The Black-and-White Print in Photography

31 May 2012


1. Pergola, Longwood Gardens, May 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

2. Feathers, May 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

3. Dandelion, May 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Let me know which is your favorite.


Color photography, which was commercially available after 1935, was a milestone of achievement in art history, magically changing our perception and understanding of the still print. At times the most riveting of these images brought reality vigorously to the forefront, and made the captured moment even more real (a mixed message of sorts).

That tipping point in photography pushed the black-and-white print gently into the back story of photography, creating a schism of devotees. But the monochrome never really disappeared, because many amateurs and professionals  continue to experiment and improve upon their use of it as a medium.

In today’s world of the technologically savvy the monochromatic image (and I’m referring only to B & W) can stop the viewer flat-out. But the well-conceived, well-executed black and white has always been, in my opinion, at the apex of photographic creation. I suspect its power emanates from the proliferation of our color-coded world where a B & W print can be the pivotal image that freezes our own space and time.

This form of photography is a pure signature of contrast, form, lines, reflections, tonal values, perception, shadows, texture, surfaces, composition, luminosity. The result can be epic or deliriously eye-catching or dissolve our stare into new patterns of thought.

While a macro lens allows us to delve beyond the physical capability of the human eye, it is always an epiphany for me to see what is seemingly not there. With an image that is solely captured sans color, there is even more of a tendency to see the microscopic and magnified. It seems to boost the composition’s essence.

A photographer must be able to decide or know when to convert a color print to black and white, thus seeing reality in a new realm. Since photography is now under a digital canopy, with the click and flick of a few edits a monochrome appears. But there is an advantage to shooting in color with a digital camera; the entire data of an image is recorded. Then the conversion can be made by your editing rather than the camera’s, and useful information (that might be used in the future) is not lost in translation.

Humans work magic to open unforeseen opportunities that push the edges of our own vision: creatively, inventively and optically. Color is our reality, which makes the monochrome somewhat foreign in application. Still, the B & W allows for a certain tethering of drama, introspection, observation, cohesion, discovery, intrigue, and intensity.

The monochrome can easily gather what we see into an iconic rendering. Here are some examples:

Edward Weston’s “Cabbage Leaf,” 1931

Andreas Feininger’s “Reflections on a Car,” 1980

Philip Trager’s “John J. Kelly,” 1988

Sebastiao Saigado’s “Woman Sorting Coffee,” South India, 2003

Since the digital age emphasizes the visual, the value of re-discovering the black and white can have its meditative effects. Of course, there is another aspect of this return to the original lights and darks of photography’s earliest prints: the nostalgia of the past, which was discussed in a recent article by Karen Rosenberg (“Everyone Lives, in Pictures,” Sunday New York Times, 22 April 2012, click here, where she discussed apps that are used today and remind us of yesterday).

The vocabulary of photography has been revolutionized with technological advances. But the subtle and monumental alterations in photographic equipment has not deterred devotees or experimenters in the monochrome. Maybe it’s pushed creative edges to blur lines between the past and the present. All you need to do is visit your local newsstand or library and pick up a copy of magazines focused on photography (e.g., “B & W + Color”). Or pick up special issues about B & W photography (e.g., “Digital Photo”).

Regardless of the extend to which this form of photography is practiced, I am enamored by its velvety possibilities, it’s loosely and tightly constructed gray scale, its grandeur. The B & W is the early history of photography, and it remains an integral piece of its currency. Its importance cannot be overstated.

Note: As always I welcome any comment about this post or any part of my blog. To see more of the Brazilian social documentary photographer and photojournalist Sebastião Salgado’s work, click here where you can view, “Changing the World with Children,” photographs taken for UNICEF. Also I’ve written two other posts about monochromatic photography, which you can view here and here.

This entry was posted in Black-and-White Photography, Photography and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Black-and-White Print in Photography

  1. Amy says:

    Thank you for explaining the B & W photography, Sally! I’m educated. The third one looks beautiful.

  2. aparnanairphotography says:

    These are solid photos. You’re clearly a true artist – thanks for sharing!!

  3. Decades ago I worked mostly in black and white, but now I’ve become so enamored of the colors I see in the world of nature that I find it hard to go back. Even though digital makes it easy to turn a color image into a black and white one, as you pointed out, I’m not tempted to do so. If, as in my post this morning at

    an image happens to come out largely monochromatic, so be it, but I haven’t been seeking out such scenes for their limited color range. That’s where I find myself; others find themselves elsewhere.

    • Steve, it’s interesting that you used the phrase “limited color range.” While I never seek to shoot an image for its conversion qualities, I sometimes see a particular set of elements that are to be appreciated and viewed better in the qualities that B & W can render. Thanks, Sally

  4. Geoff says:

    Fascinating read … I started my photographic journey with black & white and learned darkroom and developing film in high school. I think every photographer should experience the magic of watching a print appear before them in a tray of developer … it’s magic. I know it’s chemistry and physics but I still think it’s magic.

    All three of are good but 2 & 3 really stand out for me 🙂

    • Geoff, thanks for the comment–when my children were young (many moons ago), I had my own dark room. You are so correct about the levels of experience acquired as a blank sheet of photo paper becomes a living yet stilled memory. Truly, it’s (as you said) “magic” every time, Sally

  5. Love Black/White photography!!!

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