Limitation in Art

Black and White Photography

Art thrives on limitation. When an artist is constrained in some way, he is forced to create something in spite of that limitation. It makes the work more challenging, and the challenge helps generate inspiration and new or different ways of expressing an idea or an emotion. One way to impose a limitation on photography is by excluding color, and that’s why black and white photographs, when done well, can be dramatic and compelling images.

Half Dome in Black and White, Yosemite National Park

Color contains a lot of emotion. The color of an image can sometimes overwhelm us with different feelings about the photograph. So when we remove color, we take away one of the primary and defining characteristics of the photograph that carries a large portion of its emotional content. Despite the resulting limitation, we still must generate the same emotional response.

What I'm saying is that it is very difficult to do black and white photography well. First, it is important to start with a very strong image. You need a composition that tells a story or communicates a simple idea, concept, or message. These are critical aspects of any fine art photograph, but even more so for black and white. I can't look at a photograph that has dull colors because the lighting was bad and think, well that's OK--I'll just make it a black and white. That won't work. If the image is otherwise very strong, then it might work well as a black and white, but if it would not make a good photograph even if the colors were good, then it won't make a good black and white photograph at all.

Natural Bridge, Death Valley National Park

So assuming we start with a strong composition, where do we go next? What's the process? I'll tell you what does not work. Simply removing the color from the image won't do the job. Sure, you'll have a black and white image, but it will have no meaning or value as a fine art photograph. When I first started experimenting with black and white, I thought that if I developed the image in color to optimize it as a color photograph, perhaps removing the color at the end of the finishing process would result in a compelling black and white image. Wrong. Black and white is simply a different kind of photography that requires different techniques to get the best result.

The Stratosphere, Las Vegas, NV

I started to get an idea of how different my finishing process is for color vs. black and white when, after having completed a black and white photograph, I reintroduced the color into it. The result was a color photograph I never would have created. The contrast was all wrong, the colors were much too vibrant in some places, some parts were completely blown out and others were much too dark. When I took the color back out again, however, I restored my beautiful black and white just the way I wanted it. So again, just as you can't simply remove the colors from a photograph to attain a great black and white photograph, neither can you develop a photograph into a beautiful black and white and then add the color back in and have a great color photograph. They are two separate types of photography, each requiring its own unique approach.

Color is such a strong element in visual arts that its presence or absence significantly affects how we respond to a photograph, both in creating it and later in viewing and appreciating it. And that is, after all, the whole point of fine art black and white photography. We work within the constraints of a world without color and struggle to create beauty and meaning from that limitation. I'm still learning, but I hope you enjoy and see the beauty in my early efforts.

The Sands of Kelso Dunes, Mojave National Preserve