Why Go Monochrome?

In The Craft, Thoughts & Theory by David14 Comments

I’ve been told it’s a curious decision to photograph so colourful a place as India in black and white, as though colour itself is the defining characteristic of the place therefore the most obvious way to photograph it. But there’s so much more to India than colour, though there’s plenty of that too. There is life and chaos and texture. There’s motion and story and relationships and brief moments on the streets. India is so much more than blue walls, or yellow and green rickshaws, and while it’s true that colour might be the most obvious choice, perhaps that alone is a good reason not to be seduced by it. I’m alreading playing with ideas about photographing the Holi festival in black and white next year. Call me crazy.

Here, in no particular order, are three reasons why I am photographing in black and white theses days, and a couple thoughts about that choice.

One. I love black and white photographs and that should be reason enough. I love the mood and the shadows, the reduction of the elements in the image to line and tone. I spent my early photography years in darkrooms at home and at school, bewitched by the monochrome images coming out of the trays, so perhaps there’s a nostalgic value attached to it, but I think it’s more than that.

Two. Eliminating colour helps me better get to the emotional core of the image, without the seductive pull of colour. Furthermore, colour is much harder to work with if what you are trying to achieve is some unity between images. The real world, especially a place like India, doesn’t always consult us on the colour palettes it chooses. When that colour palette is what draws our eye and not the glance, the gesture, the moment, it’s time (for me, at this point) to eliminate it.

Three. Monochrome images have a different visual pull than colour images and more latitude when it comes to manipulating that pull. Using tonal adjustments, for example, you could make a red sari light and blend into a scene or dark and more obvious. Colour images take this kind of tweaking, along with dodging and burning, with a little less grace: the changes seem too obvious and can kill the illusion that photographs depend on. I like the interpretive options black and white gives me.

Someone asked me recently how we create images that are more than just eye candy. There’s not an easy answer to this. I think it’s one of the main struggles of the photographer, or any artist, really. But I think much of the reply is in this: we have to have something to say. Eye candy may be many things, sweet and lacking substance, but it feeds nothing more than the eye. I want my images to have an emotional core to them. A soul. I want my images to have a chance at being the most powerful they can be. For now, that means I explore black and white again.

Stripping the colour out is the fastest way for me to see if my image has that soul, or if, indeed, it’s just eye candy. It’s not the only way. Plenty of colour photographs have soul, and there is no shortage of monochrome images that lack it.

 

Working in black and white is no more a guarantee of making art than photographing in colour automatically results in mere eye candy. But for now it’s the medium that best helps me get there. It resonates. Remember all that talk about vision that I used to do? This is that. Allowing my curiosity, my vision, my gut, to guide me into, and through work that I like.

Trust your gut. It won’t always lead you to safe places. It’ll mislead you along the way, especially in the beginning when it knows nothing, and it’ll take you to places you learn hard lessons. But on the strength of those lessons it’ll get a little better honed and you can trust it a little more. Most of all, I don’t know another way to do this, to create something authentic, something that feels right, other than to trust that nagging little voice, the one that’s always asking “What if?” and won’t be pacified until I try. Right now my gut tells me black and white gives my images the weight, the sobriety – hell, even the gravitas – that I’m feeling about the world right now. it’s still hopeful, but it feels a little darker in the shadows, if you know what I mean.


If you want more conversations like this, about what makes stronger photographs, beyond the buttons and the dials and usually technical stuff, consider reading one of my books. My latest book, The Soul of the Camera, The Photographer’s Place in Picture-Making, (which is all black and white) is available now for pre-order and should be in your hands around the middle of June.

 

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Comments

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes! Loving your thoughts on monochrome. I am a bit of a color fanatic in all of my visual art, from photographs to paintings, my imagery is drenched in color. Though lately I’ve been feeling quite pulled to the monochrome… the black and white photo; a simple pencil sketch.
    Your reasons for photographing in black and white really resonate with me…
    As always, thanks for the inspiration!

  2. I agree – I think going B&W can take away things that distract from the core essence of the photographer but it can also take away details that add context to the image. It’s a juggling act for sure

  3. Great job!
    Personally, I am still a huge lover of B&W photographs. I believe B&W photographs contain deep appeal. And of course, this not an easy task as you said.
    Anyway, I liked the feature photo. This is really amazing and it feels like the still image has life. Carry On, David!

  4. “I don’t know another way to do this, to create something authentic, something that feels right, other than to trust that nagging little voice, the one that’s always asking “What if?” and won’t be pacified until I try.”

    I love that voice. Sometimes I fear to make an ass of myself when I listen, but the alternative is lifeless photos.

    Thanks for writing, David.

    Can’t wait to receive your book 🙂

  5. I feel like some images are just meant for black & white, whereas others are meant for color. I did have to “get used” to black & white. In my early days, I didn’t have the appreciation for it. My appreciation developed over time. Now I love b&w… for certain images… I love all YOUR b&ws, David 🙂

  6. There really is something about monochrome photos that make you almost have the need to dig deeper into the photo. Thanks for always sharing your knowledge with us 🙂
    PS I’m dying waiting for my book 🙂

  7. No, no, no. Use color for its emotion. Use tonalities and find scenes with color harmonies. Like light – look for it, find it, and use it.

  8. I have gotten a few of your classes and enjoy them and love hearing you talk about how you processed and composed your photos. I would love to watch you post process a few of them. Love this black and white. I do have the B&W presets however your photos just standout.

  9. A great read and great insight into your ‘process of reasoning’ for B/W. Thank you!!!

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  11. B&W has always been my preferred medium. It began with Ansel Adams’s nature images and how he created them in the darkroom to Cartier-Bresson and his documentary photographs and how he used composition to tell a story. For almost 4 decades now, I have pursue this passion (including a 10-year stint as a newspaper photographer) and I do not ever see myself going any other direction. I have even converted my Epson printer to Piezography inks and print nothing but B&W. While Ms. Lehrer may disagree with you I find your thoughts here to reflect my own. Thanks for sharing.

  12. David, I’ve come to love monochrome images and it all comes down to what you have written, at least in the books I’ve read – those elements in the image that distract from the what you are trying to say should be left out. That includes color. If it’s not part of the story, leave the color out. If it’s part of what you’re trying to say, use it. Whenever anyone posts the same image in color and black and white and asks the viewers, “Color or black and white?” That’s what I ask them. What are you trying to say and does the color help you say it? Love your monochrome work my friend. Well, the color stuff, too! Take care!

  13. I too love black & white photography, because when you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes and accessories, but when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.
    Thanks for sharing the wonderful stuff, David !

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