Black and White vs Color: Layers of Abstraction

There’s a joke in the photographic community that if you want to make art, take photos in black and white.

Of course, color photography is just as fertile ground for creative expression as black and white, but why does black and white feel more “artistic” to so many people?

I think it is because black and white presents a layer of abstraction. The information of color which saturates our normal vision is discarded. A black and white photo of a flower on a sunny day looks nothing like what exists in real life. We instantly recognize the shape of the flower, and without the color we may notice the subtle play of light and shadow on its petals and leaves, the texture of the fuzz on the stem. It forces us to evaluate the photograph not as a realistic documentation of a flower, but as a description of the interplay of light and shadow, of shape and texture. This makes it also makes other layers of abstraction more noticable, such as flat geometric compositions, the use of negative space, repetitive patterns, and so on.


Color can do this too, but photographers have to be a bit more deliberate. Right now there’s a trend in photography to adjust the colors so everything has an orange or greenish tint, and it works well because it breaks the feeling that this is a snapshot— it makes the photo the equivalent of a poem, written in hues. Filter effects are just one example, a more subtle photographer might make no such color adjustments on the image, but rather keep an eye out for the subtle blending of reflected light, harmonious colors. or unexpected parallels. Paul Bobko (@paulbobko on Instagram) is a master of this, and he combines careful observation of color with unexpected geometric compositions. I’ve even recognized a few locations he has photographed in Los Angeles, and they are in completely normal, mundane places which are transformed by his eye for color and shape.

Here are a few photographs I took while walking around downtown Los Angeles, inspired in part by Paul Bobko’s work. The brilliant LA sunsets often make incredible displays of color in the twilight sky, and I wanted to liven up what would normally be a generic photo of clouds by using silhouettes of objects I noticed while looking up.

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Thanks for reading,