Media Circus

The New York Times was better when it was gray.

Published September 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

It was horrible to wake up Monday morning and find color photographs in the daily New York Times -- my newspaper, the one I've been reading every morning since I could read at all. There they were, a half-dozen or so four-color pictures: a few to illustrate an article on Maria Callas on the first page of the Arts section and a few more on the sports pages, not to mention the color advertisements. Soon enough, a box on the front page threatened, most of the paper will be color; by the end of October, every front page will be.

The Times seems very proud of itself for having effected the transformation, one of a series of changes that went into effect this week -- new sections, a later edition to accommodate sports scores, better distribution and so on. In fact they've been promoting it, in their customary, self-congratulatory and slightly geeky way, for some time.

Well, forgive me if I don't join in the celebration. The last thing I want from my newspaper is flash and in-my-face friendliness. I don't want my paper in color any more than I want my mother in a miniskirt or my president on MTV. It's embarrassing, and it looks like hell. Besides, I don't want to live in a city where the old riddle, "What's black and white and red all over?" no longer makes sense. It's just not proper, and almost everybody I spoke to feels the same way.

To be fair, the Times' color does seem better than most newspapers manage to achieve, but it's still considerably worse than that of any magazine. (The Times prints on an 80-line screen, while, for example, Harper's Bazaar prints on a 133-line screen.) Monday morning's Maria Callas looked sort of like a Japanese anime cartoon, and the sports stuff seemed airbrushed and crudely oversaturated. It is necessarily so: Newsprint simply can't hold a much better image than that.

Why, then, did the Times do it? There's more to the decision, of course, than a concern for the aesthetics of photojournalism. Color brings in younger readers. It also appeals to advertisers. So color is good, Q.E.D. For some time now the Times has been trying to get hip, in a dull-edged sort of way: The much-mocked Styles of the Times section, put together by Adam ("The Antichrist") Moss is a classic example. Now, for the price of a pair of new printing plants (one in New Jersey and one in Queens), the Times again goes for a better demographic and higher advertising revenues -- $5,500 over their $72,000 standard per-page rate, according to Crain's New York Business.

In exchange, they're spending their visual inheritance. There's a reason why newspaper photography works better in black and white, and it's not just a matter of tradition or taste. As soon as you start shooting in color, color becomes, in many ways, what the photograph is about -- which is fine if color is what you're interested in, but otherwise a distraction.

Robert Frank's famous dictum that "black and white are the colors of photography" may be somewhat overstated. Certainly there are phenomena that are better rendered in full color: entertainment, fashion, pornography, family snapshots and so on -- subjects where color adds emotion, life, realism and a kind of humanism. But there are effects better achieved in gray-scale. The surveillance camera in your local 7-11 probably shoots in black and white, not because it's cheaper (it isn't, really), but because color, especially at that low level of resolution, just gets in the way of what you want to know -- namely, who's lurking in the corner and what are they doing there?

Newspaper photography works in pretty much the same way. So it wasn't too surprising to find that the Times' photo editor, Nancy Lee, is something of a black and white enthusiast. "It's the most powerful form for documentary photography," Lee says. She told me the first color photo the Times ran in a mock-up was of Timothy McVeigh's parents leaving court. "It was an important news photo, but it was much better in black and white." Lee added, "I felt like the color was almost distracting from the image and the moment. And color can sometimes do that. It can be very striking and gripping, but I think sometimes when you look at color pictures, you'll look at the color rather than the information. That's a problem." Still, Lee insists that photo choices at the Times are based on content, not color. "Color," she says, " is just another piece of information."

Color, however, is a particularly overwhelming kind of information. One result is that color photographs have the paradoxical fault of seeming too real looking for breakfast table consumption. It's one thing to show the aftermath of a bomb placed in a market square in black and white. It's considerably more difficult to run the same photograph when the pools of blood are unmistakably crimson, the exposed bone glistening and ivory. Think of the famous photograph of South Vietnamese children running naked from a napalm attack. It's hard to look at as is. In color, it would be unbearable, and no one would run it.

If you look at the front page of a city newspaper anywhere else in the country, you'll rarely find anything that counts as a news photograph at all. Instead there are set shots -- politicians on podiums, people at state fairs, maybe a basketball player if the local team has won. Blandness is a virtue. And after all, why waste all that color on a picture with no value other than it happens to be newsworthy?

So how do members of the Times' photo staff expect matters to shake out at the paper of record? Lee finesses the issue: "In terms of questions of taste and gore ... there will probably be some photos that are so graphic in color that we make a decision not to run them. But there are some pictures that are so difficult in black and white that we decide not to run those."

Let's give Lee the benefit of the doubt. The technology of newspaper color is still crude; maybe the Times will find a way to run real photography on color newsprint. But if they do, they'll be the first. When USA Today started up 15 years ago, high-toned journalists took one look at the garish colors and dubbed the thing McPaper. On Monday morning the Times capitulated to the trend. Don't be too sure that the diet issuing from 42nd Street will be a whole lot better.

By Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis is the author of two novels, "Sister", and "Why the Tree Loves the Ax", and is currently at work on a third novel, and a screenplay for American Zoetrope.


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