Black and white photography, for some reason, seems to tell a story so much deeper than any photo in color ever could. I came to this realization when I was flipping through dozens of black and white photos in a Colorado ski town art gallery while on a ski trip. Each photo, without any accompanying words, could tell its own story. Whether it was a photo of historic mining equipment or a skier ripping down a big mountain line, there was more depth to the photo that made me want to inquire more about that moment. Fortunately for us, the owner of the shop was an accomplished photographer who had been capturing incredible photos in the West for the better part of nearly 40 years. For any photo we picked up, he was able to transport us to that specific day and moment, filling us in on why he took that photo and what it meant to him. All of this to say, I’ve never picked up a photo in color and had it jump out to me like a black and white photo does. Why is that?
Over the course of that week we spent on our ski trip, we constantly kept coming back to this conversation. We’d see ski art hung up in bars and ski shops, and would always point out how the black and white photos stood out to us so much more as good pieces of art, compared to the prints of color. Without the color in those skiing and mountain bike photos, it became impossible to tell what year the photo was taken, hard to see what kind of equipment they were on. Which, in today’s consumption of photography via the internet, ads, and social media, the entire purpose of the color in those photos is trying to differentiate the product from the image to sell you something. But with black & white photography, we get to see the photo as a whole, and create our own narrative to enjoy it.
Photography, existing since 1814, has always had its origins in black & white. Take any photo of a mountaineer, climber, or just a landscape, it’s easy to say that a black & white version of the photo would portray different emotions than that same image in color. That perfectly blue sky might not emphasize how cold that day really was, showcasing the true pain of being in the mountains that day. Without color, the photographer can use the subject much more effectively to bring out the emotions intended by the photo in the first place. Simply put, color, though how most humans would describe beauty, can be a distraction to the true subject and textures of a photo, and that is really where the beauty lives.
Of course, I might be romanticizing black and white photography more than I should. Is it more effective as art, rather than in advertising and in every day consumption (i.e. social media)? I’m sure, if I only consumed black and white photography and films, I would inevitably crave some color quickly after. Even so, I have both black and white, and color prints hanging on the walls in our home. So there is obviously a time and place for both. Especially, in the case of a print we have of Moraine Lake, showcasing its shockingly blue water that is iconic. Without color, that would be just another alpine lake found all over the Rocky Mountains.
So, do black and white photographs tell a better story? Yes, I still think they do. But sometimes, not all photographs are there to tell a story. Sometimes, a photo of a beautiful landscape is just a photo of a beautiful landscape. But sometimes, a black and white photo can be what is needed to show the aging of that same landscape, or how the weather really affects a place without the emotions from the added color. But when it comes to humans and subjects doing something unique, showcasing a universal feeling of pain or happiness, I cannot think of a better use of black and white in that same photo. But that’s just me, what do you think?
Hi there, my name is Zachary Kenney and I’m an adventure filmmaker & photographer. My passion is to tell stories that will hopefully motivate you to go live a more adventurous life. Whether that is to experience the view from the summit of a mountain, or wandering through a new town on a road trip. Currently based out of Park City, UT.