Black and White Photography – Part I

First and foremost – This first post is just an introduction for the second post, where I’ll talk about the creation of B&W photography – soon to come!

Believe it or not, but there are photographers that willingly ignore other photographer’s works to avoid being influenced by it. This is just silly – and I say it being polite about it… We’re influenced all the time, by all the photography that surrounds us, by television, movies, other art expressions, and by life in general. The biggest challenge is not to avoid being influenced, but ‘to absorb only what has positive value to our work and our life’.

It’s with this concept in mind that I’ll start this article citing some great names of B&W photography. They are all old school photographers, some of them even started their photography work in a time when colour photography was not a viable option. Others, even having the possibility to capture images in colour, chose B&W to build their work. And then there are those that even not showing a clear preference for either option – B&W or Colour – has (or had in some cases) the skills to create wonderful B&W images, just as they did in colour.

I won’t get into details of each photographer’s life or work since this is not the focus of this article, but I strongly suggest to those who doesn’t yet know them, that do so without delay. The reason I chose these eight gentlemen – and this is important to understand so you can really comprehend what this article is about – is that photographers like them, masterfully use the absence of colour to enhance their images. The B&W aspect is an intrinsic part of their photography. I also do not consider them to be the best all-time photographers, B&W or otherwise; they are just some of the photographers that I look up to in terms of B&W photography and would like to share with you.

Ansel Adams - Winter Sunrise - Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine - New Mexico - 1937
Winter Sunrise, Ansel Adams

Ansel Adams’ monochromatic landscapes created the spark to start the movement that culminated with the creation of the firsts American National Parks. He created B&W images of landscapes so strong that united the USA in a fight for their natural resources preservation.

Edward Weston - Nude - New Mexico - 1937
Nude, Edward Weston

Edward Weston worked alongside Ansel Adams in many places, desert, and forest landscapes among them. But unlike Adams, Weston applied himself to many other photographic styles. Nude, still life, and abstract are some of the more recurrent styles he mastered.

Fan Ho - Hong Kong
Hong Kong, Fan Ho

Fan Ho was an Urban Explorer, continuously searching for the light. He was born in Shanghai but grew up in Hong Kong, where he produced some of the most beautiful photographs where the light is the main subject.

Richard Avedon - Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior - Paris - 1955
Dovima with Elephants, Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was a Fashion and Portraiture Photographer; with a remarkable style that distinguished him in a field historically saturated with excellent professionals. His photographs are elegant, strong and very expressive.

Thomas Farkas - Brasília - 1960
Brasília, Thomas Farkas

The Hungary-Brazilian photographer Thomas Farkas was one of the pioneers of the modern Brazilian photography. His independent work to document the construction and inauguration of the new national capital – Brasília – in the later 1950’s is among the most important visual registers of this defining moment in Brazil’s history.

Cristiano Mascaro - Detalhe do COPAM - Cidade de São Paulo
COPAM, Cristiano Mascaro

Cristiano Mascaro is one of the greatest masters of the modern Brazilian photography. He started his career as a photographer during his graduation as an Architect. He’s very well known by his work documenting the historical heritage and the transformations occurring in developing cities, especially São Paulo, where he lived most of his life – and still lives. At 76 years old he is still a very active photographer.

Sebastião Salgado - Serra Pelada - Workers - 1986
Serra Pelada, Sebastião Salgado

Sebastião Salgado is for sure the most well-known Brazilian Photographer. He was already a very well-known and respected photographer worldwide, but his project Genesis – released in the early 2010s – raised his photography work to a higher level, beyond the photography boundaries.

He started his career as a photographer in the 70`s, when living exiled in Paris, during Brazil’s dictatorship years. His first project was to document the Latin American people, in an attempt to connect with his own people, the Brazilians. Afterwards he travelled to several countries, especially in Africa and Middle Eastern, documenting the migrations across conflicted areas and other related issues. His images are strong and heart touching.

Araquém Alcântara - Ilha Caviana - Pará - Brasil
Ilha Caviana, Araquém Alcântara

And finally, Araquém Alcântara, the greatest Brazilian Nature Photographer, author of more than 50 photography books with a career spanning already more than 50 years and still going strong. He is a nature photographer and understandably his work is mostly in colours, but the few exclusively B&W books and occasional B&W images are undeniably remarkable. His skills to transform a colourful and vibrant nature scene in a B&W masterpiece are impressive, not to mention his ability to capture the essence of Brazil’s vast and diversified country life and people.

The B&W Style

Photography was born and raised monochromatic, mostly B&W. For this reason, even many years after colour photography became popular, only B&W photography were considered worthwhile by professionals and artists. Even nowadays, B&W photography still retains an artistic and documental aura, even though it’s present everywhere.

The use of B&W photography is very common in all photography styles, by all photographers, experienced and novice alike, skilful and good photographers, and also, by those not that good. It’s so commonly ordinary that our brain, despite being used to the colourful images that best represents the real world, is already trained to interpret the correct colours that are not present in a B&W image.

A good example is this photograph by Marcela Zullo, an image of sweet corns. The subject of this image is so ordinary, that its identification is immediate, and our ingrained knowledge of sweet corn automatically provides us with the correct colours of the vegetal. Our brain works with associations, that’s why as soon as we identify it as a sweet corn, we immediately see it in yellow, even if the image is B&W.

Marcela Zullo Pereira - Milho - PB
Sweet Corns in B&W, Marcela Zullo Pereira

Of course, this example is just a generalization. Although this process of association is a bit personal, with results depending upon our individual references, it is a key aspect of the interpretation of B&W images. It’s powerful enough that can be used as a tool to create striking B&W images.

Earlier in this post I mentioned “monochromatic” and “B&W”; many people associates both terms with the same thing, but they are not. Besides these two styles, there is also “grayscale”, which is the more commonly practiced style of monochromatic photography. You’ll see below, that all three styles are easy to understand and identify once we think about it.

  • Monochromatic: Monochromatic photography is all photography created using only one colour, most of the time making use of several tones* of the chosen colour. Sepia and cyanotype are good examples of monochromatic images, reddish-brown and blue respectively.
  • B&W: B&W images are made using only pure white and pitch black colours. This combination allows only the representation of silhouettes with 100% contrast between shapes. It’s, of course, possible to create textures in drawings using only black ink in a white paper; but in photography that would require an extensive post-processing work that would transform the photography in something else. Some people argue that pure B&W images are not monochromatic, since it uses two colours. In my opinion, this is an argument not worth pursuing.
  • Greyscale: Greyscale photography are made up by several shades* of grey, starting with pure white up to pitch black. Digital photography usually works with 256 shades of grey, including white and black. These 256 shades of grey are obtained using a combination of 8 bits (0s and 1s) in a digital representation of the shades, where 00000000 equals to white, and 11111111 equals to black.

* I used the terms “tones” and “shades” in a broad sense that would be easy to understand what I’m explaining, but if you want to know the correct definition of these terms plus hues and tints, have a look at this article.

There’re many reasons to create B&W photography, however, all of them can fit in two basic groups: Aesthetic and Practical. The aesthetic reason is self-explanatory, and the practical reason happens by the elimination of colours. Regardless of the reasoning to create B&W images, the process remains the same.

Starting with the assumption that all images are captured in real life, and real life is colourful, we can ask ourselves: Will any image work in B&W? The honest answer is “We don’t know!”

From a practical standing point, you can argue that some images will not work in B&W, because colour is an essential element of the image. But when you consider the aesthetical aspect, the same image may or may not work as a B&W image – it becomes a subjective matter, a personal choice.

My point is, as in all other artistic matters, there is no right or wrong, just personal choices, from the creator, and from the observer. What there is, is a series of concepts, that through the course of history, has become standards to the creation of satisfying and pleasantry B&W images.

And that is what I’ll talk about in my next B&W Photography post.

Carlos Alexandre Pereira

Urban explorer, travel and architectural photographer. Film and digital user, preferably B&W. Online/digital writer and publisher. Photography educator. Fine art prints available in limited editions.

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