Why Black and White?

Vilem Flusser notes that black and white are concepts, which are theoretical and exist only as states of things, although we consider some things in terms of black and white, this does not exist in the real world, only as hypothetical lines in which we draw for certain topics (2000: 42):

“Black and White do not exist, but they ought to exist since, if we could see then world in black and white it would be accessible to logical analysis”

(Flusser, 2000: 42).

The use of black and white in the documentary aesthetic might be a means in which photographers can attempt to answer questions about their subjects, or at least aim to create the space that these subjects might be more readily analysed. The paradox is that when creating work using black and white you are removing a lot of the information from that subject, which can be argued is part of the representation of them. One possible understanding of what Flusser is stating above is that the black and white image simplifies the process of conveying its message as it can be read in terms of its formal qualities other than colour.

Figure 1: Alec Soth (2014) From ‘Songbook’

I have discussed before that black and white has been used by other contemporary photographer purposefully to convey a sense of nostalgia in the work, and this is a key reason to explore its use during this module. The idea of how we connect to the community is closely tied to the perception, or reality of its decline. Alec Soth has stated that he made the decision to utilise black and white for the book ‘Songbook’ (Fig: 1) owing to how similar images from the 50s, 60s, and 70s all have a particular look and feel owing to the technology that was employed during these decades. Soth notes a post-war sense of wonder of the 1950s which creates “a deeply romanticised version of the past” (Soth in Fuerhelm, 2015). People believe that there is a decline of the community because of their own selective histories today. This tied in quite well to research on the decline of social capital, which also cited the 50s as this coincided with the mass introduction of the television (Putnam, 2000), spending more and more time indoors.

This rose-tinting of a past community that is now lost is partly created because of the images that we consumed in our youth, which is part of a significant shaping of the way that we nostalgically view lots of culture, that was ‘better in my day’ is linked to how our brains develop during the ages of 12 – 22 and the emotional maturing that happens during the same time (Stern, 2014). If you grew up during a time of black and white imagery, some of which have cone to define how we assume documentary and photography to look, then this aesthetic will instantly transport you back to that time: “It makes sense, then, that the memories that contribute to this process become uncommonly important throughout the rest of your life. They didn’t just contribute to the development of your self-image; they became part of your self-image—an integral part of your sense of self.” (2014).

In the beginning of the medium, all photographs were black and white due to its technical limitations, now this can be a creative choice, as Flusser also argues that colour is even more of an abstraction as it is merely a chemical representation of a colour and not the actual existent one within the concrete world. I wrote about this for an essay I created between the modules, stating ‘what about the choice of different film stocks? What about the nostalgic Kodachrome versus its Fuji equivalent? Each of the constituent ingredients in the film creates an aesthetic synonymous with the brand’ (Hill, 2020: 3), which essentially considers the way that an emulsion of a film, and even that of a camera’s digital sensor is just another interpretation of the world created by a human actor on it; colour according to its design and manufactured values that Flusser then attributes as a kind of concealment of the origin of then subject.

My choice to use black and white is intentional to create a link to a nostalgia perhaps of a life that we had before the outbreak of Covid-19, when we are all being asked to consider a ‘new normal’ as opposed to the life that we were used to before. The sense of longing for the past, especially within the community setting is quite tangible for all of us as we are talking about a time that was only a few months ago. My images, paradoxically, are all taken in our present as to acknowledge a sense of the past that we might learn to go back to.

Alys Tomlinson
Alys Tomlinson (2019) Untitled from ‘Ex Voto’
Figure 3: Alys Tomlinson (2019) From ‘Lourdes’

I recently listened to Alys Tomlinson discuss her ‘Ex-Voto’ series (2020). It was interesting to understand that Tomlinson started her study on the religious site of Lourdes by shooting the series in colour for the first three years of visiting the site. The colour work in itself feels like a well resolved piece of work, however it clearly has a different look and feel to the body of work Ex-Voto even though it was created in the same location (Fig: 3). Tomlinson herself understood the difference as this colour study of Lourdes has its own gallery on her website and is well placed to promote her commercial practice (Fig: 4).

Figure 4: Alys Tomlinson (2019) Screen shot of Tomlinson’s ‘Lourdes’ series on her website

Caroline Molloy also notes the referencing of August Sander in Tomlinson’s portrait work, which something which I have been suggested to consider reviewing in my feedback for the last module and also during my first webinar with Cemre. Molloy makes particular note of the process in which Tomlinson’s work is created, which is in direct opposition to the hustle of what Lourdes is in many ways and seen through Tomlinson’s other work on the site, the portraits of Ex-Voto are considered, and as Molloy points out ‘Not of this time’ (2019), which is another intertextual use of black and white within a project. Tomlinson also utilises a 5X4 camera to slow down the image making and turn the act of photography into a ritual. I found that this resonated with me as I could benefit from slowing my process of images making down, which would ultimately lead to better engagement with my subjects. There is a particular theatre to the way that a photographer uses apparatus to differentiate themselves from a general understanding of photographers. It is worth noting that although a black and white aesthetic gives a sense of the familiar in the visual, when out taking the images, cameras such as 5X4 large format and even medium format film cameras are relatively rare with the assumption that a professional photographer will have some kind of modern DSLR. For me, this provides a talking point and metaphorical ‘foot in the door’ when approaching people to take their photograph. Since I started using a medium format 6X7 camera for example, people have been quite intrigued as to what it is that I have. It is the theatre, which attracts people to be photographed and shows that I can be taken seriously, Joel Meyerowitz also made a note of this when discussing his 8X10 large format portraits shot in Provincetown, where he makes particular reference to this as a kind of performance (Meyerowitz in Perello, 2020).


Flusser, V., 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. 2018 Reprint ed. London: Reaktion Books.

Hill, P., 2020. Gettier and the Pyramids. [Online] Available at: https://philhillphotography.com/sketchbook/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Gettier-and-the-Pyramids_Phil_Hill.pdf [Accessed 15 June 2020].

Meyerowitz, J., 2020. The Candid Frame – Episode 500 [Interview] (27 January 2020).

Molloy, C., 2019. Alys Tomlinson. [Online] Available at: https://www.1000wordsmag.com/alys-tomlinson/ [Accessed 15 June 2020].

Putnam, R., 2000. Bowling Alone. 1 ed. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Soth, A., 2015. Brad Feuerhelm of ASX in conversation with Alec Soth [Interview] (4 November 2015).

Stern, M. J., 2014. Neural Nostalgia: Why do we love the music we heard as teenagers?. [Online] Available at: https://slate.com/technology/2014/08/musical-nostalgia-the-psychology-and-neuroscience-for-song-preference-and-the-reminiscence-bump.html [Accessed 15 June 2020].

Tomlinson, A., 2020. A Small Voice: Conversations with Photographers – Episode 123: Alys Tomlinson [Interview] (5 February 2020).

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