Black and white affects the reading of the image and is something I was acutely aware of without ever really understanding why the effect is so different from colour.
Black and white makes the viewer more distant from the photograph, because the image is reduced down to form and structure. In other words as Henry Carroll states: ‘black and white simplifies what colour complicates’ – (Carroll, 2015). This struck a chord with me because I felt I was able to read the components of black and white photographs more easily than similar colour photographs.
As a photographer you have to learn to ‘see’ in the black and white medium and not just convert it from black and white afterwards because then those forms and structures probably won’t be as pronounced as if the photographer was looking for them in the first place. This is illustrated by Henry Carroll in a book I’ve been reading called ‘Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People’, where he says: ‘All too often people compose their shot using the language of colour and then hope that it will translate into black and white later. Neither of these approaches work.’ – (Carroll, 2015). I have been guilty of using that approach in the past but have since experienced what Carroll observed; instead it is better to be on the look-out for shots that would look good in black and white first.
In my opinion it is psychological too, as negative emotions are more easily related to in black and white. There’s something melancholy in my mind associated with black and white because it reminds us subconsciously of photography’s nature – a memory of something from reality which can’t be replaced. This makes me feel if I were to produce 8 black and white single-image narratives for assignment 2 I would be inclined to choose a more despondent theme for the photographs. On the flip side of this is the photograph’s other attribute – the potential for it to be reproduced indefinitely. This reproducibility allows the viewer to look at the black and white photograph especially with a sense of importance – this same photograph could be seen in newspapers etc and indeed had been. This would be by association – in the past black and white photographs were observed as more truthful and people had grown up with them in their culture – there was a sort of aura embedded into the collective psyche surrounding black and white photographs.
One strategy I felt would prove pointless with an optical viewfinder camera like mine was to shoot in black and white preview mode and view it on the LCD screen after the fact. While this definitely wasn’t as immersive as shooting with an EVF ‘in the present’ and viewing the scene before the camera in near-enough real-time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that before ‘chimping’ I could start to imagine what the preview would look like. Therefore I started to think in black and white, with particular attention paid to light and shadows and seeing potential for reducing the scene down to its abstract, core features.
Above I’ve displayed a couple of examples of me trying to ‘see’ in black and white before taking the shot (even though the optical viewfinder let me see in colour as a preview!).
Carroll, H. (2015). Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People. London: Laurence King.