What is with the Black & White?

Several weeks ago, I related a story of an unseasonably warm late winter day. I published that issue with a series of black & white photographs. It was not long after I received a message that one image caught a reader’s eye and he guessed the color version was just as good as the black & white version. I told him the color original was good, but I had set out to produce a body of work that was black & white in theme.

I did not give it a second thought. I had made up my mind.

But now, I am giving it a second thought. Why black & white? I can understand back in the days of film. A photographer had to make a clear-cut decision: color or black & white. There was not any converting after the fact. Well, that is not entirely true; with special papers you could print color negative images on paper that depicted a black & white image. But I never messed with that process, nor did I know many, if any, photographers who did attempt that method.

Not to sing of the good old days (because they were not exceptionally good) but today we do not always set out to shoot in black & white. If an image looks like it would work in black & white, we convert it. How many Facebook photographer groups have the photographer published an image in color, then on a black & white dedicated site, published the same image in black & white!

So, I set down today wondering why we go through this act of turning a color original to a black & white?

For me, it is historical. I started in black & white and migrated to color as my income level went up.

Black & white film was less cost prohibitive overall. Developing is a simpler process; temperature tolerances were not as critical, just keep everything somewhere between 68-70 degrees F during the process and you were good. Most attractive was that developers (I regularly used Kodak HC-110 or Rodinal in syrup form then diluted with water at time of development), when left in concentrated form, lasted for months. Fixers could last for many weeks. Color processing is a completely different animal.

I have not developed color negative film in decades. It was not difficult. Temperature was the one factor to keep strictly constant throughout the development stage to avoid color shift. Also, the shelf life was much shorter, so I had to stockpile negative film and batch process. There are blogs out there that deep dive into color negative development. I am not the expert. I just remember being too poor to pay for processing, so I did it myself. If my dad were still alive, he would claim it built character.

Converting to black & white has its value. It is an expressive avenue. Sometimes black & white is the only medium that will express, correctly, what we see and feel in the image. Black & white can evoke emotion in a way that color cannot. The viewer and the artist are forced to take notice of the shapes, composition, design and the subtle tones that are represented. On the other hand, we can often be wooed by the color alone. Thus, leaving composition and design flow unnoticed or at least excused when absent.

When I first studied black & white photographers who tested color film or transparencies, I thought it would be a bust. A total failure. But I quickly saw something completely different. The work was fantastic! Why? These artists had perfected black & white. So why did this work look so beautiful?

Then it came to me: color was the vehicle; composition stayed a constant. Composition & design did not lack because they did not use color as a crutch. Color evoked its own emotion. For a while I wondered if they saw the image in black & white and the result was color. Not at all. They were aware of the medium they were using. They remained dedicated to composition. I have read somewhere that 10,000 hours at anything makes you an expert. I would say these photographers were experts. They were professionals. Subtle or bold, color was delivered in the correct measure. Most went back to black & white photography. I am not sure why. More affordable? Years of empirical data? The reason might remain a mystery. Or Gary might text me the answer.

So, today, I present the same work, except in color. And for your patience while I monologued, I have tossed in a couple for your troubles.

So, which is better? Color or black & white?

As the business saying goes,

“It depends.”

You be the judge.


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