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Colour vs. black and white

Jorgen Udvang

Subscriber Member
I hadn't heard this quote before. There's a lot of truth to it.

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

― Ted Grant
 

JoelM

Active member
As much as I like B&W and often shoot it, I have to disagree. Plenty of color pics have soul.
In another thought experiment: What if B&W film had never been invented and we went straight to color film. Do you think that B&W would have become a popular medium?
Joel
 

Jorgen Udvang

Subscriber Member
As much as I like B&W and often shoot it, I have to disagree. Plenty of color pics have soul.
In another thought experiment: What if B&W film had never been invented and we went straight to color film. Do you think that B&W would have become a popular medium?
Joel
That's a very interesting philosophical question. It's difficult to answer, since once we've seen one or the other, it can't really be unseen. it's interesting to compare with other visual arts though. Colour paintings have existed for thousands of years, although the colours weren't lifelike from the outset. Some of the black and white techniques are clearly younger. However, when it comes to painting, there's an important difference: with charcoal or pencil drawings, black is black. With oil or acrylic paintings, any technique where colours can be mixed, pure black is rarely used, at least not alone, but comes as a result of mixing other dark colours. With photography, we don't use that distinction, although colour film (or digital for that matter) blacks are certainly not pure. Striving to make them pure is a failed mission and a misunderstanding of reality, since nature doesn't have pure black except as a result of the absolute lack of light.

Since b&w film uses shades of pure grey, it's artificial not only because of the lack of colour, but because none of the grey shades used would occur naturally. To me, that makes it likely that b&w film would have been invented even if colour film was invented first. It would have been invented because artists like to experiment, and don't always care if their creations resemble reality.

An interesting fact is that many or most Greek and Roman sculptures were actually painted, a fact that was supressed and forgotten for centuries, as the paint wore off. Contemporary sculptures are not painted, although it would of course have been possible. However, current opinion seems to be that part of the aesthetics of three dimensional art is how light and shadow enhance the shapes of the sculpture. Painting a sculpture in lifelike colours nowadays would probably be considered kitsch.

A rather famous Norwegian painter, Odd Nerdrum, whose naturalistic paintings sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, went as far as calling his own paintings kitsch. It's an interesting statement from a man who certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of self confidence. To me, it's an indication that he shares at least part of the idea conveyed with Ted Grant's statement. B&W and colour images project different impressions of the same reality, not only from a visual point of view, but also psychologically. B&W images are not only images without colours, they are images that present a different interpretation of reality. The lack of colour is not necessarily what makes the biggest impression. It's a different image altogether.

When I take b&w photos, I tend to compose differently, which should be obvious. When using a mirrorless camera, I set the viewfinder to b&w. Colours or the lack thereof will sometimes change the point of interest in a photo, main subject as well as background. It's a different art. My father, who was a TV director, pointed this out to me many times. His take was "With colour, you paint surfaces, with b&w, you paint lines". We could never fully agree on that, but that may be more due to me wanting to change the rules than him being wrong.

Yes, I think that b&w film would have been invented if colour film were invented first.
 
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Duff photographer

Active member
I hadn't heard this quote before. There's a lot of truth to it.

“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”

― Ted Grant
Hmm, I wonder how much of that statement has been infuenced by society's use or 'interpretation' (wrong word to use but I'll edit this if I come up with the right one) of colour. Commercial photography has always necessitated colour for marketing reasons. A 'modern' family photo album is full of colour photo's because the memory of the moment it generates requires it to be as close to reality as possible. These are but two examples, but they form much of colour photography in the past and today. While the images produced are technically good, I guess they lack the soulful side which Ted Grant refers to (generally speaking). However, I do not think this is the preserve of black-and-white (b&w) photography, rather that the soulful side of colour photography has been swamped by the 'everyday' images I referred to above.

With reference to your later post, I agree you have to have a different eye for b&w imagery, where shades are more important than in colour photography. I regularly use colour filters (for film) to enhance or reduce shades to get close to the image I have in my mind's eye. This manupulation tells me I'm looking for a more 'arty' image than I would in colour. However, I wonder if this is because obtaining an 'arty' b&w image is easier than in colour, and that many photographers really haven't explored the potential of colour to convey 'soul' as Mr Denton puts it, even after all these years of playing with it. I also think that, as b&w is viewed as artificial, (and you touch on this) it lends itself to an 'outside-of-the-box' interpretation and more liable to artistic interpretation/recording. However, I feel that both 'genres' can be made to give different impressions of equal validity.

I also think that digital photography is killing the 'arty' side of certain types of colour photography. For example, one thing that despresses me about modern landscape photography is that the image, while pretty, is too 'perfect'. They're absolutely fine for calendars and postcards - everything is in focus, sharp, clean, full of dynamic range, and colourful (often too colourful), but... ...utterly soulless. Like a woman (or man) who wears too much make-up, but has no personality; it doesn't captivate you. The penchant for image manipulaton nowadays (focus stacking, layering of different images, HDR, etc., which is getting more akin to CGI than photography) doesn't help, taking away the natural air of the subject/scene which I feel is a requisite for representing the 'soul'. The less said about the infatuation with colour accuracy and the like, the better. I won't labour the point further, but I'll summarise by saying that there is no imagination in today's colour photography, particular digital, but there should be.

The analogy to painting is a good one. I paint oils. The one advantage over photography is that I have complete control of the image, and can produce the 'perfect' image (imaginary or 'real'), at least in my mind's eye. The disadvantage is that I'm limited by my own abilities and what I have in my mind's eye rarely ends up on canvas (and usually in the bin). So I combine both painting and photography to vent my artistic side. There is cross-over between the two, usually with colour, whether it's a portrait or landscape. My own painting/photography is based on what I observe in Nature, so my comments do not include abstract art.

What I have noted is that b&w painting/drawing tends to be more 'of the moment', lending itself well to whatever the artist is feeling at that exact moment. However, this does not mean that they are more 'soulful' than colour imagery. Indeed, the images that portray real feeling (a soul) to me have all been in colour, e.g., Bierstadt, and Turner, which obviously took a little longer. They are to a great extent 'naturalistic', and yes, idealised, but it is that idealisation that conveys the emotion or feeling which gives the image a soul. In my photography, I have found it easier to create, or idealise, an image with 'soul' in b&w, repeating what I wrote earlier, than in colour, but I have been able to do so in colour too, it just takes a little longer to get to that 'other-worldly' image because it can look too close to reality, because of colour itself. Bierstadt and Turner have shown that such images can be achieved with colour, so why not with photography!?

Since b&w film uses shades of pure grey, it's artificial not only because of the lack of colour, but because none of the grey shades used would occur naturally. To me, that makes it likely that b&w film would have been invented even if colour film was invented first. It would have been invented because artists like to experiment, and don't always care if their creations resemble reality.
Ah, but what you refer to is human perception. Indeed, not all humans percieve colour the same way while a very few do indeed see the world in shades of grey (achromatopsia), while many animals also see the world differently. It questions what is 'natural', but it is a mute point and a digression from the point you are making, but I had to get it in there. :p
I do agree that b&w photography would have been invented regardless. Humans have always seeked to represent their visual artistry in many different ways, whether a reflection of 'reality', or their interpretation of 'reality' whereupon they seek to represent visually the emotions they feel when confronted with that 'reality'.

Hope some of my waffle made sense. ;)

Cheers,
Duff.
 
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Shashin

Well-known member
You perception can lead to a preference. Our visual system has a higher resolution for luminance (B&W) information than color.

We also process luminance and color information in different regions of the brain. Luminance is connected to the "where" system, which is related to motion perception, depth perception, spatial organization, and figure/ground separation. Color is connected to the "what" system, which is related to object recognition, face recognition, and, naturally, color perception. We use luminance and color information for different things.

The absence of color makes an interesting problem. When viewing an object, is the ability to recognize the object diminished while its spatial qualities accentuated? Does this strip the "objectness" from the thing to give it a "spatialness"?
 

Shashin

Well-known member
As far as the quote goes, I am not sure it is anything more than opinion. It uses emotion words simply to manipulate the listener. It is not really an argument.
 
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