I have been thinking quite a bit lately on why Black and White photos seem to hold a special appeal for many of us. During my research, I found dozens of essays on the “how” and some about the “why” of B&W. While they all seemed to contain some nugget of truth, the essay inevitably trails off into purely subjective properties of B&W that hold appeal for the author. There are also the multiple essays which address the nostalgia factor, both for and against the medium.
Nothing in my research resolved my questions though. In the age of digital cameras, why do we choose black and white or monochrome processing of photos? For most of photography’s history, there was no option. But now that we’re in this age of hyper-realism and near-perfect representation of life’s events through devices as small as our phones, why would a photographer choose to remove the elements of color from a photograph? What happens to a photo when we remove that information? What is a photographer trying to say when they commit to a monochromatic body of work?
In this essay I explore what I believe are some of the objective reasons why we westerners especially may be drawn to the black and white image. This is not a value judgment on color vs. monochrome, or a persuasive “why you should photograph in B&W”; rather it’s an attempt to understand what I believe are some concepts that haven’t been fully explored or combined.
By removing all the potential colors in an image, the photographic composition is reduced to form, light, and shadow. Colors which would distract the viewer are sacrificed for clarity of composition. Light and shadow are given sole domain on directing the viewers attention. As a photographer, this simplicity can be tremendously liberating. No longer concerned about contrasting or objectionable colors, which can neutralize the impact of a moment, monochrome simplifies a composition to an illustration of white, grey, and black tones.
Color photos give us clues about time and place. Our eyes tend to seek out familiar references such as popular colors and our brains work to categorize the contents of the image within a known frame of reference and experienced world. B&W strips away those references and while the clues may still exist, they can be more difficult to find. A B&W photo made today bypasses our natural filters and can inspire more subconscious questions rather than providing answers.
Compositional elements stand out due to their contrast with neighboring tones.
Legacy, continuity, nostalgia
For most of photography’s history, the iconic photos of our time were made in B&W. Monochrome was the only option for most print journalists and artists. Over the course of a century a collection of combined work rose to the top guiding future generations to ways of seeing and interpreting the world.
I know many photographers nostalgic for the “old days” of photography who use B&W to maintain that legacy. In some ways I sense this as being an attempt to stand on the “golden footstool” of the giants before us. Attempting to catch some of that reflected glory of iconic images past. I sense this most when a photographer goes out of their way to describe the medium, such as film, instead of describing the work itself. Lassoing the past in attempt to legitimize their own work.
Of course, I also believe there are also less egoistic ways of maintaining the legacy of monochromatic aesthetics. And an aesthetic it truly is, especially now as a choice presented as a checkbox or filter style in the digital darkroom.
“Color is descriptive, B&W is interpretive” — Elliot Erwitt
Since birth our brain has catalogued and understood the world in color to navigate our way throughout. Seeing a photo in color activates the same associations we’ve built and provides mental shortcuts to comprehending the images before us. B&W removes that all-important information from the image, breaking our mental shortcuts. Without those intuitive shortcuts we are forced to look a little closer and more intently to understand the image. If color is a window into a moment of the past, B&W is a translucent screen over that window. Imperceptibly we need to concentrate a little harder. I believe this is what people are saying when they talk about being drawn into a photo, or the intimacy of B&W. We are required to pay closer attention to light, shadow, texture, form, and composition for the photo to make sense.
What black and white loses in its descriptive capabilities, it gains in its interpretative. Looking at popular monochrome landscapes or portraits, you begin to see a common post-processing style that subdues the dark tones. These blacks create dramatic shadows contrasted with highlights that are pushed and pulled for just the right tonal balance and story. While these extreme editing measures work wonders in monochrome, to attempt them in color would be to make, by most tastes, an extremely gaudy photo. Blue skies darkened to unreal shades, yellows pulled to sickening toxic yellow-brown, and greens that start to border on red or purple.
The B&W photo makes no claim to representing reality. Already the monochrome image is a reduced representation and must stand on its own with only light and shadow to convey meaning. A color photo can represent an almost pure description of the event as captured, or depending on the photographer or digital artist, a pure fantasy. The color photo inherits a birthright connected to reality, and it is up to the photographer to break that connection if desired. The B&W photo has no automatic inheritance to reality, it is created as a misrepresentation of the actual event, lacking the full spectrum of color. It is truly, as Elliot Erwitt said, interpretative.
A suspension of disbelief
“Temporarily allow oneself to believe something that is not true, especially in order to enjoy a work of fiction.” — Oxford Dictionary
Because a monochrome photo can make no claim to accurate descriptions of reality, we approach them differently. The photo represents what was in front of the lens and has some basis in reality yet does not depict how we actually see the world. B&W photos straddle the real world and the imagined world. We suspend our disbelief knowing the monochrome image is not intended, especially in the age of color, to be interpreted literally.
This disconnect, this departure from reality allows the viewer to more readily accept the work as art. Art is not intended to be experienced literally either — if it were, it would be called “data” or “information”.
In the same way that photography liberated painting from the practice of hyper-realism, so too did the broad availability of color film emulsions do for photography. With B&W as a choice rather than the default, photographers were free to use monochrome images as a primarily interpretive rather than descriptive medium. Monochrome is now understood as a non-default decision, implying artistic control and vision in the production of an image. The B&W photo today is not meant to accurately describe a scene — and our collective visual education knows this. It is, however, meant to convey an artistic vision that purposefully excludes color for the qualities offered by its removal.