Does B&W always reference the past?

A friend who works in photography and with photographers says that, for him, the use of black and white always references the past. Although he concedes that there might be valid reasons for doing this, I get the distinct impression that he considers it something of a no-no. In this context it was enlightening to come across Charlotte Cotton’s brief history of the use of colour vs b&w in photography.

The use of colour photography, rather than black-and-white, has dominated contemporary art photographic expression since the mid-1990s. It was not until the 1970s that art photographers who used vibrant colour – which previously had been the preserve of commercial and vernacular photography – found a modest degree of critical support, and not until the 1990s that the use of colour became standard practice. Most prominent among the many twentieth-century photographers who contributed to this shift were the Americans William Eggleston (b. 1939) and Stephen Shore (b. 1947). Eggleston began to create colour photographs in the mid-1960s, and in the late 1960s started to work with colour transparency film (colour slide film) of the same kind typically used for photographing family holidays, advertising and magazine imagery. At that time, his adoption of the colour range of commonplace photography put him outside the established realms of fine art photography. In 1976, however, a selection of photographs he had created between 1969 and 1971 was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, comprising the first solo show of a photographer working predominantly in colour.
– Charlotte Cotton (2016, p.13)

William Eggleston: Memphis (c.1969)

Cotton notes that Lukas Janasky and Martin Polak work in b&w which, she says, has “much more currency today” in Eastern Europe than in the “Western art centres, where colour photography is much more common” (2016, p.104).

She also mentions Jason Evans’s b&w series The New Scent, dating from 2000–03, and points out that “its depiction in mid-tone greys, rather than colour, is not only a gesture to the twentieth-century tradition of street photography but also an essential graphic way in which such a sight can become photographically most resonant” (ibid, p.121). This analysis seems to coincide with my friend’s view that b&w will necessarily reference the past but that there can be a good reason for doing so.

What other kind of reasons might there be? Michael Schmidt (1945–2014) gave his reason for preferring it in an article he wrote for Camera Magazine in 1979. Although b&w was still the default choice anyway at that time, his reason would presumably still be valid today:

I prefer black and white photography because it guarantees the viewer a maximum amount of neutrality within the limits of the medium. It reduces and neutralises the coloured world to a finely nuanced range of greys, thus precluding an individual way of seeing (personal colour tastes) by the viewer. This means that the viewer is able to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint independent of his subjective colour perception. He is thus not emotionally distracted.
– Schmidt (1979, republished in ASX, 2010)

More recently, Fazal Sheikh has used b&w to photograph people in refugee camps because it “makes a declaration of resistance against the seductive fashion in art of colour prints and identifies the work as documentary portraiture with a serious intent” (Cotton, 2016, p.172). Markéta Othová has used it to photograph a villa in which the décor had been preserved in the style of the 1930s, thus mimicking “the style of documentary photography of the era in which it was built, reinforcing the sense of the place’s history” (ibid, p.215). An-My Lê’s use of large-format b&w to photograph US military training exercises in the Mojave Desert “calls forth the history of war photography since the mid-nineteenth century” (ibid, p.232).

Cotton goes on to add that since the mid-2000s, a wave of contemporary art photographers have been repositioning the cultural value of b&w photography:

With the current dominance of colour photography in contemporary art, commercial images and everyday life, any young artist using black-and-white photography is doing so as a conscious counter-argument to the default aesthetic of photography at large.
– Charlotte Cotton (ibid, p.238)

Putting all this together, I would conclude that it’s okay to use b&w if you have a good reason for doing so – even if that reason is just a reaction against the current status quo. The point is to know exactly why you’re using it and what you intend its use to communicate.

Lukas Janasky and Martin Polak (1999–2000)

Jason Evans: from The New Scent (2000–03)

Michael Schmidt: from Berlin, Stadtbilder (1976–77)

References and resources

Cotton, C. (2016) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd ed). United Kingdom: Thames & Hudson
Schmidt, M. (1979) ‘Thoughts About My Way of Working’. Camera Magazine (3).
Schmidt, M. (2010) ‘Thoughts About My Way of Working’. Available from: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/10/michael-schmidt-thoughts-about-my-way-of-working-1979.html [accessed 08/02/18]