Why Black and White?
Monochrome – It is all about the contrast and tones.
Many people have asked me why I prefer black and white photography to color. This post represents my slightly tongue in cheek with a kernel of truth response.
Here are some reasons that I shoot in black and white:
Color often gets in the way. I will shoot in color but only if color is the main point of the image for example showing two complimentary colors interacting.
Photography is a reductive process. We start with way too much information and have to lose a lot of it for the image to make sense. The conversion from color to monochrome loses a lot of extraneous information.
At the age of 15/16 I had a painting teacher who really drummed into me the importance of tone. She placed it way above color in the visual hierarchy and I think that has stuck with me.
Working with black and white leads to a deep appreciation of the structure or the “bones” of an image. It somehow lends emphasis to the geometry of an image in the way that color doesn’t.
Atmosphere; Black and white conveys different moods much better than color – at least in most cases. The exception would possibly be emotions at the happy end of the spectrum. Sadness, loneliness, fear, pain, detachment, isolation all seem easier to portray in black and white.
Monochrome lends itself to grittier interpretations of life. Color very quickly looks garish when it is grunged up. Black and white allows for more subtle methods and much greater range when distressing an image.
I am a European therefore I like my art darker, messier, less sharp edged and more ambiguous than my American counterparts who tend to like things sharp, clean and without imperfection. Black and White is a better vehicle for the former approach. That is a massive over generalization I know but there is truth in it.
Our brains, and therefore our viewers’ brains, are wired to respond more to contrast than to other factors – at least with regard to still images.
If I have a favorite aesthetic it is film noir. Contrary to popular belief the film noir feel can be achieved with color but it is much harder to do.
And perhaps the most important reason of all – black and white looks cool.
A couple of downsides of shooting in black and white:
There will always be some who think that photographers who work in monochrome do so to be trendy and arty. They see it as little more than a gimmick or affectation. I have given up trying to explain myself to those who think this way – it just gives all parties a headache.
A lot of older people don’t like black and white. I have a completely unproven theory about this which basically ties together black and white and poverty or failure. They remember the days when color television was a big new thing. The affluent got their color TVs early while everyone else had to make do with black and white for a little longer.
Hardwood floors provide a good analogy. To most of us a nice hardwood floor is a good thing yet those who grew up when wall to wall carpeting was a sign of success often see things very differently. The bare floor, like the black and white photograph represents a backward step, a return to a more austere time.
By Steve Johnson