"Color is about color. Black and white is about everything else."
This quote is attributed to Ansel Adams, but I have yet to find the actual source. Whether or not Adams actually said (or wrote) it, it rings true to me.
The origins of fine art photography are monochrome (think Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and many others) simply because black and white film was the available medium. Today's world of photography is awash in color -- "ultimate" sunsets and sunrises at iconic and not-so-iconic locations, autumn foliage, brightly-colored birds, brilliant flowers. Our visual system is tuned to the world around us, and the color information in images helps us decode what we see and map the image onto our experience. But what happens when color is absent? A 2013 study of the neurobiology of color perception used brain scans to assess how experimental subjects responded to monochrome images of familiar colored objects. In a surprising result, brain regions that activate in response to viewing a specific color (e.g., yellow) also activated when viewing a monochrome image of a familiar object of the same color (e.g., a banana). Thus, viewing monochrome images engages the color sense of the viewer as she seeks to decode the image and fill in the "missing" information.
Removing color from an image is therefore a powerful tool to engage the viewer. Here are a few examples in which conversion to monochrome has helped me look beyond color to produce images that are in my view stronger and more compelling.
Too much color
The image at the top of this post is a perfect example of too much color. This rose was exuberantly red, to the point that all I could see in the original image was a blast of color. Of course, the subtle tonal shadings and textures of the petals were also present, but they were subservient to the color. This monochrome version takes the tonal shadings and textures and makes them the subject of the image. For me, the monochrome image invites exploration at a completely different level than the original color version.
Too little color
We were on a photography tour in Iceland at midsummer in 2014 during what the locals claimed was perhaps the worst midsummer weather ever. I wound up photographing beautiful locations in truly miserable conditions. At the Hraunfossar waterfall complex the rain and low monotonous gray clouds created a very limited color palette. With these conditions to work with, I chose to process a photograph from this location in black and white, emphasizing the shapes of the rocks and the flowing water and evoking the starkness of the volcanic landscape.
Shifting the viewer's perspective
Facebook, Flickr and Instagram bombard us with photographs of beautiful and well-known locations. As a result, opportunities to engage viewers with a fresh perspective on these subjects are limited. One solution to this problem -- which is employed by many dedicated nature and landscape photographers -- is to simply avoid these iconic locations and find compelling subjects in more obscure places. However, it is also possible to use monochrome processing make something other than "just another photograph" of a well-known location.
One example, again from Iceland, is Kirkjufell, the "Witch's Hat". This distinctive mountain, with its adjacent triple waterfall, has become a magnet for photographers who visit Iceland. The web is filled with images of Kirkjufell in all sorts of spectacular light -- sunrises, sunsets, dramatic cloudscapes, brilliant auroras. However we were there in the fall of 2016 in so-so mid-day light, making it challenging to take a photograph that was anything more than a simple visual record of my visit..
My decision to process an image from that day in black and white took this iconic spot into more unconventional territory and allowed me to give it a moody feel that was not achievable in the original color image.
I like to use monochrome processing for photographs of architectural subjects. Monochrome emphasizes the strong lines and forms of buildings and lends itself to high contrast renderings that would seem garish in color. This image of the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York illustrates this approach.
I have collected some of my favorite monochrome images in this new gallery. I hope you enjoy them!