What is it about black and white photography that can make us discard the millions of color pixels that comprise a modern digital photo in an attempt to channel our inner Ansel Adams?
Maybe grayscale adds weight and seriousness to a picture. Or it could be that removing color brings sharper focus to the emotional center of the photo. Perhaps, a black and white photo somehow leaves more room for personal interpretation, and therefore, strikes us as more artsy or sophisticated.
My theory is that a well-done black and white photo suggests something timeless about the content. For example, a beautiful black and white photo of a couple on their wedding day subtly implies to the viewer that the subjects are experiencing the kind of love that millions of couples have shared since time immemorial.
That kind of timelessness was evident in a collection of black and white photos I recently discovered while searching for images for an upcoming article in AFA Journal. Bringing a wave of both grief and joy, the photos from the January 30,1956, issue of Life magazine spoke powerfully of the enduring truth that although the gospel of Christ is free to all who believe it, Christ-followers sometimes pay the same high price their Master did as they live it and share it.
In an issue that featured colorful ads for Detroit’s new auto line up as well as pitches for American icons like Crest toothpaste and Chef Boyardee spaghetti sauce, a 10-page photo spread reported in words and photos the details of the deaths of five missionaries in eastern Ecuador.
After landing their small aircraft on a sandbar in a remote jungle, the young missionaries – the oldest, age 32 – seemed to be making progress in gaining the trust of the Aucas, an indigenous tribe that Life described as “Stone Age.” Then, without warning, native warriors with spears appeared out of the jungle.
The missionaries carried guns but had agreed that if the Aucas – known for their savagery – attacked, they would not use their weapons to defend themselves. Their reason was that, unlike the natives, their own eternal destination in Christ was sure.
It took a search party 48 hours by foot and canoe to reach the bodies of Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Edward McCully, and Pete Fleming.
The opening photo in the Life feature story captures the five widows, with three of their babies, at a kitchen table hearing the news of their husbands’ deaths. Through that photograph, Christians still share in that moment of grief, devastation, confusion, and shock. We also share in what apparently came after the shutter clicked. According to the magazine account:
When the wives heard, they joined in a hymn their husbands had sung before entering Auca territory:
‘We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.’
Among the wives pictured in the grainy photo is 29-year-old Elisabeth Elliot. In a decision that could only be motivated by a remarkable work of God’s grace, she and her baby daughter would return to Ecuador to live and minister among those who murdered her husband and his co-laborers.
In her life after Ecuador, the widow of Jim Elliot would remarry, suffer the death of her second husband, and marry for a third time. Also, she would become one of the most beloved authors and teachers of our lifetime.
For 13 years, she hosted Gateway to Joy, a nationally syndicated 12-minute radio program aimed at women. She opened each episode saying, “You are loved with an everlasting love, that's what the Bible says, and underneath are the everlasting arms. This is your friend, Elisabeth Elliot. …” Archives of Gateway to Joy can be found here.
Elisabeth Elliot passed through the gates of pearly splendor on June 15, 2015.