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keithwms

What's So Special About Black and White?

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by , 03-08-2009 at 10:39 PM (2258 Views)
What's So Special About Black and White?

'Fine art' photography has historically been so dominated by black & white that some might conclude that artistic photography is black & white. Why is this so? After decades of technical refinements in colour photography leading to modern c41, E6, colour instant film processes and the digital technologies, why is black and white photography still perceived as the higher art?

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Reasons abound, of course. One point of view that some may offer is that black and white photography is intrinsically more artistic, because it fundamentally departs [coloured] reality. Clyde Butcher, for example, asserts that "Color is a duplication; B&W is an interpretation." John Sexton has commented that "It's so bizarre to me that I can show you a picture that's black-and-white and you somehow think it represents reality. When's the last time you opened a window and it was black and white outdoors?"

Does the un-reality of black and white photography underlie the common view that it is more artistic? This blanket assertion seems somewhat less appealing once one considers that artistic painting ...in all its coloured glory... dates back much further than silver halide photography. Why in the paintings of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Van Gogh and so many others, do we find so much... colour? (this despite the expense associated with gathering the pigments, as opposed to the widespread availability of stable black, grey, and white media in every fireplace!) Why did da Vinci invent in black and white, but paint in colour? Did all those guys just not get it, that black and white is intrinsically more artistic?!

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In answer to the question of why black and white photography has gained so much favour, some may cite the longer history of the black and white craft, which extends back ~200 years to Joseph Niépce in the 1820s (or perhaps further to Carl Scheele's discoveries many decades earlier). Cast against that long history, colour photography is still an infant, even if one assumes that it began with James Clerk Maxwell's demonstrations of colour separation (~1860). Colour media for realistic depictions have not been widely and inexpensively available for as long as black and white media. It could perhaps be argued that a convenient means for accurately representing colours under arbitrary lighting conditions (i.e. different colour temperatures) dates back only a decade or so to the advent of colour metering and digital processing. Regarding the colour films: are they successful because they are literal in their colour renditions, or because they lend an intriguing un-reality to a scene? Will the widespread availability of digital media lead to a fundamental change in how we perceive colour photography? Might colour photography soon be seen as even less artistic than ever before, because it is more literal and "correct" than ever before?

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Whether black and white photographic media are and will continue to be preferred for artistic pursuits can be fairly debated. Perhaps we simply haven't been doing colour photography long enough to realize the artistic possibilities; historically, the worth of the arts tends to be established over many centuries and not mere decades. One simply cannot assume that past arts will be equally appreciated in the future, nor that future arts will be appreciated now.

In any case, we are left with one undeniable fact: black and white photography just works. Why? It is clear that it tends to underscore the more abstract features of a scene, e.g. geometry and texture, which might otherwise be overwhelmed by colour. It is also worth noting that our scotopic vision is almost entirely monochromatic (not really black and white per se, but at least dehued in a similar fashion). Scotopic vision provides generally much lower acuity than colour vision, and is activated in low-light scenes- hence the almost monochromatic appearance of moonlit landscapes and the like. One of the interesting features of visual perception is how well the brain can process the almost monochromatic, faint, low acuity scotopic image and form an interpretation. Thus on a faintly moonlit night, a face can be recognized in the dark, a deer discerned crossing a roadway... but so too a branch can become a snake, or a field of grain can become a lake. Scale cues are more difficult to reconcile... the mind conjures up many extraordinary interpretations where clear information is lacking!

Perhaps, then, the way we see and interpret black and white is inherently different, at the anatomical level. Perhaps the brain has actually been trained, over millions of years or more, to rely more on broader interpretative and contextual and extrapolative thinking when confronted with a black and white image.

So... black and white photography just works. Why does it work for you? Does it matter that you know why it works? And can colour photography work at the same level?
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  1. TheFlyingCamera's Avatar
    I think that with the rise of digital imaging where color is the de-facto norm, and that creating black-and-white imagery from it requires a removal of color which produces a distinct look from imagery made with black-and-white film, color imagery will become more mundane and less "artistic" in some ways. When color imaging became affordable to the masses, and adopted as the primary means of image-making for the general public (really starting in the 1950s), it separated itself from "artistic" photography because of the proletarian nature of color image-making.

    There are certainly enough people doing color photography as an art form that you can't assert it is NOT accepted as an art medium (Cindy Sherman, Alec Soth, William Eggleston, to name a few), but it is definitely a minority medium. Interesting exploration.
  2. keithwms's Avatar
    Interesting, isn't it, how much tone manipulation is now routinely added to digital colour work.

    Honestly I didn't get the concept of "literal colour" until I tried some digital stuff myself and then it dawned on me: hold on! The reason why I like colour film is not because it shows me the world precisely as it is. Rather, colour film shows me the world as I want to see it (just like somebody once said).

    What if colour photography were merely a literal capture of what I see... would I still care to do it? Probably not, honestly. So I personally do not see colour as inherently more literal than b&w, though literal colour certainly does exist and has its own distinct artistic force... e.g. Eggleston.
    Updated 03-10-2009 at 07:52 PM by keithwms
  3. Finn McCoull's Avatar
    The scotopic vision idea is interesting but, as we generally view b&w photographs in relatively high light levels, I wonder. Something that has always interested me is the scale effect. When I look around me I never observe colour until I think colour, if you get what I mean!
    In viewing colour landscape photographs however, I'm immediately forced to see saturated colour especially where large colour areas are concentrated in a small print. Maybe the concentrated colour, tone, texture etc. are just too much to relax with and enjoy.
  4. keithwms's Avatar
    Thanks for the comment, Finn. Yes, I agree of course that we do view prints with the full benefit of cone vision. Nevertheless, I wonder if our response to a b&w scene might be conditioned. Because the brain may associate dehued scenes with night (or perhaps even dreams?), might this association affect how we interpret a dehued image?

    Here is an image that got me thinking along this track some time ago. Just a simple image at the end of a roll of film.

    Now, to me, this image evokes moonlight illumination. But actually, it was taken in high noon light, with infrared film. That set me off wondering: what are the cues in colour and tone that affect how we interpret a scene even before we start really analyzing the composition. In other words, what are the really powerful cues that are important in the very first glimpse of an image. In this particular case, I think the b&w tone and contrast is what made me associate the scene with moonlight.

    I suppose that the mind, foremost, wants to identify reality within a scene... that is how our image recognition is conditioned. What if the first step in that process is either to confuse the scene with a night or dreamlike image, or, on the other hand, to realize right off the bat that this isn't a literal representation because it shows something we know to be coloured. In either case, there has been a fundamental change in how we proceed to interpret the image after that first glimpse.

    At any rate, regardless of whether scotopic vision plays a role as some sort of primary cue for interpretation, I think the more important point is that b&w images tend to evoke... they tend to ask for broader, more abstract interpretation.

    Your point that saturated colours can be "too much" in a print is quite interesting. Whereas I tend to like smallish, intimate b&w prints, my instinct with colour landscapes is typically to print them large. I suppose that I think of colour prints as a sort of large window into a reality, whereas the b&ws are entirely different.
    Updated 03-15-2009 at 12:37 AM by keithwms
  5. CPorter's Avatar
    Thought provoking for sure. I can't begin to get too deep about it but what AA said once comes to mind. Paraphrasing, he said that he could control color to a certain point until it became obviously unreal. With black and white, although it can be presented as very unreal, it may not be obviously so, at least to the lay person. The degree of tonal manipulation can be quite extreme, but it more easily becomes lost in translation when taken in context with shape, form, space, and texture. Whatever it is, you are right, it just works.
  6. keithwms's Avatar
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think I remember that comment by AA, although if it was in the interview I saw, I did think that the interviewer was leading him on a bit.

    I suppose the big question is: will a landscape photographer working in colour media ever have a reputation as lofty as his? Or will his successor(s) keep faith in b&w. Time will tell. I suppose that colour has risen to the very top (or at least close to the very top) in almost every other genre of photography.... but perhaps not landscape.


 

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