It’s not the camera. It’s not the lens. It’s not the film or the processing. It’s not a spectrum, a shade, a shoulder or a toe. It’s not your curve, your filter or even the light. It’s not contrast or plugged-up darks or dynamic range. It’s not a filter, a recipe or a preset. It’s not Magnum, LIFE or Ansel Adams, either. It’s not high key or low key.
It’s nothing outside yourself. It’s nothing you hold in your hands. It’s not about your eyes anymore.
Black and white is everything you hold in your heart. Complicated love, unrelenting fear, obscured understanding, pain and sorrow and hope and sex — in its rawest form. Just blacks, just white. Simple and treacherous.
When you go out to shoot black and white, you go for you and nobody else. Color is real. Even vulgar, they say. Color is the above-the-neck experience of the world. Black and white is what goes on further south. It’s the ink of soul. The left of not. The blocking in of form. You go to make shape of it.
The pervasive draw to go out and capture the world — that’s black and white. Because it’s down there. The sad despair by the lonely road, along the darkest river. It’s not the place to shine a light on life, it’s just your life. Your life doesn’t look like all that glitz, all that gold. Too much has probably gone down. And the realness of color sits like a new paint job over cracked wood. So, this is not real life. It’s a charcoal sketch of life. The outlines, the gestures, the missing piece, the blurred line, the deep blacks, the unspoken, hardened battery acid around the node. It makes less sense than color, but has more meaning. Like poetry to prose.
Let’s say, for example, someone’s hair flows through your photo. Hair is not a solid color — it bleeds from chestnuts to beach sand to honey and twirls into root beer nests and warm setting sun tones. But in black and white, it’s only raven wing and mystery. Medusa, dark ocean, wet and alive, intelligent and unknown. Hair can be where you go to curl up and die, in black and white.
Let’s say for example, a light falls between two buildings creating a long streak across a crowded intersection. A red car passes through that streak. Well, then, it’s all about that red car. In black and white the car is only a bloody stain on an ancient sword.
Black and white is a territory of shooting, not a technique for it. Because for some of us, it’s messy inside. Our brains battle between depression and anxiety. A sense of belonging and a fear we may not make it past this week. Blood turns red with oxygen, but deep inside, it’s black as tar. And black and white photography knows all that. Feels all that. Expresses all that. Comes from all that.
Spit may be puke may be blood may be rain.
In photography, you will learn many things. You will, it always happens. Your mind expands, your skills grow. You’ll get so good you can shoot a wedding and even enjoy a cake, in Robin’s egg blue. But even if you forget all of that. If you get a rare disease that erases your memory and you’re left holding this capture device in your hands, all glass and metal with curious inscriptions — you’ll still have black and white. And it will still come through, in image. And the world will know you from it. It will not be real life, but it will be the real you.
Because black and white isn’t how you see, it’s how you feel.