View Full Version : What attracts you to B&W?

18-Jan-2002, 04:12
A recent post questioned "why B&W instead of color". There was a number of respo nses suggesting a range of reasons for B&W that it was, in my words "a departure from reality" to that it was easier to see in B&W rather than color.

I started out with color photography, and after about a year with B&W I've found it an incredible challenge! In color photography, color itself can be used as a compositional 'tool'. For instance, the profusion of colors in a scene of wildf lowers, typical in color photography, often ends up 'flat' in B&W. I've found th at I have to re-evaluate what I decide to photograph depending on if I'm shootin g color or B&W film - scenics that work in color frequently do not work in B&W. I guess at this point that I should make clear that I'm talking about landscape or scenic photography rather than portraits or architechtural photography.

Weston mentions a few time in his daybooks that 'subject matter is immaterial'. Looking at Weston's work from his 'daybook' period it seems he didn't mind if vi ewers saw his cypress root as a 'flame' or his palm trunk as a 'smokestack' - it was the form, texture, or contrast rather than the subject itself that drew his interest. In fact, he passed on photographing subjects he felt were too 'pictur esque'.

When you photograph scenics in B&W, what is that attracts YOU? Does the subject matter influence your decision to 'make the shot'? Or, is it form, texture, or s ome intangible emotional element?

paul owen
18-Jan-2002, 04:50
Andy, I CANNOT get on with colour - although I greatly admire a number of photographers who only use that medium! I cannot explain the attraction to black and white other than the complete involvement with the whole process - maybe I'm a control freak!!

NG Sai-kit
18-Jan-2002, 05:13
When I began to work on B/W, like others, I focus on forms, textures, shape, play around light and shadow and then subject matter one a while. Now I take these at a whole. B/W photography to me is subjective and abstract. The whole process involve a transition of reality to personal sensitive.

Andre Noble
18-Jan-2002, 05:14
Ditto Paul.

I am suprised that I too like B&W more, especially in LF.

A B&W photo is abstract, like the inspiration that went into making it.

B&W negatives are more beautiful, satisfying.

Color photography is very excellent too.

Andrey Vorobyov
18-Jan-2002, 05:59
Andy, my opinion is that monochrome picture removes superfluous information (usual color information of common everyday experience) and thereby turns on the viewer's own imagination. Only viewer's OWN activity counts. -- Of course if the colors are superfluous for given scene, according the photographer's vision and decision.

Walter Glover
18-Jan-2002, 07:15

As these philosophical threads crop up with some regularity now, it is evident that a great many of the participants in the forum are indulging in photography recreationally and tend towards the objet trouve. The found and fancied does not often dictate the medium; it welcomes, in fact probably actually relies on, a diversity of interpretation to attain its apotheosis. Irving Penn made studies of cigarette butts in New York gutters on black & white. Walker Evans did the same with a Polaroid SX-70. Each approach is valid, each has its merit - it's simply a question of intent.

One of the most oft-quoted utterances of the dear Edward was:

"To see the thing itself is essential; the quintessence revealed direct, without the fog of impressionism." - Edward Weston

Albert Renger-Patzsch and Edward Weston were giants amongst photographers whose intent was Objective photography. They worked in black & white because that, like the black T Model Ford, was the limit of the options. Given the proliferation and quality of colour materials readily available today would these guys see the frequently mentioned abstraction of black & white as 'the fog of impressionism'? Would colour actually clear a path to the 'thing itself'? Who can tell, it is purely conjecture. Their photographs reflect their perception relative to the prevailing conditions at the time they worked. If we wish to work in black & white in an attempt to emulate the achievements of Past Masters we are deluding ourselves by only considering half the possibilities available to us: many Modern Masters are working in colour.

I work commercially all day every day in colour. It has to be accurate colour for architects & interior designers and it has to be atmospheric colour to make living spaces welcoming and desirable. On my days off I go out and shoot black & white. The ultra-wide lenses get left behind and I revel in normal size relationships. The sterile order of my commercial assignments also induces me to seek chaos, mess, surrealism - another reason for black & white. So to answer your question of what attracts me to a subject - I respond in rebellion to the commercial strictures of shooting other people's wishes.

But now, ever so slowly, I am beginning to see that there are things that I would like to do with colour. Colour for the sake of colour. A celebration of vibrancy. You see, I can't think of a vibrant black and white picture. I am willing to accept suggestions, but vibrant, dazzling, shocking - they seem to only relate to colour.

At the end of the day I think we must strive for an evolution in our careers. We need to use our successes and accomplishments to springboard us into the next phase of our development. When the inner voice says black and white by Jove that's what we are going to do, and do well. But if there is a faint call beckoning you to colour, heed it and see where it leads. We are blessed to be enthralled with this consuming, emotional, expressive creature of photography. Respond to your gut feelings and follow your instincts, abandon restraint and compromise - you're here for a good time, not a long time. Use photography as a vehicle of liberation; there'll be no shortage of rationalism when you get back to your proper job.

Walter Glover

18-Jan-2002, 07:19
Cost of colour.

18-Jan-2002, 09:35
Quite simply, I think black and white LF photography offers the prospect of both (i) abstraction and (ii) epic, (particularly landscape), whereas colour LF photography offers the prospect of intensity.

18-Jan-2002, 12:02
Good shout Walter! "see" with your whole being!

Jim Chinn
18-Jan-2002, 12:24
From a viewing standpoint I think B&W still commands a certain presence when it is on the wall. It is this initial departure from the rest of the color world that first attracted me. When i was younger I remember seeing my first large prints 16x20, 20x24 at a museum with my 6th grade class and being mesmerized with the images. I feel the same way today. I well executed B&W print seems to always attract attention. An equivalent color eventually seems to just become part of the furniture, IMHO.

For myself, monochrome (B&W, toned, lith prints etc) eliminates extraneous color detail that simply would distract from the final image. Even in color a lot of what I do is very low saturation, but there seems to always be a small element of color that would focus the viewers attention and distract from the overall image.

Second, I like take ordinary subject matter and produce a more dramatic abstract presentation. For myself, a good abstract "fools" the viewer at first, as they see something (hopefully) totally new to them. Upon further viewing or seeing the caption they recognize what the abstract is from and gain a further appreciation for a different way of seeing. For the subject matter I use, color reveals to much reality and takes attention away form detail.

One of the strengths of color is using it for abstractions that normally B&W would produce as lifeless. Your flower example is excellent.

Finally, B&W provides unlimited opptions for interpreting a negative in the darkroom. Of course this now is possible with color through the digital medium.

I am working more and more with color as I slowly find the kind of film and techniques that fit my vision. Lower saturation and muted or washed out colors fit my vision in LF.

Jim Chinn
18-Jan-2002, 13:35
As you stated in your post, one needs to re-evaluate their subject matter depending on choice of B&W or color. I think it really is true that one needs to have a different approach between the two. I greatly admire those that can move between the two, providing a totally different vision and feel to their work depending on the choice.

I think that is why when I use color I keep to more monochrome renditions and muted colors. When I try to use a more colorful "palette" of subject matter, the final result is not satisfying. I seem to get better results just using a 35mm and making a lot of exposures, probably because I have so many more to edit from.

I believe I will get better at using color as I continue to learn to appreciate its own unique difficulties and opportunities. But I will probably always approach a subject first from how will it communicate as a B&W print, and then explore any possibilities for a color rendition.

Dean Lastoria
18-Jan-2002, 14:25
FW hit it on the head: Epic.

If Milton, Ariosto, or Tasso were photographers, they would use LF. Milton would certianly use B&W (possibly wet plate). An LF in B&W shouts "Of man's first disobedence ..." Many would like to focus on that first fruit and shoot it in colour, but that misses the point.

Setting up the tripod and putting in the big B&W neg, I often have Miltonic pretences dancing in my head.

When I put colour in the 35mm rangefinder, I'm feeling like Blake, looking for a burning tiger -- caught one once, an orange Vespa with an orange sheepskin seat cover. A bit more trivial, but still fun.

With my camera, I don't want to write manuals, catalogues, or be a jornalist, just like most professional photogaphers wouldn't like my job either. When I'm off work, I want to write poetry with my lens. And like Blake and Milton, I have a day job, so I don't need to worry about what people expect. Dean

Rob Pietri
18-Jan-2002, 21:16
I agree, that is a very toughtful question with many long and complicated answers that may be too long for a message borad.

Personally I shoot both, color mostly for commercial applications and B&W for personal artistic expression, though I often overlap the two and so do many others. The entire creative thought process of composition, lighting, exposure is different, even when shooting the same subject at the same time. I always find myself choosing a differnt camera position, lens, perspective.

Often, the visual impact with color is tied up in the colors themselves and the emotions of the colors, that can have an almost predictable impact on the viewer. One example is the color pink. I remember watching a show where an individual had different colored cards that filled his view and asked to lift a heavy object. But when a pink card was placed infront of him, he could not lift the object.

B&W is primarily form, shape, textures, juxtapostions and what they resemble; triangles, cylinders, squares, ovals, stars, rough, smooth, waves, etc. These shapes can have varying perceptions from individual to individual, depending on personalities, personal experiences, nationality, race, etc. Even though you may have a print of a mountainous landscape infront of you, the actual imperacle shapes may have different meanings.

Black and white can have a far more universal appeal then color and requires far more care to achieve the intended end result. I am sure there are plenty of photographers that shoot color that will debate that. But IMHO, those are the ones that are able to treat color as a form similiar to the way B&W percieves form, so that the visual impact is not in just the color.

Jennifer Waak
18-Jan-2002, 21:38
I'm certainly not going to say anything that hasn't already been said, but this is why I personally like B&W.

I like B&W because I feel it emphasizes the lines, angles, and textures of an image better than color does. I think it is those lines, angles, and textures that then become the subject rather than what you are actually photographing. It also helps add a timeless characteristic to subjects -- and I like it when photographing items that are old or are meant to look old.

A second way I like B&W is to force the viewer to focus on the subject. In the past day or so I was looking at a portrait of an old woman done in B&W. The lack of color really brought out the wrinkles in her face and while I think that the background would have been busy had it been in color, it all faded away in B&W.

Dave Schneidr
19-Jan-2002, 12:23
Many of the responses seem to separate large format for black & white from black & white in general. Is your interest and attraction for black & white any different when shooting in smaller formats?

24-Jan-2002, 11:46
I got bored with black and white about 20 years ago. Too easy. All of the controls you could apply during and post exposure to "make" the photo successful. Color, much more difficult (for me) because you need to have greater concentration and seeing to incorporate the color into a successful photo. However, I have noticed that a good color photo has a good black & white photo as it's foundation. Now, applying the color to that photo is the hard part. I find myself looking at many B&W photos and saying, "to bad it's not color" because I know I'm missing some information that (I think) would make the photo communicate better.

B&W is like fiction, it's a representation of reality, but not reality. The best fiction is powerful and can get you to think about reality. Color is reality and the challenge is to move the reality off-center beyond the surface, past the colors, and into the subject. On a so-so B&W photo people will say, "isn't it dramatic?" - and you can get away with one dimensional presentation. Most color photos either really work or they suck badly.

Kind of like the difference between drama and comedy in the theater. People will sit through a long, boring drama waiting for the "message." But, when comedy doesn't work, they get up and walk out because it is obvious the work is falling on it's face and just plain stinks. Black and white - drama. Color - comedy.

2-Nov-2004, 08:42
Why black and white instead colors?

A famous french painter said once as a provocation : "give me some mud; I will make a masterpiece with it".

Black tone on a picture is like mud on a toile. It's cheaper, easy to collect, simple to use. There is no limit. It can make masterpieces.

Pictures made of colors are just a another world.

Jim Galli
2-Nov-2004, 20:34
Color is "utilitarian". Color is for the mundane workaday projects that get foisted on me. Advertising. Promotion. Weddings. Grandbabies. Customers. You name it that someone else has required and it has to be color. It's expected and nothing else will be tolerated. We get bombarded with billions of color images daily it seems. With computers, good color is so common now that it doesn't even register as an image anymore. It's just there. Ordinary to the utmost!

OTOH an excellent B&W picture will make me stop dead in my tracks. If it's really good I'll spend much time drinking it in. I am uplifted. Not all certainly, but some, are noble. Elevated above the ordinary by magnitudes.

Ken Lee
3-Nov-2004, 05:54
It's simpler.

gary bridges
3-Nov-2004, 19:34
Black & White is magic

John Kasaian
3-Nov-2004, 22:31
A good friend with his three young daughters came to my nieghborhood 4th of July parade. Being a single father, photos of him with his fast growing daughters are a bit scarce so Suzelle and I made it a point to take a few snapshots--- her with her canon digital elph and I with the family olympus stylus loaded with tmax 100. A few days later I surprised him with the snapshots. The digis were very good and certainly colorful, but the B&W brought a tear to his eyes. THATS why I like B&W!