Why Black & White?

In this era of digital cameras and high resolution color displays, one might wonder why any photographer would choose to work exclusively in black & white. In the early days of photography, creating color images was either impossible, or prohibitively expensive. But, with the advent of widely available color film in the latter half of the 20th century, followed by the emergence of digital capture over the past couple of decades, the pragmatic reasons for shooting black & white have vanished, leaving only the aesthetic and philosophical.

Many photographers who work in black & white also shoot at least some color, with a majority only occasionally shooting black & white when the conditions for color are less than ideal. For those who shoot black & white exclusively, the reasons are many and varied, and they vary from photographer to photographer. Following are some of the reasons why I choose to work exclusively in black & white. 

I'm a graphic designer and a life-long visual artist. From an early age, I was attracted to black & white media of all sorts including wood and linoleum block prints, wood engravings, etchings, charcoal and pencil drawings, pen and ink drawings, scratch board drawings, silverpoint drawings, and calligraphy. This attraction to pure contrast and tone, unadulterated by the “distraction” of color, is also behind my love of black & white photography.

Many of my favorite photographers from the 20th century shot black and white sheet film in large format view cameras. Those were the tools of the day, so in many cases it's unlikely the choice was based upon aesthetic considerations. Regardless, black & white is associated with those artists and their images, and their unrivaled artistry brings a certain gravitas to the medium that, in my opinion, has rarely been matched in color photography. 

Freedom in Abstraction
Removing color from an image takes it out of the realm of strict representation, abstracting the subject while bringing tones, textures, and composition to the forefront. Black & white photographs remind us that we're looking at a two-dimensional object that exists on its own, an object that has value separate from the subject it depicts. I find that working in black & white frees me from the constraints of strict representation, allowing more latitude in interpretation and personal expression.

Because color is so powerful, it often dictates when, where, and how photographers work. One of the reasons we see so many sunrise/sunset photos is because colors are richer and more pleasing early and late in the day. This is why so many color landscape photographers only work during the so-called "golden hours" of first and last light. Landscape photographers working in black & white aren't generally under these same constraints. Quality of light is still important in black & white, but color temperature and saturation are not, which makes it possible to successfully work in a far wider range of lighting conditions.

The list goes on. Because color photography is so ubiquitous today, it's safe to assume photographers who choose to work exclusively in black & white have well considered reasons for doing so. I'm betting that in most cases, the decision is based not on technical constraints, but primarily on the artist's aesthetic and philosophical approach to the art form.