Once a given, the absence of color in photography from the last few decades is now a deliberate choice, not a technological limitation. So why would a modern photographer opt for black and white, forgoing those vivid Lomo hues or subtle customized tones of an advanced SLR? Here are a few current big shots who don’t care for color, for whom shooting in black and white allows a specific style, a certain punch, a special magic their vision demands. Check ’em out in our slideshow and let us know if we missed anyone.
This Belgrade-born, Brooklyn-based photographer shoots almost exclusively with black and white film; his work is the real deal. From gangs in New York City projects to skinheads in Serbia, from the streets of Tokyo to the back roads of Kingston… Yeah, we’re not trying to romanticize it, but he roams wide and deep, and catches potent, definitive moments effortlessly amidst the chaos. It’s photojournalism so good, it’s art. The grayscale, grainy grittiness is a perfect stylistic fit.
Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison
Though varied, American husband and wife duo Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s most famous works from the Architect’s Brother series are black and white. Light sepia, if you want to get particular. These surreal environmental performances capture and “metaphorically and poetically link laborious actions, idiosyncratic rituals, and strangely crude machines into tales about our modern experience.” The lack of color gives the photographs a noir, melancholy feel, and a weight of history that’s untethered to any specific decade.
New York-born, Johannesburg-based photographer Roger Ballen started with documentary photography in rural South Africa, then his oeuvre mutated, organically. Ballen’s surrealism isn’t synthesized; it’s drawn out with sculptural use of props and prudent, potent compositions. His instantly recognizable style gives edge to compatriots and collaborators Die Antwoord, and is dusted and smeared with an omnipresent layer of grime. Color would be aesthetically offensive.
Photographer Daidō Moriyama’s major work in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo tapped into the frantic zeitgeist of post-war Japan, but spans decades. Moriyama channeled the breakdown of traditional Japanese values with aggressive, high contrast, grainy grayscale street photography, dynamic, fleeting angles, and compositions almost harking at German Expressionism. The black and white adds fluid continuity. Also, sex. Tons of sex. Even sexier in black and white.
Controversial Albuquerque-based art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin shoots dead things in pieces. And anatomically unconventional nudes. Sometimes, those are also dead and in pieces. If it wasn’t shot in black and white, perhaps the tint of rotten flesh and old, clotted blood would turn his meticulously poised still-life and portraiture into straight horror. Just like this, there’s a true morbid beauty to it, provided it’s to your taste. Ooh, grapes!
Brazil-born documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado’s project Genesis represents human communities unchanged by time, communities across the globe that stayed closer to nature and true to their ancestors’ ways of survival. His signature black and white style is sleek, full of detail, and precise soft focus, adding an almost too perfect, conflicting sheen. His photos sure are pretty to look at though.
American photographer Jerry Uelsmann is a pioneer of the photo-montage. That’s all before Photoshop! Female nudes melding into the Earth, eyes puckering out of walls, houses sprouting trunks and roots — he did it completely analog, combining negatives in the darkroom. His skill is untouchable, but his themes are very accessible. All those gradients of gray must be nifty for blending. Ah, the Fistface. Classic!
Shooting in black and white really helps to distinguish Sally Mann’s compelling, socially-risque body of work/screwed-up family album. Of course, that’s not the only element of her skill, vision, and technique that affects the outcome, but it almost feels as if vintage grayscale adds a necessary level of distance between the image and the subject. Like right there.
Black and white scheme adds a touch of cinema to Scot Sothern’s Lowlife series, consisting of portraits of prostitutes, commissioned modeling work in its basest sense. You need that artifice of cinema. You need that flattening element, the absorption of each “life” into an even, flat monochromatic image that is part of a series, not as a document of one downtrodden individual’s misfortune but a cycle of one photographer’s adventures. Otherwise, you might start to feel a little bad.
Mitch Dobrowner is a wild one. Together with renowned storm-chaser Roger Hill, he road around Tornado Alley in the Great Plains of the United States and chased down the monstrous, furious wind giants. The black and white allows us to admire the contours, the intensity, scale, and movement of the clouds, but imagining the weather chaos that surrounded him during these deliberate moments is frightening.