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The Allure of the B&W Portrait

I’ve written before of the emotional impact a portrait of a loved one can have. I’ve also written of the role of photography in preserving moments – what Avedon called “the death of the moment.” Photography is unique in this way.

But I also think that B&W portraiture takes this uniqueness even further, offering something rarely seen in other art forms. When it becomes personal things get kicked up yet another notch.

Part of the reason for this might be history. The earliest images were B&W, and we associate something classic about B&W photographs. We recall Adams and Avedon and Steichen. Reportage.

At some deep level certainly the allure of black & white photography is that details (color) are left out – it is in some respects an abstraction. Combined with the suspension of time something new has been created – an image, half real, half unreal.

The B&W portrait is powerful because the B&W portrait demands something more of the viewer. Rather than just a snapshot – a veiled attempt at a recording – it seemingly automatically elevates itself to art. Minus the color, the image is simplified. Photography is light drawing – and a B&W image encapsulates the bare essence of that drawing. It presents us with nothing but tones. Lights and darks. It is an image reduced to form and gesture. And in a portrait, the gesture is often as simple as the connection with the viewer – the twinkle in the eyes, the smile, the emotion.

It is ironic that I consider myself a color photographer. I even chose the camera system that I use for its color rendition, particularly skin tones. And yet there are many times – especially with portraiture – that B&W adds a dimension that color loses.

It depends on the image. And its use.

The decision is whether color adds. If it doesn’t, or if it competes, then it goes.

This portrait of 2 sisters was very nice in color. As a B&W portrait, however, their clothing is diminished, the background becomes an abstraction (helped by narrow depth of field) leaving them, and especially their faces, as the point of focus for us. And with this simplification the genetic features identifying them as sisters is emphasized. That is, after all, the point of the image. A portrait of sisters.

Maybe in the end I am wrong. Maybe the B&W portrait doesn’t make us work to see the message. Perhaps it makes it easier.

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