Two quotes on B&W photography.

I was reading the April 2012 issue of Black+White Photography magazine and came across the following two quotes within a couple of pages of each other, in two discrete articles, which I thought were two opposing interpretations of B&W photography (the key parts in italics):

(i) "It was B&W that first informed my photographic education, at that time the internet didn't exist, so those books were the ones I learned from. I also believe that in using B&W I'm nodding to the fact that, yes, this is a photograph, since real life is in colour. But, in the end, I simply still like the process and the way it looks. It can be a subtle thing, much too much B&W work is heavy handed in its application." - Vanessa Winship, p.40.​

(ii) "As a keen photographer himself, Mark was quick to recognise the aesthetic and historical importance of his father's archive. 'These photographs give a remarkable insight into a way of life that has gone forever', he says. 'His preference for working with black & white film perfectly captured the stark realism of the industrial landscape.'" - Mark Robinson, p.42.​


Newcastle, Australia
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Love the sentiment of (i). I agree that much too much is heavy handed (with apology to the high contrast B&W lovers...) I think high contrast is good but not for every single situation. Sometimes it just looks bloody awful. I have a preference for B&W with subtle tones and a small amount of contrast boost where required. Actually, even though I shoot colour most of the time, I prefer B&W for people. Almost always.
But still, Mark Robinson says the B&W gives the photographs a stark realism, while Vanessa Winship concedes (according to my interpretation) that B&W takes away from that realism.

I can sort of see where the both of them are coming from yet I'm finding it difficult to reconcile these two views into one grand unified theory.


Milwaukee, WI USA
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I think Paul has a point there...... I tried Googling that quote to see it in context. After seeing the photo here..... 'Northern Legacy': Photographs of Bolton and district by Harold Crompton Robinson | Redeye I can better understand the quote. Obviously life is in color, but there is something in the black and white photo that DOES capture the realism of the moment. I wish I could put it into words, but isn't that why photography is so great......we don't need words (which so often fail).
I would generally agree with what you guys are saying but I think there is something more substantial to this on a technical basis, and this is what I'm trying to figure out:

In the world of filmmaking for example, there was a very clear demarcation between traditional cinematic filmmaking (ie. a format of storytelling that draws us into the narrative of a fictional film) and traditional video filmmaking (ie. a format of filmmaking where the video images look 'real' and 'documentary-like').

It used to be when you try to present a fictional narrative with video, that was when the presentation looks un-cinematic and the fiction is harder to swallow such as the stark video look in daytime soaps.

Amongst other things such as cinematography and budget, one of the main technical reasons for this video look has been frame rates which affect motion blur. The standard cinema film has been 24 frames per second, progressive. Video had traditionally been at higher frame rates, interlaced. In very recent times, technological advancements in video has brought digital video filmmaking much much closer to traditional cinematic filmmaking so the line is blurred but the initial point remains.

There have been some big Hollywood films who have filmed with digital video cameras to achieve this video look. See for example some of Michael Mann's films like Public Enemies with Johnny Depp. Many filmgoers have commented that the 'video look' applied in this fictional narrative context just didn't work and they couldn't buy into the narrative, especially in a period film like this.

So... you might say I'm looking too deeply into this and that there is no need to question 'art', but this is why the question of realism and format is at the forefront of my thinking, it also affects creative decision-making on a technical basis and in the filmmaking world at least, there is a clear demarcation in realism and format.


I don;t think you're overthinking at all James, thinking is generally rather an underused skill these days ...

It seems to me that this is a way of using the word "realism" as shorthand for a visual convention about how you (or whoever) presents their images and the emotional impact you (or whoever) hope to convey with them ...

I think the example you give about audiences not "buying into" something is rather telling ... it feels more like a cultural convention than it is intrinsic to the particular medium.

but then I have a deeply entrenched scepticism about "realism", nicely encapsulated with Mr. Gedney's quote in my signature ... I don't see black and white images as more (or less) "real" than colour ones when I look at them, but then I don't look at images as being "real" or "realistic" anyway I suppose ...

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