Photo Essay: Learning to Speak in Black & White

Author: Sennen Powell

We as humans don’t live in reality—rather, we live in the reality we are able to perceive. For years, black and white photography was the only kind available, but when colour-detecting film was created, it became vastly superior, and I wonder why because why would we try to invent a machine that validates what we think we already know? Why do we make cameras more and more accurate to our vision? Why did we do this when we had already unlocked a door to another type of reality we couldn’t see; why was black and white not a great achievement of insight instead of just a technical limitation or a creative choice? It gave us the ability to see outside our perceptions.

When I photograph in B&W, the world is decisive, simplified, and calm. A world of light, and light alone. Seeing in black and white is more than being colour blind. It’s about understanding contrast and brightness, form, composition, and even more so, texture. When I see a good black and white picture, I can feel it in my mouth and over my body.

Many people attribute black and white to a particular voice in photography, one used to convey the past, bleakness/sorrow, or raw emotions. I feel it shouldn’t be confined to a certain message or form of ‘interpretation.’ The fact we call it an artistic style abstracted from the true rendition of the world is not a reality but rather a lack of experience. If we become intimate with these different
representations of the world, then we see they are just as true as our 400nm-700nm grasp on reality.

For me, black and white photography is a whole other—but just as valid—universe. It’s another dialect that must be learned, and I use my camera as an interpreter. I use it to go and have conversations with this different reality. To understand it, to find my relationship with it, and so this series of photos are my musings from my day to day. I didn’t go out specifically to find any of these pictures; I’ve just encountered them and used my camera to converse with them—my ongoing conversation with a black and white world.

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