“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”

– Robert Frank

Art Model Panda ©2013 Terrell Neasley

Black and White, aka… MONOCHROME. This is the way things started out. Of course, you already knew that. Actually, monochrome refers to more than just Black and White. Sepia is also monochromatic, as is Cyanotype, Ambrotype, and Selenium. All it really means is one color tonality. And this is how the story was told in original photographic works. Whether it was for private portraits, reporting the local news, or civil war photos to accompany journalistic works… regardless… this was the technology that began it all. Dorothea Lange made you tug at your heart with her Great Depression Era photography. Gordon Parks put the truth of the civil rights struggles on the front page.

Today, we usually refer to making photos artistic, we often refer to turning them black and white. This is a style. And why do we do this? There are several reasons. Mainly it’s the aesthetic appeal of vintage artwork, which is once again the trendiest way to shoot. Case in point, Instagram. Many images we see nowadays are posted with Instagram retro or Lomography filters overlaid on top of the image to give it an old feel. Old has become new again.

Art Model Panda ©2013 Terrell Neasley
Another reason we like B&W is the simple fact that it is traditional. Traditional photography was more comfortable and familiar. We like a specific image because of the unconscious mind’s eye, which tends to be drawn to certain things and will overlook others. Light, shadow, shape (primarily geometric), patterns, balance… these are elements the eye sees and notices more quickly. These things appeal to you or will at least get your attention whether you like them or not. Color may tend to distract the eye from the fundamental elements and the purity of the composition. Bright and primary colors may lead the eyes away by cluttering and confusing your unconscious mind, making you miss the real story the eyes naturally look for.

Remove color information, and what remains are the truisms that make up the photograph. Don’t get me wrong. There are times color information is paramount. Try shooting roses or wildflowers in Black and White! Information is missing and which leaves the story incomplete. Shooting a redhead in B&W might even be considered a crime. However, street photography is more effective in black and white. 

Distractions are reduced. You see the raw mood of the scene and can interpret the composition. Sometimes what you see can be painful, but you FEEL that story. Ever looked at portraits of homeless people? Many photographers perfect street and portrait photography photographing the homeless and destitute. The natural tendency was to convert automatically to B&W. The pain on the faces, the grittiness of the subject, and the desolation are captured that brings the human element back to the person and maybe you pay attention more. Personally, I have a difficult time with street photography and shooting homeless people. I don’t feel I ever get it right. 

Art Model Panda ©2014 Terrell Neasley

“Life is like a good black and white photograph, there’s black, there’s white, and lots of shades in between.” 
– Karl Heiner

“Who-Panda,” Art Model Panda ©2013 Terrell Neasley

What makes good B&W images? For me, I’ll take B&W Photography like I like my women… Moody and Contrasty! (I’ll be here all week!) It’s going to be different for everyone. I like rich shadows that contrast nicely against the highlights. Or, I can go high key to where the highlights outweigh the shadows. Too many people will let photo-editing software make the decision for them and the images look flat. You can even shoot B&W straight from the camera. The problem is that these are global adjustments over the entire image, and these machines do not have the artistic savvy to render correctly. They may come close. They may give a good starting point, but that control should reside solely with the artist.

I used to develop my own film and prints in the darkroom. There was NEVER a shot that was perfect from capture. Some burning (darkening) and dodging (brightening) were always necessary. It was a craft and a true art. The same holds true in digital. This year, in fact, I will change up my entire workflow just to get a new feel and appreciation for Black and White Photography.

Art Model Panda ©2013 Terrell Neasley

And then there are the film-purist photogs who do not shoot digital. These guys will stick to film if they can still buy paper, film, and the chemicals to process them. I have no clue what will happen to these guys once film is no more, or the cost of developing becomes too much. But lately, it seems film is making a comeback. I hope it stays. I am one of those who actually loved the darkroom. It was a sanctuary to me. I’d have total silence in the near darkness. I’d develop my film with my eyes closed most of the time. Doing the prints usually required a light, called a safe light, that would not destroy prints during development.

Why do we still like monochrome? In a nutshell, it tells the story much better. It maintains a timelessness that is unique to us. And its versatility is helpful in just about any critical situation. Black and White is simple. It is beautiful and unencumbered. And remember, Black and White is not just black and white, but also every shade of gray in between.

Art Model Panda ©2014 Terrell Neasley