When reading this short essay, remember I have no plans to abandon color photography. My feelings are that both mediums have their place. Some images are better represented in color and others in monochrome. The principles of photography carry over to both methods. The only difference is in certain images, the lack of color and the power of monochrome can stand out when applied correctly. I also prefer to use the term monochrome rather than black and white. When viewing a black and white image, we are really looking at shades of gray, not just black and white.
When we think of monochrome photography we almost always think of Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Minor White, Robert Frank, Paul Strand, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston, just to name a few. We think of powerful images delivering a story clearly transmitted to our brains. We think of monochromatic images going back to the acceptance of photography as an art. Thank you, Mr. Stieglitz!
THE HISTORY OF FILM
Color film was actually developed in the mid-1800s but due to the primitive nature of the products, colors faded from the prints quickly. Just before 1900, if one had the money, one could buy the proper equipment to make color images. Only the very rich could afford to play in this process.
In 1935, Kodak brought to market Kodachrome. However because of the expense compared to black and white, color processing was not the norm until the 1970s, just 50 years ago! Interesting enough it was Polaroid who introduced the first instant color film in 1963. By 1970, color film was the norm for most “snapshots.” However, black and white film was still used by some photographers for the aesthetic nuances that it offers.
It was common for black and white photographers to do their own developing and printing. Color film was dramatically improved, but black and white photography continued to be used as a different method to tell the story, in unusual and powerful ways.
COLOR OR MONOCHROME?
Today I strongly feel that deciding to eliminate color, as an option in telling our story through photography, is a choice not to be taken lightly. It is important to decide, even before the photograph is made, if this image is a possible candidate for monochrome. I have made many images where color is actually a distraction from the strength of the image itself as well as subtracting from the meaning I am trying to convey.
Form, as well as texture, can be brought out in monochrome much stronger than in color. In monochromatic photography we are using our eyes and brains to look at the form of a subject, the texture of the subject, and not confusing ourselves with trying, at the same time, to decipher and process color.
When making color images we think about brightness, hue of color and more. With monochrome images we are only dealing with shades of gray. This is one reason why monochrome images can be exceedingly more powerful than color if produced correctly. Again, the process starts before the camera comes out of the bag.
Photoshop, or any type of computerized monochrome processing that we may be working with today, parallels what Weston and Adams did in the darkroom years ago. In many ways, monochromatic photography can exceed the power of color both in emotion and how the image is viewed and interpreted.
LEARNING TO SEE IN MONOCHROME
When working in monochrome consider using tone, brightness, texture and contrast within your image to tell the story and communicate your feeling. Consider that complementary colors like red and green can often look the same in monochrome. If the textures in a monochrome image are identical they become hard to differentiate. Using different textures within an image in monochrome is another way to bring out the feeling from the start. I find differentiating the depth of field of a subject in monochrome photography is more important than if photographing in color. Making one part of the image sharp and the other out of focus can really accentuate the image.
Using these concepts and techniques will get you on the path to seeing in monochrome and being able to deliver images with significant value, but there is much more to learn about making quality monochromatic images. Understanding the Zone system, proper processing technique for monochrome, as well as perfecting your printing technique are all important.
Ansel Adam’s “The Negative,” originally published in 1981
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jack Graham has been a Professional Photographer and Photo Workshop Leader for over 20 years. For more information, and to view his portfolio, visit www.jackgrahamphoto.com. To read additional photography articles go to www.jackgrahamsblog.com.