By Alina Oswald
“Black and white is abstract; color is not,” photographer Joel Sternfeld once said. “Looking at a black and white photograph, you are looking at a strange world.”
One doesn’t have to be a master of photography to notice the certain feel associated with black and white photography, a mood that surpasses the usual argument between painting with color or with shades of gray. Most black and white photography adepts insist that color itself becomes a distraction while black and white enhances the shape and shadow, adding drama, mystery, and even intrigue, to an image.
Others argue that black and white gives a photograph a timeless, archival, historic, almost nostalgic perception while color dates it. But many respond by pointing out today’s digital capabilities of converting to black and white, therefore diluting in a way that nostalgia associated with these images.
And yet, many of us might not be able to imagine the works of masters of photography such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of photojournalism, and Ansel Adams, who created the zone system, in anything but black and white. How would the young boy in “Rue Mouffetard” (Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1954) or the “Moonrise” in Hernandez, NM (Ansel Adams, 1941) look like in color?
How To See in Black and White
In black and white, as in color, the same general photography rules apply when it comes to composition, depth of field, using leading lines or expressing a sense of speed. That being said, some stories are best told in color, while others are better in black and white.
To be able to visualize the image in black and white the general advice is to not “see” in color, but instead in lines, shapes, and shadows, and to notice image texture, noise (grain), and choosing subjects or scenes that offer a wide range of grays.
When speaking of black and white photography in today’s digital world, the first advice most would hear is to shoot in RAW and convert to black and white, while later adjusting each color to best express the artist’s vision of the photograph, i.e., darken the sky, enhance texture, and so on.
Speaking of converting to black and white in digital photography, Tim Grey’s advice in particular, comes to mind. In one of his workshops, he points out that to better understand when to convert to black and white, it is best to first know when not to do it. For example, a color photograph makes sense when color becomes the subject or has a leading role in increasing image intensity. Also, more often than not, a capture of the golden hour with its dramatic light looks much more striking in color than it does in black and white.
On the other hand, black and white can enhance an image dramatically, especially in certain cases. For example, while it is common knowledge that photographing outdoors in the middle of the day is not a good idea, especially on a bright and sunny day, sometimes there’s no way around it. The midday harsh light and shadows can make for a powerful image, and give it a film “noir-ish” look when converting to black and white, and then maybe increasing the contrast to enhance certain characteristics that define the subject and the story.
Here are a few examples explaining when and why I use black and white, and to some extent, how I convert them:
A few years ago, upon returning from photographing the 9/11 morning commemorations on the Jersey side of the Hudson, I noticed what’s left of the Powerhouse building in Jersey City. As it appeared against the clear, blue sky, it seemed, even more somber, almost on the brink of collapse. I found it stunning, all that sadness comprised within the ruins of a once beautiful building.
In color, the Powerhouse building looks like a building almost ready to collapse, against the blue sky. Hence, I decided to convert to black and white, and adjust the colors to best express my vision of the image: darken the sky, and pay special attention to the light and shadows on the chimney.
It’s like a ritual. Every year on September 11 I go out to photograph the morning commemorations, and the Tribute Lights at night, either up close or from the foot of the parking lot in Lower Manhattan, or from a distance across the Hudson River. There’s a Katyn memorial on Jersey City waterfront, showing a WWII Polish soldier gagged, his hands tied behind his back, impaled in the back by a bayoneted rifle. The memorial barely stands out when seen from a distance against the Manhattan skyline. Every year on the night of September 11 the Tribute Lights become a backdrop for this sculpture, accentuating the sorrow, horror, and heartbreak associated with these two events.
At night, while I was trying to find the best angle from where to photograph the memorial against the Tribute Lights, I noticed the silhouette of a helicopter crossing the lights. I knew I had to capture that moment, as much as I knew that the image would end up in black and white or maybe in sepia tones.
The Magic Box
Sometimes even certain products look best in black and white. A few months ago I got to photograph and interview a magician, escape artist Daniel Bauer. I didn’t only take pictures of the magician, but also of his magic box—handcuffs. I went for hash and dark shadows to enhance the mystery surrounding his magic.
Shapes, Lines, and Means of Locomotion
While black and white photography is all (or mostly) about shapes and lines, subjects that would work best in certain lighting conditions in particular when photographed in black and white are bridges and other means of transportation.
Here are two examples: Delaware River as seen from Penn Landing, in Philadelphia, PA.
SEPTA Train, crossing Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
Also, when it comes to emphasizing texture, sometimes old, aged surfaces make the best subjects. Here’s a close-up image of a barge in New York harbor waters.
Sometimes even Lady Liberty looks her best in rich shades of black and white. Here’s an image of my favorite Jersey girl (yes, you read that right), in black and white, in which I tried to emphasize the texture of this magnificent Lady.
Black and white also enhances the dramatic element in landscapes. Maybe dead nature is best captured in black, white, and different shades of gray. Several years ago while in Hawaii I came across a tree, its branches dried out and twisted as if in a giant claw. I had only my iPhone with me, but I decided to snap a shot anyway. (I shot this in color then applied the Noir filter. All post-production work was done on the iPhone.)
Another subject of interest is the weather and severe weather in particular. I’ve photographed blizzards, storms, Hurricane Sandy, and fog. And while doing so, I’ve noticed that some of the images become even more dramatic, terrifying to some extent, in black and white or sometimes adding a hint of color or sepia tones. Same or similar rules apply when photographing fog, or low hanging or threatening clouds.
For example, here’s an image I took when visiting Maui’s Haleakala National Park and coming close (but not close enough) to the observatory building. Tourists are not allowed near it, so I had to photograph it from a distance while also trying to capture the lunar-like terrain and the clouds partially covering the observatory as if to enhance the mystery surrounding it.
And in speaking of fog, this past year I got to experience for the first time in my life that famous Mississippi fog when visiting New Orleans. I noticed someone taking pictures of another individual who, apparently, was posing for the camera. I figured silhouettes look great shot against fog.
Silhouettes and Texture
Sometimes strangely shaped shadows catch the eye as they appear on various surfaces. While trying to photograph palm trees against a clear blue sky, I noticed their silhouettes instead and thought that the sand gave them an interesting texture, too.
Silhouettes and Mood
Maybe black and white might be best used to emphasize a dramatic mood. That’s possible even if the only camera available is a smartphone. Here’s an image I took while visiting Liberty State Park last January. I think that the lack of color here enhances the loneliness of this place at this time of the year. My own silhouette becomes a slightly mysterious, maybe even creepy element, in the image. The only “shadow” still standing, watching over the deserted park, as the silhouetted group of people is leaving the scene.
Maybe black and white portraits represent a signature that is more recognizable work in black and white. A new body of work I recently started involves dark and edgy black and white portraits of men, mostly concentrating on eyes, gestures, and body language.
Here are some examples.
These portraits are shot in a studio using two Profoto strip softboxes against a seamless paper backdrop. I drastically enhanced the contrast (Curves/Levels in Photoshop) in post after converting to black and white to get the look that I was after.
Digital Black and White
To better understand the subtle nuances of black and white photography, particularly in today’s digital world, it’s best to follow light explorers like Vincent Versace, who is a pioneer in black and white digital photography.
Another great black and white photographer, Kurt Weston, is legally blind. He uses black and white to “illustrate physical vision loss, but also an inner journey involving [his] fears and emotions about becoming totally blind,” he says in his artist statement describing his Blind Vision series of black and white self-portraits. “This is a journey towards infinite darkness in which physical sight is diminished and obscured, but artistic vision, my blind vision, is enhanced. I use the experience of blindness to expand my conceptual expression within visual realm.”
A few years ago I got to interview Weston about his black and white photography work. He believes that it offers his art a concentration of expression, and he likes that intensity particularly in his portraits.
From landscapes and nature to food (think Edward Weston), product and portrait photography, black and white and shades of gray in between offer a characteristic visual signature that traverses all areas of photography it touches. Maybe that’s because that signature associated with black and white doesn’t attach so much to a specific area of photography, but to the subject and its story, and how to best tell that story in a powerful, and visual way.
Black and white photography best captures the essence of the story. It brings back memories, and, in many ways, reminds us of how things used to be. It’s about remembrance. Maybe that explains the use of black and white by activist photographer Bill Bytsura, who created a book for the AIDS Activist Project (an upcoming photography book) that immortalizes the lives of many young activists who are not around anymore in a series of powerful black and white portraits. “Photography,” Bytsura says, “is a way to share ideas, emotions, and experiences. It is a way to record, report, and inform. Photography overcomes the barriers of language and distance. It is a universal way of communicating.”
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, contributing editor to Precise-Moment.com, and the author of “Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography” of award-winning, legally blind photographer Kurt Weston. Contact her online at www.alinaoswald.com, and follow her on Instagram here.