Updated: Sep 20, 2021
When Seth and I started this blog, we agreed to only post black and white photos as a theme of the site. It was my idea but he agreed that it would be a good aesthetic with the kind of content we’re trying to publish here. I’m glad we’ve stuck with that theme. I’ve shot quite a bit of black and white over the last year, and I wanted to write some of my reflections over why I like black and white so much, and what I think makes for a good black and white photo.
The actual, honest reason why I wanted this to be a B&W blog is simply that I think it looks cool. I wanted to put some kind of artistic restraint on our content to help limit our focus, and that seemed like a good one to start with.
The thought-out reason, at the time, was that we wanted to preserve the experience of going somewhere new for the first time. We actually really love all the places we write about, and the hope for this blog was that somebody reading it might be interested enough to visit one of the businesses we’ve featured. Seth and I thought that maybe shooting in B&W, only showing a small portion of any particular location, would be more of a “teaser trailer” than an in-depth experience review. We want to preserve the surprise you get when you walk into a well designed atmosphere, and holding back from showing any color adds a layer of separation into all of our posts.
In my opinion, good B&W photography creates two contradictory experiences for the viewer.
On one hand, it feels very familiar. B&W reminds us of the classic era of entertainment before color became the broad standard in the 1960’s. Everyone could name at least a handful of classic B&W films, maybe ones they watched growing up. I’m talking about the Casablanca’s, the Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or the Andy Griffith Show’s. Many people are also familiar with the work of Ansel Adams, even if they couldn’t name another famous photographer off the top of their head. B&W images remind us of our grandparents. They can feel historical and documentarian, like old news footage from WW2. They can feel very gritty and real and DIY.
On the other hand, B&W photos convey the opposite of comforting familiarity. There is an inherent non-reality to all B&W shooting. We experience the world in color. We communicate using colors, we associate emotions and memories with color. B&W photography and films alienate us from the world they convey. I think our mind asks more questions of our eyes when we view good B&W photos. Less is more after all. What aren’t we being allowed to see? What don’t we know from the information in front of us? What colors are we missing? What might be hiding in those shadows?
This is why I think B&W is so effective in the horror genre. Obviously there are classic examples like Dracula or Frankenstien, but if you want to really see exactly what I’m talking about, I can’t recommend The Lighthouse (2019) enough. It’s a gorgeous, strange and haunting film. The Lighthouse feels like a delirious nightmare, and a great deal of that affect is owed to the exceptional black and white cinematography.
I keep saying “good black and white”. Maybe I can try to define what I think makes a B&W photo good.
When you strip away color from an image, everything else becomes more significant. Textures pop more. Shadows and leading lines take on a larger role in telling whatever story you want to get across with your shot. More unique, extreme angles and perspectives can be used without seeming too out of place.
But one of the most important things to get right in a black and white photo is to ensure that it’s not just black and white. You’ve got to give the viewer something really chewy, something that their brain wants to soak in and take apart piece by piece. A wide variety in tonal values is so crucial to making B&W photos engaging and interesting. The more shades of gray you can fit into an image, the better. The darkest darks and brightest highlights should be there, in moderation. But what I’m shooting for in my B&W photos is to hit every value in between those extremes.
What do you think? Is B&W just edgy and faux artsy? Is all photography and filmography made better by the presence of color? Or is there still room for unique artistic expression told in black and white and grays?
Photos shot with a Canon AE-1P 35mm, Ilford Delta 400. 13th Street, OKC.