Monochromatic Photography II: Black and White vs. Color

18 November 2011


Pair One

Greenhouse # One, 2011

Greenhouse # One, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011   

Greenhouse # One A, 2011

Greenhouse # One A, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Pair Two

Greenhouse # Two, 2011

Greenhouse # Two, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Greenhouse # Two A, 2011

Greenhouse # Two A, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Pair Three

Greenhouse # Three, 2011

Greenhouse # Three, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Greenhouse # Three A, 2011

Greenhouse # Three A, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Pair Four

Greenhouse # Four, 2011

Greenhouse # Four, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011    

Greenhouse # Four A, 2011

Greenhouse # Four A, 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011  


Color photography was introduced in 1907 (France) and in 1935 (USA, Kodachrome), but it wasn’t until the 1940s that color film gained momentum. And so photographers of various interests, persuasions and talents used black-and-white film for at least a century before color was commercially available. In our twenty-first century visual landscape many photographers and art lovers continue to be steeped in the force and power of the monochrome (For my purposes I’m defining it as a black-and-white image, because the monochrome can be any single color.).

Those early images created a world that was “colored” by the lack of it, and it made for seeing in a different way. A monochromatic photograph lures the viewer into the narrative, which is stripped of the color wheel and its mixture of possibilities. While color dazzles, instigates, mystifies, quiets and shouts, black-and-white is equally capable of majestic feats. Some believe that the purity of the monochrome is an aesthetic to be appreciated just as it is. And others will never cross over into color photography, and its 2011.

Even the untrained eye can recognize the unusual—the image that captivates ones awe and proclaims wonder. Often we use visceral skills to recognize what we like. While one image reigns with precise hues and enlivens its story, another photograph can be as stunning in its range of blacks-and-whites. But in today’s world of visual bombardment our observations are stunned as much as fascinated, and what is used to convey the message or narrative can be the factor that persuades.

In the “old” days we used black-and-white film to render the scene at its harmonious best. Today some artists continue to use film cameras, but they are the minority. The rest of us digitally convert a photograph from its colorful origin to the preferred black-and-white.

So what is the reasoning for this conversion? It’s not always as simple as its seems. Some of it is instinctive, but most of it has to do with tonal value, texture, form and shape, angels and lines, contrast and shadows. The language of the monochrome is point of view with perspective thrown into the mix. Mostly, I am on the alert for the tension of the light and dark, the juxtaposition of the subject to other elements in the image, the drama, and nuances. It is also true that an image in color may not be much of an image to  keep once it’s converted–it looses its spirit, its soul.

If you want to take a stroll through the works of some of my favorite photographers who gave the historical record the monochrome, search the Internet for: Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Laura Gilpin, André Kertész, Philip Trager, Ben Shahn, Tomatsu Shomei, and Doris Ulmann.

When I took my photo shoot this week, I was drawn to a favorite summer hangout: the University’s botanical gardens, which nestles alongside the campus’ farm. I strolled and watched the livestock, but found myself opening the doors of the gardens’ greenhouses. The four pairs of photographs that are in the Lens section are the ones that survived the delete button. My goal was to find images to convert to black-and-white. Of the four posted the one that is not as successful in the conversion is photo # 2. I like it better in color. To me the other three are much better in monochrome.

As always the visual is interpreted in the imagination and perspective of the image maker, but the viewer can be as critical of a successful work. Whether rational or instinctual, color or black-and-white, one is not superior to the other. It’s the joyful spirit of the eye’s and mind’s experience that fulfills the response.

Note: I’d like your opinion. Which are your favorites, and which should stay in their original color format?

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4 Responses to Monochromatic Photography II: Black and White vs. Color

  1. I agree that converting to black and white isn’t as easy as it seems. I use Photoshop to do it, and you can adjust the different colors in their gray scale, contrast, brightness. There is an art to it, and I have not worked enough with it to get good at it. But it sure is fun. 🙂 Great post, Sally!

  2. Nancy Gray says:

    The B&W are serious, dramatic, Orson Welllsian – something is going to happen on wind-swept train platforms. It will be a surprise, a whole mystery will unfold. And in the end, the one white blossom will be the key to resolution. The story will end in romance and happy ever after. The End.

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