In the beginning there was light – The fascination of black & white photography

It is undenied that black and white photography has its very own charm. Anyone who starts to deal with it enters a completely separate world within photography. Its character is the play of light, darkness, contrasts and shades of gray.

However, such photographs are now a rare pictorial style and an unfamiliar sight in public, as photography has taken on a whole new level of implicitness over the decades. Nowadays, it can be found in almost every field and photos are consumed billions of times over the screens of this world. This has naturally led to color photographs having a strong influence on our viewing habits over time.

Monochrome photographs, on the other hand, have increasingly found their way into niches such as reportage and street photography, or in the fields of architecture and technology. When we think of nature & landscape photography, for example, we probably have dramatic or paradisal color shots directly in front of our mind’s eye, as we are used to them from Instagram and similar apps. Who thinks of the timeless black & white photographs of Ansal Adams?! So they become an independent artistic niche themselves thereby are historically considered, a few of the most impressive shots photographed in black and white.

No other choice

At the beginning of photography, from a technical point of view, there was no other option than to photograph in black and white. Early images were projected onto a light-sensitive medium or photographic film in analog form using a pinhole camera and then developed in the darkroom. The first analog cameras or sensors could only record mere brightness information. It was not until 1930 that color filters in front of the sensor made color photography accessible to the commercial market. Although the first color photographs had already been taken, they were considered more experimental.

Various companies such as Kodak and Agfa contributed to their commercialization and widespread use. In turn, these photographs found favor with fashion and advertising agencies such as Magnum or Life magazine. However, color pictures did not really catch on until the 1970s. One of the reasons for this was that black-and-white photography had always been considered to have its own aesthetics and authenticity.

While the term monochrome is generally associated with black-and-white photography. Cameras offer a mode of the same name to image in grayscale, but a photo that contains only blue or red colors, for example, is also a monochrome image.


Riverbed in the Karakorum Mountains – (click for larger view)


Between timelessness & nostalgia

The fascinating thing about black and white photography is its drastic reduction. By omitting color, one takes away an entire dimension of the photograph and restricts it to its origins – light and shadow, brightness and contrast. The photographer becomes the director of his work and must focus completely on the expressiveness of the subject.

The viewer, in turn, is decisively addressed by the motif. Therein lies the real essence of black-and-white photography. It has the claim to concentrate on what is really happening. For this reason, it is considered particularly honest and authentic. You dive into a mysterious world that raises questions and doesn’t let you leave so quickly.

At this point, it might be useful to take a look at where the word photography actually comes from. Photós in Greek means light and graphein means to write or paint. Photography therefore translates as painting with light. The photographer is therefore someone who continually rewrites the world he sees with light and shadow, making it accessible to others.

“Color is descriptive, black and white is interpretive” – Eliott Erwitt

Color in the image can be distracting or an essential part of the image information. Here already begins the first step of weighing. The aesthetic difference is huge, so a photo that looks stronger in color should rather stay in color. More than ever, basic aspects of image composition are essential to deliberately set the scene for the subject. Moreover, a certain graininess not only adds charm to the image, but also its usual timeless character.

At the end of the day, however, photos in black and white need a reason in the first place to have a certain appeal. It is a deliberate and careful form of photography and a loving way to capture moments. The photographer must be able to direct his gaze thoughtfully at an event and release it again in order to meet this requirement as well. In his mind’s eye, he fills the space between black and white with shades of gray, small nuances and exciting structures in ideal light. Piece by piece he sketches the reality in front of him, putting all his heart into his photographs so that others can feel it too.


Snapshot in the waiting room – Istanbul Airport – (click for larger view)


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