What attracts you to B&W?

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A recent post questioned "why B&W instead of color". There was a number of responses suggesting a range of reasons for B&W that it was, in my words "a departure from reality" to that it was easier to see in B&W rather than color.

I started out with color photography, and after about a year with B&W I've found it an incredible challenge! In color photography, color itself can be used as a compositional 'tool'. For instance, the profusion of colors in a scene of wildflowers, typical in color photography, often ends up 'flat' in B&W. I've found that I have to re-evaluate what I decide to photograph depending on if I'm shooting color or B&W film - scenics that work in color frequently do not work in B&W. I guess at this point that I should make clear that I'm talking about landscape or scenic photography rather than portraits or architechtural photography.

Weston mentions a few time in his daybooks that 'subject matter is immaterial'. Looking at Weston's work from his 'daybook' period it seems he didn't mind if viewers saw his cypress root as a 'flame' or his palm trunk as a 'smokestack' - it was the form, texture, or contrast rather than the subject itself that drew his interest. In fact, he passed on photographing subjects he felt were too 'picturesque'.

When you photograph scenics in B&W, what is that attracts YOU? Does the subject matter influence your decision to 'make the shot'? Or, is it form, texture, or some intangible emotional element?

-- Andy (akkup@mindspring.com), January 18, 2002


Andy, I CANNOT get on with colour - although I greatly admire a number of photographers who only use that medium! I cannot explain the attraction to black and white other than the complete involvement with the whole process - maybe I'm a control freak!!

-- paul owen (paulowen_2000@yahoo.com), January 18, 2002.

When I began to work on B/W, like others, I focus on forms, textures, shape, play around light and shadow and then subject matter one a while. Now I take these at a whole. B/W photography to me is subjective and abstract. The whole process involve a transition of reality to personal sensitive.

-- NG Sai Kit (etckit@ust.hk), January 18, 2002.

Ditto Paul.

I am suprised that I too like B&W more, especially in LF.

A B&W photo is abstract, like the inspiration that went into making it.

B&W negatives are more beautiful, satisfying.

Color photography is very excellent too.

-- Andre Noble (andrenoble@yahoo.com), January 18, 2002.

Andy, my opinion is that monochrome picture removes superfluous information (usual color information of common everyday experience) and thereby turns on the viewer's own imagination. Only viewer's OWN activity counts. -- Of course if the colors are superfluous for given scene, according the photographer's vision and decision.

-- Andrey Vorobyov (AndreyVorobyov@yahoo.com), January 18, 2002.


As these philosophical threads crop up with some regularity now, it is evident that a great many of the participants in the forum are indulging in photography recreationally and tend towards the objet trouvé. The found and fancied does not often dictate the medium; it welcomes, in fact probably actually relies on, a diversity of interpretation to attain its apotheosis. Irving Penn made studies of cigarette butts in New York gutters on black & white. Walker Evans did the same with a Polaroid SX-70. Each approach is valid, each has its merit - it's simply a question of intent.

One of the most oft-quoted utterances of the dear Edward was:

"To see the thing itself is essential; the quintessence revealed direct, without the fog of impressionism." - Edward Weston

Albert Renger-Patzsch and Edward Weston were giants amongst photographers whose intent was Objective photography. They worked in black & white because that, like the black T Model Ford, was the limit of the options. Given the proliferation and quality of colour materials readily available today would these guys see the frequently mentioned abstraction of black & white as 'the fog of impressionism'? Would colour actually clear a path to the 'thing itself'? Who can tell, it is purely conjecture. Their photographs reflect their perception relative to the prevailing conditions at the time they worked. If we wish to work in black & white in an attempt to emulate the achievements of Past Masters we are deluding ourselves by only considering half the possibilities available to us: many Modern Masters are working in colour.

I work commercially all day every day in colour. It has to be accurate colour for architects & interior designers and it has to be atmospheric colour to make living spaces welcoming and desirable. On my days off I go out and shoot black & white. The ultra-wide lenses get left behind and I revel in normal size relationships. The sterile order of my commercial assignments also induces me to seek chaos, mess, surrealism - another reason for black & white. So to answer your question of what attracts me to a subject - I respond in rebellion to the commercial strictures of shooting other people's wishes.

But now, ever so slowly, I am beginning to see that there are things that I would like to do with colour. Colour for the sake of colour. A celebration of vibrancy. You see, I can't think of a vibrant black and white picture. I am willing to accept suggestions, but vibrant, dazzling, shocking - they seem to only relate to colour.

At the end of the day I think we must strive for an evolution in our careers. We need to use our successes and accomplishments to springboard us into the next phase of our development. When the inner voice says black and white by Jove that's what we are going to do, and do well. But if there is a faint call beckoning you to colour, heed it and see where it leads. We are blessed to be enthralled with this consuming, emotional, expressive creature of photography. Respond to your gut feelings and follow your instincts, abandon restraint and compromise - you're here for a good time, not a long time. Use photography as a vehicle of liberation; there'll be no shortage of rationalism when you get back to your proper job.

Walter Glover

-- Walter Glover (walterg@netaus.net.au), January 18, 2002.

Cost of colour.

-- (bmitch@home.com), January 18, 2002.

Quite simply, I think black and white LF photography offers the prospect of both (i) abstraction and (ii) epic, (particularly landscape), whereas colour LF photography offers the prospect of intensity.

-- fw (finneganswake@altavista.net), January 18, 2002.

Good shout Walter! "see" with your whole being!

-- adrian tyler (tyler@nova.es), January 18, 2002.

From a viewing standpoint I think B&W still commands a certain presence when it is on the wall. It is this initial departure from the rest of the color world that first attracted me. When i was younger I remember seeing my first large prints 16x20, 20x24 at a museum with my 6th grade class and being mesmerized with the images. I feel the same way today. I well executed B&W print seems to always attract attention. An equivalent color eventually seems to just become part of the furniture, IMHO.

For myself, monochrome (B&W, toned, lith prints etc) eliminates extraneous color detail that simply would distract from the final image. Even in color a lot of what I do is very low saturation, but there seems to always be a small element of color that would focus the viewers attention and distract from the overall image.

Second, I like take ordinary subject matter and produce a more dramatic abstract presentation. For myself, a good abstract "fools" the viewer at first, as they see something (hopefully) totally new to them. Upon further viewing or seeing the caption they recognize what the abstract is from and gain a further appreciation for a different way of seeing. For the subject matter I use, color reveals to much reality and takes attention away form detail.

One of the strengths of color is using it for abstractions that normally B&W would produce as lifeless. Your flower example is excellent.

Finally, B&W provides unlimited opptions for interpreting a negative in the darkroom. Of course this now is possible with color through the digital medium.

I am working more and more with color as I slowly find the kind of film and techniques that fit my vision. Lower saturation and muted or washed out colors fit my vision in LF.

-- James Chinn (jchinn2@dellepro.com), January 18, 2002.

Although this is large format forum and Andy's question does mention an exclusively LF photographer, Edward Weston, the discussion has proceeded largely as though it is a matter simply of b/w vs. color, when in fact I think the question really is (or at least the question I'm going to answer is) What attracts you to LF B@W? I live in a world of color, with 25 albums of color 35mm prints to prove it. I see LF b@w as a particular, fairly well defined and currently viable art form, but not as an expression of the totality of my existence or world view.

1) So, my first rule when deciding on a subject is: make sure that when people see the final print they don't immediately wonder or ask "Didn't he have any color film?" I look for high contrast monochrome subjects with strong whites and blacks and intermediate grays. Clouds, snow, sunlit stone, deep shadows and all the rest for landscapes. For portraits, clothing that looks right, sometimes with instructions to my subjects. Green peppers and cauliflower, as every one of us knows, make for great still lifes.

2) Adoption of modernism is in my mind the greatest contribution of the f.64 masters to photography. Line, shape, texture, contrast. The search for the formal abstract essence underlying the particular natural, architectural, or human subject. B&W is ideal for the modernist approach, I would say superior to color (a distraction sometimes, as a previous poster noted).

3) Part of the attraction of b&w for me is not connected with color or its absence but because I view the LF craft as an end in itself, as a process I want to master in its totality, from previsualization to hanging mounted print. Color adds complications and expense that I'm not prepared to deal with.

4) The permanence of the b&w image. Someday all my treasured color photographs will have faded (although I am thinking of some way to enhance their survival by digital means), but I'd like these efforts at producing images worthy of being called "art" to be around for a while.

5) My own place and time are a factor inasmuch as, at age 55, I continue to be a product of that has gone before me, including a photogapher father and much early exposure to LF b&w landscape. Living in the present doesn't have to entail cutting all ties with your past.

In general, when I'm doing my LF work in b&w I'm not thinking, as Walter suspects some of us might, about any competing merits of the color film and print medium--or of any other medium, including digital. I'm trying to produce something that can stand on its own in 2002 as a viable expression of an authentic vision that doesn't have to answer to the charge of anachronism or to apologize for anything.

-- Nick Jones (nfjones@stargate.net), January 18, 2002.

As you stated in your post, one needs to re-evaluate their subject matter depending on choice of B&W or color. I think it really is true that one needs to have a different approach between the two. I greatly admire those that can move between the two, providing a totally different vision and feel to their work depending on the choice.

I think that is why when I use color I keep to more monochrome renditions and muted colors. When I try to use a more colorful "palette" of subject matter, the final result is not satisfying. I seem to get better results just using a 35mm and making a lot of exposures, probably because I have so many more to edit from.

I believe I will get better at using color as I continue to learn to appreciate its own unique difficulties and opportunities. But I will probably always approach a subject first from how will it communicate as a B&W print, and then explore any possibilities for a color rendition.

-- James Chinn (jchinn2@dellepro.com), January 18, 2002.

FW hit it on the head: Epic.

If Milton, Ariosto, or Tasso were photographers, they would use LF. Milton would certianly use B&W (possibly wet plate). An LF in B&W shouts "Of man's first disobedence ..." Many would like to focus on that first fruit and shoot it in colour, but that misses the point.

Setting up the tripod and putting in the big B&W neg, I often have Miltonic pretences dancing in my head.

When I put colour in the 35mm rangefinder, I'm feeling like Blake, looking for a burning tiger -- caught one once, an orange Vespa with an orange sheepskin seat cover. A bit more trivial, but still fun.

With my camera, I don't want to write manuals, catalogues, or be a jornalist, just like most professional photogaphers wouldn't like my job either. When I'm off work, I want to write poetry with my lens. And like Blake and Milton, I have a day job, so I don't need to worry about what people expect. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (dvlastor@sfu.ca), January 18, 2002.

Andy, your original question is a good one, and like all good questions it cannot be answered quickly. Which means that this forum may not the best place to ask it. A start at an honest answer would require a real conversation between friends, not just an internet response (internet forums are very useful, but are superficial to a fault). You mention Edward Weston. I am sure you are aware of very different photographers, such as the Magnum people or Josef Sudek or Robert Frank. They too were/are masters of black and white photography. To ask what attracts an independent photographer to a certain subject is like asking why Odysseus could hear certain Sirens. Our deep thirst for living enters into any answer that might be meaningful. In other words, subject matter in itself might be simple, but our attractions are not. And, as far as I am concerned, anyone who would really attempt to answer your question here, with specificity, would be missing the point. Andy, thank you for asking the question.

-- Michael Alpert (alpert@umit.maine.edu), January 18, 2002.

I agree, that is a very toughtful question with many long and complicated answers that may be too long for a message borad.

Personally I shoot both, color mostly for commercial applications and B&W for personal artistic expression, though I often overlap the two and so do many others. The entire creative thought process of composition, lighting, exposure is different, even when shooting the same subject at the same time. I always find myself choosing a differnt camera position, lens, perspective.

Often, the visual impact with color is tied up in the colors themselves and the emotions of the colors, that can have an almost predictable impact on the viewer. One example is the color pink. I remember watching a show where an individual had different colored cards that filled his view and asked to lift a heavy object. But when a pink card was placed infront of him, he could not lift the object.

B&W is primarily form, shape, textures, juxtapostions and what they resemble; triangles, cylinders, squares, ovals, stars, rough, smooth, waves, etc. These shapes can have varying perceptions from individual to individual, depending on personalities, personal experiences, nationality, race, etc. Even though you may have a print of a mountainous landscape infront of you, the actual imperacle shapes may have different meanings.

Black and white can have a far more universal appeal then color and requires far more care to achieve the intended end result. I am sure there are plenty of photographers that shoot color that will debate that. But IMHO, those are the ones that are able to treat color as a form similiar to the way B&W percieves form, so that the visual impact is not in just the color.

-- Rob Pietri (narrationsnlight@aol.com), January 18, 2002.

I'm certainly not going to say anything that hasn't already been said, but this is why I personally like B&W.

I like B&W because I feel it emphasizes the lines, angles, and textures of an image better than color does. I think it is those lines, angles, and textures that then become the subject rather than what you are actually photographing. It also helps add a timeless characteristic to subjects -- and I like it when photographing items that are old or are meant to look old.

A second way I like B&W is to force the viewer to focus on the subject. In the past day or so I was looking at a portrait of an old woman done in B&W. The lack of color really brought out the wrinkles in her face and while I think that the background would have been busy had it been in color, it all faded away in B&W.

-- Jennifer Waak (jen.waak@visi.com), January 18, 2002.

Many of the responses seem to separate large format for black & white from black & white in general. Is your interest and attraction for black & white any different when shooting in smaller formats?

-- Dave Schneider (dschneider@arjaynet.com), January 19, 2002.


To add to the reasons for preferring b/w I gave in my previous post, and to answer your question, my own "interest and attraction" in shooting large format b/w include being able to produce a large negative for contact printing, including for use of course on the contact printing only b/w papers like Azo. Take a look at Michael A. Smith's work on 8x10 and bigger films for what can be done with LF neg's and Azo paper. Another possibility opened up by the LF b/w negative is the very large enlargement, say 16x20, 20x24, and larger, where sharpness of detail is desired. Size of prints does matter, as with landscapes and/or with many images shot with wide angle lenses that capture lots of detail. So here, as with contact printing, the photographer is thinking differently about LF and 35mm formats when shooting b/w.

I still occasionally shoot 35mm b/w roll film, but only for subjects appropriate to the medium (such as portraits) and when a hand-held camera is required. Some of these negs are among my best and I continue to print them, usually to 5x7 framed in 8x10 mats.

-- Nick Jones (nfjones@stargate.net), January 20, 2002.

I got bored with black and white about 20 years ago. Too easy. All of the controls you could apply during and post exposure to "make" the photo successful. Color, much more difficult (for me) because you need to have greater concentration and seeing to incorporate the color into a successful photo. However, I have noticed that a good color photo has a good black & white photo as it's foundation. Now, applying the color to that photo is the hard part. I find myself looking at many B&W photos and saying, "to bad it's not color" because I know I'm missing some information that (I think) would make the photo communicate better.

B&W is like fiction, it's a representation of reality, but not reality. The best fiction is powerful and can get you to think about reality. Color is reality and the challenge is to move the reality off-center beyond the surface, past the colors, and into the subject. On a so-so B&W photo people will say, "isn't it dramatic?" - and you can get away with one dimensional presentation. Most color photos either really work or they suck badly.

Kind of like the difference between drama and comedy in the theater. People will sit through a long, boring drama waiting for the "message." But, when comedy doesn't work, they get up and walk out because it is obvious the work is falling on it's face and just plain stinks. Black and white - drama. Color - comedy.

-- steve (s.swinhart@worldnet.att.net), January 24, 2002.

All those B&W photos of the naked babes? Being a real 'arteest' by using B&W? Sounding really cool when saying Amidol, Strand, Weston & tonal range? Zone System talks I can make up out of thin air & no one ever questions it? Get to hobnob with Fred Picker?

Best of all, can talk pure BS & never really have to show anyone a picture?

-- Dan Smith (shooter@brigham.net), January 24, 2002.

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