The Thinking Photographer

The Role of Black & White

Scamp behind sheer

A number of years ago National Geographic Magazine published a story on eskimos which was illustrated with black and white photographs. A subsequent issue carried a letter from a reader chastising the magazine for lowering itself to such primitive technology. This is incredibly naive.

On the other hand, there is a rather large movement in photography that considers black and white to be the only valid form of the art. Color, they believe, is for the snap shooters. This position is equally naive.

The choice of black and white versus color is not an a priori decision. It is really a question of communication. When we approach a subject we must determine what we are trying to communicate. Only then can we choose between black and white and color.

With the case of the National Geographic article, the reader simply held an automatic belief that color is good and black and white is primitive.

No one has ever accused eskimos of leading colorful lives in a colorful land. The choice of black and white was entirely appropriate. The photographs worked brilliantly. The communicated the visual environment succinctly and elegantly. To have added color would have added a needless distraction.

Let's get a little closer to home with a second example: birth pictures. It is a well-kept secret that new born babies can be ugly. They are covered with slime, spattered with blood, and maybe even bruised. If that's not enough, consider that everyone else in the area in decked out in a most attractive surgical green which contrasts distinctly with even more blood. If you are not yet fully into the mood, then consider also that the background illumination is always fluorescent light which produces a lovely shade of green skin on anyone not immediately in front of the flash. By now you probably get the picture. Yet, how many people, even among advanced or professional photographers, use black and white film to record the birth of a child?

Our unconscious tendency is to gather as much data as possible, to fully document an event. Since color is a component of the scene then we feel compelled to record it. We capture the reality as closely as possible.

What is wrong with this approach? The photographer is an interpreter of reality. This is inescapable. Therefore, we are obligated to think about what we are communicating. If we are trying to say that having a baby is a bloody, gory business, then by all means color is appropriate. But if we are trying to document the arrival into our world of a beautiful new individual then perhaps we are justified in neglecting the blood and focusing attention on the baby.

We have not yet considered the black and white bigots. How can shades of grey be considered more "pure" than hues of color? Is there anything more ridiculous than a black and white photograph of a rainbow? Of all the people swooning over Ansel Adams's photographs, would any truly want to visit Yosemite in the Spring with only black and white in their cameras? Incidentally, Ansel Adams was less dogmatic about black and white than many of his imitators. Contrast the work of Adams with that of Galen Rowell. Both convey grandeur.

Assignment: Bring in an example of one great B&W photograph and one great color photograph. Don't select a great photograph that is simply printed in B&W; instead, find one that uses B&W, one that would be worthless had it been printed in color. The reverse applies to the color example. Find a color photograph that would be meaningless and dull if printed in B&W. The purpose of this exercise to get you thinking about the color or monochrome as an essential part of the photograph.

© Copyright 1999 Brian R. Page

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  • The Thinking Photographer: Introduction
  • What is a Good Photograph?
  • The Role of Black & White
  • Subject/Object
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  • Who's Who and What's What
  • Audience: For Whom the Silver Tones
  • Guts
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