We’re back! In this episode Suzanne and I chat about Black and White Photography — Is it just nostaglic looking? Does it suddenly turn crappy photos into “Art”?
My daughter, climbing up some rocks at a locals-popular watering hole outside of Santa Cruz. There are images of her smiling and waving, and of wading across the stream, but this one was more abstract, anonymous, and dynamic. I love it in B&W… but now that i look at it here, the color isn’t bad, the colors are somewhat muted and don’t really distract from her form. Oh well…
Ten Reasons To Like B&W:
Reminder that all photography is surreal. It’s obvious when pictures are b&w; it’s less obvious when they’re in color.
Color is distracting from what’s going on. The eye is attracted to color. So if the color is part of the subject, great. But frequently it’s not, it complicates things. Color can be easily overwhelming, like adding salt to a dish you’re preparing. It adds taste, certainly, but it’s easy to add too much.
Post production in color is trying to make a still image look like what you saw with your eye (usually). So if something is yellow, you try to make it REALLY yellow. But in B&W i have more ability to adjust how the things in frame look, how strong they are, how much attention they draw. I have lots of dimensions I can adjust this image in without changing the way a viewer receives it, and without it feeling unusually surreal. We don’t have that reaction to b&w, it’s ALL surreal, so we can mess with the image a lot and it stays the same. Try that in color and it comes across as “weird” and “false.”
It’s impossible to reproduce colors in print, or even on screens, that match the experience of seeing something with your eye. So it’s always a weird discrepancy, and the color photo always kinda feels “less-than” the scene as i saw it in person.
It forces me to focus on shape and composition. Ideally i’d do this in color too, but sometimes i don’t.
Color images are often pleasing because they’re “pretty” — which is nice at first, but doesn’t hold over time. I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s essay that proposed a beautiful photograph is not just a picture of a beautiful thing.
It’s a forced constraint. It’s not necessarily better or worse than color, it’s just that it’s an arbitrary limitation I put on myself when i make photographs, and it’s fun to work with constraints. It’s a little harder, and that’s okay. So many things make shooting easier these days — it’s nice to have some creative work. It’s one of my “haiku” rules, that i enjoy seeing what i can do while following these limitations. (The next episode is about these rules).
Another photographer once told me that everything in the frame should matter, should be consciously present, and that goes for the color too. If there’s going to be color in the image, it should be important to what the image is saying, and not just documenting the scene.
It creates a more cohesive body of work. Even if you’re not an artist, trying to create a professional “body of work” the pictures you take still constitute your body of work, and over years you may want to display them together in photo walls or in books… and when they’re in color the colors in sets of pictures are nice if they go together. It’s hard to show images in bright sun along side images in firelight, alongside images inside with incandescent bulbs… the color tones and feeling are all a bit misaligned. Maybe it doesn’t matter much, but when they’re all monochromatic, no matter when they were taken or in what lighting condition, they sorta fit together. It’s true, they still can vary a lot, but on the whole, a set of b&w photos over 20 years will still feel cohesive. Color is harder to make this happen for.
It feels timeless, and photos are both dated and undated because of this. New things feel classical; old things feel the same way.
“…one sees differently with color photography than black-and-white… in short, visualization must be modified by the specific nature of the equipment and materials being used.” – Ansel Adams
Suzanne’s Instagram (@sfritzhanson)
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