Symbolism of Black-and-White Photography

By Brianna Collins ; Updated September 15, 2017
Black-and-white photographs are not always symbolic.

Photography as an art form is something that is constantly shifting, shaped and redefined by the artists who create it. Those looking for symbolism and double meanings in photographs can often find examples, though this symbolism is not always the reason for the technical aspects of a photograph. With black-and-white photography, the quality of having no color can be a part of a photograph for a number of reasons, ranging from the purely technical to the wholly symbolic.

Technical

In the early days of the medium, taking a black-and-white photograph was nothing more than a technical decision. The very first photographs were taken using a device known as a camera obscura, which could not capture color on its own. And, even though the first color image was made as early as 1861, the appearance of this color did not have the same quality as color had in reality, and many photographers chose to continue the process of photographing in black and white. It was not until the mid-1900s that color photography caught up in convenience and realism to black-and-white photography. Consequently, many of the most influential early photographs were taken in black and white, not to symbolize anything in particular, but simply because the tools made this aesthetic most viable to photographers of the time.

Form

Today, color photographs have become more pervasive than black-and-white ones, with film stocks and digital cameras capable of capturing color faithful to the way the human eye experiences the world. Yet photographers may still choose to capture black-and-white images, and this may simply represent an exploration into the form of the medium. Removing the color from an image gives greater emphasis to the way the light plays across the scene, to the lines and angles and shadowing that make up the form of most photos. By removing the potential distraction of color, photographers can experiment with and explore the elements of form that are highlighted in black-and-white photographs and but are less emphasized when color is included.

Emotion

Photographers may also choose black and white in order to convey a certain emotion. While this is by no means an exact science, black-and-white photography can give an air of elegance or realism, particularly given the rich history that surrounds the medium. As such, wedding photographers will often use black-and-white photographs to symbolize the love, commitment and happiness of couples and families. Even in film-making, with images that are essentially just photographs in rapid succession, black-and-white images have been used in place of color in order to give special emotion to particular topics and stories. A good example of this is "Schindler's List," directed by Steven Spielberg in 1994 and utilizing black and white very deliberately to add to the horror and realism of this story.

Meaning

Photographers may also choose very deliberately to use an aesthetic of black and white, not for technical reasons or to explore form or even to symbolize emotion, but simply to give layered meanings to a particular work. One example of this is the work of Regina de Miguel. While it is perhaps impossible to say with certainty what her pictures symbolize, they do tend to convey a certain sterility that comes with the lack of color. Critics have speculated that the muted, cloudy black-and-white images of mechanisms that she creates are symbolic of the dry instructional manuals that dictate the inner workings of the machines that surround us. Thus, simply draining the color from a photograph can shift add complexities, meanings, and other nuances to photographs that seek to convey some sort of message.

About the Author

Brianna has been writing professionally since 2009. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and is excited to be part of a community that contributes to the free sharing of information and ideas.