Black and White Inspired Photography

Black and White Inspired Photography: man sleeping in his booth full of masks in New York Ciy by Jim Austin.

Unconscious – New York City

I can still recall my first roll of black and white film, Kodak Plus-x. The prints from that roll looked decent, so I entered one of them in a school photo contest.

Think back to your black and white snapshots. In effect, they were, like your parents, the keepers of your childhood.

Many of us have experienced B/W, and know first-hand the valuable aesthetic reasons for choosing it for digital or film work. As we approach photography’s 175th anniversary, we can be inspired to choose B/W again for reasons of austerity, authenticity and abstractness.

B/W Snapshot

First, let’s consider a B/W snapshot. It lets us abstract a moment from the flight of time. It can create a fantasy, an intimacy, and like all snaps it attempts to record things at their best. By posing with each other, two people accept a degree of implied intimacy. They agree, at some level, that the moment photographed is worth recording.

In this snapshot of two police officers in New York City’s Times Square, the poster, balloons and warm weather smiles create a seeming intimacy. In reality, this intimacy may not have existed, given the positions where the two officers are resting their hands. After all, this is NYC and the officers are on duty; but by agreeing to pose for a tourist/stranger, they allow the power of photography to momentarily change the mood.

Black and White Inspired Photography: New York Ciy Police Officers posing for photo with hands on guns by Jim Austin.

New York Police Officers – Times Square

Authentic, Abstract, Austere,

Seemingly authentic, abstract and austere, black and white photos are perceived differently than color.

They have an ostensible authenticity. Due to this, they are often used for advertising. In that context, we believe their message as we’ve learned to trust B/W images from the past. Today, living in an age of digitally created images, we question the reality of all photographs. Yet these images appear authentic as they’ve been used for war documentary and other serious purposes.

Black and White Inspired Photography: navy ship in the Hudson River, New York by Jim Austin.

Navy Ship – Hudson River, New York

Black and white photography has inherently Platonic qualities: it appears to shift us out of our everyday color world to grapple with universals of texture, shape and form. As we read an image, we perceive it to be closer to the facts of what happened, even when it freezes a moment our brain cannot perceive. As an abstraction, the subject of a photo can present us with a mystery to solve.

Black and White Inspired Photography: portrait of a woman with pearls by Jim Austin.

Woman with Pearls

B/W photos speak of these universal qualities, and say to us “take me seriously, this is art.” Also, as it seems more solemn and serious, we often choose B/W for formal occasions. This seeming formality applies to our personal snapshots that we keep close to us. Intimately, we can peruse monochrome photos, reliving personal memories, and perhaps even prefer those images with faded color. The more we see and learn about B/W, the more we are inspired to use it with film or digital capture.

What’s more, like all photographs, black and white images have a tentative and complex relationship to reality or remembered reality. Using monochrome removes a layer of color from what most cameras record. Especially when seen in print next to color images, monochromatic tones suggest a contrasting level of abstraction of reality.

Black and white photos are austere. They tend to stand out in a crowded world of color imagery. They attract our attention, in part, through their stark quality.

The Documentary, Form and Design Aspects of Black and White Photos


Throughout photography’s history, visual artists have utilized B/W for documentary purposes because of its solemn, sober qualities.

Ken Burns, whenever he wanted to shift to a serious mood, switched from color to B/W images for his televised film “The Dust Bowl” on PBS. Color was used for the film’s interviews, but B/W stills from FSA photographers (including Lange, Mydans, Rothstein, Shahn, Vachon, and Wolcott) were shown for heightened emotional impact.

Black and White Inspired Photography: snapshot of Bahamas high school girls by Jim Austin.

Bahamas High School Students


B/W portraits reveal the character of a person’s face. Taken from the ancient Greek “kharakter”, the word originally referred to the impression that an engraving tool stamps into a surface. When we choose black and white processes as our metaphorical engraving tools, we can show the character of our portrait subjects, building on the form and texture of their faces.

Black and White Inspired Photography: dolphin swimming in the ocean by Jim Austin.

Dolphin Waves

Designing Narrative

Clearly, black and white photos emphasize form. They also create a delicate blend of tones which our brain uses to create lyrical, harmonious designs. These designs help us shape a narrative story with our photography. In the photograph below, titled “Wheels of Age” the shape of the wheels and the woman’s gaze create a visual link between the newborn and the older woman where there was no link in reality: the two women were strolling past the man and his mother for only a few seconds.

Black and White Inspired Photography: street photo of baby and elderly woman - both in carriers with wheels by Jim Austin.

Wheels of Age

Bottom Line

Seeing in black and white expands our photography by encouraging us to experiment with form, texture, shape, and tone. Without bowing to popular taste, it lets us set our photos apart by the ways we use form and shape to express our picture’s narrative. As we explore the possibilities of B/W photography and take and print personal photos, our passion for it grows ever stronger through hands-on experience.

by Jim Austin
All text & photos: © 2013 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.