Why Do You Like Black and White Photography?



Cello Player, Central ParkMost of the articles on this site are responses to questions that have been asked of me over and over. One of the most common question is: Why do you like black and white photography? Do you ever shoot in color?

My first response is probably somewhat snippy -- if you don't know, then I can't tell you. In a way, that's true, because you would have to ask yourself what you like about black and white photography.

Or could you explain the why of love?

Nevertheless - I will try.

- Black and white photography, though it is abstract, feels more real to me than color photography. Why should this be? Could it be that I was brought up with black and white photographs. When I was a child, newspapers and television were still black and white. I don't think so because I know many younger photographers who feel the same way about it.

That sense of reality might have to do with the unreality of color photographs. The colors are just never right. Maybe something else is at work.

The first thing that strikes me, is that by removing color, by showing images in shades of gray, you are able to concentrate on two important things: light, and composition. Things that you have some control over. If you add color, then you are forced to contend with colors that you don't, unless you go into digital manipulation, have control over. And even then, if you want to be naturalistic, you only have limited control over the color of things. If you are dealing with skin tones, or a bowl of fruit, your rendition of colors need to be close to what you'd expect in "real life."

Not true in black and white. Already an abstraction, you can have black apples and white oranges. And nobody will complain. The sky can be any shade that makes sense to you. So black and white allows more control over the shades of things.

I wonder if it has to do with subject matter. Black and white feels like the color of New York. For me, New York city will always be a city best described in black and white. It is simply more dramatic, perhaps romantic, in monochrome.

And now for true confessions -- in all the years I have been shooting -- nearly 35 years -- I have never shot a roll of color film. Never. Not once. Okay, maybe once. I have no desire to. In fact, after so many years of shooting b&w, I probably see the world in shades of gray. That's just the way it is.

When I moved (temporarily) into the digital world - I shot in color (that's pretty much your only option) and then converted the images to b&w.

Now, if I were a painter, I would use color, because you can, to some extent do, decide what colors you want to use and how they should work together. Unless you have total control over a set, unless you build a world and paint it as you would like it, you are stuck with the natural colors of things.

And you know - I enjoy surprises. You may think you know what a particular shot is going to look like in black and white - but you usually don't. At least I don't. So there is the surprise of the negative. The surprise of the first print. And then time to adjust the tones you've taken from the so-called real world.

In short -- a good black and white photograph -- no matter the subject matter -- has a sense of music and mystery for me. And that, is the best explanation I can come up with today. Tomorrow, maybe something more original will occur to me. (revised) 10-31-05

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