What’s so Special about Black & White?

Posted by on March 11, 2009 in Blog, Other | 5 comments

When I started out with photography back in 2005, I spent most of the time shooting B&W. I found it easier to understand exposure in terms of shades of grey and quickly became used to viewing the world in tones as opposed to colour. A lot of this is down to the tuition I received from a UK based photographer Simon Young, who took time to really explain the zone system and more importantly took me through practical examples of how to apply it to my photography. So, starting out my street photography was almost exclusively monochrome.

It wasn’t until I joined Celbridge Camera Club that I started to shoot more colour. There wasn’t an intentional move away from black & white, but I realised that without shooting colour images on a regular basis, then I would not be able to progress in their league competitions. Now, most of my work is colour, but I still have a fondness for good B&W work.

Keith Williams, a photographer I know from a photography internet forum called Light Cafe, is what I would consider a traditional B&W film buff. In my very limited opinion, his knowledge of film and B&W is outstanding, as is most of his work.

Today on the forum, he posted an essay called “What’s so special about Black & White”. I enjoyed reading through it, so with his permission, I’ve posted it here.

‘Fine art’ photography has historically been so dominated by black & white that some might conclude that artistic photography is black & white. Why is this so? After decades of technical refinements in colour photography leading to modern c41, E6, colour instant film processes and the digital technologies, why is black and white photography still perceived as the higher art?

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Reasons abound, of course. One point of view that some may offer is that black and white photography is intrinsically more artistic, because it fundamentally departs [coloured] reality. Clyde Butcher, for example, asserts that “Color is a duplication; B&W is an interpretation.” John Sexton has commented that “It’s so bizarre to me that I can show you a picture that’s black-and-white and you somehow think it represents reality. When’s the last time you opened a window and it was black and white outdoors?”

Does the un-reality of black and white photography underlie the common view that it is more artistic? This blanket assertion seems somewhat less appealing once one considers that artistic painting …in all its coloured glory… dates back much further than silver halide photography. Why in the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh and so many others, do we find so much… colour?! (N.b. this despite the expense associated with gathering the pigments, as opposed to the widespread availability of stable black, grey, and white media in every fireplace!) Why did da Vinci invent in black and white, but paint in colour? Did all those guys just not get it, that black and white is intrinsically more artistic?!

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In answer to the question of why black and white photography has gained so much favour, some may cite the longer history of the black and white craft, which extends back ~200 years to Joseph Niépce in the 1820s (or perhaps further to Carl Scheele’s discoveries many decades earlier). Cast against that long history, colour photography is still an infant, even if one assumes that it began with James Clerk Maxwell’s demonstrations of colour separation (~1860). Colour media for realistic depictions have not been widely and inexpensively available for as long as black and white media. It could perhaps be argued that a convenient means for accurately representing colours under arbitrary lighting conditions (i.e. different colour temperatures) dates back only a decade or so to the advent of colour metering and digital processing. Regarding the colour films: are they successful because they are literal in their colour renditions? Or because they lend an intriguing un-reality to a scene? Will the widespread availability of digital media lead to a fundamental change in how we perceive colour photography? Might colour photography soon be seen as even less artistic than ever before, because it is more literal and “correct” than ever before?

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Whether black and white photographic media are and will continue to be preferred for artistic pursuits can be fairly debated. Perhaps we simply haven’t been doing colour photography long enough to realize the artistic possibilities; historically, the worth of the arts tends to be established over many centuries and not mere decades. One simply cannot assume that past arts will be equally appreciated in the future, nor that future arts will be appreciated now.

In any case, we are left with one undeniable fact: black and white photography just works. Why? It is clear that it tends to underscore the more abstract features of a scene, e.g. geometry and texture, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by colour. It is also worth noting that our scotopic vision is almost entirely monochromatic (not really black and white per se, but at least dehued in a similar fashion). Scotopic vision provides generally much lower acuity than colour vision, and is activated in low-light scenes- hence the almost monochromatic appearance of moonlit landscapes and the like. One of the interesting features of visual perception is how well the brain can process the almost monochromatic, faint, low acuity scotopic image and form an interpretation. Thus on a faintly moonlit night, a face can be recognized in the dark, a deer discerned crossing a roadway… but so too a branch can become a snake, or a field of grain can become a lake. Scale cues are more difficult to reconcile… the mind conjures up many extraordinary interpretations where clear information is lacking!

Perhaps, then, the way we see and interpret black and white is inherently different, at the anatomical level. Perhaps the brain has actually been trained, over millions of years or more, to rely more on broader interpretative and contextual and extrapolative thinking when confronted with a black and white image.

So… black and white photography just works. Why does it work for you? Does it matter that you know why it works? And can colour photography ever work at the same level?

5 Comments

  1. This one is superb. Funny! Does this guy (and the bird) know he’s being photographed?? Not that it matters. Just out of interest.

  2. Yup, both guy and pigeon were aware of me shooting them. As you can see from his reaction, he really didn’t care. Two seconds before I took this, the pigeon and guy were staring at each other, which was the shot I originally went to take. Thanks for the comment :)

  3. Honoured to be quoted on your beautiful site, Ciaran! And I remember this photograph well.

  4. Not at all Keith.. the essay is a super read :)

  5. Ciaran, I saw your work at photocamel and i followed you here. I think your work is excellent, thank you for sharing this article.

Care to share your opinion?