In 1969, American photographer and photojournalist Walker Evans famously stated, “There are four simple words on the matter, which must be whispered: Color photography is vulgar.” Henri Cartier-Bresson, one of the great photographers of the 20th century, echoed this sentiment in fewer terms, declaring, simply, “color is bull–.”
“Parked Car, Small Town Main Street” 1932. Walker Evans, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
The opinions of Evans, Cartier-Bresson and many like-minded photographers seem outlandish in today’s world. (Surely, anyone who’s seen Dorothy land in the vibrant world of Oz understands life is better in color.) But there is no denying the fact that black and white remains a pillar of modern photography—and a powerful one, at that.
A recent Instagram challenge, in which women share a black and white photo of themselves with little explanation aside from a few hashtags (#ChallengeAccepted, #WomenEmpoweringWomen), highlights an interesting juxtaposition of black-and-white photography. Although color photography is technically a more accurate representation of the world around us, black and white is often associated with authenticity. As David Company, managing director of programs at the International Center of Photography in New York, tells Refinery29:
“There’s this idea that there’s something kind of truer about black and white…On a technical level, it’s actually less true, because it’s less realistic, it’s got less information about the world.”
When to Use Color vs. Black & White
Deciding when to shoot in color and when to go black and white depends on several different factors. And if you’re unsure, you can always convert an image to black and white during the editing process.
Intuitively, color photography tends to lend itself best to scenarios in which something colorful is the focal point of the story, such as a bright-red cardinal amid a snowy white backdrop or the multihued palette of an ocean sunset. Different colors can also invoke different emotions, which is why the use of color can be an important part of the narrative. Blues, for instance, represent calmness and tranquility, while reds are all about fierier sensations like passion and love.
Black and white photography is a bit broader and more subjective. It’s a great way to create depth in portraits, while being equally conducive to street and landscape photography. It also allows you to capture a great image even when the lighting may not be ideal. And, to the point of the color photography naysayers, black and white offers a more abstract representation of the world, leaving room for interpretation by the audience. PhotographyVox offers a good rule of thumb in deciding whether to convert images to black and white:
“In short, convert images to black and white when the light, form, or texture in the scene is more compelling than the hues of the subject matter. Black and white is a good choice when the color in a photo serves only as a distraction from the message you want the image to convey.”
Some photographers shoot exclusively in black and white and vice versa, but we recommend mixing it up based on the subject, setting, placement and even just your mood. If you are thinking about photographing in black and white, consider first asking yourself these questions, then browsing our vast selection of black and white and color images on Your Art Gallery for inspiration. Be sure to join Your Art Gallery yourself, too! Our Silver Membership is free.