Thoughts on Black and White Photography

22 Oct

Batman Jack-8184, originally uploaded by Jeff Jones.

I like black and white photography. I might even go so far as to say, in general, I prefer black and white photography over color. Obviously, not all pictures work best in a monochromatic format but black and white photos produce a certain vibe that color can never produce.

It is rather ironic that, for something like 100 years, photography either did not have the ability to produce images in color or could not do so in a cost-effective way. In the days where “everything” was black and white people went through great lengths to add a color palate to their images. My parents, who graduated high school around 1950, had their photos painted, or at least touched up with some dye. Some red for the cheeks, some brown for the hair and maybe some blue for the dress. It wasn’t perfect, but it provided a splash of color that people felt were missing.
Once color hit the portrait studios, TV screens and movie studios, there was no looking back. People wanted, nay demanded, that their consumption media was in color. In order to increase viewership of older movies he owned, Ted Turner even when so far as to go back to the classics digitally rendered them in color, much to the dismay of movie buffs.

But yet despite that it is a technological throwback, many still enjoy black and white photography. Why is that?

It forces us to look at the world in a different way. Most of us see the world in color and are used to viewing objects and backgrounds tinted in the unlimited pallet of colors and hues that this universe offers. The act of taking a picture compresses the three-dimensional world to that of a flat piece of paper. Because we remove the important element of depth, we are left with fewer visual clues about the picture. The flattened picture becomes less about subjects and objects and more about interplay of color. It is no longer a green dress against a beautiful green grass, but rather a splash of red against a swath of green. Even with a person’s features, it is more of an interplay between colors more than about the subject itself (i.e. the blue of the eye against the pink tone of the skin)

Stripped of color the photo allows us to pay more attention to the lines, the textures and the shapes of the image. The interplay of the elements of the picture changes, it becomes a different animal all together. With portraits, monochromatic treatment allows us to concentrate on the subject and the characteristics of the subject.

Also, since we don’t see in black and white, black and white photography causes us to look at subject in a way not found in nature. While the term “abstract” is not correct, there is a somewhat abstract to black and white that facilitates introspection rather than a passing glance.

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Posted by on October 22, 2010 in Uncategorized


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