picture, the subject will tell me quite clearly whether it needs rendering in colour or bw. But occasionally when I go through old photos I realise it can work in the opposite way to what I originally saw.. and sometimes that turns out more pleasing.
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Old 11-27-2019   #18
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When the newspaper I worked for decided to go for daily color we were shooting slide film. Often we had to shoot both color and black and white on assignments but that didn't work well because you never had the same shots in both and the editors would go with color no matter how much better the B&W was. Then we started copying the slides to B&W in a Honeywell Repronar which added to the workload and was time consuming. Eventually the paper went with color negative film but then we all had to learn how to print color and that also took extra time and increased the workload.

It was a frustrating time.

Today I mostly shoot Raw but my emphasis is on B&W. All my cameras are set up for B&W. Those with EVFs show me the subject in B&W as I shoot and I review a B&W image on the other cameras' LCDs. When I shoot a scene that I know will eventually be color, I still keep the B&W setting. I think I've become accustomed to judging scenes by content, texture, shape, shadow/light and form with colors being far down the list. In the end, over 90% of my photos end up B&W.
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Old 11-27-2019   #19
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I used to make that choice before digital at the time of loading the film. And I did choose one over the other for different periods of time. I used to process my own black and white. Color went to the "lab".

With the acquisition of a digital camera, I seem to have landed on color for an extended period of time. Not because I do not like B&W any longer, but I'm having so much fun shooting color with all the control that exists for the output now. And I really like the results.
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Old 11-27-2019   #20
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Like others who posted earlier I use raw files.

I usually don't decide in post-production if an image should be color or monochrome. When I press the shutter button I usually know how I will render the image.

I prefer B&W for people. - especially for candid and documentary projects.

Occasionally a scene I pre-visualized as a color image will have issues due to lighting by multiple sources with very different color temperatures. Sometimes I take the easy way out and just render the image in B&W instead of spending a lot of time applying selective color temperature parameters.

The reverse is rarely true.
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Old 11-27-2019   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
...Whether you are shooting with your phone, a Leica M9 Titanium or something in between, you can now choose after the fact whether the picture will be black-and-white or color. But, the one thing that modern digital technology has not provided is which is “better.” Obviously, it’s a decision you make on a picture by picture basis or on a series of related images. But. in many cases, I’m not sure which is best.

I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have, but it may be an unanswerable question.
Hi Bill,
there is a way out and there is indeed an answer to your unanswerable question: MM .
I committed to this much maligned B&W only camera and I LOVE it. I produced my best images ever using it.
With this tool my vision developed in the way it did only because of this little camera.

Quote:
Originally Posted by robert blu View Post
Different appoach for me: also when I shoot digital I usually already know if I go for color or B&W. I look for different things and compose in different way. My eyes and brains work in different ways.
...
Exactly the same here ... I "see" in b&w when I use the MM.
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Old 11-27-2019   #22
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bill Pierce View Post
In the days when film was dominant, photographers often chose between black-and-white and color. After all, once you loaded up with bw or color film, you were committed. If printing your own photographs was important, it was easier to set up a black-and white darkroom. Printing color using dye transfer or even C prints was more complex and with more demanding controls. Even when affordable drum processors and other processes like Cibachrome became available, b&w darkrooms were in the great majority. (But those who committed to a color darkroom rarely turned back to black-and-white.)

Color received its real boost in two different photo worlds - snapshots and published work. Sending your snapshots off to the drug store for processing transitioned from b&w to color. And even printed publications that had limited themselves to black-and-white, like the New York Times and Time Magazine, turned to color when it became obvious that the ability to print color ads was a necessity. Time didn’t become “the colorful newsweekly” because the news was literally colorful. Quite often, if your news picture was on a printed sheath that had color for an ad, your news picture was in color. And even if you shot in color, if you weren’t, it often ran in black-and-white.

Both the snap shooters and the great majority of commercial, advertising and journalistic shooters relied on someone else doing the processing of color film. Boy, did digital change that.

Whether you are shooting with your phone, a Leica M9 Titanium or something in between, you can now choose after the fact whether the picture will be black-and-white or color. But, the one thing that modern digital technology has not provided is which is “better.” Obviously, it’s a decision you make on a picture by picture basis or on a series of related images. But. in many cases, I’m not sure which is best.

I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have, but it may be an unanswerable question.
I’ve always made the decision before I took the picture. Be it digital or film. I guess I compose differently for each one?
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Old 12-01-2019   #23
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In Wim Wenders fine but somewhat grim 1982 film The State Of Things, the DOP character tells someone on his film crew: "Life is in color, but black and white is more realistic."
Jokes aside, black and white and color are two different media.
In casual/personal/experimental shooting, which is mostly what I do, I play with both freely, thanks to raw files.
If it's a job that's pre-specified, then it's easy...you shoot what the client asked for.
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