At first, black and white photography was a necessity due to limitations with technology, but even now in our digital age, we still enjoy creating without color. So, what really gives the relevancy, intrigue, and desire for black and white photographs?
Black and white imagery has always been a part of photography in all formats since the medium was first created. Back when it was the only option, whether shooting on metal plates, glass, or film, images without color were the norm. Then came color film and digital cameras, and now, there's a whole slew of amazing devices out there to capture our world in the most vibrant of colors. But black and white photography hasn't and probably won't ever die out. I think there are several reasons why many of us enjoy the art form and why people see it as a fine art.
Keep in mind, each person who creates without color likely does so for their very own personal reasons. The reasons I share below are simply what I have observed in my own work and in that of other photographers who have been more vocal about their works in black and white. But if you have further insights into why you shoot without color or why you think people should, please make sure to comment below, because I'd love to hear your thoughts. Of course, there is no shortage of opinions on any given topic, particularly online, particularly concerning the subject of photography. However, I really do want to take an analytical approach to asking my original question. In essence, why do we still like black and white photography?
Quite frankly, I think a lot of it has to do with how our human brains work. We are some incredibly imaginative and creative creatures. An image presented in full color tells a very complete story, whereas an image that is stripped of color leaves a completely different set of ways that we can interpret what we see. Take, for example, the two shots shared above. Both images are of objects without faces; there isn't any obvious emotion to draw from either shot, not directly. Perhaps you see other things in these pieces of black and white art, but I do find emotionality in both works. The sailboat shot, for instance, communicates a very interesting emotion to me. I have experiences where I have spent time in such foggy environments. I have never been on a sailboat, but I can imagine quite clearly what the temperature might be, what sounds (if any) I might be hearing, what sort of smells might be present, and from those slight ripples in the water, I can imagine a slight breeze blowing in my face. The scene I am experiencing through my own projection based on my own life experience is probably different than the one that you experienced. Maybe not, but that's the beauty of it all: our imaginations can take it any direction we feel.
Similarly for the shot of the airliner flying straight through the frame, I find that I interpret emotions such as progress, innovation, and other similar feelings simply because the inherent forward motion in the shot is such a strong focal point. I honestly don't know, but I doubt a color rendering of this image would have nearly the emotional connection simply because the stark contrasts in the image place my focus very quickly on the subject and in a very concentrated manner. It's not just about the plane, nor is it just about the stream behind it, or the emptiness around it, but all of those things play very significant parts in the image as a whole, and I honestly believe that color would reduce some of the overall impact of it.
We really could spend all day talking about all the fun emotions that can be conveyed through black and white imagery, even if there isn't a single person in the frame. I mean, all we have to do really is initiate a conversation about the works of either Ansel Adams or Nick Brandt, and there's a whole slew of absolutely gorgeous photography from either artist that can be studied and admired for expansive amounts of time. Both photographers chose to shoot in black and white instead of using color film. Even today, Brandt still uses black and white as his format of choice, even though there is a multiplicity of options for capturing in color. I've never met him, as much as I wish I could, but I would not be even remotely surprised if he had several powerful reasons as to why he captures his subjects devoid of color.
But speaking about emotions and how much power can be conveyed in a single black and white image, we simply must talk about how powerful a colorless portrait can be. As photographers, we are artists, whether you like that title or not, and the images we create will have one impact or another. The choices we make behind the lens and in the darkroom, whether that is actual or digital, can take a raw negative image of something or someone and turn it into an artistic piece that can literally change someone's life. There are countless examples of when a photographer will take their gallery of color images and simply turn them grayscale. All due respect to those out there who do that, I think there is an inherent difference between doing that and processing an image specifically for a black and white display. The conscious choice to remove color, particularly with portraits, seems to have an astounding affect.
Take these two very different portraits above and just look at the eyes of the person within the frame. I can't speak for you, but I know that I feel some very strong emotions when taking the time to study, to appreciate, and find interest in the faces before me. The one of the woman conveys a powerful sense of elegance, quietude, and purpose. The second portrait is of a homeless man, part of an ongoing project that the artist is creating, and it conveys a much different set of emotions. I feel sorrow, listlessness, understated chaos, and many other similar feelings. All of that from a single image of a person I will likely never meet. But it gets my brain thinking about things, about how grateful I am for what I have, wishing I could do something to help this poor man stop feeling the way my brain thinks he is feeling. It's a very intriguing place to be, to find yourself feeling empathy for a total stranger, but that is the power of such images. I absolutely love it, and I think a large portion of the rest of the world does too.
In essence, not only does black and white photography seem to have a very relevant place in our world today, but perhaps even a necessary place. We are emotional creatures; there's no point in even attempting to deny that, and those emotions can help us connect to each other in more powerful and more meaningful ways. Photography is one of those realms where very strong connections can be made, and the purposeful use of black and white images can facilitate such connections. Sure, this article has been me simply spouting off all these observations about things I've noticed in both the works of others and even in my own work, but I think it really comes from a place to which most of us can relate. One of the things that I love about this Fstoppers community is the massive array of insights and ideas that come from you, so I would absolutely love to hear your thoughts about black and white photography and what it means or doesn't mean to you. So please, make sure to comment below and let us know what you think.
A very special thanks to each of the following photographers for allowing the inclusion of their works in this article.
Matt Bowen, found on Instagram as @mrmattbowen.
Sabrina Tomlinson, found on Instagram as @steelandgraceportraits.
Scott Hallenberg, found on Instagram as @scotthallenberg.photographer.
Cover photo by Gabe Mejia, on Instagram as @gabemejia.