Some folks are surprised when I say I only make black and white photographs. I hadn’t thought about it too much, I’ve shot color in the past, and I’m not color blind, but I am 100% focused on black and white photography at this point. The easy “artsy” answer of course would be simply “look at the photos”, but I figured I would write some words to explore this a little more.
One of the distractions of using photography as an artistic medium is the “reality factor” Folks see a color picture and think it is a record of a place and time. Perhaps this is because that is how the majority use color pictures, to record “reality”. They then assume the photographer must be using photography in a similar manner. I use photography with artistic intention. I’m not trying to record reality, but present an interesting, graphical, art piece. By using black and white I hope that I can nudge viewers into, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about this abstraction.
Black and white gives me a fair amount of artistic freedom in departing from the reality of a scene. I can increase contrast, darken and lighten tones in the final fine-art photograph and they still look natural. With color photography, change too much and the scene can become too garish and viewer’s first question becomes “are those colors real?”
By eliminating color I can focus on the other elements of design such as line, shape and texture to create an expressive print. By focusing my attention on these elements I can more effectively communicate with my audience. When presented by an emotionally exciting scene it might seem enough to just point the camera and click. What I have found is that is not enough, some exciting design element (such as a leading S-curve, or a repeating pattern) also needs to be presented in order for the final print to convey that initial excitement.
Black and white unifies our often chaotic visual world. I am often surprised to see a color photograph of a scene I have photographed. The colors often clash and seem non-harmonious and distracting. I feel black and white unifies disparate elements, and reveals the essence of a scene. I realize of course, this could simply be a personal preference, but for me the tones of gray are much more interesting to visually explore then a bunch of bright colors.
In the end different people will, hopefully, always see things differently, and these are just my personal observations. Lately I’ve been surprised to listen to some folks talk about “progress” and the assumption that progress is a straight line “up and to the right”. They would have you believe that digital, color imaging should replace older forms of photography as this is natural progression. I like to think there is room for options, and that the populist shouldn’t endanger the minority. I value traditional, black and white, film photography and don’t see any reason to change my ways!