A Case for Black and White

I have a thing for black and white photography, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a “preference,” and it doesn’t mean that I don’t like color. I love good color, but I also appreciate how difficult it can be to create color images that work on an artistic level. Nature is a brilliant colorist, so achieving a satisfying color palette in natural landscapes is relatively easy. But in a man-made environment where clashing purposes and preferences can result in a cacophony of color, finding a satisfying image requires uncommon patience and talent. Check out the color work of masters like Fred Herzog, Saul Leiter, Steve McCurry (despite the controversy), and Ernst Hass, and marvel at how they are able to find stunning color schemes in unplanned, everyday situations.

Photographing in black and white is a somewhat different discipline that places greater emphasis on shape, line, and form, as well as relationships between light and shadow. That doesn’t necessarily make it easier or more difficult than color, just different. But there are advantages. Shooting in black and white makes it possible to explore subjects and situations where gruesome hues would make color photography unthinkable. Eliminating color can also dissociate subject matter from its conventional meaning, allowing the photographer to create new significance in unfamiliar ways. Disposition also seems to play a role. Some people naturally find it easier to “see” in black and white and tell their stories that way. But there is hope for color-minded folk: seeing in black and white is a skill that can be learned.

It is tempting to conclude that our appreciation of black and white images stems from the early days of photography when there was no other choice. Our monochromatic conditioning actually goes back much further than that. Ink, charcoal, and even cave drawings were a part of our cultural and emotional evolution long before photography was even invented. I think it is fairly safe to assume that we are thoroughly adapted to respond emotionally to black and white images at a deep level, and that their value as an artistic medium should therefore not be underestimated.

But color is cool too, so there’s really no need to be single-minded about it, although that is an option. I’ll do both.

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