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Featured image by Thomas Leuthard (available to the general public via flickr.com)
In this episode of CREATE. PHOTOGRAPHY, Daniel will discuss some thoughts and considerations why to creatively pursue black and white photography. Daniel will also review two images from two photographers.
Today’s topic is big, and it will be very difficult if not impossible to do it justice in just one episode.
Ultimately it comes down to artistic choice on why to pursue black and white photography. Many photographers have been making that choice a priori in their image creation process. I will briefly discuss 12 considerations on why to photograph an image in black and white (B&W).
There is definitely something timeless (perhaps also nostalgic) about black and white photographs. Some of the most famous photographers from the 20th century are either only or primarily associated with black and white photography (e.g. Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho to name a few). Many of those photographs are soon going to be 75 to 100 years old, yet still many of them seem timeless.
2) Artistic expression / Limitation
Limitation, be it with less equipment, narrow subject selection or other means, can be freeing for creators. The limitation of monochrome (see also this post) lets me focus on light, subject, story/mood, and composition. Eliminating color helps me to hone in on those important aspects of photography.
I have always loved minimalistic photography, art, and design in general. Naturally, black and white photography lends itself well to further minimize distractions in imagery and help photographer and viewer to focus on the essence.
It has been so important for my work to focus on the essence in a photograph. So I can tell the story I want to tell.
An example of a photographer who uses a minimalist aesthetic is Michael Kenna. I will link to his website in the show notes. He is one of my favorite photographers and has been an inspiration to me.
Of course, one can pursue minimalistic photography in color, and there are many modern examples like the work of George Byrne. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend checking it out.
4) Departure from reality
Yes, black and white is not real, or a significant departure from reality. For artistic photography, or even to just tell a “better” story, it is okay to create a picture more “removed” from reality. Ansel Adams famously said his (black and white) images were not taken, but created, with an artistic vision in mind. And he clearly stated that the end product is not real in a sense of a documentary photograph. He used many photographic and darkroom techniques to alter that reality of his imagery. And he wrote entire books about those techniques. In our modern times, this creation process involves, aside from sophisticated digital cameras and lenses, image editing software. But the same principles remain. My guess is that Ansel would be all over Photoshop if he would be still alive!
In fact, any art is in some form very real (as it is a real creation by a real artist with a real intent). And yet does not typically exactly represent the reality as others see it. Nor does it need to of course. It represents the reality as the artist sees it.
All art is a vision penetrating the illusions of reality, and photography is one form of this vision and revelation. — Ansel Adams
Black and white, by removing colors and replacing them with shades of grey (often from pure white to deep black), is a way to simplify photography. Or artistic expression through the photographic medium.
Black and white photography does force the photographer to see my subjects in shades of grey. This does take a lot of practice, and digital cameras do help with this process (if they have a black and white preview/capture mode).
I find black and white photography inspiring. Again, by focusing on tonalities, contrast, luminosity, shades versus strong colors, patterns, shapes we have a tool to tell a story without the distraction of color.
The work of other black and white photographers can also be very inspiring. Such as some of the 20th century “masters”, but also contemporary photographers. This is one of the reasons for me to spend some time on social media (mostly Instagram, YouTube and Flickr), as I do like to see other photographers “vision” of the world.
8) Black and White highlights Contrast, Light, Textures, Shapes, Tonalities and Patterns
Often textures, images with a lot of contrast, patterns, may benefit to be conceived and executed in black and white. I really love this thoughtful quote by Guy Gagnon a contemporary French Canadian photographer:
“Working in black and white makes me feel like a painter, not a photographer. Shooting this way allows me to focus my attention on the light and shade, textures, shapes and expressions. It’s really a matter of personal choice, but in my opinion black and white can lead to a more abstract reading of reality, which is arguably more demanding and more challenging to produce. Here photographers cannot use flattering colours or coloured light to distract the eye. You cannot cheat in black and white.” – Guy Gagnon
9) Mood / Aesthetic
Black and white has clearly its own aesthetic and mood. It can be, if used correctly, a great tool for storytelling. Street photographers to this day love using black and white (either digital or film) as their main “format”.
Black and white can create drama, and emphasize mood / emotion in photographs.
10) Removes distractions of color
Color can often be distracting. Depending on the story/intent behind your image, a black and white rendering of the scene may help you better tell the story. Granted there are
11) B&W is a really good “practice” for clean composition
In black and white, your compositions have to be precise and dead on. As much as we may want to remove color distractions from some images, a color image can also “hide” a perhaps not as compelling composition. Photographing black and white exclusively for a while can be a really good practice for the eye for compositions, and also help us see tonalities / patterns / shapes.
12) B&W editing can be a useful processing step in your color digital editing
Some photographers even go as far as to use a black and white step in their Photoshop color processing of images. This will require to create a black and white layer, and then to really focus on the luminosities (so the relative brightness values of each image component), perhaps adjust contrast, and so forth, and then to use this layer as an overlay over the color layer to really make the colors “pop”. There are many different ways in Photoshop on how to do this, one way is to simply use this layer in soft light or similar overlay mode. And adjust the black and white sliders to taste.
Monochrome versus black and white
There is some confusion about monochrome and black and white. Black and white is a form of monochrome (single color with different shades), but not all monochrome is black and white. In other words, the two terms are not synonyms!
Disadvantages of black and white?
It has been said that black and white images may lack emotion. The lack of color may distance the viewer from the image.
Black and white photography can reveal image composition issues more dramatically. Also issues with tonality (for example, lack of pure whites or pure blacks), and/or lack of contrast. However, this can also be used as a fantastic exercise in creating clean compositions and images with broad and interesting tonality.
I think emotionally grey images can evoke sadness, perhaps despair as mentioned as well as distance. Too much grey may seem depressing to the viewer. Of course, those evoked emotions / feelings could also be deliberately used for effective image creation.
I’d like to review two black and white images that I personally consider great photographs and that hopefully help illustrate some of the points made earlier.
Ministry of Health, Rio de Janeiro, 1960: René Burri (Swiss Magnum photographer 1933–2014)
https://flic.kr/p/rPGHaU Unnamed by Swiss street photographer Thomas Leuthard
In summary, black and white is a fantastic and inspiring art form. It is definitely not as simple as removing color from color photographs. It should be used deliberately and in my opinion, typically a priori. Meaning with intention before a photograph is taken. Most of the great photographs were, at least that’s my contention, visualized and made (even in the spur of the moment), and not just snapped, and this includes many great black and white photographs.
For those interested in a big body of work with fantastic black and white photography, I recommend Magnum’s contact sheets. It contains the work of greats of black and white photography such as Henri Cartier Bresson, Rene Burri and others. It also contains the contact sheet for the image we reviewed today, so if you can, check it out. It shows the different compositions Burri was working with before deciding on the final one. Magnum Contact Sheets, available on Amazon.com (no affiliate link!)
Thanks so much for listening!
Thanks so much for listening. You can find a transcript of the show, as well as additional resources including interview footage on the Americans with Robert Frank and others in the show notes at danielsiggphotography.com/010
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