The Romance of B&W

Let me start out by saying that I love black and white photography. I love the images taken from the dawn of the craft of photography, through the transition from artistic imitation to innovation, through the hay days of documentary photography - all bastions of B&W. I like to dabble in B&W myself and love the work of many photographers working in B&W (some exclusively) today. What I don't like is pompous justifications for working in the form.

The justification is often the same; that B&W removes the 'distraction' of color and allows the viewer to appreciate the real image more because of it. There's an oft' repeated anonymous quote by those justifying the B&W form: If you're photographing in color you show the color of their clothes - if you use black and white, you will show the color of their soul .

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit! If you use black and white you are not removing a distraction; you're replacing one distraction with another. Sure, as a viewer, I've got lost in dramatic colors of a shot to the point of ignoring the subject, but not any more frequently than I have got lost in the dramatic use of tones in a master printer.

Black and white is not the exclusion of color; it is just another way of representing it. It is an alien way of seeing to most of us; a novelty than can add drama to the undramatic. Why is a dramatic black sky populated by billowing white clouds anymore more true than a hugely polarized blue one? Is it really any less distracting? Why is a portrait in which the lines of an older face are exaggerated by removing the softening effect of color any more real than the slightly more flattering, color alternative? Is less-flattering more-true? Does revealing more lines reveal more soul?

Even if you buy into the argument that color is a distraction that black and white eliminates, when color is removed what takes its place? Tones? Contrast? Light play? Form? Pattern? Texture? Why are these elements any less distracting than color when you want to see the soul of your image (blah!)?

If back and white doesn't remove anything from the image, then what does it add? Nostalgia, for sure. There's a reason B&W images are often described as classic ; they're classic because they remind us of an era when color wasn't an option. Depending upon your age you may remember an era when all photography was B&W, or when movies were B&W, or TVs or images in newspapers.

If you are too young to remember any of these you still know what black and white means today. If a photographer chooses to use B&W today they using an accepted shorthand that says that the viewer should take these images seriously simply because they are not in color. The photographer is saying, these images are not snapshots; they are adding gravitas to their images simply by removing the color. How do I know? Because I am not above using this deceit myself; I'm as guilty as the rest of you of converting images to black and white to minimize the amount of criticism that can be leveled at my pictures so who am I to judge?

As I said at the outset, I love black and white photography and photographers (if Salgado started to use color I'd be as disappointed as anyone). I am not criticizing anyone for using B&W either occasionally or exclusively but let's be honest about why we use it. Black and white is not some magical filter through which a person, place or object's soul is revealed. Black and white looks good, plain and simple. In some instances black and white can (rightly or wrongly) add weight to the image. Black and white is seldom used for snapshots or, at least, snapshots taken in black and white don't look so much like snapshots. Black and white can be a tool or a gimmick just as much as color, infrared, Holgas, duotones, cross-processing, Polaroid manipulations or any other photographic technique. Black and white can reveal as many distractions as it hides. Just about any picture shot in black and white and mounted in a white matt and simple black museum frame commands respect. Black and white looks cool and all photographers, no matter what they might say, want their work to look cool because that, by association, makes us cool. That's why we use black and white.

Posted on Monday, 22 May 2006 | Editorial