The Tale of Two Formats: Mark Heath’s “Shi Ku Men”

"Shi Ku Men" by Mark Heath

"Shi Ku Men" by Mark Heath

It is not uncommon for me to favor a black & white photograph over a color one, and vice versa. There are some photos that lend themselves quite well to one format or the other. Depending on the photographer’s vision, a photo could very well be created with one format in mind. As such, the photo might be tempered to fit one format and it simply will not render well for the other. But sometimes a photographer, like Mark Heath, produces a photo that fits well both in color or black & white. And from such photos, we can learn so much.

The color version of this photo is called Shi Ku Men.  The black & white version is appropriately titled Shi Ku Men (BW). Though both were uploaded to Mark’s Flickr Photostream on the same day, I was first exposed to the black & white version.  Under normal circumstances, I will admit that I am typically biased towards black & white versions of photographs.  But in this case, I am equally captivated by the color version.

Let’s first talk about what’s common about both and why the photo works in either format.  The scene is a simple urban streetscape photo featuring a random doorway, probably in a back alley.  The partially opened door appeals to our voyeuristic tendencies (admit it…you like looking through open doorways into private spaces).  The bike is precariously propped up against the outcropping in the doorway.  In fact, the doorway itself is somewhat peculiar.  The entrance was perhaps much larger at one time.  But it has been haphazardly enclosed with a wooden facade.  It’s not even entirely enclosed.  The mystery grows.  What really lies beyond the doorway?  Where did the bike rider go, and what is her agenda?  Portals, as a subject, are fantastic.

In color, we see that this building and the doorway are in somewhat of a state of disrepair.  It’s not crumbling, but it could certainly use some love.  The thing that really captures my eye is the bike.  It’s color is a stark contrast to the common tones of the photograph.  The bike, in my opinion, becomes the primary subject.  The setting therefore serves as the background to the story at hand.  The question of the rider’s absence bubbles to the top.  Mark’s treatment of the color adds to the mystery.  Though I don’t know for certain, I suspect that he employed some HDR techniques to add details within the shadows and to get the pastel look of the colors.

"Shi Ku Men (BW)" by Mark Heath

"Shi Ku Men (BW)" by Mark Heath

In black & white, the story changes.  Devoid of color, the bicycle disappears into context and we are instead focused on the doorway as a whole – the old frame, not the tiny little portal added later.  Also note that the colors of the cloth on the left side of the shot disappear almost completely.  Elements that come forward include the peeling paint and the room beyond the open door.  In my opinion, the story hasn’t changed much:  The rider’s absence is still a prevalent question, as is the question of what lies beyond.  What has changed is the perspective of the story – the story teller, if you will.  The tone of the photograph is perhaps a bit darker and a tiny bit more creepy.  That might change the undertones and implications in the story that is told.

When it comes to choosing between two presentations, it’s wise to consider how the story might change in either case.  Perhaps one format tells the story you wish to share a little bit more effectively.  Or, as is the case here, the story doesn’t change much, but you prefer one perspective over the other.  Though it is a very narrow gap, I do have a preference between the two photos:  The color version.  I love the color version simply because of the bike.  I feel the bike serves better as the primary subject, and prefer how it pops in color.  Besides, it’s a welcomed splash of color in an otherwise neutral environment.

That of course is my preference.  But many of you may have your own opinions.  Which version is better?  Which version do you prefer and why?  Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Heath’s portfolio features architectural and streetscape photography.  Many of his works feature HDR techniques.  I love how he captures simple scenes and intimate details of a space while also being quite talented at capturing a broader scope.  If you are a fan of HDR or if you are a fan of streetscape or architectural photography, be sure to browse Mark’s photostream.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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