We live in a world of color. We see it in our daily lives, and the technology to capture each moment in color has been around for decades. So why, then, do photographers still shoot in black and white? What makes them envision a composition and want to strip away the color? Is it right for every photographer? These are all questions that come to mind, when discussing the topic of black and white photography.
While I can't speak for all the other photographers out there, I can tell you what motivates me to shoot in black and white. And I don't shoot sans color exclusively - I mix it up a bit. But if I had to narrow the essence of the questions above down to one word, it would be "emotion."
Photographs tell stories. They're more than just snapshots in time. Serious photographers approach each shot
with a motive - there's a message they want to convey before they click the shutter release. For me, black and white has a special purpose, one where the deepest moments of reflection and thought are brought out by the
absence of color. The contrast between the objects in the image is more defined, and the subjects tend to be better isolated, without a myriad of colors to distract one's eye. I tend to think of color in many images as ambient noise, the distracting type that gets in the way of an important conversation between two people. Just as I want to hear what's being said by the person I'm listening to, I want to see what the subject of a photograph is trying to tell me, visually.
Take the image of the tree, fallen onto an old house, for example. It was taken in northern New Mexico, along historic Route 66. When I saw this, a story immediately began to unfold in my mind. I envisioned small family, living a hard life, in the desolation of the American west. Many weren't able to make it in that environment, and the tree symbolizes the crushing defeat at the hands of the desert. I thought color would distract from the subject matter, but black and white would make it a stark centerpiece, all while harkening back to the past, which is essential to the story. Struggle, loss, emptiness, and abandonment are emphasized here.
On the portraiture side of the equation, using black and white is very effective at illustrating internal struggle. The absence of color all but eliminates the ability to convey warmth, resulting in images that evoke a coldness within one's self. That coldness can be taken in a couple of different directions, depending on the shaping of the
light, the depth of the shadows, and the expression worn by the subject. Black and white is also much more effective for accentuating facial lines and skin texture.
The self-portrait, taken at a very difficult time in my life. My goal was to capture the intensity of the turmoil that had enveloped me. My father had recently passed away, and I was dealing with some other issues that had me in a dark place. I wanted the photo to convey a sense that darkness was overtaking me, so it was important that a significant portion of my face be wrapped in shadow, while at the same time accentuating my eyes, to communicate the intensity of inner conflict.
It is important to note that black and white does not always have to tell a story of darkness, conflict, and struggle. It can also be used to communicate a sense of enlightenment, hope, and discovery. The trick is to know when it's most appropriate, and how to compose the image so it makes the most of the advantages black and white has to offer.
In the final image, we see a woman jogging with her child, headed toward sunlight beaming through the morning mist and trees along a greenway path. When I took this shot, I was struck by the majesty of the light as it passed through the trees. It was as if God, himself, had appeared just out of frame, and the overwhelming light of his presence shone as a reminder that he's up there, guiding us. Some may get that, too, from the image, and some may not. For me, it was overwhelming, and when I took the shot, I knew it was special.
In the end, it's the black and white photographer's ability to exploit light, shadow, contrast and detail in order to yank the emotion out from deep down inside, which makes it such an effective story telling tool. Despite camera technology that reproduces color with amazing accuracy, there's some stories that color just can't tell.