In a world inundated with color, the black and white photograph has done a remarkable job in retaining its appeal. Even as color photography has surged in popularity over the last hundred years, we still place black and white on some sort of divine “fine-art” pedestal. We use adjectives like pure, artsy, and classic to describe it and feel intellectually sophisticated when engaging with it. I don’t think any of us would argue against the beauty of the black and white photograph, but why? Why do we find it so appealing? Why are we so intrigued by the absence of an element of reality?
For me, one of the main reasons is that a black and white photograph depicts a world different than our own. Cameras can see in black and white. Humans cannot. And as humans, we tend to glorify that which is inaccessible. It’s the old “the grass is always greener” cliché. Have you ever noticed how we use and overuse the word “interesting” as a way of describing things with which we don’t normally have exposure? Isn’t it interesting that things tend to get less interesting once we have exposure to them? But I digress. Black and white photography is our tunnel to a world without color, a world that we might never know otherwise
The allure of black and white photography also lies in its purity. Color can be distracting. Without color, we are left with the basic elements of photography that truly establish it as an art form – composition, contrast, texture, lighting. Hence, our use of the word “artsy.” In black and white, silhouettes and shadows tend to have a more dramatic impact. Shape and form take on an elevated consequence. The photographer, and thus the viewer, cannot hide in the bright colors. As the Oracle of Omaha once said in a letter to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”
I think another reason we find black and white photography so appealing is it tends to have an inherent emotional quality. The mere absence of color can be as an emotionally suggestive as the subject itself. Especially with expressions of melancholy and contemplation, the additive effect can be potent.
Finally, it is the “classic” nature of black and white photography that makes it so appealing. Black and white came before color. Many of the masters of photography shot primarily in black and white, often because that was the only medium available. We see it as a nod to the masters. Just like the unknown, humans have a tendency to glorify the past, to glorify the good old days, the days that once were. By removing color, we can often make our photographs today look like they were shot a century ago. Black and white photography puts yet another layer between ourselves and reality, helping us to reclaim the timelessness for which we yearn.