Why film in black and white for documentary photography?



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I’ve written before about using film in general to achieve specific goals in the street and documentary photography genres, which is my favorite goal. However, I didn’t go into much detail on why black and white film is particularly appealing to me right now for narration images.

The association of black and white photography for many lies in the historical application of monochromatic film to all photography, before a real choice exists. Today almost all digital cameras in production render in color, and all kinds of color / false color / infrared / red scale film are available for film shooters.

The decision to shoot in shades of gray is therefore one possible direction among many and deserves as much consideration and defense as any other choice. Deciding to use any tool for photography just for aesthetics wouldn’t be enough for me – I believe function is more important than form, especially when an image has a purpose beyond aesthetics. When doing reportage photography, I think it’s valuable to be able to explain the decision behind every step of my process, even if people don’t agree with them, in order to maintain transparency and clarity. my process.

Knowing that I am focusing on the function that the different techniques perform rather than the form they offer, it then becomes very easy to clarify my use of black and white film for documentary photography. To paraphrase Joel Meyerowitz, if the function of a photograph is to describe whereas what a black and white photograph does differently from a color photograph is described less.

This means that the decision is up to the photographer: what detail should be included to describe what is happening in front of me?

My take on documentary photography is not that it should describe everything possible, but instead describe everything essential in as few steps as possible. In this way, a story can be told through multiple frames, each with an essential fragment that is communicated as simply as possible to an audience, ideally through effective and well-thought-out semiotics in order to make the gist understandable and hopefully. le, accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

This minimalist approach allows a photographer to really focus on the gist of what is happening in front of him. I find that combined with my minimalist visual style, I am able to really refine my images to convey one strong idea at a time; a moment, a concept. I don’t see color as an essential part of most photographic stories, so by removing it I’m allowing myself to focus on everything else – not worrying about what matches or opposes, and just the pure movement and the moment of the situation – the form and form of the Event.

The simpler presentation of images with less information means something easier for the viewer to interpret – narration with the least amount of work or projection possible on the part of the audience, which in my opinion is a important aspect of communication, as well as something that can contribute to the iconography. media status. I think that by reducing the images through the use (in my own work) of limited color palettes (even when shooting in color) and minimalist compositions, only the real heart of a picture ; and that’s what I think is important to leave an audience with. Not thinking about the techniques / equipment used, not thinking about small details or gadgets: one lasting emotion per image is enough for me, hopefully.

I can think of many wonderful and haunting examples of color photojournalism, but I don’t think any of them would have less potential to have the same emotional impact if color were removed. Unlike the many black and white journalistic images that I can cite, I do not see any that would be significantly improved with the addition of natural colors.

I don’t think people look at the Burning Monk (Malcolm Browne, 1963) or The Magnificent Eleven (Robert Capa, 1944) and wonder what color things were, or even think about their absence at all – the content and the The energy of the images as they are is sufficient to communicate the events they represent.

In photojournalism, the role of photography is often that of illustration and is often accompanied by a long prose article, or at least a caption that provides the context. This means that the specific storytelling function of an image can be augmented by context, which may be enough to fill in any storytelling gaps that may arise – but again, this will rarely be necessary to contextualize specific elements related to the image. the colour.

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When I produce my own work, I feel comfortable giving my audience credit, which means less hands-on about explaining exactly what’s going on in my images. Either I took a photo that communicates effectively or I didn’t, and that’s what I’m looking for in the feedback I get. I don’t need to use color photography to show that fluorescent jackets are fluorescent, the grass is green, and the sky in London is generally gray. People know these things, and my work is hardly ever a study of objects and artefacts – if it did, color might have more of a role.

When I get comments on my images, people sometimes tell me something like “I wish I could see this in color!” Which implies for me that they hope to see this framework in terms of aesthetic rather than emotional merit. The way people view photography is personal and deeply subjective, and it is quite possible that for this person seeing my images in color has more of an impact, but making that trade-off in favor of some kind of aesthetic. specific just isn’t for me. There are enough other journalists working in this style, enough that the color doesn’t even really need to be justified in long editorials like this.

My response to people who want my work to have certain aesthetic qualities is that I don’t think the qualities of my photojournalism should be based on visual aesthetics. It goes back to function> to form, and the function of my photojournalism is above all to communicate. I don’t think having a different aesthetic would change the way this kind of work is enjoyed – I don’t think the destination of many photojournalistic images hangs in people’s living rooms; people are more likely to want to watch a peaceful landscape than something from the Vietnam War on a daily basis, that kind of subject / theme makes more sense to me in a book.

Black and white photography is legendary. It does not result in images that people can relate to immediately, without spending more than a moment interpreting tones, shapes and content. Something like a landscape in color can be viewed and something about space and context can be communicated – black and white is one step closer to reality and encompasses its own set of meanings. I use it for images that I don’t necessarily want people to be able or even want to enter, but rather as a window into a certain collection of elements that encompass my story. This combined with contextual / transitional images is my current preferred way of presenting a photographic essay.

My ideas, when presented in black and white, are less likely to be influenced by the potential colors may have to influence mood. By removing color, I feel a real pressure to force myself to fill my frames of action, gesture and emotion, relying entirely on exposure and forms to convey these situations. I have to consider only the What and nothing really more complex than that – but from that simplicity I’m able to add layers of depth in terms of including other elements or composition to emphasize certain aspects.

Sometimes – and for me it is not often – the story can appeal to color. I felt compelled to shoot slides in India because of how the color in the results would inform the characters – but honestly I don’t think a lot of these slides would be much worse than black and white photographs. Unless the story is specifically related to color, I don’t think removing it will affect the audience’s ability to understand the message, if the other aspects are executed well. Genres including fashion photography, some landscape work, maybe food photography, are places where I would consider choosing to use color, as well as any task with a brief specifying color requirements.

However, even in my fashion photography, the way I prefer to tell my stories and frame my narratives means that she is driven more by the world the fashion lives in than by anything inherent in the designs themselves. Of course, if I’m tasked with capturing the still life of this fashion artifact, I would be more likely to use color, but I don’t portray myself as a still life photographer, and ultimately if I was hired, this would be something that I negotiate with the client during the interview, and not something that I would leave to spontaneous inspiration unless it is really necessary.

My choice of black and white ultimately invokes a touch of classics, but that’s certainly not the limit of what the aesthetic offers. It helps refine my concepts down to their essential and essential moments, and allows me to value emotional energy, gesture, movement and character. When describing my stories in photography, black and white photography gives me these fundamentals; by contextualizing a sequence of events without elements that I consider superfluous.


Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on shooting black and white for documentary photography! If you enjoyed my photos here, feel free to follow me on Instagram! I buy all my films from Analogue Wonderland.

~ Simon

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