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Business / Philosophy of Photography Taking pics is one thing, but understanding why we take them, what they mean, what they are best used for, how they effect our reality -- all of these and more are important issues of the Philosophy of Photography. One of the best authors on the subject is Susan Sontag in her book "On Photography."

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Do most people "get" black and white?
Old 02-25-2014   #1
CliveC
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Do most people "get" black and white?

A lot of the time when I show most friends, family and coworkers black and white photos, I get the distinct feeling that they don't understand why I chose to take or convert them in black and white.

Not all vocalize it, but more than once I have been met with "Why the black and white?" and I struggle to explain without sounding terribly pretentious.

I'm not a fine art photographer by any means, but I've been accused of being unnecessarily artsy fartsy with photos. I like high contrast, moody pictures sometimes, but it's as if people want (and expect) to see snapshots. I've been asked to take photos at family occasions and people who see the photos seem disappointed they aren't all in colour. (They also wonder why I seem to snap hundreds of shots but present a couple of dozen, but that's another story.)

These days I mostly just respond with a shrug: "I like it that way."

Thoughts?
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Old 02-25-2014   #2
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I do believe that most folks get the B+W--it shows the person, scene, etc in a totally different perspective. If people would take the lime to actually LOOK at a B+W picture--they'd see the difference. But with today's snapphone pix prevailing--it just takes a little patience.
They'll see eventually..keep going!
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Old 02-25-2014   #3
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oops--should be time instead of lime--too much Zinfandel...:-)
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Old 02-25-2014   #4
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Most of the people that count should....
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Old 02-25-2014   #5
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Ive given a few of my photographs as gifts, always b&w images.

the ultimate compliment is to see them hanging in people's houses. so I guess personally, people "get" my black & white images.
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Old 02-25-2014   #6
Tony Whitney
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I think that most people "get" great images. Show a non-photog your best B & W images and they'll never even ask or notice. Some of history's best photography has been black and white and this work will endure for the ages...TW
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Old 02-25-2014   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tony Whitney View Post
I think that most people "get" great images. Show a non-photog your best B & W images and they'll never even ask or notice. Some of history's best photography has been black and white and this work will endure for the ages...TW
Showed my parents some Cartier-Bresson once. Blank stares.
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Old 02-25-2014   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CliveC View Post
Showed my parents some Cartier-Bresson once. Blank stares.
I have to admit some of his work has gotten blank stares from me.

I will be honest, just because you don't 'get' something that is traditionally supposed to be of high artistic merit, doesn't mean you don't know the art form. For example, I personally dislike Blonde on Blonde, that doesn't mean I don't know anything about music, or even pop/folk rock. I just don't like that album. If you would like to discuss whether Mike Bloomfield was better on Highway 61 or East-West, I would be glad to indulge you in that conversation.
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Old 02-25-2014   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CliveC View Post
A lot of the time when I show most friends, family and coworkers black and white photos, I get the distinct feeling that they don't understand why I chose to take or convert them in black and white.

Not all vocalize it, but more than once I have been met with "Why the black and white?" and I struggle to explain without sounding terribly pretentious.

/snip/

These days I mostly just respond with a shrug: "I like it that way."

Thoughts?
Imagine if you bought a Monochrom! They wouldn't think you were pretentious then. Some people get it, some people don't.
I only shoot B&W, I find colour to be too distracting sometimes, sometimes I mention that when asked, other times I use your shrug technique.

I know a lot of the greats shot in B&W, but there weren't really any options pre war, so I suppose it wasn't questioned. I heard some people in an Ansel Adams exhibition saying something along the lines of "how well he would have done if he had colour film". I think they missed the point.

Michael
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Old 02-25-2014   #10
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And to answer the question...
I think people get it in an historical art context (HCB, AA, etc), but not so much in a modern context, where its arguably harder to produce B&W than colour.

Michael

Last edited by michaelwj : 02-25-2014 at 17:16. Reason: spelling
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Yup
Old 02-25-2014   #11
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Yup

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Originally Posted by faberryman View Post
It depends on whether the photo has something to get.
This . . . . . . . .
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Old 02-25-2014   #12
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Sure they do, but I think we are bombarded by color and that is what they expect.

I also get what you are saying about presenting only a few out of hundreds of photos. Turn it around and ask them why they fill their hard drives with every shot they take no matter the quality.
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Old 02-25-2014   #13
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I have seen a lot of Black & White photographs that are just boring Gray photographs...
If that's what were showing them then I can see why they don't get it...
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Old 02-25-2014   #14
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Well, if you're talking about a digital shot converted to B&W and printed on an inkjet printer, no, I probably wouldn't "get" that either. I've seen so many mediocre gray digital B&W prints my eyes hurt. If you're talking about a Tri-X negative developed in D76 and correctly printed onto photographic fiber paper (assuming that it's a great shot to begin with), then yes, people will get that. The blacks will be deep, the whites will be white, the image will be in the paper and not on the paper. Even people who have no idea of the mechanics of digital or film will see the difference.

I was talking about this w/ a painter just today in fact. He knows almost knowing about photography but has a good eye. When I showed him my portfolio of fiber prints he said "wow, I've never seen blacks like that in a photograph. It looks like the kind of blacks you get with an etching". Seeing is believing. BUT, will someone who doesn't have an artist's eye see the same thing that the painter and I see? I suspect so. It's hard to say, as people's perception of quality has really been dumbed down this last decade, at least here in America. The painter is a Canadian and he concurs w/ this reasoning. Let's put it this way....the people that would look at his work and my work in a gallery opening know the difference. That's all that matters to me. Actually, the only thing that matters to me is that it looks good to me.
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Old 02-25-2014   #15
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i still get very positive responses from folks when showing my b&w images…older people like that it reminds them of when they were younger and b&w was more popular and young people think it's cool.
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Old 02-25-2014   #16
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Somebody gets it. I see black and white photos in office buildings, hospitals, coffee shops and houses all over the place. Could be for decoration, not a deep appreciation of high art but as long as others are exposed to the photos and don't sneer at them I would consider it a win.
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Old 02-25-2014   #17
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CliveC View Post
Showed my parents some Cartier-Bresson once. Blank stares.
They probably saw the photo of the dogs mating in the street.
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Old 02-25-2014   #18
santela
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I do think some people over use the whole BW thing. I mean, some pictures probably look better in color, and others in BW. It depends on the subject and the mood.
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Old 02-25-2014   #19
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I've been tempted to start shooting in color because when I show my prints (wet darkroom) to people, they immediately start with "Ooooh! I LOVE black and white!" and don't seem to see the pictures. But I've gotten over it. At least they're gushing...
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Old 02-25-2014   #20
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I 'get' Picasso, Matisse, Seurat, Dali, and Warhol. I don't 'get' Jackson Pollock.

Some folks never 'get' art. Some folks expect photography to record what they see, nothing more and nothing less; hence the "imagine what Ansel Adams could have done in color" comment.
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Old 02-25-2014   #21
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Most people who see my stuff say that they "just love B &W". Others don't say anything. A few say "this would nice if it was in color". It used to bother me, now I just laugh.
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Old 02-25-2014   #22
Chris101
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When I get the "why not color" question or comment, I tell them that I am colorblind, so naturally b&w comes naturally. They nod as if that made sense. It doesn't, but they stop asking, satisfied.
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Old 02-25-2014   #23
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if some people don't get why your photos work better in b&w, just show them what they looked like in color!
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Old 02-25-2014   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris101 View Post
.., I tell them that I am colorblind, ...
good one.

this discussion reminds me of my colleage, who, when noticing that i use a non-digital camera loaded with B&W film, asked: "but you know that they make colour film, don't you?"
i felt that he actually wanted to ask whether i am sane.
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Old 02-25-2014   #25
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Originally Posted by johnny scarecrow View Post
What's wrong with honesty? Rather than trying not to sound pretentious, or pretending you are colourblind or whatever, why not just explain what your reasons honestly are?

I don't "get" why people just can't say what they think. If you can't articulate why you choose to do something a certain way, maybe you should question why you do it that way. But making up stories about why you do something, especially when someone seems interested enough to ask, is disingenuous.
To distill it down "I like it that way" is also what I think.

I never make up stories, in fact, if they are really curious, I explain how removing colour (or shooting without it) removes a level of distraction and emphasizes the interplay of shadow and light.
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Old 02-25-2014   #26
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Hey, Clive, I remember and have your portrait of me in b/w!
It would be disaster if me in color

My mother-in-law every time I show her wet prints tells me how she likes color photography.
My ward consul stopped asking me for local events pictures after first time I gave it to him in b/w.
But.
Here is one local 18YO fella with my Z-6 and I-50 on it, who is on his second roll of b/w film, he just likes his family b/w pictures and decided to give it a try by himself.
On this Family Day I discovered two more b/w pictures at friends house on Hamilton Beach, surprisingly, both were taken by me.
Our local friends don't mind to get one of my b/w at their dining area. I just have to print it large, very large, like 200 CAD large
My daughter (one from four) likes to take it b/w and likes to print with me on b/w photo paper in our dark(bath)room.
I have my blog (in Russian) with many b/w pictures and surprisingly some of the readers, viewers mentioned to me they like in film and b/w. Prior to this I was big time on digital FF and colors.
I was never noticed while in color on Flickr, but once I went film and b/w...

One note - to me it is only b/w on the FILM.
I still do a lot in color digitally, for family album and to sell things I don't use anymore.
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Old 02-25-2014   #27
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I think a lot more people don't grasp black and white photographs than will admit to it.

When I was in junior high school and was just beginning photography, I shot in black and white. When I got away from photography for a while, I shot in color (C-41) as a hobbyist. When I got serious about photography
later in life, I shot Fuji RVP (E-6) and developed it myself. Then the digital revolution began; it didn't interest me and still doesn't, at least not enough to invest in a serious digital camera (or even a non-serious digital camera, as I am still 100% film based). Later on, I began to shoot & develop black and white again, which I am still doing. When I want to work in color nowadays, I shoot & develop my own Fuji Pro 400H rather than Fuji Velvia.

For me, black and white was an acquired taste. Now I actually prefer it to color imagery. B&W is a more reflective and insightful way of making and looking at (evaluating) images. It requires a different mindset, a different photographic worldview and aesthetic. It requires the viewer of the photograph(s) to "look deeper," for lack of a better term.

By comparison, color images seem to be more of a "what you see is what you get" presentation. The palette of color preoccupies the viewer, distracting them from the deeper implications and undercurrents present in the photograph. Color images are somehow less thought provoking and are easier to look at in a more superficial way; color can readily lend itself to looking but not seeing (though it doesn't have to). No doubt many here will disagree, but that has been my personal experience. As always, YMMV.

IMHO, advertising, movies and television has created a mass epidemic of visually ADHD people in our world. Everything has to be "exciting." Everything has to be attention grabbing. Still photographs are thought to be static, placid and "boring." Video is flashy, dramatic, astonishing, stimulating. When fed an incessant visual diet of frenzied activity, garish color and splashing, exploding visual effects, people become visually overstimulated which leads to desensitization. In order to trump the last commercial, TV program or movie (or Photoshopped print), viewers have to be infused with ever increasing doses of visual overstimulation.

This is the antithesis of black and white imagery, which is inherently more quieting, insightful and reflective in nature - to me, at least.

The above is my take on the question of "Do most people 'get' black and white photography?" This is just my experience - YMMV.

Regarding what to say to people who ask why you photograph in black and white instead of color, I think this quote from Ted Grant says it nicely:
Quote:
“When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”
This viewpoint is applicable to landscape, travel, nature or any non-people genre of photography, IMO.
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Old 02-25-2014   #28
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My experience is usually opposite. In Europe, people associate B&W photography with something more "real" and authentic, than colour. When I make a gift of a B&W print, it is perceived as a premium artifact respect to a colour snap on facebook or the like.
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Old 02-26-2014   #29
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Do people "get" photography? That's the same question: never mind colour or B+W. As mentioned above, yes if there's something to "get". Not otherwise.

Cheers,

R.
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Old 02-26-2014   #30
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My experience has been just the opposite.
People prefer my black and white shots and are invariably disappointed whenever I do colour.
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Old 02-26-2014   #31
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I think it is because people that are not interested in photography or art per se, they just see black and white as a choice of technology, and it as "last years technology" because color photography is "newer".

What I mean is, it's the same reaction as if you'd still have a black and white TV at home, or ride a horse to work. They just see it as "why are you doing like that when there is something newer and better".
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Old 02-26-2014   #32
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Also, for most people I think photography is about documenting, family photos etc, they are not for the art value, it's for documentation to aid in remembering moments.

And because our world is in color, a color photograph is a more accurate documentation.
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Old 02-26-2014   #33
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kennylovrin View Post

And because our world is in color...
Actually that's incorrect there is no colour in the world, colour is a perceptual thing that occurs in the viewer

I think of it like this; if a subject won't be enhanced by using colour use mono.
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Old 02-26-2014   #34
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Quote:
Originally Posted by johnny scarecrow View Post
What's wrong with honesty? Rather than trying not to sound pretentious, or pretending you are colourblind or whatever, why not just explain what your reasons honestly are?

I don't "get" why people just can't say what they think. If you can't articulate why you choose to do something a certain way, maybe you should question why you do it that way. But making up stories about why you do something, especially when someone seems interested enough to ask, is disingenuous.
I don't pretend I'm colorblind, but I prefer the term deuteranopic. Do you really think that missing the "M" color sensors in my retinas doesn't inform my photography?

It's not my duty to explain B&W photography to those who do not "get it". Surely they have been exposed to it. My explanation is unlikely to change their mind.
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Old 02-26-2014   #35
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Many of the people I know don’t ‘get’ photography beyond commenting when asked, that a photo – any photo, whether it be black and white or colour – looks ‘nice’.
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Old 02-26-2014   #36
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Having lived in Asia for over 15 years, an interesting observation is that, Chinese, and in particular those in South East Asia, see B&W imagery as synonymous with being past tense and representing death.
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Old 02-26-2014   #37
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In discussions about the choice for b/w and colour, I usually make the analogy of charcoal sketches vs oil paintings. Both beautiful media: the first with its emphasis on structure and composition, the latter focusing on detail and tone.

Both expressions in the same visual language: the first being a poem, the latter a song.
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Old 02-26-2014   #38
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Quote:
Originally Posted by CliveC View Post
I'm not a fine art photographer by any means, but I've been accused of being unnecessarily artsy fartsy with photos. I like high contrast, moody pictures sometimes, but it's as if people want (and expect) to see snapshots. I've been asked to take photos at family occasions and people who see the photos seem disappointed they aren't all in colour. (They also wonder why I seem to snap hundreds of shots but present a couple of dozen, but that's another story.)
These people just want social photos. They are not into art. Do what works for you. Don't photograph these occasions... let someone with an iPhone do it. It has nothing to do with B&W.
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Old 02-26-2014   #39
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If it sucks, try it in BW.

And you get to be an Artist for it as a bonus
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Old 02-26-2014   #40
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roger Hicks View Post
Do people "get" photography? That's the same question: never mind colour or B+W. As mentioned above, yes if there's something to "get". Not otherwise.
THIS.... and that.
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