The enduring popularity of black and white photography could, at first glance, draw similar criticism to that levelled at the current trend for Hipstamatic photography and its ilk. After all, in the digital era where all images are captured in full colour, isn’t converting to black and white also ‘fake’, and merely imposing an effect to replicate what was once a technical limitation? And is it not also true that many people convert a photo to black and white in an attempt to ‘improve’ a mediocre image?
These are valid points. But there is more to black and white photography than this. Many of the biggest names in photography are from the era of monochrome film, even though some of them (for example, Ansel Adams) built up large portfolios of colour film after it became available. So what is it that appeals about black and white photography?
Photography is seen by many as a record of reality; a tool to prove that something happened, as epitomised by the ‘I was there!’ holiday snap. However to many more it is an art form, and some of the most successful art in history is an interpretation of reality, or an impression. This was recognised in the early 20th Century by the pioneering impressionists such as Monet, who didn’t paint photorealistic facsimiles of what he saw, but broke down the scenes he painted into more fundamental elements – lighting, texture, or mood. Achieving this in photography is arguably more difficult, as the nature of the photographic image is that it is a facsimile.
The human mind is renowned for adapting when certain senses are reduced or eliminated. If sight is lost, hearing becomes sharper and keener. There is a similar effect in viewing images. The hyperreality of high definition video bombards us with sound, and 25 images of full colour every second, forming motion. A single still image deconstructs this: sound and explicit motion have gone, and what is left, whilst a fragment, is also a concentration.
Inside that single frame we can deconstruct it further. Here is where black and white can become relevant. The image will have a focus, and a meaning; not just what is it showing, but how is it showing it. As elements are removed, we are able to focus more on what is left. By removing elements the photographer is able to guide the viewer and help to focus their attention. Colour is one of the last remaining elements that can be controlled almost in its entirety after the photograph has been taken. Composition can be tweaked, within limits, by selective cropping, but colour can be enhanced, changed, subdued, isolated or even removed. Each option delivers a different result in the way the viewer reads and perceives the image.
The use of black and white in a photograph serves to focus the viewer’s attention on the aspects of the photograph that do not involve colour, such as textures and composition. Whilst colour can be very powerful at evoking emotions, it can also be a distraction, so by removing it the photographer is able to concentrate on these other components of a photograph. Rather than constraining the photographer, it frees them up to find and create photographs where a full colour image just would not work.
Ansel Adams is probably one of the most famous practitioners of black and white photography. Even though he switched to colour film when it became available and shot thousands of images on Kodachrome, his monochrome landscapes, particularly those of Yosemite national park in California, are his most famous works. They are all about composition, form and lighting; how shapes interact with each other; and how the sky can be as interesting, if not more so, than the land.
Not as famous, but just as impressive as Adams is the Brazilian photojournalist Sebastião Salgado. Despite the fact that he is a photojournalist, his photography deals with form and composition as much as relating a narrative, and he still uses black and white exclusively. It’s not hard to find hundreds of stunning photographs that demonstrate an uncanny ability not just to tell a story, but to frame an image in such a way that every one looks like it’s been meticulously planned and set up in a studio.
In 2009 I decided to shoot in black and white on a week long visit to Iceland. The initial reason for this decision was a challenge by a friend (thanks!) to use it exclusively for the whole trip. This served as a way of taking me out of my comfort zone, and in retrospect has made me rethink how I approach photography, even when I shoot in colour. My style when shooting in colour is based heavily around repeating patterns and/or solid bright hues, so by eliminating one of these elements I was made to think harder about what else I could bring to my photographs.
The natural next step was to look at light and shade, compositional elements and textures. Without having to worry about whether the colours would be saturated (or muted) enough, I could concentrate on the overall balance of the images. Many of the images I came back with had sharply defined dark and light areas, reducing the scenes to almost abstract shapes. I was also able to link separate components which, in a colour photograph, would have been too different in hue to relate to each other.
By maintaining the dynamic range of the photographs, textures in dark or light areas were retained and emphasised as they provided the main point of interest where strong colour would have merely diverted attention from them.
Of course the decision whether to use black and white remains a purely personal one, and one photographer’s reasons for using it may contrast sharply with another’s. Practical reasons remain of course, for example where a photograph is to be published in a newspaper or other document that doesn’t support colour. But does turning a mediocre photograph into a black and white image qualify as ‘proper’ photography?
If a photograph doesn’t work in colour, the chances that this is because it is colour are slim. There are so many other elements to photography, as I have highlighted above with the examples from Iceland. If it’s not composed properly, this won’t change. If it’s badly exposed, you won’t recover blown highlights or clipped blacks any more than you would in colour. Elements that lead the eye away from the focal point of the photograph won’t draw you in when you hit the B&W button.
In my opinion, most of the effort that goes into a photograph should take place before you hit the shutter release button. The decision as to whether to use colour or not comes down to what you want your photograph to express. Many photographs work well in colour as it is proven to be a strong purveyor of subliminal emotion. However if you want to bring attention to interesting shapes, patterns or textures in your surroundings, and finding interesting compositional elements, removing the colour from a photograph will allow the viewer to appreciate these elements all the more, and can also help you as a photographer to find new ways of approaching photography that you can apply whatever medium you choose to work in.