by Gabriella Mazza
Black and white photography may be a thing of the past, but there are many reasons why professionals choose this medium over color, even to this day.
The first attempts at color photography were made as early as the mid-1800s. The hillotype, for instance – devised by American minister Levi Hill – was one of the earliest examples of heliochromy recorded in history. The process involved treating daguerreotype plates with various coats of metal substances that reacted to different colors of the light spectrum.
Other early experiments relied on additive and subtractive methods, color sensitization, and the use of screen plates – all relatively short-lived due to shortcomings, such as excessively long exposure times, high costs, and poor definition. It was not until 1935, when the Eastman Kodak Company introduced color film, that modern photography was born.
However, despite the popularity garnered by the new medium by the 1960s, many professionals remained faithful to their old ways. This was not simply a matter of habit, but a deliberate choice rooted in the photographer’s social engagement, emotional sensitivity, or aesthetic exploration. Nowadays, this is a thriving genre favored by numerous fine art, landscape, architecture, and fashion photographers as well as those promoting activist causes.
In this article, we explore the upsides of black and white photography through the lens of trailblazers and contemporary artists.
Looking Beyond the Surface
Ted Grant, widely regarded as the father of Canadian photojournalism, used to tell his students “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” This sentiment was echoed by other pioneering photographers of the time, such as New Yorker Diane Arbus, who worked relentlessly to produce imagery that would normalize marginalized groups and people branded as social deviates; and Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose candid street shots immortalized poetic moments of human existence.
The principle behind this belief is that colors tend to distract the viewer from the most important aspect of the picture. Chromatic overload stops us from establishing a genuine connection with the subject of the image. Lost in a sea of colors and details, we simply drown. Black and white photography gives us space to breathe, stripping the picture of excessive visual noise. We are able to instantly empathize with the world depicted in the image. We are moved, appalled, disgusted, enthralled, seduced; no matter the reaction, we are there and cannot look away.
Forming an intimate bond with the observer is all the more crucial when an image is meant to sensitize the public about a controversial social topic. Israeli photographer Ora Cohen confronts issues of gender identity in her black-and-white portrait series The Butch Project. Cohen traveled to Berlin where she found her subjects, interviewed them, and formed meaningful connections before photographing them. “My goal is to expose women like us and to allow people to see the beauty in us; our relevance,” Cohen explains. “For me to shoot in black and white is to go back for a moment to the beginning, to see the object or landscape in its simplicity. It touches memory spaces even if they do not belong to me directly. It exposes me to longing, loneliness, and questions of existence and belonging.”
Instilling a Sense of Drama
Another compelling reason for favoring black and white over color is to evoke a feeling of dramatic intensity. One of the pioneers of this genre was American landscape photographer Ansel Adams. Arguably the most important photographer of the 20th century, Adams produced high-contrast black-and-white images of unparalleled visual potency. He captured pristine fragments of wilderness in the United States that instilled a sense of awe and ominous foreboding. Adams’ nature, as pictured in all its austere and solemn beauty, makes the viewer ponder over their own mortality and the place they occupy in the world. The heightened theatricality and dramatic depth of Adams’ black-and-white images would be impossible to convey in color.
Similarly, Australian photographer Adam Gearing, who specializes in landscapes and adventure sports, finds himself drawn to black and white when he wishes to exaggerate the composition and tonal contrast of the imagery. “My emphasis is always on creating drama and an emotive engagement with the work, so choosing to edit in black and white is decided carefully and considerately every time,” Gearing explains. “By removing color from an image, the subject has nowhere to hide. Color cannot be relied upon for anything in the image to stand out.”
Finding Poetry in the Everyday
There is a certain poetic quality about black and white photographs. Maybe it is the feeling of nostalgia they evoke or the delicate simplicity of form that gives the picture a timeless meditative aura. A black and white photo quietly turns us inward, by eliminating the cacophony of colors.
A master of the genre is Michael Kenna, one of the most influential landscape photographers of our time, who takes atmospheric nature shots of mysterious, elegant beauty. He shoots at night or at dawn, when the light filters through the sky almost ethereally. Kenna likens his work to a “visual haiku,” simple and evocative with only a few essential elements. “Black and white is immediately more mysterious because we see in color all the time. It is quieter than color,” he says.
An admirer of Kenna’s work is German photographer Sandra Bechtold, who takes graceful images of local plants and flowers in black and white. Her practice is an effort in meditation and appreciation of the small treasures that surround us. Bechtold works in monochrome, as color would take away from the quiet elegance of her subjects. “To concentrate on the essentials helps me not get lost in the abundance of nature,” she says. “With my black and white photography, I would love to show everybody that nature’s beauty is around us and you can find it close to you, if you open your eyes and your heart to it.”
The timeless and nostalgic feel of black and white images, instead, is what captivates American photographer and former truck driver Fred Loring. He captures abandoned homesteads, old farming equipment, and ghost towns across the country that carry stories of the past. “I like how my image looks like an old historical image,” Loring says. “I like how in black and white the main subject stands out and you see more details in different shades and different textures. To me, color makes the image too busy and hard to follow and see the story.”
Black and white photography may be perceived as old-fashioned or niche, but it is still the preferred medium of many contemporary artists. Its visual power, ability to form a genuine connection between the subject and the viewer and graceful elegance will continue to charm photographers and observers alike for a long time to come.