Chapter 20. The Habit of Black and White

I have found, speaking at the least for myself, that it is good to have a habit of shooting, on occasion, in just black and white. I say this without prejudice towards digital. Black and white photography, whether in digital or in 35mm film, achieves the same thing with respect a certain way of seeing, which color, whether digital or film, eschews.

Color is a good thing, but it can be a distracting thing, and could lend itself towards the quest for mere aesthetic studium, rather than for meaningful punctum. Color is beautiful, whether one speaks of certain shades or of certain combinations. But black and white is more thoughtful. One puts the quest for saturated spectrums aside: in black and white such aspirations for nice colors is from the very start frustrated. Hence one has to look for something else: the subject, the story, the action, rather than the mere appearance, or phenomena. The intelligible subject matter is sought after, and abstracted, and the trivialities of the merely colorful left behind. Here there is more likelyhood of capturing the meaningfully puncturing, the important subject, because: of being encouraged to see the punctum.

It may be possible that shooting 35mm black and white film does a slightly better job at supporting such a way of seeing, since once again, film costs, and so presses for more deliberated evaluation. After all, even in black and white, there can be the temptation to capture merely nice lines or shapes, such as trees or branches or the panels of building walls. So one is denied not merely the attractively colorful; one has reservations even of the merely structurally beautiful, which when wasted on expensive film, is venial sin. I did have, recently, a rather expensive Kodak CN400 c-41 processing 36 exposure film loaded, which give me great results. But when shooting that roll, I was well aware of the self imposed discipline to not shoot the merely “visually interesting”. With respect digital, the beautifully monochromatic can still be a temptation.

Although at the end of the day, when the digital camera is set to shoot in monochrome, my own experience is that one’s attention is still very discernibly deflected from the merely aesthetic, in the search for subjects that truly matter.  So for someone shooting in color for quite a while, the transition to black and white effects such a way of seeing powerfully, even if one still has the license to snap away. Hence even if not shooting in film, digital photographers who shoot in black and white would, I think, find the experience recognizably beneficial.