What Color is Your World?

Georgetown bedroom, photograph

“..Why would anyone want to photograph an indisputably colourful world in monochrome? If colour film had been invented first, would anybody even contemplate photographing in black and white?”

– Russell Miller

I love B&W photography. But Miller raises an interesting question about the role of B&W photography and it’s place in history.

We had many years of only B&W photography and many of the most famous photographers worked primarily in that mode. As a result, many of the most recognized photographs are B&W. Would things have been different had color film been invented first? I believe they would. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t have B&W photography but I suspect it would be a very minor niche, probably done as infrequently as monochrome paintings.

It’s interesting that television and the movies started off also as B&W only but now there are extremely few movies and no TV shows produced without color. We even go as far as to “colorize” old B&W movies (which interestingly enough seem not as visually interesting as they did in their original state).

My own experience selling color and B&W work is that the average person, not the photography collector, prefers color work by a wide margin. It makes it hard to allocate wall space in shows to B&W work if I’m trying to recover costs or make some money. I wish this weren’t so. It’s possible my own color work is just better than my B&W and my experience may not be the same as yours in this matter.

Putting additional pressure on B&W photography is that most people are shooting digital cameras which always capture images in color. Of course, it’s easier than ever to convert these to B&W but we don’t necessarily go out with the intention of shooting B&W which was the case when we were loading B&W film in our cameras.

I’m not sure why B&W photography has had the staying power it has, but I’m glad for it. It’s a different and special way of seeing.

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12 responses to “What Color is Your World?

  1. One of my favorite photographers is Walker Evans– I love CONTRAST more than color– strong light and dark– or light and shadow show up better in b/w photos.
    But I also can understand why the average person will prefer and buy color photos more— that is what I am up against when I used to do the art fairs– my competition was the landscapes and flower paintings.
    so I guess we are back with the dilemma of selling vs. what we prefer or want to do

    • Donna

      One of the conventional wisdoms about B&W photography is that you have to pay much more attention to design and composition since you don’t have color to distract you. Color can serve as a crutch sometimes. In B&W you have one less tool to rely on. Maybe gets back to that phrase, “economy of means”.

  2. I understand why we use the term black-and-white; I would note, however, that we are not seeing just black and just white.

    Visually, I often find b&w images far more arresting than color images. And when I do see color images that I think are striking, I find they usually come from a photographer who has mastered use of b&w film.

    • Maureen

      I know a lot of people who prefer B&W to color photography (though they still don’t seem to be the buyers!). What I’m not sure I understand is why people don’t prefer B&W paintings. Both are images – why don’t we explore the same preference in the world of painting?

      I know I’m generalizing to say the is no B&W painting, but it certainly is much rarer than in the world of photography.

  3. B&W photography is very attractive, speaking for myself I don’t still know why. Maybe it’s because you focus more on the obejcts of the photo rather than on color compositions. With B&W the contrast plays a very important role. But I’m not a photographer, just a simple lover of photos.

    • Contrast is critical in B&W, as it is in color. In color you can play with color contrast in addition to value contrast.

      Often converting a nicely contrasted color image to B&W can be disappointing because the image actually relied on color contrast which disappears when converted to B&W. This is why it is still important to previsualize a shot in B&W to make sure there will be sufficient contrast left in the image after the conversion.

  4. My observations, which are subject to inaccuracies, are that B&W is more sought out by photography collectors. In the gallery shows, B&W outnumbers color work, and I suspect out sells it as well. The high profile photographers (as far as Canadian gallery represented photographers) I am most familiar with all shoot B&W. Most still using film cameras as well. So much so that I often feel like I’m beating my head against a wall since most of my work is color AND digital.

    • Roberta

      I think you are right that photo collectors still prefer B&W work in general, though I think this is changing.

      My experience with galleries is limited to what shows in my local area as well as the San Francisco bay area and Canada may be different. Here I’d say more gallery work is in color. A lot of the B&W work shown is not by current photographers but are historical collector prints.

      And more and more well known photographers in the US have moved to digital. The holdouts these days are typically shooting larger film, like 4×5 and 8×10. I think this trend will continue as more and more highly respected photographers make the transition.

      I wonder how many of these differences are regional in nature?

      • Oh I’m sure there probably are regional differences and I am, admittedly, not well traveled, so what I see in my area may not even apply to other regions in Canada. And you are right about the holdouts to larger format film; which I think is probably the attraction more so than the fact the image is in B&W.

        I’d like to see color being collected more; and I’d like to see greater acceptance of digital work in the art world in general, so your observations are encouraging.

  5. My impression is that an image with bold and complementary colors provides a big “whack” to the visual sense – which attracts us and draws us in.

    I recall a large print of an African teenage girl. The saturated, rich colors of her dress (it was mostly a head shot) and hat, her warm brown skin and dark eyes. Yes, “arresting.”

    B&W provides no such “eye-slam,” thus a compelling image must have composition and tones to draw us in to the subject matter. I think that is it: the subject matter must be compelling in a B&W, whereas with color, the color itself to a higher degree can compel the viewer.

    I also believe that when viewing B&W, nostalgia comes into play. There is an automatic association with old times, since B&W came from those times. It’s somehow soothing. Like watching I Love Lucy.

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