Is black and white photography “real”?

I recently wrote an article about the way I find the film process is an asset to an honest approach to documentary photography. This is a topic I feel quite strongly about, especially in the current media climate where the veracity of many aspects of media reporting, from video to photo to interviews require scrutiny at all angles.

My argument in that piece was that there are a few unique features of a film photograph, including the physical nature of a negative, which can make verifying it much easier than a digital file – simply put: if something is depicted in a film photograph you can assume that it was not added in Photoshop (and if you doubt it then you can compare it to the original). There was a great discussion in the comments of that article, and I enjoyed seeing the way that my opinion resonated with other photographers. I also enjoyed some of the discussion around the topic of honesty, which included an idea which I decided to spend some time thinking about, and which I will be talking about for the rest of this article.

This idea was that the foundation of my argument was flawed, as “honesty is not a word that can be applied to photography.” The commenter supported this by pointing out that the images I had shared in the article were shot on black and white film: black and white being a filter over reality and not showing things accurately. They continued that their opinion was that creating images in black and white is done to “manipulate the feelings of the viewer” and that aspects of creating an image regardless of medium, like simply framing a certain way is dishonest.

I actually think that I agree with this commenter in quite a few ways, but that my coping mechanism for these issues is perhaps different, which influences the intent behind writing that article, as well as others in which I highlight an attempt at honesty through a certain medium.

Despite being able to justify black and white photography personally I can see how to some it could seem disingenuous to back up an article about honesty with photographs that don’t look like reality. Black and white photography is actually something I avoided for a long time, to the extent that soon after starting with film I published an article about how the medium helped me to really appreciate colour and it’s different applications in images.

My opinion now is that if the only thing that makes an image “good” is the colour matching then it probably isn’t one I’d take or enjoy. Colour photography is unquestionably valid overall, but when it comes to the potential of an image to express an emotion or tell a story then I don’t think the colour is the thing itself. Many of the best colour images work just as well when desaturated – the essence of the image is often in the subject and composition, not the colours.

Although I’d decided when I bought my first ever film camera, a Leica CL in 2017, that film would be a black and white only pursuit I only made it through a few rolls of HP5 before deciding that I was a colour photographer, and to stick at that. Two years later and I am shooting the majority of my images, both personal and professional in black and white. That kind of transition takes a lot of trial and error and personal understanding, and has really affected my workflow in the shooting, curating, and presentation of my work. I can justify black and white photography as an “honest” craft as the result of this process, and I can absolutely understand photographers who haven’t been through that themselves.

The comment on my article gave me the chance to do a true retrospective on my decisions and understanding of using black and white film for reportage work. I think that in the best examples of photojournalism the focus is on the essentials of storytelling; colour doesn’t always come into that. In fact, the Time list of 100 most influential photographs comprises of a majority of monochromatic film images. Of this list if I were to ever critique their photographic merit a complaint about anyone in particular being black and white, and that taking away from the impact, wouldn’t even factor into it.

I don’t think the intention of any black and white photographer is to pass off a monochrome image and expect people to believe that that’s exactly how it looked. But I do think it’s possible to look at a black and white image and truly believe that the events depicted  – the moment – did actually happen. Beyond this, we have the argument of subjectivity in sight itself. There is no “true” or honest way to see the world; physical sight is subjective – some do not even have it to begin with. I can remove my glasses and experience the world in an unfocused haze, but this doesn’t mean I should take all of my photographs out of focus in some attempt at achieving ultimate truth.

Similarly, some people have wider or narrower fields of view, which affect the way they perceive things. This is also why people should try lenses for themselves rather than relying on other peoples recommendations – for me, 90mm is as close to a prescription focal length as possible for street photography, whereas for others 21mm would be more appropriate. Again these don’t affect (in my mind) the veracity of the images produced with them, only the style.

The eye is by no means a perfect means of recording the world – and is also connected to a very subjective processing machine in the form of the individual brain. The very nature of this connection means we have a blind spot caused by the “cables” at the back of the eye. Some people are colour blind, and some see in a much larger spectrum, making it difficult to pin down what a true experience of colour in the world would even be.

Further we reach a similar set of limitations in our photographic tools, even in “colour” photography. There is no universally true sensor or film which renders exactly accurate colour – different films and sensors have different “looks” – Kodachrome is no truer than Portra which is no truer than Fujifilm Venus which is no truer than the Sony A7 sensor. Sure things can be calibrated afterwards using colour cards but this isn’t always in the images benefit – and would count as post-processing to a hardcore purist. I think anything inherent to the way our current photographic tools operate leave room for subjectivity. As I mentioned before focal length can offer a number of perspectives, distortion, and compression which we don’t experience by eye. There are also things like shutter blur, bokeh, and grain which don’t really exist in any meaningful way in reality. Bokeh is not a subject you could capture – it’s inherent to the lens, a byproduct rather than something empirical.

When outlined in reductionist terms like this it’s apparent that, like anything else humans do, photography is simply the best available tool we’ve managed to come up with to fulfil the desire to create a visual record of the world around us. I think that as an answer to the main concern over honesty that this answer could seem disingenuous, as instead of defending black and white images specifically it simply brings all other forms of sight and photography to the same level, and highlights that none are accurate.

However in my mind, that is sort of the point; once you accept that photography is not reality itself, or even an “accurate” portrayal of what’s in front of you then you can take steps to take control of the elements of the medium you are able to and to use those to the best of your ability. Honesty doesn’t come from the lens or the film but rather the photographer themselves. No amount of gear, BTS, or access to contact sheets will convince a true cynic, which is a shame, but the integrity of the artist; consistent honesty and openness can go a long way when confronted with such a situation. Similarly, no image will ever capture the feelings of the photographer in that moment, none of their opinions or past – just what they choose to frame based on what’s in front of them. Very far from the fullest account of an event.

I think that the analysis of these factors this is the best I’ll be able to justify my decision – whether people accept it or not is up to them. I don’t think that the reasonable conclusion from this discussion is to see photography as a dishonest medium any more than language is just because you can use it to tell a lie. It is a tool and can be used conscientiously or carelessly as the user desires, and expresses.

My understanding of the way photography operates today gives a lot of weight to the role of the now contextual existence of images. Newsworthy photographs of world events are often not unique, as they are captured from many different perspectives by many different photographers whether amateur or professional. these viewed as a collection can provide a much better range of context to that event than any one image by any one photographer. That’s why we have to be careful when consuming iconic photographs as they are often not as they seem.

In fact, some of the most engaging and iconic images in photojournalism are associated with stories that have been taken out of context, or manipulated, or simply incorrect. Eddie Adams has famously spoken out about the way his shot of the execution of a Viet Cong was often taken out of context despite the power it held over public opinion. Similarly, without context most assume that the image of Tank Man shows the tanks being stopped from arriving in Tiananmen Square – in fact, my understanding of the context is they are in the process of leaving it.

No single image can tell an entire story, in my opinion. If we had ONLY these photos with no context, or other images to offer other aspects of the event then they would be useless in forming an actual understanding of what they show.

The way I reconcile all of this is through my adoption of the photo essay approach when possible. While I still focus on making the absolute best images possible with the moment to moment scenes I also have allowed myself to capture more detail shots, and context in order to help frame the narrative. I think that having at least two satellite images around an iconic shot can help an audience to understand the story a little better than relying on what’s possible within one frame. I think that by incorporating this approach into my workflow I will have better control over the potential my photographs have to be a reliable source of journalism. The only context I have true control over in terms of my images is that they will always ben made by a photographer who puts this kind of effort into conscientious documentary journalism. Whether the issue at hand is the nature of black and white photography, focal lengths, depth of field, I want to be as careful as possible that my photography is guided as best as possible by reality, and not limited by anything that would get in the way of that.


Thanks for taking the time to read what turned out to be a bit of a rant – hopefully there’s been something useful in here for someone dealing with these issues in their own photography. If you’ve enjoyed my images posted throughout then you might enjoy my instagram, where I share a selection of my photographs both from recent work and older projects. I buy all of my film from Analogue Wonderland.

~ Simon

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Simon Kinghttp://www.digitalwoodcut.com
Simon is a London based photographer and photojournalist. He is currently working on long term personal projects, and has been shooting on 35mm film since late 2016. You can follow his work on Instagram, or read his personal blog, both linked below.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. I do not understand the whole discussion about honesty in photography at all. Whether digital or analogue, in black and white or colour: honesty is a basic attitude and yet still subjective.
    Absolute honesty does not exist.
    Also and especially painters have never depicted reality before photography, only their impression of it. Even painters knew how to manipulate.
    In the end “honesty” is also here only a label to sell an own view of things.

  2. I do not understand the whole discussion about honesty in photography at all. Whether digital or analogue, in black and white or colour: honesty is a basic attitude and yet still subjective.
    Absolute honesty does not exist.
    Also and especially painters have never depicted reality before photography, only their impression of it. Even painters knew how to manipulate.
    In the end “honesty” is also here only a label to sell an own view of things.

  3. Hi Simon, good article and good comments! Readers should remember you were discussing ‘honesty’ (and later you mention ‘integrity’) and not ‘reality’. For the colour advocates, let’s remember that the human eye and our perception of colour are part of a self a regulating process that ‘normalises’ the colours from the world. Any decent light colour reading device e.g. colour temperature meter (as us old film pro togs needed for ‘accurate/acceptable’ colour film images) will prove that the colour we see/perceive will change as the colour content of the illuminating light changes but our eyes/brain will ‘correct’ these changes to match our perceptual expectations i.e. white always looks white until you train your brain as togs and paint artists do to perceive the subtleties of colour. Sorry, turned into a rsnt too!

  4. An argument could be made that BW is a more accurate depiction of the world as it actually is, while colour is perhaps a more accurate depiction of how we humans see the world. That argument would go like this:

    Colours aren’t really an objective property of reality, they are an interpretation of reality made for us by our visual cortex. Thousands of different wavelengths of light simultaneously hit our photo receptors, each of which reacts slight differently to each wavelength. Our brain distills this mess into what we see as colour. Meanwhile, other properties of images, such light and dark, shape, and contrast are objective properties that do not change with the observer (in the same way).

    This means that even though it might be natural to assume that colour images are “real” and BW is a kind of filter applied over it, in fact the opposite is true. The world is BW, and “colour” is just a filter created by our brains.

    Thus, BW photography is incredibly valuable, because it lets us see aspects of reality normally obscured by our brains’ colour filter.

  5. Is colour really an honest (complete) representation? Where is the infrared spectrum, the ultraviolet? Perhaps one could say it is an honest B&W representation. A still photo is an instant in time, not repeatable and despite cropping and burning/dodging, etc., you can always refer to the original.
    Then let’s remember that colour slides are the truest of all because the negatives taken for prints are exactly that – negative, which, of course, is far from honest or representative.
    This issue has many ins and outs and we mustn’t get lost in the weeds.

  6. I don’t find B&W disengenuous or ‘not real’ I call it abstract. B&W by definition is an abstraction because it filters out the color of the ‘real world’. But it still constitutes a ‘real image’.

  7. At this point we’re essentially talking about the metaphysics of photography, which is just great with me!

    However you view the world philosophically I think the conclusion remains the same, a photo is real… Well, just as real as anything else.

    • Thanks Zoë! I’m just glad to be contributing to topics other than gear talk! 🙂
      I agree a photograph is a photograph – but within areas like Journalism there can be some interesting discussions on the role of aesthetic/interpretation when it comes to representing “reality” in a way that people not involved in the discussion can still consume.

  8. Many good points here! Particularly the idea that shooting in black-and-white (whether film or digital) is a choice to filter out color — just as cropping is a way to filter out other distracting elements — in order to better distill the essence of a moment, place or subject.

    One has only to look at modern movies, where color is the default mode due to popular tastes, to find films that were made (very consciously and at great effort) in black-and-white — particularly “Nebraska” and “Roma.” It is no coincidence that both these great films are named after places, for the black-and-white images are indelibly about a location and a time.

    Movies, of course, are fiction — but only in the sense that all photography is fiction. As this article proposes, photography grasps beyond its obvious limitations to reach a greater, intuited truth. In that sense it is (like the Zen saying) “not the moon, but the finger pointing at the moon.”

    • The intentions of art and of documentation are not the same. Art is entirely about subjectivity, expressiveness, emotion. Documentation attempts to be somewhat objective:its intention is “This is what there is.” I feel that this confusion results in a lot of the posts in online photo discussions that emphasize gear, pixels, sharpness, etc., over “What feeling does this invoke in you?” Black and white is a tool to convey emotion, as is color.

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