On colour and black and white
It is not hard to understand why, as the technology required for photography was still developing, the only option available to take photos was in monochrome – which basically meant the light was impressed in all its shades from brilliant white to pitch black. Chemicals used in the process would then often give the image a distinct tint, like the brown derived from sepia toning, or the blueish hues of cyanotype printing – but the light was captured in black and white.
Yet, colour was the ultimate goal – daguerreotypes were often hand coloured, and the scientists of photography were actively working on finding a way to effectively capture colour as well. And they did – the earliest examples of rudimentary colour photography date back to the mid XIX century, and by the early XX century the autochrome plate was relatively available, though the long exposures required still made it impractical. It was the introduction of the kodachrome film in the mid 1930s that finally allowed for handheld colour photography.
Come today, we have access to extraordinary film emulsions and digital sensors that allow us to capture the most brilliant colours, not to mention chemicals and software that allow us complete control over the hues, the tonalities, the vibrancy of the entire colour palette in our contemporary photography.
Ironically, having the colour information on the digital negative file allows for more latitude when turning the photo to black and white in post processing. And that is precisely the thing – we intentionally discard all the colour information and go for the black and white look.
I like to use black and white when I just want light to create the lines and shapes – and colour would be an unnecessary distraction from the ultimate chiaroscuro. It is more than achieving a classic look – it is about capturing the essence of light and subject, which are often one and the same. Rather fittingly, in my experience I noticed the conversion to black and white tends to yield a slightly more nuanced dynamic range – or at the very least it makes the nuances a bit easier to notice.
Robert Frank famously said that “black and white are the colours of photography”. His quote goes on stating that to him, “they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected”. Personally, I don’t agree with the second part at all, much too metaphorical, but I am not convinced of the first part either, regardless how inspiring it may sound.
The truth is, colour photography can be equally great. While it is hard to imagine Avedon’s “In the American West” (1979-84) portraits in colour, Annie Leibowitz’s portrait of Meryl Streep (1981) would not be as stunning in monochrome, without any colour setting the mood. On other occasion, colour can be the very subject – just think of David LaChappelle entire body of work.
As much as I like black and white myself, I do not shy away from using colour whenever I believe the photo requires it. And that is exactly the point - there is no final answer, no definitive technique. Art is always about finding the more appropriate medium to better capture and convey the subject.