Recently I was looking at a colour and a b/w version of the same portrait, wondering which one had a stronger impact on the viewer. Comparing them turned out to be an interesting exercise because by all means they should have elicited the same response. After all they were identical. But they didn’t. It is probably completely subjective whether you prefer the b/w over the colour version or vice versa. But there seem to be a few mechanisms at work here, that distinguish colour photography from b/w photography.
Colour photography might speak to you because it is more life-like. It depicts the sitter *as we see her*, in all her colourful glory, with her healthy skin tone, her blue eyes, her blonde hair and the bright pink boa. We relate to her because colour is how we see things around us. The hear-and-now is colour. Colour is life. Life is colour. The slice-of-life quality of photography is far more effective when we see it in colour. This is a two-hundredth of a second that was *real*. To all intents and purposes it could’ve been just a second ago. Colour photography anchors a photograph in the present.
B/w portraits, on the other hand, have a timeless quality. They transmit a feeling of classy-ness, of deliberate concentration and aesthetic documentation that colour photography does not quite possess. B/w feels more aesthetic. Because it relies on the contrast of dark and light, it emphasises other aesthetic qualities of the subject than colour, it hones the contrasts/contradictions contained in an image. In this case, for instance, the b/w version focusses our gaze on the contrast between (light) skin and (dark) eyes. It zooms in on the dark lips against the light skin. Personally, I also find that b/w often has a much stronger three-dimensionality to it than the colour version. The latter appears flatter than the monochrome version, which places greater emphasis on tiny details: the catch lights in the sitter’s eyes, the shapes of the eyebrows and lips, the shadow in the shot. The downside of this classy-ness is, however, that b/w can occasionally turn the sitters into marble statues rather than represent them as living, breathing humans. It can overaestheticise the subject and distract from the characteristics of human-ness.
I personally am much more emotionally invested with the b/w versions of images. Not only because b/w evokes in me a feeling of nostalgia (an old photographic process) and of appreciation of the tangible craftsmanship of b/w processing (pottering in the darkroom for hours in order to process and print an image – a labour of love that seems to have been forgotten in the age of fleeting digital imagery), but also because of a connotation that I have touched upon earlier on: The sculptural quality of b/w photography hints to the existence of something “sublime” in the depicted. Just like a marble bust can survive centuries – or forever – the “sublime”, as it is hinted at in classic b/w portraiture, offers us a glimpse of eternity. A b/w image is made “to last”. It is made to document the expression of beauty at a given point in time. The subject thus is transformed into an “ideal” of beauty.
There almost is a philosophical dimension to the deliberate reduction of “life” to monochrome. An intentional concentration on the essence of human life – which is actually less about outward appearance but about inner beauty, about “soul”. Soul is the beyond, is the sublime, is the divine, is the universal in us all, no matter what we believe in. It is what beauty and human-ness come down to. B/w photography can capture “soul” like no other medium can. But how does this “soul” manifest itself in images, apart from the fact that b/w emphasises the sublime? I have no proper answer, I can only pinpoint where I see the sublime in these images.
And that could be something completely different from what you see. Essentially my interpretation of the sublime is informed by my knowledge of the sitter as a person, and her own interpretation of self *in this particular shot*. And for me it expresses itself in the eyes. The old adage of the “eyes as the window to the soul”? Yes, it may come down to this cliché. But b/w makes me see it much clearer than colour. B/w is forever.