Part 2: The B&W document

Just a few words of reflection before I get started on the B&W document section properly.

Course content

I’m definitely finding myself challenging the course notes much more on Level 2, in terms of what they cover, and what photographers and example images/projects are used. I’d like to think this isn’t mere belligerence on my part but rather an increasing curiosity and enquiring mind, added to the body of learning that I’ve accumulated so far.

With this in mind, I confess to being somewhat confused by the content of this section. Much of it is applicable to either B&W or colour photography. It doesn’t really cover – in my initial read-through – what is distinctive about B&W photography. The examples given are either in B&W out of necessity, due to the prevailing technology of the time, or the points made on their behalf are palette-agnostic.

Contents of the section:

  • Legacy documentary for social change (inherently B&W due to prevailing technology)
  • Narrative (not particular to B&W)
  • People surveys (not particular to B&W)
  • Psychogeographies (not particular to B&W)

Hmmm… maybe I’m being unfair and need to work through the research and exercises before revisiting these thoughts.

A few interesting nuggets have jumped out however (all from course notes: 34):

  • “Part Two of this course charts the evolution of black and white (B&W) documentary from an objective record-taking device to a subjective, impressionistic tool for self-expression”
    • The move from photography being 100% B&W to being predominantly colour has led to the colour palette being an artistic choice not an imposition
    • I hope the course expands on this point
  • “We find in B&W a visual respite from the tsunami of colour images with which we’re constantly flooded by the media”
    • Good point – hadn’t really thought about this, but by being the minority it stands out more, commands your attention
  • “B&W is a simplification of the world, an abstraction”
    • Again, not something I’d  consciously thought about much, but makes sense
    • I had thought about B&W removing the distraction of colour to get to the essence of a scene or subject, but I hadn’t gone as far as considering this abstraction
  • “In a way, B&W is closer to our subconscious than it is to our conscious perception, as you’ll see when you look at some of the bodies of work discussed in this second part of the course”
    • This line fascinates me – and I really do hope the real meaning of this becomes more apparent as I progress

General thoughts

As much as anyone I carry around my own assumptions (preconceptions) about B&W photography. Here’s a simple brain-dump of some thoughts I’d like to capture then come back to later in the course:

  • Looks more ‘authentic’ than colour – which is counter-intuitive because real life is in colour not B&W – and so this reputation comes entirely from photography’s own history
  • Looks inherently more ‘serious’ than colour – implies solemnity, sometimes misery, hardship, sometimes ‘grittiness’
  • Emphasises geometric elements much more than colour
  • Suits higher contrast subjects
  • Analogy: B&W is to colour what drawing is to painting (is it? and what does this actually mean / tell us?)
  • Seems to be more forgiving of technical issues such as toning problems, noise, blown highlights etc – I confess I have in the past used b&w as a crutch to save technically sub-par images

That’s it for now – on with the research.

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