Black and White Photography — What's the point?

When we dream what do we see? When we revisit old memories, how are they envisioned? What do we see moving across our TV and phone screens? When we see, what do we see? Well, it certainly isn't all just plain old black and white is it?

Black and white has been used in the photographic arts since the invention of the camera. For decades, all people would see is black, white and the greys in between. However, colour TV, colour film and the use of colour in fashion sprung into action in the 60’s and 70’s. We are now living in a technicolour age, surrounded by the vibrancy of life and technology.

So why?

Black and white doesn't paint a full picture. Imagine it like a colouring book — Giving you the outline and letting you fill in the gaps by yourself. So to answer it bluntly,

Simplicity.

There are no distractions, no warm or cool tones, no bright blue eyes, no candy apple red sports cars. Only a collection of lines, squiggles, circles and shades of grey. So why is this a good platform to work with?

Shooting black and white is a world away from shooting with colour. When you look around, finding that perfect subject, setting or scene, you must see in black and white. There are no warm, golden hour glows that have become a fetish for the everyday Joe, from the professional photojournalist to your friend trying to capture that perfect selfie for Instagram. Instead, there are other areas to turn your focus to.

Personally, it was difficult trying to sway from the habits obtained through shooting colour, and instead refining my vision for black and white. It taught me to focus on light and composition. After all, once you rid colour from the equation what do you have left?

The key to any ‘interesting’ photo, in my opinion, is whether or not it tells a story; Could you imagine being there? What was being said? What’s the backstory? Although, of course, it could just be nice to look at. Simple as that. And that's the beauty of black and white. By cutting colour from the picture the viewer is left thinking. Each viewer can have their own unique take on what they are seeing, providing each person with room for their own interpretation. This essentially becomes the USP of black and white in its many-year long wrestle with colour. Visually, colour provides you with easy to read information, from tonal temperature, physical details and even gives clues to what time of day it is.

They had blue eyes and auburn hair wearing a burgundy sweatshirt in a pretty pastel pink coffee shop in an idyllic Parisian street in the warm evening glow.

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls” -Ted Grant

Simply put, it doesn't leave much up to the imagination. As a photographer, looking to shoot in black and white, you need to turn on your telepathic ability in finding out what people will ask about your photo before you've even taken it. — Channel the force, Luke.

Interpretation is a powerful tool for anyone to use. It can make something clean seem dirty, something complex seem simple and something huge seem small. Black and white is the perfect medium for interpretation as there is so much ‘missing’ from the final photo. It draws and retains attention for longer than a colour photograph would, purely as the viewer would have to spend more time examining the photo and noting it’s intricacies and tones.

And I suppose the main reason many people still use black and white -

Nostalgia

There are plenty of photographers and photo-hobbyists who are old enough to live from a black and white era through to the technicolour and digital day that is today. For them, black and white could be a connection to their childhood or adolescent years. However, for the rest of us millennials and Gen Z’ers, we mainly use it for the ‘vintage aesthetic’ it provides. Pair a good black and white roll of film with an Urban Outfitters record player, playing Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, and you’ve achieved the 2021 ‘vintage hipster’ title that so many of us crave.

Jokes aside — black and white is prominent in many of the world’s most iconic and historic photos. They’re bold and scream “I am a statement”. They’re eye candy for many people — and porn for any photography buff. So who can blame others for trying to produce an image in a format that allowed our generation to see into the past? I certainly know I can’t.

Probably writing about photography, living the analogue life. Come have a gander! Hanoi based.