The Semiotics of Black and White Photographs

"The black and white image was, in some essential way, photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artfulness: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best." William Boyd: Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay

All photographs are simulacra, imitations of a reality that is filtered by a camera’s film or sensor to capture light and convert it to lines, shapes, and colors. Different film stocks and different cameras present the same reality in different ways. (Not to mention choices made by a photographer in post processing.) People generally don’t think about this, ascribing to photographs – at the ones that don’t look "doctored" – a certain level of realism.

As photographers increasingly use digital filters and presets to alter their photos, these images stray further and further from the reality that the camera captures. Perhaps a filter applies a vignette, a bit of texture, and washes out the colors, to suggest an old-fashioned image. Or a filter might increase or decrease saturation, sometimes to create a false ideal of accurate skin tones (this is what Kodachrome was designed for, at least for white people). Other filters are used to match current social media fads, rather than to enhance images in any particular way.


One of the most radical alteration to photographs is to make them black and white.[1] The simplest way to do this is, of course, to use black and white film. But this can also be done with a digital camera in black and white mode, where the camera creates JPEGs in black and white, or by using software in post-production, converting the color data captured by the sensor to grayscale.[2] Black and white, unlike different film stocks and filters, presents an interpretation reality that is visibly altered to an extreme, that of no color at all.

The history of photography, which started as a monochromatic medium, lends credence to this as a viable way of presenting reality in an image, or of representing an image of reality. (Though Jean-Luc Godard once said that, "Life is in color, but reality is in black and white.") For decades, only black and white photos were possible, and they were accepted as the standard photographic representation of reality. But when color film came along – around the turn of the 20th century it became usable in the field, and after 1935, when Kodak released Kodachrome, it was available to the masses – people began to see black and white photos as inferior, as lacking the very essence of reality.

Nevertheless, black and white photographs remained the norm for certain types of photography, notably news and reportage. One of the reasons was the fact that most news photos were published in black and white, but another reason is that black and white film was and generally still is faster, meaning it needs less light than color film to make an image. This allows photographers to shoot in a variety of conditions, but also to use faster shutter speeds to catch the moving maelstrom of people and events.

While color magazines had existed for decades, and many magazines touted their use of color photos, it wasn’t until 1982 that color photos became common in newspapers in the United States with the launch of USA Today. (Newspapers had, of course, long had supplements that were in color, from the funny papers to Sunday magazines.) The New York Times finally relented in 1997, and black and white photos suddenly took on a patina of the past in daily papers.

As such, whole decades, even centuries appear to us in black and white. From Matthew Brady’s photos of the Civil War in the 1860s through two world wars, the Cuban missile crisis, and civil rights marches, when we look back at history, we see mostly black and white photos, and older ones often have a hint of sepia, which adds to the impression of age. We have color photos of the summer of love, Woodstock, and the Vietnam War, at the time, we didn’t see them on a daily basis. We saw black and white photos in daily newspapers, and color photos in weekly and monthly magazines.


Art photography maintained the supremacy of black and white for decades, until slowly the art world accepted color photos as also valid for this sort of image. So there was a period – from the 1930s through the 1970s – when black and white photos were considered to represent a different reality than color; the former for art and news, the latter for snapshots. As Martin Parr said, “In the ’70s, in Britain, if you were going to do serious photography, you were obliged to work in black-and-white. Color was the palette of commercial photography and snapshot photography.”

The breakthrough for color photography being accepted as art occurred when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibit of William Eggleston’s photos in 1976. Interestingly, the museum’s own archival photos of the exhibit are in black and white. The museum’s press release mentions how elements in Eggleston’s photos have "a different compositional torque than its equivalent in panchromatic gray, as well as a different meaning." The obverse must also be true.

Black and white photography is a genre on its own. We classify photos as portraits, landscapes, abstracts, etc., and any of these genres can include black and white images. The genre of black and white photography is restricted only by its monochromic nature. While many photographers shoot both color and black and white, some opt to shoot only black and white. Black and white photographer Michael Kenna has said that, "black and white is immediately more mysterious because we see in colour all the time. It is quieter than colour."


Now, as black and white photographs can be created from color digital files with a click of a button, what is their value as exemplars of reality? Do they suggest to the viewer something old-fashioned, archaic, nostalgic? Or, on the contrary, do viewers today see black and white photos as pictures with just another filter? I think the answer is somewhere in between, and it depends on the viewer and her relation to and understanding of photography.

For many people, monochrome images carry connotations of the past, or they may seem dreary and dismal. But they are different: their shapes and lines, light and shadow, and composition, with no color drawing attention to specific elements in the frame, mean that they have to be considered on their own terms. Because of their simplicity, black and white photos can express a thisness that is not found in color photos.

  1. Black and white photos are not actually black and white; they are monochrome, meaning that they present shades of gray, across the full spectrum from light to dark.  ↩
  2. One exception is the Leica M Monochrom camera, which only stores luminance information; there is no color data in its files.  ↩