There’s the classic trope about making any photograph “more artistic” by turning it Black and White. Who’d have thought that it’s actually much more difficult than that? I used to do a lot of Black and White photography but have tended to favour Colour since moving to Spain almost a decade ago. Coming back to Black and White film, where the Colour is gone forever, recently has proved something of a difficult transition and has shown me how different the two mediums within Photography really are, as well as how difficult it is to create strong work in Black and White.
Where I have found Black and White excels is with photographs of people, perhaps because there’s less possibility of distractions from clothing or the background competing with the eyes or facial expressions of the person in frame. I’m no evolutionary (or any other type of) Biologist but the wiring of our brains picks out faces and bright colours (useful for things like tigers). In Colour Photography these two can compete for our attention whereas in Black and White, the colourful objects are stripped away and the human face stands out to our eye. One of the areas where Black and White still holds its own in the contemporary photographic world is in Portraiture, with another being Street Photography which often involves people in perhaps very cluttered and busy environments. Black and White simplifies the scene and removes some of that visual clutter in the form of colour, allowing the viewer to focus on the people in the scene.
Classic Reportage and Documentary Photography was long done in Black and White (of course this was the only option for a number of years) and tended to be primarily people based in terms of subject matter. The reportage tradition lived on for a number of years though there was a gradual shift from the Black and White reportage of Life magazine to the Colour photography of National Geographic – from W. Eugene Smith’s mammoth photo essays to Steve McCurry’s Kodachrome. This trend has continued into the modern face of Documentary Photography which is, like much of contemporary photography, predominantly in Colour. Contemporary Documentary Photography is often more varied in terms of its focus than classic Reportage with a heavy focus on people. Where Black and White excelled at enabling the creation of striking pictures of people, Colour enables us to look at everyday life, including vernacular objects and spaces (almost) as they really appear – and often what is interesting or visually pleasing about these subjects is their colour, or the colour of the light falling upon them. This colour is lost in Black and White and may result in an uninteresting series of greys, blacks and whites compared to a vibrant red, green or blue, or even subtle but pleasant pastel shades of the colour(s) in question.
Take this picture from my recent set of photographs from ‘La Oliva‘ for example. Ignoring the helpful leading lines in the composition (though if you did notice those yourself then, thanks) the fact that our eye can come to rest on the human subject of this picture (he has a name and it is Marcos) is also aided by the fact that the bright green colour of the net he’s pulling is neutralised by the Black and White film. If memory serves he may also have been wearing a red jumper which could potentially have clashed with that green. One of those crates off to the side was black and so wouldn’t have changed a great deal, but the other was blue which adds a third colour into the mix and another possible distraction. The compositional elements might have been the same but the overall effect probably would not be nearly as strong in Colour.
A countpoint to the photograph from ‘La Oliva’ (but also made recently and by me) comes from these two pictures. Neither has a human subject, in fact one could argue that neither has a particular subject at all, rather they are depictions of an overall scene and what was interesting to me at the time was simply the light and colour of these particular scenes. In Black and White the first image might have enough prominent geometry from the lamp-post and pleasant enough overall tones and contrast to make for a reasonable picture, and the second one has some contrast to it but as a picture made around light and colour could also just prove wholly uninteresting … though of course you could argue they’re uninteresting photographs anyway, and frankly, I’m not going to fight you too hard on that one.
What’s the purpose of all this? Allow me to answer your question with a (particularly nihilistic) question: what’s the purpose of anything? Given the ultimate futility of … well, everything … we might as well engage in and enjoy the odd frivolous pursuit. Most people are already aware that Black & White and Colour are two different mediums with different strengths, weaknesses and inherent difficulties to work with and overcome. These are just my thoughts from a few months of working in Black and White without any Colour information to come back to later. My only siginificant body of Black and White work in the last decade was very much people based, and while I have done a few other Documentary projects over the past decade which saw me photograph people to a lesser or greater extent but much of my work has involved photographing non-human subjects, generally in Colour.
Trying to make compelling work in Black and White has been a challenge and I’m slowly learning what works and what doesn’t in this medium within a medium. Elements like Contrast, Light, Shadow and Texture tend to make for more striking images, and of course, these will be familiar to anyone who learned or studied Photography as classic assignment topics for students learning with Black and White film. These assignments help train people to look for elements that might aid in the creation of successful images. In a lot of ways it’s been like rolling back the years and learning to make pictures again, approaching things differently and learning to see with a different set of criteria, learning to speak a slightly different visual language – one with similar roots and structures but a different form of expression.
In the end I’m not sure if Black and White is really the ideal medium for the type of Photography I generally do, but the expirment has been a challenge and a learning curve. These are some of my more successful attempts from the tail end of 2020. I have more from the start of this year but this feels like plenty to be going on with. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the photographs.
A walk to Mola de Segart.
Geldo and Segorbe
New Year’s Day – Les Useres and Xodos