Black and white photography has had a long, illustrious history. Of course, the first photographs had to be black and white, but it continues to be a great way to make evocative images, even though color photographs have become so realistic. Black and white images seem somehow more moody, as if the starkness of the black contrasting with the white highlights the importance of the image. Of course, the subject of the photograph has an immense impact on the emotional feel of the image.
Black and white photography is ideal for portraits; the shadows and highlights make the textures of people’s skin – the pores, the lines, the imperfections – tell their own stories. You can almost read a person’s life in their face. They can look hardworking and wise, their self-conscious coolness can be palpable or they can seem all the more awkward and naïve during their teenage years.
A moment in time
Because the oldest photographs are in black and white, we have come to associate black and white photographs with the sense of a moment in time captured and given a timeless quality. This moment will last as long as the paper does, being both the past and eternity. The legitimately old images look just as timeless and antique as newer photographs. The images below are no more than three years old, but they all look like they could have been taken decades ago. They still have all the sense of history and the passage of time that older photographs have.
As alluded to in the section on portraits, the contrast of the shadows and highlights in black and white photography makes the details of an image pop off the paper. Despite the dynamism of the contrast, black and white photographs of details have a quiet, intimate feel. The viewer has their attention called to the minute things they normally overlook, and they are invited to take the time to really examine those details. This allows the viewer the chance to really get to know the subject, which can lend significance to mundane things.
Moments of wonder and mystery
Black and white photography can also capture the awesomeness and glory of this world in a way that color photography often cannot. The majesty of rays of sunshine bursting from behind a large cloud seems all the more impressive in black and white – not least because the cloud looks a bit menacing. Waves crashing on the shore look dramatic and tumultuous, whilst the sea mist gives the image an eerie quality. A wood-paneled room draped with nets looks haunted. The nets take the shape of cobwebs or ghosts, and the viewer can almost hear the walls groan. The empty chair only emphasizes the lonely morbidity of the image.
These emotions and associations just don’t seem to be called up by color photography. In color, an empty room might look like a shabby chic cabin, and rays of sunshine will leap from behind a big, friendly cloud. As we’ve shown, that’s not the case with black and white photography. It leaves a lot more to the imagination, which allows us to inject a lot more emotion and meaning to the image.