I start this post with one of the most iconic photographs in the history of photography. Although it is a great photograph, it is not my purpose to comment on the photograph itself. It is the photographer that interests me. One of her quotes in particular: “A photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you the less you know.”
Some of the most powerful and famous photographs in the history of photography are in black and white. That was always something I couldn’t really understand about that lack of color, even more in modern photography. The most difficult question, for me to answer for a long time, was “why do photographers today choose to shoot in black and white, despite all that incredible color imaging technology available to them?”
When I started my journey in photography, some time ago, all my images where in color. I guess it was a natural thing to do. We spend our days and our lives in a color world and when it comes to photography our first choice is usually color. And I am talking about those, myself included, who have never taken a photography course. Over the years, I noticed that I was making more and more black and white images. And as a viewer, I have also found myself to respond strongly to black and white photographs. At the beginning, it didn’t make any sense to me. Why shooting in black and white is sometimes a better choice than shooting in color?
Well, there are times color is too much information. There are times when our subject and our scene simply look better in black and white, without the distraction of color, and yes, sometimes color can really be distracting. In a black and white image, or even a monochromatic one, the scene, the subject, the entire world is about luminosity, brightness and darkness, light and shadow and tonality. In that way black and white photography is much more pure, and thus easier to understand.
Photographs are abstractions. There is no way you could make a photograph look like the actual scene, as if you were standing in it. In a way, I guess, we could say that photographs look realistic, but not real; the viewer will not see what the photographer saw when they made the photograph, but they will see an interpretation of the photographer’s vision. Every time we look at a photograph, we are interpreting that abstraction into some “idea” of reality as we know it. Our brain tries to make sense of the image (and sometimes it tries hard), whether there is color in it or not. If we remove the color, that fact does not change. If our brains figure it out, the photograph still makes sense. Black and white is just a further abstraction.
No sense works on its own. When we go somewhere, we use all our senses to “see” the scene. It’s not just what our eyes see. It’s what we hear, what we smell, even the weather temperature or the sunlight on our face can make a difference. Eventually, what we try to do as photographers, is take all that and try to represent it on a flat piece of paper. That can only happen in an abstract form, as said before. We have to understand that we cannot just point the camera, shoot and just capture everything that moved us to make the shot; it doesn’t work like that. And as viewers, in order to sense it, we have to engage. In the case of black and white photography, the viewer has to do more in their head to make sense of the image, since black and white is a furhter abstraction. So the viewer becomes more involved, and due to this higher level of engagement, their reaction is stronger emotionally. This is the reason why black and white photography can be so powerful.
Finally, there are all the great photographers that came before us. It’s the history of photography. Most of those photographers that we have acknowledged as “masters of photography” did their body of work in black and white, whether we like it or not, whether they liked it or not. For many of them, it was a technological choice, rather than an aesthetic one, but it doesn’t matter anymore. There is not much to say about that. When we look at their photographs, whether to learn or be inspired, we take a small step towards black and white photography, both as photographers and as viewers.
These days, I shoot black and white most of the time. And by most of the time, I mean that 95 percent of my images, if not more, are in black and white. It’s not that it is better than color, but sometimes (most times for me) it is a better choice. There are times, I see the world in black and white. It’s all about the brightness, the highlights and the shadows, lines and textures, tones and contrast. And it finally makes sense to me. I can understand why so many photographers choose to shoot their images in black and white. I still make color images, depending on what I see and what I want to accomplish. For instance, all of my night photography is in color (or at least most of it) -there is actually a reason why and I might write about that some other time…
Until that other time,
P.S. Diane Arbus (March 14, 1923 – July 26, 1971) was an American photographer and writer noted for photographs of marginalized people -dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers- and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal.