People naturally see in color, yet some of the world’s greatest photographs are shot black and white. Beyond the technical aspect that film was originally and only available in black and white, I am still perplexed by both the world’s and my own growing desire to keep shooting in this medium amidst the color digital photography era.
(Photos taken with an Olympus E-PL2 and a Vivitar 28mm f2.5 lens)
Over the past few months I’ve been noticing myself converting my street photographs to black and white in post-process or shooting black and white live in camera. Perhaps it is the documentary nature of my work – and as I said in a previous post – black and white eludes a sense of timelessness uncommon in color photography. Nevertheless, it’s unnatural for humans to see in black and white, yet we still compose with the expectation of an absence of color. Furthermore,
now that we have cameras that are ever encroaching on the color and density of the human eye we should be rejoicing the ability to finally capture and display what we actually see (and I guess in some fields of photography we are).
However, the reason why black and white photography is so resilient today is that it focuses on the bare essentials in which all forms of photography must adhere to: the contrast of light and dark. In many tips, articles, and books on photography, one of the consistent remarks discussed is to “follow the light!” After all, light is the controlling factor to even produce a photograph. But in doing so, a photographer is also chasing the shadows; where are they angled, how are they be produced, and what shapes are being created. The result of chasing all this light and shadow is a tango of ying and yang retaining a high level of detail and layers upon layers of interpretation.
Color seems to contrary to this. It defines a state of time (night and day – although it could be discovered whether a black an white photo was taken during the night by the street lights or a black sky). The composure of reds, greens, and blue evoke different emotions. And lastly, it’s realism to human sight. While these features are by no means to discredit color photography or its uses, fore these features can to still be used in unique ways to provide unique expressions, it at times can become consistent with every day life and therefore blend into obscurity. I’ll provide a social example.
Red and blue. Republican and Democrat. Take away the colors and further observation and interpretation is required to understand the photograph’s meaning. It’s the same with portraits.
With color there are other distractions that could allude to a person’s personality and identity. Convert to black and white, and what you are left with are the contrasted contours of a person’s face to discover what he or she is thinking; what he or she is feeling.
I often hear the phrase, “if the world was colorblind, there would be no racism.” Perhaps, or perhaps we would all be arguing about the shades of grey (or something along the lines of that original Star Trek episode with the black and white faces). Nevertheless, what black photography does is simplify the photographic experience, allowing both photographers to capture and viewers to interpret, to what I believe is the most sought after in art: emotion. Either that or I am just going colorblind.
P.S: I found a quote about black & white photography online. Not sure if it’s from a photographer, but I nonetheless, I find it quite intriguing.
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
― Ted Grant