The B&W document

Having discovered all that I did – and didn’t know –  about defining a document and what constitutes ‘Documentary Photography,’ the next section deals exclusively with the history and impact of B&W photography. Before reading ahead and researching, my initial thoughts are as follows: originally, photographers were obviously constrained by the technology of the time and the audience were initially amazed that images could be reproduced, printed in half-tone B&W and sent around the world in newspapers etc.

There were no concerns over the fact that what was being viewed was in some respect surreal/abstract and not as the world exists in reality i.e. in 3D and in colour.

The costs of chemicals and equipment  required to produced images ensured, that on the whole, only ‘serious matter’ was recorded and therefore the tradition for documentary photographs being associated with B&W images for conflict, hardship and social change began. Form and texture seem to be more noticeable within the B&W frame and there are some good examples here

With the advent of colour there was an onslaught to the senses, before we even introduce the psychology of colour

When  eventually mass ‘produced’ in the 1960’s, it was only as a colour supplement –  used for advertising and lightweight editorial copy. As per usual serious photo-journalism used the faster, more reliable medium of the half tone black and white print. Even now there are sectors within the business that prefer the ‘nostalgic presentation’ of factual documentary work in black and white.

There are articles/forums and blogs galore that discuss the topic but I found this one on Photoshelter quite interesting, especially the comments from Sebastiao Salgardo on not trusting colours:

I never see this red in my life.” Colour itself was a kind of lie. “It was a huge exaggeration — when I saw my colour picture, I was much more interested in the colour than in the personality or dignity of the person. How can I go to a person and make them my story, and I don’t feel the story in my photographs? Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.

…and the references to the nostalgia surrounding traditional photography techniques such as Tintype; I recently attending the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize where it was interesting to note that for the first time it recognised the ‘popularity of alternative processes among contemporary photographers, this year the competition was widened to include photographs produced on supports other than paper,’ with one of the images, by American photographer Joni Sternbach, becoming the third and final artist shortlisted for this year’s prize. The shot ‘was taken from was produced using a Victorian-era method called tintype, giving the photographs their imperfections and luminous beauty.’

16.02.20 #1 Thea+Maxwell from the series Surfland by Joni Sternbach

In other areas of the ‘plastic arts’ black and white also seems to be having a resurgence. The timeless quality of the images is one of the most common reasons people want to shoot in black and white. More reasons are given here.

Personally, I like images produced in either, and can appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of both.


Fox, K. (2013) How black-and-white movies made a comeback. Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Murabayashi, A. (2014) Is black and white photography a gimmick? Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

National portrait gallery announces shortlist for Taylor Wessing photographic portrait prize 2016 (2017) Available at: (Accessed: 6 December 2016).




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