In Praise of Black and White: Part II

Ansel Adams / Aspens / Northern New Mexico 1958

I wrote this post a year ago. The text (with some edits) remains meaningful to me, but the images are new. (If you want to skip to the pictures, the short version is that I love black and white art and feel it’s under-appreciated…!)

Each year, a new Ansel Adams wall calendar hangs on the door leading to my studio. His superbly articulated, stunning black and white photography reminds me daily of my love for the natural world and the innumerable shades, shapes, shadows and tones that create, change, and emerge from, our world.

Yet the classic beauty and the powerful visual possibilities of black and white are often neglected. Straight black and white design is often passed by in favor of any use of color. As if black and white implied something dull or less important.

But when used well, black and white is intensely dramatic, vigorous, elegant and rich. It can get a powerful point across without the distraction of colors. It can be bright or moody, edgy or slick in ways that color cannot. It can sparkle with cleanliness. Black and white carries undisguised strength, character and integrity … when used well.

Of course, not all photographers have the eye nor skill of an Ansel Adams. Not all designers *see* in black and white. Clients rarely consider it. But it would be nice to see a greater appreciation of the noble duo of black and white.

When people want straight talk, when they want the truth, they’ll say “tell me in black and white”. But people often speak in shades of gray, or dress their language in garish colors for dramatic effect. And so it can be with design – a multitude of colors becomes too competitive, potentially drowning in an undifferentiated sea of tones or gussied up so much the point is lost for the color, like shouting for attention in a crowd.

Color, in and of itself, is naturally beautiful. Bold, rich fusions of color. Subtle, earthy color. Pale, cool, warm or dense. It’s vibrant and alive and emotional. But color alone will not make a bad design good. And it’s not so much that color is overrated, but that black and white is underrated. You don’t see it a lot, which is too bad, because the effects of black and white can be pretty spectacular.

Stripped of color, a million shades become a lansdcape of lights and darks that blend and weave and bounce against one another to create a very rich whole. A striking black and white image often touches us unexpectedly …  refreshing, engaging, and wonderfully inspiring. It’s raw and fundamental – and like a good story, it’s satisfying. Like a good story, it allows your mind to add its own color by filling in the parts left unsaid.

Enough said. Enjoy.

Ansel Adams / Tetons Snake River


“In Praise of Black & White: Part 1” images can be seen here.

Patricia Saxton

  • Rand

    January 28, 2011 at 8:23 am Reply

    Love this post. Your words flow beautifully. Thanks! :o)

  • sangwookang

    January 28, 2011 at 12:39 am Reply

    Great post! I’ve always felt that black and white had a certain elegance to it.

    • saxtonstudio

      January 28, 2011 at 12:47 am Reply

      Happy you enjoyed! Thanks so much for the feedback. : )

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