“To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.”
– Andri Cauldwell
There is something classic and infinitely appealing to me about a black-and-white photograph. I grew up admiring and absorbing the work of Ansel Adams, Margaret Bourke White, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Later, I was introduced to the work of Michael Kenna, Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Ruth Bernhard and so many others.
There is a simplicity about black and white—even when the images themselves are complex. Without color, we perceive images in a fresh way—one that would be quite different from our real-life experience of the same subject. Without color, we see other details more clearly. Indeed, I believe that even though we are given less, we see more. Light and shadow take on more significance. High contrast subjects often become more visually interesting. Textures may be accentuated. Subtle tonal gradations often lend an image an air of mystery. Rich blacks and clean whites can make images bold and graphic.
Black-and-white photographs have a timeless quality about them—partly because they've been around since the early 1800s. Though available by the 1930s, color film wasn’t widely used by consumers until the 1960s, and the "look" of color has changed significantly over the years, thus dating images. Also, without color (such as the warm tones of sunset or cool tones of winter) we are less likely to know what time of day or even in which season an image was photographed. As a result, we must look for other clues for time.
We are bombarded with so much color in the world today that it takes some time to adjust to seeing in black and white. But once we do, it's like opening our eyes to a new world—one filled with lines, shape, form, patterns, texture, contrast and tonal variations. (Clearly, those elements were there before and can also be captured quite impressively in color, but black and white brings them to life in a very different way.) We begin to see in shades of gray and realize how overpowering color can be to other compositional elements. We learn to read shadows and become more aware of highlights. We embrace a greater range of light and dark.
Word on the street is that black and white is making a comeback, at least in the fine art market. Color has clearly won over the masses and is the standard for print publishing, electronic publishing, advertising and more. But there is still a very special place for black and white in the worlds of portraiture, street photography, landscape and architectural photography and fine art photography. I've come full circle—from early beginnings in black and white to a publishing career where everything was in color and now back to primarily black and white for my personal work.
How do you feel about black and white? As a general rule, do you prefer color or black and white photographs? Or does it vary by subject? What do you like most about black and white photography?