Updated: Jun 7, 2022
Black and white (B&W) photography speaks to my soul and always has. I was first introduced to B&W photography as a child and then formally trained in B&W film processing, lab developing and printing while in college. It was not until much later in life that I shot and processed color photos professionally.
Black and white photography demands that a photographer views an image as monochrome and shades of gray, and not to rely on color. Most of my present-day images are photographed on film (and scanned to digital) or taken with a digital camera and converted later to B&W using software.
Either way, B&W photography has an enduring place in the modern world of photographic images.
Like many other "older" photographers, I grew up learning the art of photography by trying to emulate the old masters like Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Yousuf Karsh and Margaret Bourke-White. Even if you have never been particularly drawn to B&W photography, I encourage you to Google search these photographers and enjoy their timeless photographs from a bygone era.
The photo of the Kenyan tea-picker above was originally taken on Kodak Ektachrome slide film and later I scanned it into a digital format and converted it to B&W. This photo looks fine in color as you can see below. The colors are vibrant, but I saw something in the tea-picker that wanted to be expressed in a B&W media, so I did. Which do you like best?
When our family lived in Limuru, Kenya (Africa), during Swahili Language School, I would often end the day by walking through the tea fields that adjoined our quarters, at Brackenhurst Center.
I never gave much thought to tea or where it was grown. In the USA south, where I was raised, ice-tea was a staple in our home, the sweeter the better. Tea was delivered in handy teabags, inside a bright yellow box, and that was the end of the story. But actually, that is not the end of the story.
It turns out that Kenya is one of the largest tea exporters in the world and its tea is incredibly special and sought-after. Like its famous cousin coffee, Kenya tea is grown in the higher altitudes. The soil itself has high mineral content, making tea bushes thrive.
In 2019, Kenya exported $1.13B in Tea, making it the second largest exporter of Tea in the world. The same year, tea was the number one most exported product in Kenya.
The real action takes place on the tea field. Tea pickers, like the one in my photo, pluck new and tender "flush" twigs (two leaves and a bud). The leaves of the plant are what produces tea, and the tea flavor is produced by oils in the leaves
In Kenya, tea bushes require lots of tender loving care. About every five years the plants are trimmed like hedges, to waist height, to keep them from growing into trees, which they would do.
While picking tea, each tea-picker is held to a remarkably high standard. In the world of tea harvesting, it is called "two leaves and a bud," and tea pickers worldwide are held to the same exacting standard. In fact, there is a novel written with the same title, Two Leaves and a Bud.
Imagine though, that you have worked, back-breaking labor all day, in the Kenya tea fields. You bring your tea basket to the inspector to be weighed and your tea is spread out for inspection. Oooops! As the inspector sifts through your harvest, he discovers something troubling. Not one, not two but three examples of picked tea that does not adhere to the rule, "two leaves and a bud." Your entire bag is summarily dumped as unacceptable.
The whole "tea-picking" gig reminds me of a time in my youth, during high school, when my father gave me two choices for my summer off from school.
Choice #1 was to go to summer school and learn to type as preparation for college. Choice #2 was to get a summer job. Of course, being young and stupid, I picked choice number two.
Mark Twain was once quoted as saying, "When I was seventeen, my father was so stupid I didn't want to be seen with him in public. When I was twenty-four, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in just 7 years."
I never knew for sure, but later suspected, that my "stupid" father got quite a chuckle when I told him I was accepting his offer and would be picking cucumbers all summer at one of the local farms.
Day one started out at the butt-crack-of-dawn, me and twenty other pickers, straddled on long wooden benches, each with our own large basket anchored in front of us. As we were carted through fields of Texas cucumbers on long, tractor pulled wagons, I remember wondering if my father might get the last laugh.
The job was simple enough; as you stared down between your legs at moving Texas dirt and cucumber plants, you reached down into the plants, snagged cucumbers with both hands and snapped the cucumber stem with your thumb and index finger. Then you toss the cucumbers into the basket. The only real rule of conduct in this dirt patch was to only pick the ripest cucumbers. Never pick rotten, overly ripe, or unripe cucumbers.
Well, let me say, at this task, I failed miserably. At the end of row one, the tractor driver, cum farmer, cum cucumber inspector, stopped his tractor and inspected each picker's offerings. Suffice it to say, mine were not well accepted. They were either too ripe, under ripe, bruised, had rotted ends, before their prime and past their prime.
The end of my cucumber career came about an hour and a half into the "pick" that morning, when my bench mate reached down and accidentally "picked" a large snake by mistake. In his panic, he flung the snake into the heavens, flailing and speaking in tongues the whole time.
The snake bit nobody, but all of us city-slicker boys, who should have been in summer school anyway, learned an important lesson in that hot Texas field. Never underestimate the power of a stupid father.
By 7 pm on day one of my cucumber picking career, I found myself explaining to my father how I reconsidered summer school and decided to enroll in typing class. He did not seem the least bit surprised.
Quality comes in all flavors. To tea pickers, it is a "bud and two leaves." To another picker, it is a perfectly ripe cucumber.
To me though, the definition of perfection that summer was typing sixty words per minute in summer school, and only misspelling one word, "kukumbers."