The Black and White Debate

I am currently working on the third major photographic project I have undertaken since 1999 and I am working in black and white. A decision that was made at the very initiation of the idea. In 1999 I began a documentation of the world of Banger racing at the Wimbledon Speedway track in South West London. In an analogue world I had to make the decision as to how I wanted the images to look before I even loaded the camera, let alone started to make photographs. The project took just over a year and was completed in black and white in two formats, medium and 35mm. It was exhibited and much later published in a book titled Crash Happy by Cafe Royal Books. The work was intended to capture the atmosphere of the sport and the people involved in it, the dark, cold nights, the sparks, smoke and dirt. Black and white was the right choice to do this, as were the fast film speeds it offered.

In 2004 I began a two year documentation of the worlds leading product designers. The world was still analogue and I had, once again, to decide before I began the project how the images would look. This time I chose colour and only medium format. The work was exhibited and published as a book titled At Home With The Makers of Style by Thames and Hudson. The work needed to explore the colours, textures, juxtapositions and aesthetic choices of the designers and their homes. Colour was the right choice to do this and the appropriate choice for the book.

Today I do not have to decide between black and white or colour at the beginning of a project, during the making of the images or even when I am editing the images. I can ‘flip-flop’ between the two whenever and however often I choose.

And yet I cannot do this.

It does not sit well with me because that choice dictates to me how and what I see and I want to make those decisions in the moment not in front of a computer screen. I therefore adopt an analogue approach to a digital practice. From the moment I began thinking about my current project I knew it had to be in black and white and created with a medium format digital camera and that is what I am using. I will not change from that process.

I am aware of many photographers who do not follow the same strict approach to such decision making. Digital allows us to make images in colour or black and white but as we all know it also allows us to transform colour images into black and white in post production. The temptation therefore to ‘cover all bases’ by making images in colour knowing that they can always be converted into black and white is strong for those unsure or undecided on how they want the finished artefact to appear. I often see photographers post two versions of the same image online, one black and white, one colour captioned with the question, “which is best?”

That question reveals a deeper problem than mere aesthetics in my opinion and it is one that cannot be answered as it is a question that can only be responded to subjectively.

Subjective opinions will always contradict each other and can therefore not be relied upon to provide a foundation for photographic understanding. They can inform but not be relied upon as fact. A sense of objectivity based upon intention and context is required for this to happen and a question based upon purely aesthetic choice will not achieve this.

The black and white versus colour debate is a long standing one that features many entrenched camps. I am not interested in poking the hornets nest concerning which is ‘best’, but I would like to suggest that there are benefits to avoiding the temptation of being lured into making decisions without understanding.

The removal of colour in image making immediately places the emphasis on composition based upon light, shape and form. These aspects are building blocks in any creative image making but by removing colour the consideration of a colour narrative is also removed, hence simplifying the process to a connection of tonal decisions. Think early Trent Parke, William Klein or Harry Callaghan.

This in turn allows the photographer to focus, concentrate and master these decisions in camera resulting hopefully in an image that is successful from this perspective. If the image is being created as part of a broader body of work then such decision making can provide consistency and visual storytelling through informed image making.

A similar process is undertaken when working with colour. Decisions are based on colour identification, relationships and contrasts of colour in the frame of the image when captured. Photographers such as Harry Gruyaert, Saul Leiter and Niall McDiarmid are masters of this approach. Colour is the foundation of their compositional choices and informs their approach. There is no indecision concerning colour or black and white in their work, the understanding of colour is intrinsic.

The choice of colour or black and white was at the basis of analogue photography and the choice of film appropriate to the work being created and the expectation of the photographer concerning the resultant image. To rely upon a post-production aesthetic choice is to negate the responsibility of the photographer in setting a process of working prior to and in the moment. We see differently in colour than in black and white and it could be argued that to see the colour image as a black and white artefact requires more of an understanding of light and its impact on the finished photograph.

The choice of black and white or colour is not a ‘better’ or ‘best’ decision or merely an aesthetic choice based upon what you like. It evidences your understanding of your intention, approach and way of seeing. It is central to the work you create and cannot be reduced to the process of choosing a Photoshop menu option.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

Grant’s book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/

© Grant Scott 2021

2 comments

  1. Thanks Grant. This article is very timely; I’ve been struggling with the same issue as I prepare to start what could be a long-ish project. I’ve found myself shooting more film of late and have become increasingly drawn back to the aesthetic of black and white.

    My project will be entirely shot in the evening, not so much of a problem at this time of year, but it won’t be long until I’m going to pushing it to the limit. The same issues go around and around – my first shoot is on Friday!

  2. An interesting article, but I cannot help but believe that the whole discussion on whether black and white photography v colour is in fact an issue at all. If it is then it surely derives from the fact that people seem (even today) incapable of escaping the idea that photography is a record of reality or the mirror image of it. Why else would we be concerned about the validity of black and white work? Does the artist making paintings but drawing in india ink or using graphite, charcoal or black and white etching suffer from the same kind of scrutiny? No. Why, because they are not obsessed by the absurd debate on whether their medium represents an accurate depiction of reality. The photographic referent – it’s tautological nature is also it’s achilles heal, for it has never seemed quite able to exist comfortably in a state where it is not anchored to its root source.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: