The Enduring Value of B&W Photos in the Age of Digital and Color

Digital monochrome image taken with Leica M10. The early days of photography were built on monochromatic imagery. Many of the greats who created what we now know as the art of photography worked primarily with black-and-white film. Some might argue that this was because color chemistry demanded a more precise process at the time, often with a higher cost. However, even as innovations progressed in color photography, monochrome reigned supreme for decades. When digital began to prove itself as the primary medium for the next generation of working photographers it seems more and more people shot color. Also because of this, more viewers preferred to see color when looking at photography in newspapers and books. Today there is still a decent number of working photographers who choose a monochromatic palette for their work. Yet, I think it’s safe to assume a majority of photographers are shooting in color. This is often for good reason. Color is a wonderful descriptor that gives the viewer a much truer-to-life representation of what a scene looked like (when not dramatically altered in post-production). However, monochrome still has a place in digital photography. Even some of the great photographers from decades earlier have moved to digital and continue to embrace black-and-white photography. Digital monochrome image taken with Ricoh GR III.
Brazilian documentary photographer, Sebastiao Salgado, was among the relatively early adopters of digital cameras. He even once mentioned that, because he works in black-and-white, the digital noise does not bother him as much as it would if it were color. Salgado even went so far as to make this switch partway through his legendary project Genesis. In an interview with Deepali Dewan of ROM, Salgado said that his photographic process remained nearly identical to that of film. He said he was able to “reproduce the exact grain of [Kodak Tri-X] in the digital image.” He also still made physical contact sheets and select negatives from his digital photos which were printed in the same manner as his 35mm and medium format film photographs. Similarly, one of black-and-white film’s biggest supporters, Ralph Gibson, even made the move to digital with modern Leica M Monochrome cameras. After seemingly opposing digital black-and-white imagery, Gibson even released a book titled, MONO, after he picked up the first Leica Monochrome camera. Each of these photographers has made work with their respective digital methods, continuing their black-and-white legacy in the age of color photography. This proves the medium’s worth and viability in the current photographic world. Despite the flood of color imagery, monochrome is still an option and a choice many photographers might overlook. Sometimes color is not important, and it might even be a distraction from the subject you are trying to capture. Black-and-white also leaves the viewer to form their own thoughts on an image. It is known that certain colors force particular emotions. For example, a red dress might make the viewer feel a sense of love, passion, or even anger – yet, in a monochromatic image, it’s just a dress. This leaves the viewer to focus more of their attention on the rest of the image, where the dress may or may not be important to the message. Monochrome image taken with Ricoh GR III.
This leaves a level of ambiguity up to the viewer to think what they want about a photograph, without the photographer spelling everything out for them. On this subject of ambiguity, photographer, Reuben Radding, has said, “It’s like when you read a book. If the author wants to describe a blue sky, they don’t change to blue ink. He trusts that your imagination is going to be more interesting than spelling it all out.” However, when working only in varying shades of grey, composition plays a big role in the outcome of a good photo. When color is not there to separate subjects, it takes precise framing and aperture control to create a distinction between subjects without having them lost in the greyness. Monochrome image taken with Ricoh GR III and adjusted using Lightroom’s Color Mixer to change the luminance of the green leaves. Thankfully though, with a color-designed digital camera, we get a very useful adjustment control that would not be available on a monochrome-specific digital sensor, or on black-and-white film. When a color image is converted to Adobe’s Monochrome profile (this is similar on a variety of editing software), the Color Mixer allows you to control the luminance, or brightness, of individual colors. This achieves the same product as using colored filters on black-and-white negative film, but it can be done in varying strengths all in post-processing. Just as the greats of documentary photography have proven to us in decades past, monochrome is a wonderful way to tell a story. It serves as a pure palette for recording a moment that gives images a timeless aesthetic. Look back at the works of Henri-Cartier Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, or any other photographer from that era. All their photographs still hold up to this day. Images like Robert Capa’s taken from Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, will remain some of the most recognizable photos ever made for centuries to come. This same black-and-white approach can still be made today to set color aside when it is not important.
Monochrome image taken with Ricoh GR III. Even in landscape photography, we can turn back to the greats of the genre for inspiration. Ansel Adams and his Group f/64, who pioneered what we now know as traditional landscape photography, worked to create incredibly dramatic black-and-white photographs of Earth’s natural beauty. The same style can be innovated and worked upon today in the digital age. Color is not always needed to make a good photograph, as shown to us by photographers of previous generations. So, while it may be somewhat counterintuitive to make your work in monochrome today when color photography seems to be the default method for everything from cell phone pictures to high-end art pieces, black-and-white may still be the best way for you to work – depending on your subject matter. Image credits: Photographs by Trevor Anderson

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