Reflection: Why B&W?

What’s missing?

This post has been brewing since the start of this section. I’m finding it odd and slightly frustrating that the course notes do not engage in any meaningful discussion about why B&W is sufficiently important to the documentary photography tradition. There is lots on how it has been used, but virtually nothing on why – as in:

  • What are the particular qualities of B&W photography that serve documentary photography well?

And as a secondary question I’ve been pondering:

  • How did a medium with a significant and self-evident shortcoming in its resemblance to reality gain a reputation for authenticity?

The introduction to this section included a couple of phrases that interested me that have not been subsequently addressed:

  • “B&W is a simplification of the world, an abstraction”
  • “In a way, B&W is closer to our subconscious than it is to our conscious perception”

Virtually all of the statements in the course notes since that contain “B&W” would still make the same sense if it were removed; the distinctive nature of B&W photography is not coming through.

The section on Exit Photography Group includes the sentence “The photographers felt that the truthfulness and visual authority of the medium would strengthen the message that they intended to convey.” (course notes: 36) but this ‘truthfulness and visual authority’ is left unexamined. [SEE SUBSEQUENTLY ADDED FOOTNOTE]

The Campany/Brandt essay exercise asks “How did B&W become such a respected and trusted medium in documentary?” (ibid: 36) but the essay does not address this point.

There is one line in this section that gave me a lead: the brief portion on Gideon Mendel’s work includes the phrase “the blunt potency of his B&W work” (ibid: 39) and the word ‘potency’ got me thinking… more later.

B&W use, past and present

So why did/do people use B&W as a photographic medium? Simplistically I divide the use of B&W photography into three broad phases:

  • Invention to 1960s
    • When B&W was the only or predominant medium
  • 1960s to 2000s
    • When both B&W and colour film were widely available
  • 2000s to present
    • When digital photography overtook film photography

The first phase is easy to explain. B&W was all that was available! One can make as many arguments as one likes about the advantages or distinctive qualities of B&W photography but the fact is that (barring niche colourisation techniques) the choice was non-existent.

Its early claim to authenticity makes sense when B&W photography is compared with what else was available at the time: a photograph, albeit one devoid of colour, is more ‘realistic’ than the vast majority of paintings, and it has the added advantage of being a representation of a real subject rather than the imagination of a painter.

The second phase is slightly more involved. For this era the photographer had the choice, but ‘serious’ photographers, particularly in the documentary genre, chose B&W. A few potential reasons converge:

  • Historic: the sheer depth of B&W’s history gave it 100+ years of authority and gravitas that many will have found difficult to shake off
  • Inspirational (or nostalgic): many practitioners of the 1970s-90s were influenced by one or more earlier generations that they admired and/or studied in their formal photographic education, and sought to replicate the aesthetic (Garrett 1992: 7) – this phenomenon will eventually fade as the body of photographic work gets increasingly diluted with colour
  • Practical: professional photographers often came from a background of developing their own work, and B&W processing was accessible to the layman in a way that colour processing was not
  • Outlet preference: until the 1980s newsprint was wholly B&W
  • Oppositional: by the 1960s documentary photography had hardened its style into cliché: B&W, grainy, unposed, handheld 35mm – in diametric opposition to the garish, stylised, highly constructed colour of fashion and advertising – B&W’s existing claim to authenticity was strengthened because colour was now equated with ‘artifice’ (van den Heuven 2005)

So on to the contemporary age. The constraints and rationale of the past have fallen away and so the use of B&W is an artistic choice. What remains may constitute the ‘real’ reasons for B&W’s continuing stature in the world of documentary photography. Why do documentary photographers use B&W now?

The arguments


Some explanations offered for the superiority of B&W are quite poetic, like Robert Frank’s: “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” (Frank, source unknown)

In terms of symbolism, black and white do traditionally represent evil and good. However, this is a retrospective interpretation; as previously noted, B&W was all they had back in the day, so one can’t argue that the limited colour palette deliberately meant anything of the sort.

Then there are the linguistic connotations of authenticity (“it’s there in black and white”) and simplicity (“it’s a black and white issue”) – which may have originated from written texts but transposed well onto photography, particularly documentary photography.


There are good formal, graphical reasons for choosing B&W: the lines, shapes and patterns in an image can be greatly enhanced by B&W. However, such attention to careful composition isn’t necessarily top of mind for the documentary photographer as it might be for practitioners in other genres.

A very common claim for B&W is that it removes the ‘distraction’ of colour; another poetic quote, this time from Ted Grant: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.” (Grant, source unknown).

Visual processing

As John Garrett puts it, B&W is “an alternative way of seeing reality” (Garrett 1992: 9). The world is in colour, so B&W is not an accurate depiction of most scenes. The brain has some work to do, as it needs to ‘resolve’ the image, to make sense of the scene. So B&W is more demanding of the viewer. This is possibly what the course notes mean when they speak of abstraction.

Anders Petersen uses an interesting explanation of his preference for B&W:

“In black and white you are not caught by the colours, you have your own fantasy and experiences and they are all in colours. So unintentionally you add colours to the black and white photograph.” (FK Magazine, 2012)

I read this as you (the viewer) bring your own experiences to the image to ‘add the colour’. It’s a marvellous way of describing the more engaging, thoughtful experience of ‘processing’ B&W images.

Garrett gets closest to explaining the power of B&W documentary photography with this (my emphasis):

“The essence of successful reportage is to concentrate information and meaning in a single image. Black and white assists this concentration, for its artifice confronts the eye in a way that colour pictures often fail to do.” (Garrett 1992: 82)

I still hadn’t quite put my finger on it until I sat down with a good book of B&W documentary photography images to note their effect on my mind. I chose the excellent 2003 eponymous Don McCullin career retrospective.

Don McCullin photographs

My eureka moment came with this experience of viewing the McCullin photographs. I will try to articulate it here as well as I can:

  • Colour is too ‘real’ – too much like a scene from life and therefore too much information to take in all at once
  • B&W makes you really look at the subject of the scene, not the entirety of the scene
  • It goes beyond ‘removing distraction’ and into the more active distillation of the essence of the scene
  • The Garrett quote above about concentration now makes sense and takes on a double meaning:
    • the viewer concentrates on the important aspects of the image
    • because the meaning has been distilled down to a concentrate – what remains is denser, richer, more intense
  • This brings us back to the mention of potency in the introduction
  • An analogy: a good B&W photograph is like a well-written news report of an event, while a colour photograph is more like a verbatim transcript

So there we have it: B&W is good for documentary photography because of its potency.


Several months after writing this, I was contacted out of the blue by Paul Trevor, one of the Exit Photography Group:

” “As to their use of B&W, the course notes include the claim: “The photographers felt that the truthfulness and visual authority of the medium would strengthen the message that they intended to convey.” (course notes: 36) – yet maddeningly there is no credited source for this”

Course note is bollocks… I hope you’re aware in the the 1970s this wasn’t a creative choice! Colour film and processing was simply out of the question, far too pricey. We could barely afford black and white!

Best wishes, Paul”

(it made me smile)


Cartier-Bresson, H. (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Garrett, J. (1992) The Art of Black and White Photography. London: Mitchell Beazley.

McCullin, D. (2003) Don McCullin. London: Random House. (accessed 18/04/2016) (accessed 12/05/2016)



6 thoughts on “Reflection: Why B&W?

  1. Catherine 20 April 2016 / 11:01

    Great that you’ve explored this and provided your own answers.


    • Rob Townsend 20 April 2016 / 11:27

      I’m increasingly realising that on Level 2 you need to!


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