How the Art Happens - What is it About Black and White

November 14, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

What is it About Black and White?

Western Colorado Summer ThunderstormWestern Colorado Summer ThunderstormBeautiful cumulus clouds drop heavy rain in Gunnison County, Colorado on a summer afternoon.

For many of the early decades of photography creating images in color was not an option. That may have been a good thing for photography artistically. The lack of color causes us to view the photograph more abstractly. It's clearly not the reality we're looking at so we tend to concentrate on the forms, subject, lighting, and composition instead of viewing the scene as a snapshot of reality.

With many scenes, in my experience, the color in the original scene actually competes with the subject. The scene above is a great example since the blue in the sky and brown tones of the foreground pulled attention away from the storm. Another advantage of converting or working in black and white is a much greater ability to modify contrast. Had I increased the contrast of the color version to achieve the tonality above, the photo would be extremely garish and harsh. With color photography, there's a fairly limited range of adjustments to contrast, saturation, and color that we will find acceptable. If we take the adjustments too far, the image looks fake and overly manipulated. Since monotone photography is already an abstract concept, we have a lot more freedom in the available adjustments.

The pioneers of black and white landscape photography like Adams, Weston, Caponigro, and others used this freedom to great effect. They manipulated tone and contrast to re-create their vision of the landscape. If a photographer can take photos of apples or peppers and make prints that make you wonder if you're looking at the night sky instead, real abstract magic has been applied. I've never seen that effect duplicated in color imagery. Ansel Adams created some iconic landscapes using filters and processing techniques that allowed him to accentuate the subject and create unreal contrast with the surrounding sky or foliage. Because we see monochrome photography abstractly, we accept black skies and bright foliage without question. The same approach just doesn't fly with color photography even though many have tried. We tend to end-up with photographs that are interesting at first glance but tend to annoy us if we look at them for too long. If they end up on our walls, they don't stay there very long. Black and white photography, however, becomes timeless.


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Crested Butte, Colorado photographer, Dusty Demerson creates fine art photography displayed as prints and canvases and provides private photo tours in and around western Colorado.

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