My last post had photos of my son’s toys. They are in black and white. I’ve really been into the monochrome thing lately and I leave my camera set that way more often than not. Flandrumhill commented that it was cool to see a child’s toys, which are almost always brightly colored, in monochrome. This got me thinking about something I’ve wrestled with for a long time.
What is it about black and white photographs that is so alluring? Is it because photos only came in monochrome for so long that there is a bias for it based on conditioning?
Although I’m sure this is partly the case, I don’t think it is the only factor. I can remember the advent of color TV, however many people have grown up knowing pretty much nothing but color imagery in all forms of media and yet there is still an appreciation for black and white. The art of Sumi-e painting is traditionally done in monochrome and has been that way for much longer than photography has existed even though colored inks are and were available.
Fencer in his blog was playing around with some photos to use as a basis for a watercolor painting and delved into monochrome versions as a way to analyse the scene. Lookingforbeauty describes art works that while not exactly black and white, still work with a reduced palette of just two tones.
An internet search or two pulled up nothing much in the way of research into the various reactions people have to monochrome versus color photographs. A few studies tried to quantify the amount of information that could be conveyed through color vs monochrome images. Color seems to win out in the strict “did the viewer get the point of that bar graph” category.
Still mere information transfer is not my interest. I want to know about the emotional impact, the subtle communication of form and texture, and the sense of involvement evoked by an image.
Did you know that Ansel Adams produced over 3500 color images? Have you ever seen one? ’nuff said.
In a review of the book “Ansel Adams in Color” (which contains 59 color landscapes by Adams selected by Harry Callahan) for Booklist magazine, Gretchen Garner wrote: For Adams, black-and-white was an abstract medium and color was inseparable from banal realism.
“Banal realism” seems to sum it up for me. There are many many landscape/nature photographers out there working in color and they produce many beautiful images everyday. People rave about these images. But how many of the photos are more than just reproductions? Most of the images are beautiful because the scenes themselves are beautiful, but after a few seconds viewing, I realize that I’ve seen pretty much the same images dozens of times before. I quickly lose interest after the initial attraction of colored eye candy.
It is extremely difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by the “reality” of color photography, particularly in landscape work. It can be done, but it ain’t easy. Even Adams had trouble breaking free from the tyranny of color.
Working in black and white is no panacea, but I think it allows the photographer to hold on to a significant portion of the “reality” while at the same time abstracting the scene. This abstraction takes away the reproduction factor and thus provides a space for the photographer’s creativity to come to the fore. A free space with limitless possibilities yet paradoxically with fixed boundaries.
A black and white image can so easily fall flat. Without the support of eye-catching colors, merely capturing the scene is rarely enough. Now comes the difficult job of making something with the pieces one has left. Unique compositions, attention to form and pattern, subtleties of light and shadow, and consideration of the smallest details become all important.
I love color. I love to shoot in color. For a long time all I ever shot was color, but also from early on I felt the restrictions of color. I struggled to find fresh perspectives to avoid scene reproduction – only occasionally succeeding. I also continued to experiment with black and white despite my poor results with it. It takes a different kind of “eye” to see beyond color. I hope I am finally starting to develop that ability.
I’m not going to give up color completely and my attempts at black and white often fail, but the variety and the challenge it brings can only improve my image making.