Why Black & White When You Can Use Colour?

Friday, April 27, 2018
It's a technique used in films, and photography, that I've often pondered over. I've seen classic films in black and white, but it's more so films like Frances Ha, Nebraska, La Haine, Stranger Than Paradise, Eraserhead that puzzle me, as they were all made in a period where colour was a possibility - so why did these directors choose a black and white universe, over real colour? What effect does it have, on the film, on the audience and what does it do that colour doesn't?

Frances Ha
I have enjoyed photography since I was very young - I was just so passionate, maybe bordering on obsessed, with documenting. On the occasion, I would edit my photos with vintage filters, sepia, and black and white - because they evoked something a bit 'cooler' than the image actually conveyed. I would take a photo of friends in sunglasses which looked pretty mediocre in its original form, but then would add a black and white filter and bam, it would suddenly look a lot more impressive. It looked as if it had come from a different era altogether, giving off a sense of nostalgia and glamour of a previous time. 

Therefore maybe our tendency to put modern photographs and films into black and white demonstrates our inner longing for the past when things 'were better' or 'more simple'. A little like the desire to listen to old music, watch old movies, documentaries and repeat past fashion trends like flares from the '70s or an a-line shift dress from the '60s.

However, if it is to evoke nostalgia, then why put a modern story in black and white, when we are focusing on a story of the present time? Another argument for the filmmaker's desire to film in black and white is that it strips the story of any distractions from irrelevant details and puts the main focus on characters.

In an article on 'Esquire', the writer explains that 'from a technical aspect, the aesthetic [black and white] has changed the way filmmakers play with texture, lighting, sets, and depth. But more importantly, black and white changes a movie thematically, providing atmosphere, tone, and visually providing stark contrasts and a dreamlike view of the world.' 

La Haine

Therefore the use of black and white in films (and photograph) can be used for both aesthetic and emotional effects. Oscar-winner cinematographer Roger Deakin said 'Black-and-white imagery is much more about the balance between the light and shade in the frame, and I think it can help convey story points a lot better with fewer distractions.' When colour is absent, the filmmaker can focus on things like shading, composition, lines, shape, form, textures and detail and of course, light. If the colours in a movie don't harmonize with one another or are distracting, then using black and white is a good way to focus on what is most important.

In his wonderful 1989 essay “Why I Love Black and White,” Roger Ebert wrote: “There are basic aesthetic issues here. Colours have emotional resonance for us… Black and white movies present the deliberate absence of colour. This makes them less realistic than colour films (for the real world is in colour). They are more dreamlike, more pure, composed of shapes and forms and movements and light and shadow. Colour films can simply be illuminated. Black and white films have to be lighted. With colour, you can throw light in everywhere, and the colours will help the viewer determine one shape from another, and the foreground from the background. With black and white, everything would tend toward a shapeless blur if it were not for meticulous attention to light and shadow, which can actually create a world in which the lighting indicates a hierarchy of moral values.”
Both in photography and in film, use of black and white encourages the artist to highlight any negative space - the parts of the frame with little going on. This relates back to taking away any distractions from not shooting in colour. You tend to focus on light and dark areas of the frame and their inter-relationship. Working with the negative space in the frame is helpful for separating the subject from the background which give further depth to the frame. It also allows the camera-holder to focus on the composition of the shot more.

Another thing to note is black and white emphasises on the beauty of it's subject - make up is not distracting, discolouration or pigmentation is unnoticeable. In Frances Ha, the classic New York yellow cabs are drained of their colour, the cityscape a palette of monochrome which allows the viewer to see the city in a different way - reveling in its natural beauty and the nostalgia reminiscent of Manhattan by Woody Allen or films by François Truffaut.

Whether a director or photographer chooses to shoot in black and white, to resume, it can either be for aesthetic purposes to allow viewers to focus on emotion and characters, to evoke a past time, or even simply because black and white are more affordable. Whatever the reason, black and white continue to be a preferred style in the film (and photography) industry. However, as time goes on, and cinema is saturated with bright, action-packed movies, will young cinema-goers be compelled to see modern movies in the considered 'antique' style of black and white?