We have had colour photography since the 1930s and the invention of Kodachrome, though it took until the 1970s for it become the norm. So why has black and white photography persisted?
Perhaps the most obvious difference between colour and b&w photography is that unlike their colour equivalents, black and white images are not direct renditions of their subjects. By omitting colour and substituting shades of grey, black and white photography presents an abstract and therefore less realistic image. This takes us into the representational world of art, where the artist tries to portray what is perceived and interpreted with the mind rather than what is seen directly by the eye. Both the artist and the photographer are working with a 3D subject in a 2D medium and this is where black and white photograph has an advantage over a colour rendition – black and white excels at tone; which describes the darkness or lightness of a particular area of an image. This is important as tone is essential to convey the illusion of form – or how the subject looks in three dimensions. Black and white draws more attention to the shadows and lines that depict form and gives a better illusion of depth. This is one of the reasons that black and white is often an effective medium for both landscapes and architectural shots as it can emphasise the shapes and forms within the scene. The case for black and white is even stronger with a side lit photo where light intensity varies across the person or object and the scene is subject to strong shadows. This is one of the reasons why I am fond of film noir which uses a lot of side lighting, shadow and contrast as opposed to the the more evenly exposed lighting of mainstream Hollywood.
On to my example, which is a shot of the columnar and iconic Marina City Towers on Chicago’s Riverfront, designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg. This is one of Chicago’s most notable buildings and was designated a city landmark in 2015. I was much taken with this 65-storey building complex, the tallest residential concrete building in the world at the time of completion in 1964, and known locally as the ‘corn cobs’, as I was driven to my hotel in a taxi. At the time I thought it was the world’s most elegant car park, but actually only the lower 19 floors are used for parking, whilst the upper floors contain apartments, restaurants and a concert hall. The towers were used as a back drop for a chase scene in Steve McQueen’s 1980 film ‘The Hunter’ . In his last film appearance, McQueen played a bounty hunter who is himself being pursued by a psychotic killer and chases a fugitive up the parking ramp in one of the towers before the car he is pursuing skids off the edge into the Chicago River.
I shot the towers from several locations, including the river, whilst on an architectural tour of the city, and eventually captured this image, which I felt depicted the organic form of the building best – the contrast between the light edges of the circular elements and the dark background, together with the sweeping curves of the tower in the foreground, draw the eye and help describe its form. It was shot in the morning, and, as usual, I used a circular polariser to darken the sky and increased the contrast between the building and its background. I took the shot with a Nikon Df with a ‘walk around’ 28-300 lens at ISO 200/45mm/f11/1/250 sec. The towers have a constantly changing pattern of light and shadow over the course of the day and are an ideal subject for black and white photography as well as a great piece of architecture. I was much taken with Chicago, which I visited for the first time in 2015 – it is undoubtedly one of the finest cities for modern architecture in the world and I am keen to return to capture more of it, but my enduring memory of my first visit is those iconic, sci-fi columns of Marina City.