Why black and white?

“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Elliott Erwitt

As is obvious if you look through my blog, most of my photographs are monochrome. I’m often asked why this is so. The quote above by Irwin is exactly why I process the vast majority of my images as black and white.

A person looking at a colour photograph is responding to the colours at first. Colour and our response to it plays a huge part in our lives. The advertising industry use colours and their different hues try to get us to buy the product.

This immediate reaction is not the case with black and white photography. Why then is monochrome photography considered so powerful and emotive? When colour film became available it was believed that monochrome photography would die. It did not. In fact with the introduction of digital cameras, there has been a resurgence in the genre.

Part of the reason is the word ‘interpretive’ in Irwin’s quote. In black and white photographs, there are no colours to tell us immediately how we should feel about the subject. Angry, happy or sad etc. Or there are no colours to delineate different subjects in the image. We have to take more time to look at what the photographer was trying to tell us. We are being asked to look beyond what colours would tell us about the subject. Colours are represented by tones and shades which the photographer, should they so wish, could emphasise in a different way to how they would appear naturally. Textures can be enhanced, colours darkened or lightened. The photographer is asking the viewer to search the image and to see his/her interpretation of the scene.

My first image was taken at the Black Country Living Museum and shows a forge. There is no colour in the bricks, but it is obvious they are old. The old door on the right is chipped and worn and the cloth covering the left doorway is frayed and dirty. We do not need colours to show these attributes. They would have detracted from the industrial scene of crumbling walls and dirty windows. We may have also missed the incredible texture of the walls and the different tonality of the individual bricks.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8



The second photograph is of pots on a shelf in a kitchen in one of the houses at the BCLM. The shape and form of the containers and their cast shadows are what I thought was important, not the colours. The lack of colour enables your eye to move through the image looking for detail, perhaps spotting the old ‘OXO’ box, and taking in the subtle gradations of the shadows.

Nikon D800, Nikkor 50mm f/1.8



The third image is of some vegetables on a shelf. We know that the warty pumpkin is an orange colour, but in this image that is not important. We are concentrating on its texture and making it stand out against the other vegetables. The others also need to be part of the composition and so received subtle toning. If this was a colour photograph, the focus would not have been so strong on the large, ugly pumpkin. It is easier for us take in a colour photograph with a sweep of the eyes, but a monochrome image needs more of an investment of time and interest.

Fuji X-E2, XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4




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