Color vs. Black and White

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by James G. Dainis, May 1, 2009.

  1. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    Photos were taken in black and white up until the 1930s and more often up into the 1960s. From that I believe
    there is a perception that black and white is history, color is contemporary. Or, if you shoot black and white
    you are recording history; if you shoot color you are recording current events.

    I was watching a short piece on PBS the other day. It was about an elderly gentleman who had been photographing
    scenes in a poor section of the South. The video was in color and his photos were in black and white. When
    someone commented that, "These photos look like they could have been taken in the 1930s", one thing became clear
    to me. When the TV went from color video to black and white photos, even though they had been shot only a short
    time before, it looked as if one was going back in time, seeing history. The video itself may have been shot
    years ago but it still looked contemporary, the photos did not.

    One can put forth the traditional argument that black and white gives a clearer interpretation of a scene since
    there are no distractions from the main elements as with color. But I submit that black and white gives in
    instant historic archive value to an image capture that color does not.
  2. Nature has wired our brains to compute and assign color to what we see. It's natures way of aiding us to identify things. Black and white imagery started out that way because of technological limitations in assigning color information. In doing so we discover that from an artistic stand point things seem more interesting. Seeing things in shades of grey makes us pay more attention to lines, textures and shadows. It forces us to see things differently when not distracted by our brains having to think about colors.
  3. I don't really see things in color. I can see the color; I'm not color blind. Color gets in the way of seeing the light. I don't photograph subjects as much as I photograph light. B&W helps me see by eliminating all the ancillary input. I don't like images that are cleaned up too much either. Our camera club constantly says to crop out this, or add that. I don't care. I want to see what is there. To me, there is nothing "old" about B&W. Advances in tabbed films have greatly improved B&W film. Color isn't that contemporary to me. It was essentially perfected 50 years ago. Color can add another dimension to an image, but I would never replace a shot with color if I felt B&W could do it.
  4. "From that I believe there is a perception that black and white is history, color is contemporary"
    I think it's more fair to say that b&w is supposed to be of a higher aesthetical value (whether it's true or not). Painters always had colour at their disposal. The great masters of old even made their own paint. Photography started out of necessity in b&w, that's a big difference. Nowadays, now we do have a choice, b&w is mainly become a tool, a way of expression in photography. Any historical connotation is therefore coincidental. Perception is a highly individual thing. We see the world in colour and use either colour or b&w to emphasize that what we want to convey. That's from a artistic point of view. Photojournalism on the other hand has long since switched to colour and maybe that could account for your perception.
  5. l_


    'Painters always had colour at their disposal. '

    And painters mix their own colour. If photographers did the same they would not feel limited to artistic expression in b/w.

    Technique is part of a photographer's vision.

  6. Without checking, I think the earliest painting would be monochrome on rock.
    Probably from technological limitations.
    Chinese painting, perhaps for more than 1,000 years, used monochrome for serious work, and regarded colour as a decorative medium. Monochrome might not be black and white, and it might be tinted or have some subdued colour detail, but it was clearly chosen as the preferred medium. There were some notable exceptions, with highly regarded, serious, colour work, but considered perhaps as a separate genre, and not really part of the courtly tradition.
    So nothing really new in choosing to work in monochrome, nor is it simply a passing phase of technology.
    In modern photography, mono does show shape and light more strongly, where colour is often a distraction which clouds our perception. But sometimes colour enhances the definition of shapes, and sometimes colour is really what the photograph is all about.
    A lot of people do seem to have some odd ideas about vintage or antique photography, that it always was black and white for example, or that it always was grainy. And very often they assume that a pale yellowy brown called sepia is typical of old photographs.
    So if you wanted to make photographs look old, you could simply play to the popular conceptions, though they are often wrong.
    I don't think it is generally true though that a mono image has more archive value. Its a matter really of the strengths of the individual image. Moreover I have some photos in which the strong colours of local buildings are a signifacant feature, and as a historical record, one would wish to preserve them as much as possible.
    Besides all that, I have colour plates and prints from about 1910, which are doubly fascinating because they give an insight that one usually has to guess at in old photos.
  7. Here's a contemporary example.
    This is actually a world war 2 air raid shelter in Plymouth, an area that was blitzed heavily, so quite historically interesting.
    I wouldn't choose B&W as a historical record for this.
  8. I find B&W more appropriate to the kind of images I make. I try to record light and shadow and form. Yes, much of the glamour nude work I do at workshops might be just as good, or bad, in color, I find the results compared to others shooting the same models is very pleasant to me. I am also still photographing on film and processing in a darkroom. Many of the images posted here are scans of the negatives just so I can get them here sooner and in greater quantity then I would have time to print but I consider them proofs until I make darkroom prints.
  9. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    We seem to have drifted to the aesthetics of black and white vs. color. I believe the movie Schindler's List was shot in black and white because the film maker wanted it to have period authenticity. I was a mere child during WWII but I seem to remember that the world was in color. That would have been more authentic. The colour air raid shelter above says contemporary but if it was done in black and white, aesthetics aside, the perception would be historic even if one knew that the photo was taken only few days ago.
  10. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    The title of this thread should have been "The Perceived Historic Aspects of Black and White as Compared to the Contemporary Aspects of Color" but that wouldn't have fit in the title bar.
  11. "I was a mere child during WWII but I seem to remember that the world was in color."
    I wonder if Spielberg could have been referring to black and white films of the period, not a black and white world? "Period authenticity" in this case, OF COURSE, refers to the medium. Either that or Spielberg is just so stupid.
    There's a relevant point here. Now that we can choose to film and photograph in color, choosing black and white will sometimes be a reference or homage to photographs and films of the past. They may be so intentionally or not.
    I was born in '54, but when I think about World War II and the 30s and 40s, when I visualize scenes in my mind's eye, most often it is in black and white or sepia toned. It probably shows how much influence films and photos have had on my "picture" of history. When I think about my parents growing up and marrying in Brooklyn, kids playing in school yards, etc., I am more likely to think in Curtiz's (Angels with Dirty Faces) black and white or the black and white of my parents' wedding album than in Spike Lee's color. That will likely change with subsequent generations who will know the world much more through color photos and films.
  12. James G. Dainis

    James G. Dainis Moderator

    Perhaps Mr. Spielberg had the same sort of father as did Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes.
  13. "the perception would be historic even if one knew that the photo was taken only few days ago"
    Not for me. I don't really see how that would work for anyone with a background in photography, as we know we can choose monochrome or colour as we wish, and we know mono isn't always B&W - really old photos often are not printed black and white.
    I can see how printing B&W for display along with old B&W prints could give a sense of continuity, or of a whole body of work, where using colour would at some point give sense of changing era.
    Perhaps Fred has something about generations - in my childhood the few photos were B&W, but there was very little film or TV. When we did see film it was colour, as in Robin Hood, and the westerns where the cavalry had blue uniforms and and bright yellow stripes. Only the supporting B movie would be in mono. Since then of course there has been plenty of colour TV depicting all eras.
  14. Topical news item here
  15. Could it be that colour 'dates' an image? i.e Film stocks from the 50's would look somewhat different to those from the 90's for example (I don't know about you but if I see a faded Polaroid, I immediately think "70's") . On the otherhand a B&W image taken today could look as though it was taken 50 years ago.
  16. I'm not sure if I'd agree that B&W denotes "historic" and color "contemporary" but B&W does remove us from the present moment because an important part of our visual experience in reality is no longer there. B&W seems to have a more timeless quality because they lack the often easily dated color cues from clothing, cars, etc.
    Library of Congress released a collection of color photographs from the late 30s and early 40s a few years ago. Pretty interesting:
  17. I like black and white rather than color because,while the world is full of color--which of course is great...with black and white photography you can see what you sometimes miss when color is to articulate it words...for me I just like B&W photos rather than the ones with color.
  18. I tend to shoot color if the light is there - that is, if there's good light and color pops, as opposed to overcast days where everything looks gray, then I'll shoot color. But for days that don't have as much compelling color, then I go for B&W.
    That's aside from the documentary and purely aesthetic considerations. B&W does convey more of a sense of permanence to me, as well as the removal of color as a consideration, leaving shape, contrast, texture, lines, etc.
  19. We took B&W because that's what was avaialble and stress was on getting finer grain, higher sensativity and various contrasts.
    the science progressed to get the color and Kodachrome was the standard of color. Now it the age of digital color.
    B&W is nostalgic, history period. Some people like old things. How many peole will like to watch BW TV at home or go to a theater that showed B&W movies?
  20. Iftikhar--
    I don't think you can fairly compare the effect of watching black and white TV, which would (except for old movies) be watching something desaturated to black and white that was created in color, to looking at a black and white photograph that was created by the photographer in black and white to begin with. The black and white photograph is a medium in and of itself and will feel properly historical or "period" if a conscious photographer wants it to feel that way or if, indeed, it is an old and period photograph. If a contemporary photographer uses black and white, it doesn't have to feel period or historical and likely won't if the photographer is good enough at using black and white the way he wants. I see much black and white work that feels quite contemporary and doesn't feel like an "old thing" . . . Mapplethorpe, for example. On the other hand, color can be used, as Paul has already mentioned above, to make something feel old . . . Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven (2003) had a distinctly 50s feel, intentionally.
    Though they each have unique properties and black and white has probably been more often used to evoke age, I don't generally think of one as old and one as new. I think of black and white and color as two mediums at my disposal for making the photographs I want to make.
  21. Whenever I see in a photo mag about the most famous artistic photos in history. They were all Black and white.
    Eugene smith's "Walk through Paradise Garden, Weston's shell, etc. Black and White has more visual impact. Color makes the scene no different than the way we see it. B&W puts it into light and shadows, texture, etc.
  22. Color was not used in serious art photography until the mid 1970’s (beginning with "William Eggleston’s Guide" and the resulting exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York). Presumeably this was because color print film did not produce "true" results until sometime in the 1960's. The guides for use of color are primarily those of art, which have been around for hundreds of years, and were quantified by Johannes Itten in "The Art of Color".
  23. I've read that good B&W is harder to come by than good color. I politely disagree. I like color but finding the right combo and the proper saturation for said combo is tough. Nature is great but can be color blind at times. B&W can remove the injustices and make a fine image in the midst of poor color. On the other hand color can save an image that just doesn't work in B&W. Overall I shoot or convert to B&W at about a 5-1 ratio over color.
  24. I enjoy both. In movies, I appreciate the value of seeing the landscape of the world in color. Same in TV shows like " Nature" which last night featured the beauty of a Scottish island's marine wildlife. For human drama, black and white seems to work just fine. Martin Scorsese films in color, almost exclusively. But not Raging Bull. He wrote that the slow motion shots of sweat and blood flying off De Niro's La Motta in the ring would be almost too shocking to the audience in color. I didn't see any controversy over his choice. In stills, sometimes I like the conversion to black and white and sometimes not. And guess what, I can't explain the choice. "Artistic license" if I am pushed.
  25. Unless color itself is the subject of the photograph, it is a distraction from the real subject.
  26. The color photos from the late 30s and 40s (see link in Kevin Cross' contribution) are quite fascinating. I think I'll return to color film.
  27. Colour is prose, black and white is poetry.
  28. At this point, aren't all photos nostalgic?
    I tend to go with B&W when I want to put a greater emphasis on the situation, or story, or when I just happen to screw up the color. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I understand the point being made, as I've been told the same thing about my B&W photos, and I'll admit to abusing sepia to evoke a historic sense, but the photo must still speak for itself in order to work.
    With such easy access to B&W, I think the generational perception will either fade, or not. Hopefully I'll improve enough to evoke nostalgia in my color shots as well. Doesn't everyone?
  29. I am in love with b&w photography. But I'm happy that color exists, because if it didn't, there would be no point to photographing in b&w.
    Everything is ultimately about relative perception.
  30. sw or color..........nice vintage site for compare
  31. Has anybody seen a B&W painting in a museum ? I haven't.
  32. Keith - your photo is very different in B&W.
  33. Very odd. I like the B&W version better than the red one, and that is strange. W/ the color one I seemed to look mostly at that red, but w/ the B&W I start reading the signs, which draws me more into the photo. Or something.
  34. James- "But I submit that black and white gives in instant historic archive value to an image capture that color does not."
    That sounds like a lame duck- so I'll shoot it down. Please, give history some credit. Nothing is black and white except for 180 years of photography. Do you look at Goya's paintings and say "if that was black and white it would give me a better perception of the actual history". Of course you don't. B&W actually removes much of the real history of the moment. WWII photographs might have less of a romantic appeal if they were in color- you know blood and guts- not grey stuff. And what about current events-they are in color right? I couldn't imagine 9/11 in B&W (unless originally photographed that way), or how about Obama's victory speech in Chicago? Quite simply, black and white will forever have a connotation of history, but specifically from a brief period of it, when the medium of photography and methods of reproducing it utilized B&W. Nowadays using B&W is purely an aesthetic choice and a rhetorical device, and we all know how well those things mix with photo-journalism. I'm not saying I don't like B&W- I love it, and have used it for decades, but seeing B&W versus color as a way of instant recognition of historic value is wrong. Anyway, color photography was invented in the 1860's.
  35. both B&W and color are useful. but there's nothing like a portrait shot with a good medium format camera and real B&W film -- the way it renders subtle shadowing and skin tones in smooth gradation. there is no substitute for that. maybe it makes the images look antiquated, to some people. or maybe they're merely timeless?
  36. It's whatever looks better. No more complicated than that...
  37. Too much emphasis on the nostalgic and historical. What if color had come before black & white? We're lucky to have black & white.
    When I shoot black & white I never think of the nostalgic values. When I do shoot color and people view the images they tend to focus on
    the colors, not the image itself. Same when people shop for a television, people want the colors to excite them. For myself, if I shoot color
    I tend to see the image before taking a picture, later to discover the colors, sometimes disturbing. One or two color sessions and I'm right
    back to black & white. Even flowers, there is much more to see than just their colors. I wonder if Michael Kenna shoots black & white for
    nostalgic reasons.

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