Why is it Grey?

May 14, 2014  •  Leave a Comment


A few months back I was showing some photos I took of a birthday party I took for some family friends and their birthday-girl daughter. I processed a few in a more ‘artistic’ way, with a black and white conversion that the parents quite liked. Their young daughter came over and looked at the photos, had good reaction to the color shots, and then, when she saw the first black and white, she asked:

“Why is it grey?”

Out of the mouths of babes, as it were.

The question stumped all of us adults as we stood there, because we didn’t have a clear and ready answer. Eventually the daughter’s mother offered a somewhat vague explanation about how black and white makes the photo look more creative and artistic, but the daughter clearly wasn’t convinced. To her the black and white photo was obviously lacking something – specifically, the color! It was no longer even pretending to be a faithful recording of the birthday party as she remembered, since she remembered it in full color.

(And, intriguingly, she landed a bulls-eye on the reality of black and white photography: it’s mostly not black and white, is it? It’s mostly – you guessed it, and she saw it and called it – shades of grey!)

Craggy MountainsCraggy MountainsSomewhere in the Cascades, Washington State

The event got me thinking about black and white photography in our modern, full-color world, and our (adult?) preconceptions about what a black and white image means to us. Shooting in monochrome or converting a color shot to monochrome is obviously a conscious choice a photographer has to make nowadays, not a restriction forced on them by technology. But many photographers, professional and amateur, continue to shoot in and convert to black and white – just check Flickr or 500px or G+ or any of the other photo sharing communities and you’ll see plenty of monochrome examples. The question is, though – why?

Why is it grey, indeed?

Harkens Back to Old Times?

Many of us – particularly those of us age 30 and older, I suspect – have memories of looking through scrap books filled with family photos that were in grainy black and white. Some of us might even remember when shooting in black and white wasn’t an option, it was the option, as color film stock wasn’t widely available or was prohibitively expensive, etc.

Old StyleOld StyleThis is another shot of the Chinese-style garden in Oita, Japan, this time given a more classical look and feel.

As a result, black and white photography can, for some, evoke feelings that a color photo of exactly the same thing simply cannot. These feelings might be conscious or unconscious nostalgia, might subtly remind us of those times when we saw those old family photos.

Or the black and white photos might just look old to us, with all the positive and negative and neutral connotations that ‘old’ implies. ‘Old’ could mean more legitimate to some people, more validated by time – as though, consciously or not, we think of this black and white photograph has having survived the vetting process of the years (even though the photographer took it yesterday) in a way that a modern looking color photograph has not. ‘Old’ could also mean, to some people – again, consciously or unconsciously, and certainly without complete accuracy – more real, less subject to post processing trickery (even though, obviously, a color photography that has been converted to black and white has, by definition, more post processing done to it).

More Professional?

For many years after color film stock and, later, color digital photography came to dominate the amateur/family photographic paradigm, many professionals relied on black and white photography to stand out and appear as professionals. Black and white photography, as a result, became associated in many people’s minds with the artistic and the professional – the high end journalism or wartime photography shots, the fabulously lit still life works of Edward Weston, the extraordinarily impactful works of Sebastian Salgado, etc.

Phase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - FlowersPhase One IQ260 Achromatic - Pike Place, Seattle, WA

Some of the most famous gallery photography works are in black and white. Those careful, modestly-sized prints held against flat white walls under perfectly smooth lighting, everything designed to show off the contrast and detail; impact, clean lines, a focus on the photograph at the expense of all else; professionalism defined.

In effect, do we see a monochrome shot and, thanks to the conditioning of years of the best photographers in the world using that style, associate it in some way with those photographers? Maybe. Again, viewers (and even photographers themselves) might do this unconsciously.

Concentrates the Viewer?

In the absence of color, the viewer’s eyes and attention have to focus on something else. That tends to be, in my experience, luminosity changes (obviously, since that is the essence of a black and white photography) as well as texture and contrast.

Lighting, as a result, becomes that much more important in monochrome images, as does the feeling of that light across various surfaces and the lack of light (shadows). The classical ‘noir’ sensibility of deep shadows and dramatic lighting works so well in black and white precisely because we aren’t distracted or have our eyes pulled away by errant pieces of color. The photographer cannot lean on color to guide the eye or bring interest to an image – it is the loss of a crutch, in a way – but similarly they are free to use contrast and light alone to control the impression the viewer has of the shot.

Abstracts the Scene?

Color, for most of us, is an every-day fact of life. Lack of color in monochrome images immediately causes us to see the photograph as an abstraction of life, rather than a faithful recording. We all know a photograph is not reality, but that knowledge impinges on us in a deeper and possibly more meaningful way in a monochrome shot: we are subconsciously aware of the lack of ‘truth’ to the image, in addition to that conscious knowledge that, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a black and white photograph.’

Lighting it UpLighting it UpThe light from the sun had this tree wonderfully framed in the shadows of the clouds, like a spotlight from the sky.

This is, potentially, a powerful tool. By making something ‘less’ than reality the photographer creates something that is somehow ‘more’ at the same time. More meaningful, more impactful, more likely to make the view pause and really think, really see the image. The viewer asks themselves, “Why did the photographer do it this way?” In other words, they ask,

“Why is it grey?”

My Personal Thoughts

I don’t really give much credence to the theories about harkening back to old times or giving a subtle, unconscious yet real feeling of heightened professionalism. Why not? Well, I just don’t get a feeling of nostalgia when I see any given black and white shot. Maybe some, but not many, and certainly not the vast majority of modern monochrome photographs I see on the web. And I believe there many other elements to a photograph that contribute to its level of professionalism other than whether or not it is in monochrome (lighting, composition, post processing, sharpness, depth of field choice, etc, etc, etc), to the point that black and white vs color is a matter of stylistic choice rather than a determining factor of its ‘professional’ appearance.

For me, then, the answer to the question that started this article comes down to concentrating the viewer and abstracting the scene. I do feel that removing color can actually add impact and artistic value to a photograph (not always, but sometimes, with the right subject and lighting and with the right end goal in mind as a photographer). I can look at examples of my own work in both color and monochrome versions and I often see dramatically different interpretations of a given scene, even though the two versions are otherwise identical.

So why is it grey?

To abstract the scene. To guide your eye. To focus your attention on light and shadow and texture instead of color. To give the shot the feeling I was looking for.

And because I want it to be.


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