On B&W Photography

Seeing in Black and White

“Throughout the years, many photographers have embraced black-and-white to tell some of the most intense, intriguing, powerful and memorable stories,” I wrote in an article about photographer’s Bill Bytsura’s new book, The AIDS Activist Project. “[…] Award-winning photographer and AIDS activist Kurt Weston [A&U, November, 2005] says black-and-white offers his art ‘a concentration of expression’ and likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits. Ted Grant, the father of Canadian photojournalism, believes that ‘when you photograph people in black-and-white, you photograph their souls,’ while Swiss-American photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank calls black and white ‘the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.’

A few b&w portraits from Bill Bytsura’s The AIDS Activist Project series at the Museum of the City of New York. Photo by Alina Oswald.

“ACT UP activist and veteran photographer Bill Bytsura […] also chose black-and-white photography to capture the souls, despair, as well as the hope of his subjects, AIDS activists during the eighties and a good part of the nineties, in a remarkable body of work, The AIDS Activist Project. Influenced by the likes of Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Roman Vishniac and Richard Avedon, Bytsura often uses black-and-white in his own work. To him, black-and-white photography is ‘more truthful, and much more powerful’ and is meant to capture powerful images.”

Personally, I became intrigued by and interested in black-and-white photography when I first set eyes on Kurt Weston‘s black-and-white series of self-portraits, and also portraits. I find the darkness and drama often associated with black-and-white images quite mysterious and mesmerizing.

With Terry Roberts and award-winning photographer Kurt Weston attending the opening night of Weston's show, Remember: An AIDS Retrospective, at OCCCA.
With Terry Roberts and award-winning photographer Kurt Weston attending the opening night of Weston’s show, Remember: An AIDS Retrospective, at OCCCA.

To create a black-and-white image, one first has to learn how to “see” in black and white. I wrote about black and white and the shades of gray in between in an article, a #tbt now, published in Precise Moment online photography magazine.

Katyn Soldier Memorial and the Tribute Lights. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Katyn Soldier Memorial and the Tribute Lights. Photo by Alina Oswald previously published in Precise Moment online photography magazine. All Rights Reserved.

Beyond that, though, how do we “see” the world around us in black and white, and how do we decide who/what, when, why, how and if to convert an image to black-and-white?

HOW: Many of us shoot digital and, hopefully, RAW. We capture the image in color, and then, in post (production), we convert to black-and-white, if the image/story calls for it. I usually convert to b&w in Photoshop, applying a B&W adjustment layer, and then adjusting the colors to create the b&w image I have in mind (for example, darken the sky, etc.)

WHY: Some visual narratives are best told in black and white. While pondering on converting an image to b&w, maybe consider things like mood, dramatic elements evoked in the story, also the importance of texture, lines, as well as subject matter, because black-and-white enhances these elements. It’s also a good idea to consider the purpose or goal of the photograph itself.

WHO/WHAT: Short answer would be, please see above (WHY). Some subjects/stories call for black-and-white, others, not that much. Again, it’s up to us to decide. As mentioned above, it’s a good idea to consider the purpose or goal, and also context (to some extent) of the photograph. As for subject matter, we can photograph b&w portrait, landscapes, cityscapes, and so on.

WHEN: Perhaps is well known that shooting outdoors in the middle of the day, on a bright sunny day, creates harsh shadows and highlights. Those harsh shadows and highlights, in turn, emphasize a dramatic, dark element that adds to a certain mood we might want to evoke in our images. Black-and-white enhances those elements even more. Hence, oftentimes we do shoot in the middle of the day, in harsh light/shadow conditions, to tell a story or capture a subject in black-and-white. But that’s not to say that a studio portrait (hence, independent of time of day and shot in controlled lighting conditions) cannot call, beg to be converted to b&w based on the mood evoked, the pose, the/its visual story, itself.

a self-portrait in black and white.

There’s plenty more to say about black-and-white photography, but I guess that’s something to write about in an upcoming post. Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on black-and-white photography. I’d love to hear…read your thoughts.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald

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