Black and White Photography As a Visual Art Form

I love black and white photographs as an art form. I think there are few strong reasons a monochrome photograph can be considered more “artistic” than a color photograph. I’m not saying that a color photograph is not artistic, compared to black and white photographs. There are a lot of amazing color photographs that I would love to hang in my home but there are a few things that black and white photography does easily that color can not.

From the time a photographer trips the sutter release (if he/she is shooting BW film or a monochrome digital camera) the image is already an abstraction of the reality the photographer was photographing. Changing a scene or portrait from color to shades of gray makes our mind think differently about the image before us. It is an image of reality, a real thing we are familiar with, but its not real at the same time, because the color is stripped away.

Jack-O-Lanterns waiting to scare the spirits way on all hallows eve.
Jack-O-Lanterns waiting to scare the spirits way on all hallows eve. Mamiya 645 80mm f2.8, Kodak T-Max 100

We don’t see the real world in black and white so subconsciously our mind is telling us its not real, but something representing reality. Much like an impressionistic painting or a loose sculpture that makes our brain fill in the spaces, a black and white photograph makes us imagine what is missing.

You may hear others, that are passionate about black and white photography, comment on how black and white photos have a “timeless” quality to them. By removing the color from the image it also removes the visual queue that our minds use to give us a reference in time. Colors used in fashion and home decorating change every year. A good monochrome image will remove all of the distractions that color introduces letting the viewer focus on the subject rather than on all of the other items a color image would present.

Custom Motorcycle in black and white
A motorcyclist races by on a vintage machine. Nikon FG, 50mm 1.4, Kodak Tri-X 400.

In this image of the motorcycle rider passing by at speed you really can’t tell if it was shot last week or 40 years ago. With the rider wearing pretty basic riding gear and no other frame of reference to when it was taken gives it a timeless quality.

It’s Only About The Light
Unlike color photographs, a monochrome photographer can control what the light is doing in the final image. In a color image if you burn down an area too much it just looks like that part if the image is under exposed. In a black and white photograph burning and dodging bring up the high lights and ads shadows where there were none. It really gives the artist tools to add drama to a monochrome image that is really hard to achieve with a color image.

pine tree in the Rockies
A young pine tree gets a start among the larger lodgepole pines of the Rocky Mountains. Yashica-12 TLR, 80mm f3.5, Kodak T-Max 100.

In the image Among Giants, I saw an opportunity to capture a scene that had pretty flat light but I could manipulate the image in the dark room while I printed it, making it appear as if a ray of light was highlighting this little tree among the larger ones in the forest. This allowed me to have a vision for the the final print that takes it beyond a reproduction of the reality in front of the lens.

Behind the Shot – The St. Louis Arch

In the early spring of 2014, my wife and I took our youngest on a trip to the St. Louis area to tour some colleges and in between stops we planned on visiting the St. Louis Arch. It was a beautiful day when we arrived at the park and the three of us crammed ourselves into the funky little elevator for the ride to the top. I hadn’t ever been to the top until this trip. I have driven past a few times on family road trips when I was a kid, but we never made the stop for the arch.

After we came down and did the museum and store we headed out to the park grounds. Thats when I started to get excited about what I was seeing.

St. Louis Arch
St. Louis Arch reflected in water (Pentax ME Super, 24mm f16 @ 1/4 sec. Kodak T-Max 100 film)

This was not a photo trip so I didn’t pack a ton of gear for what ever situation came my way. I packed up my simple travel kit for this trip. The kit is a Pentax ME Super body and a 24mm, 50mm and 135mm prime lenses. I had a few red and yellow filters, cable release and a little table top tripod. This, along with 5 rolls of T-Max 100 film,  all fits in a nice little single sling pack.

The reflection of the arch was coming into view more and more as I walked along the edge of the reflecting pool.  I made my way around the pool, fending off a goose protecting its partner sitting on their nest, until I came to the spot where I took the photo above.  I chose the 24mm wide angle so I could get the whole scene in the frame. Shooting at ISO 100 with a red filter late in the afternoon meant I needed to use a tripod, but the only tripod I had was the little table top one that fit in my little pack. So, thats what I used. Getting down on my knees I set the camera up on the little tripod, attached my cable release and metered for the shadows.

My in-camera meter told me that at f16 it would be a 1/4 of a second exposure. I knew the red filter would really make the blue sky darken because the sun was to my back and I would get some nice contrast with the white clouds building on the horizon. And the reflection lined up perfectly at the low angle that my camera was sitting. So, with my camera on the little tripod at the edge of the reflecting pool, I bracketed three shots at 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 of a second at f16.

After I took those three shots I finished our stroll around the park and finished off the roll of T-Max. I knew I had some good frames and couldn’t wait to get home and develop the film. I have several really nice abstracts of the arch but this image had the most drama when I printed it.

Film Shooters Have More Fun