Judging by the amount of submissions to Red Bull Illume, black and white photography is as popular as ever. In the 2007 contest, nearly a third of the finalists were shot in monochrome – thousands were submitted in 2010. Many freesports magazines continue to publish a serious amount of B&W photography.
But are more photographers using monochrome? Why is B&W still so popular in an age of high-definition colour?
Red Bull Illume talked to 7sky magazine editor Corinne Tâche-Berther, Josef Gruber from ARt on Snow and Fred Mortagne, who won Red Bull Illume 2007 with a B&W image shot on film.
After a century of B&W photography, colour photography went mass-market in the 1970s and full-colour publications became the commercial norm. In little over a decade, B&W went from a basic photographic commodity to suddenly being difficult to purchase and tough to process.
Today, high-end digital sensors can record an incredible 68.7 billion colours in 36-bit. The paradox of most black and white photography seen in the digital age is that the image was probably shot in colour first and grayscaled in post-production. Shooting straight to B&W film is a rarity and photographers no longer have to learn to burn and dodge exposures in a dark room as it can be simulated.
Corinne Tâche-Berther says that publications are still very open to publishing B&W photography, but in moderation.
“For me, B&W has always had its space in the magazines as it touches and vibrates differently to colour photography. A really nice B&W image transports a more nostalgic, artistic or ‘retro’ touch. So it’s not more difficult for someone to get monochrome photos published with us.”
“But I remember when we did a special B&W issue of 7sky around five years ago and the general impression that I got from it was a mood of sadness. You can have too much of a good thing.”
According to Josef Gruber from ARt on Snow, which organises gallery events and workshops for freesport artists, B&W photography has never been more present.
“It’s not like B&W photography was ever dead. I see saturated colour photographs as a trend. I just think that people have had enough of exaggerated colours in magazines and advertisements. Some magazines now have up to a third of their photos in B&W – sometimes even the cover pages.”
When is a B&W image more appropriate for a magazine?
“For 7sky, we would rather consider a strong B&W shot over a colourful but less emotional picture” says Tâche-Berther. “But B&W can also look flat and boring, so it all depends on how much emotion there is in the picture’s content.”
“It also makes irregularities disappear in a picture, especially in portraits. People look more beautiful, more genuine – so it suits interview articles. And the photos always make a lasting impression. B&W is also always great for a portrait book or for an exhibition.”
But why is monochrome photography seen as more artistic and suitable for exhibitions? Fred Mortagne thinks that B&W makes people look at an image differently. An image in shades of grey presents a subject in a way that colours can’t match.
“A very powerful photograph shot on B&W can look like an instant classic. When you take away the full colour spectrum, it makes you travel in another dimension that's artistic, poetic, even surreal.”
“If you want an artistic feel when you are documenting a real life subject, rather than creating a scene from scratch, then B&W usually works best.”
“Magazines don't want to take risks though. I have a really hard time getting my photos published. I mostly shoot B&W skateboard pictures because, firstly, I like it and also because I want to propose an alternative to the flashed, crispy natural colour pictures that fill up 80% of the skateboard magazines. It's never good when medias get too formatted.”
Josef Gruber says that even if photographers feel that it’s more difficult to sell B&W images to magazines, the same is definitely not true in galleries.
“Every year when we ran ARt on Snow, the visitors were always more excited about the B&W photos and we always sold more of them. B&W photography seems more artistic as it inspires the viewer to think more about the subject in comparison to colour photography so it’s not a surprise that it’s popular. Maybe B&W also just suits being hung up on a wall or in someone’s home as art.”
“Action sports photography also features a lot of natural landscapes in the background, and they just look better in B&W than in colour.”
Indeed, grayscaling a picture can give winter landscapes and sports action tremendous impact. But Fred Mortagne thinks that shooting in B&W doesn’t necessarily create a better photo or suit natural scenes only.
“I used to have a hard time shooting B&W landscapes. I didn’t see the point of showing a colourful landscape without its colours. But I changed my mind after seeing photographs by Raymond Depardon or Joseph Koudelka for example.”
“But I really don't think B&W works best with any particular sport. There are no limitations.”
Even if today’s cameras and printers show colour better than ever, photographers and magazines editors have never forgotten the power of a monochrome image. Black and white photography it seems is never out of fashion.
See the gallery for a selection of black and white images from Red Bull Photofiles.