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I've done a lot of reading on this to try and find the answer myself, but have not been successful. I've seen many definitions of "fine art" in the web, wikipedia, etc. I've read about the historical meaning of the term (art made primarily for its aesthetic value, not for usefulness, its commercial value, or photojournalism), etc.

With respect to photography, I've not found anything that says "fine art" photography has to be in B&W. But when you see photographs grouped or labeled as "fine art", 99% is in B&W (my own estimation- no scientific research done). Google "fine art photography" in Google Images and you get a a whole lot of moody B&W, nude pics, close-in portraits, flower or landscape still life, etc., with very few color photos.

I've read the other forum discussions re "what is fine art?", but I think my question is a little different. I'm specifically focused on the B&W question, which doesn't seem to be addressed in previous postings.

Who woke up one morning and deemed that in order for photographs to be considered "fine art", it had to be in B&W?

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    I googled fine art, and by my count the percentage of color images was closer to 20%. – Caleb Nov 14 '14 at 21:36
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    Related, in art history: What makes this Eggleston picture great?, as Eggleston was one of the first photographers to present color photography as fine art, to some degree of controversy at the time. – mattdm Nov 15 '14 at 15:09
  • @mattdm's comment says something important, that at one time color photography wasn't considered art by many. This was also true of photography in general previously. So you have cultural/historical reasons for the number of b+w fine art photographs, the fact that it existed previous to color and the cultural assumptions made about what art is. No one wakes up and decides anything about art, art is culturally and historically contingent. Regarding contemporary art, or fine art photography for the last 40 years, I wouldn't make the assumption that most of it is b+w. – moorej Nov 18 '14 at 2:11
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In part, this is historical in nature. B&W film could generally capture a wider dynamic range than color film, and thus it was more practical when trying to capture intense detail in shadow areas of an image. This subtle dark detail is very key to expressing many darker and deeper moods in imagery, so B&W had a natural advantage.

While modern cameras no longer have the same precise limitations, they do still appear to handle B&W better than color in dark areas since chromatic noise looks far less distracting in a B&W image (where it feels more like grain). Additionally, the aesthetic language of B&W as a moody and somber form of imagery had already been established by the film era, so it largely carries through.

It is still possible to do fine art photography with color, but the selection of color needs to be pretty deliberate and may include artificial coloring to bring out particular feelings as well.

  • Could you clarify if the camera handles B&W better, or if it just feels more like grain - i.e. is there any benefit over having the camera capture in B&W, or would it result in an identical effect if it was processed after the camera into B&W? if so, and example of what types of images would show a difference would be great. – user2813274 Nov 15 '14 at 16:22
  • @user2813274 - updated answer to clarify, there is no difference between post processing to B&W and initially shooting B&W, particularly if you shoot RAW. The difference is only that chromatic noise (the random colored speckles) is very distracting, where as when converted to greyscale, the eye interprets them much more naturally. They are still there, but they are all the same tint. – AJ Henderson Nov 15 '14 at 16:53
  • aperture.org/shop/books/thomas-ruff-jpgs-book Lack of noise and high dynamic range don't have much to do with something being "art." – moorej Nov 17 '14 at 23:57
  • @moorej - true, but it does have something to do with being aesthetically pleasing for most people's work. It's common to "save" an image by going black and white if noise is a problem and if you are trying to get the maximum amount of DR and shadow for a really vibrant image, B/W helps get that. – AJ Henderson Nov 18 '14 at 0:08
  • @AJHenderson A work of art, like one you might come across in a museum or gallery, does not need to ascribe to a particular set of aesthetics in order to be there. Starting in the 60s conceptual photography produced many works that would not necessarily be considered aesthetically pleasing in the normative sense of the word. – moorej Nov 18 '14 at 0:38
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Technically speaking (and not erring on the historical side):

  1. It is easier to accentuate a sense of structure in B&W as the color information is missing. This is specially true if one shoots in "uncontrolled" environments like street where too many randomly-colored objects can become distracting.
  2. B&W allows for more drama by pushing contrast and accentuating lightness and darkness while in color photography pushing the contrast above a certain level can result in exaggerated levels of color saturation. Additionally, by choosing certain color filters one can reduce different colors to the needed grey tones in order to achieve a certain level of local contrast. The same cannot be done so effectively in color photography where the contrast between juxtaposing zones is regulated not only by the contrast in level of lightness but also by the contrast between colors. Since we don't have much choice about the color of many elements in a picture like the sky (we do have some choice in different tones of the same color though), the color photos are by definition less manipulable and drama-prone. But this is quickly changing as we increasingly rely on digital tools to apply subtle but effective color modifications to photos.
  3. Removing color information from a picture can per se be considered some sort of abstraction which is one of the objectives of many schools of fine art.

I am sure there are many other reasons including some historical ones involved as well.

But all these said, I wouldn't claim almost everything fine-art is black and white. It is just that we have a longer history of black and white photography, more experience with the medium and a more sizeable repertoire of classics done in black and white.

By the way, be careful about referencing Google searches as they are deeply customized to your tastes and location according to your earlier searches and IP address. In order to get a less biased search you need to turn the anonymizer on in your web browser.

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In the days before digital was high-end (like 10 years ago for home or budgetless) the wet photo developing and printing process was more interactive. The art maker (as opposed to a snapshot) would take an active role in making the print come out the way he wanted, including additional mods at any step along the way. Color was done by an automated machine. Color printing was more elaborate, expensive, and doesn't provide for "mods" in the same way. And it has to be done in total darkness.

I remember, after working on B&W with a wet darkroom, that I thought my vacation color prints were hidious: grainy, blotchy, and muddy.

Now that hands-on is done in Photoshop and a wide carriage, wide gamut printer is $500, things will change. But, as a teacher explained, a new medium starts out imitating the old and gradually moves to its own form of expression. She was reffering to hundred-year-old photos. It applies the same to SLR camera art.

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Fine art photography is not necessarily black and white. Black and white photography has been around longer than color which is one reason why, in the historical world of the fine arts, you might find more of it. In the world of contemporary fine art, I doubt you would find that black and white is predominate. It would be better to go to the library and find or request a book on contemporary photography to learn about the subject. Googling as a research methodology has its limits.

Here's some of MoMA's photography collection, starting with more recent work: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3ADE%3AI%3A4|G%3AHI%3AE%3A1&page_number=1&template_id=6&sort_order=2&UC=

Edit: To be more exact, color photography did exist much earlier than many people realize but it's availability as a mass produced commodity for public consumption didn't come until later. Here are some (really marvelous) color slides from 1909: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/old-russian-empire-color-photos-180950229/?no-ist

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Fine art photography has nothing to do with the saturation or de-saturation of the image. It has to do with composition and the picture actually "saying something" to the observer. Thus, Art.

Black and white photography is very impactful. It relies on contrast and clarity instead of color gradients so it has a tendency to get a strong emotion accross more efficiently (and again, this is entirely debatable from the standpoint of art) than a color photograph.

So to answer your question, it would be very difficult to make the assumption that fine art photography is predominantly B&W. Google searches are not a reliable count of such things. You would do better looking in fine art museum collections and databases to get a proper sample to run your numbers. In my opinion, fine art photography is NOT predominantly B&W but I don't have the actual numbers either.

  • +1 for the last part of your answer, too many people use search engines to answer questions outside of their expertise. Also, A good research librarian can be a great help! – moorej Nov 17 '14 at 21:36
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I believe fine art photography is any photography that you would hung on your wall (or a gallery wall) for its aesthetic qualities. It does not matter if it is black and white or color.

There are some hypothetical reasons why b&w might be more prevalent in fine art. For some photographers, black and white photography is easier to express themselves, because there is one less possibly distracting element to worry about - color. Another reason is the history. Black and white photography is around since 1826, while color came hundred years later.

That said, I suspect you are finding more references to black and white because the term is more popular among current b&w photographers...

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    Another historical reason was the longevity of the print. Prior to pigment-based inkjet printing, producing a colour print that was neither gaudy nor prone to rapid degradation (by art, as opposed to decoration, standards) was a slow, expensive, laborious and error-prone process (and therefore rare). (Ironically, the simplest and most reliable method would have been offset lithography — which would have screamed "mass production" even in a limited edition.) – user32334 Nov 15 '14 at 3:46
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I have a theory that color can be distracting to the human brain, and so removing that element helps us focus in on form and content. Turning down the color noise helps us hear the signal better, as it were.

It also seems like when color photography is "Fine Art" the color itself is a major compositional element. See Jay Maisel's "Red Wall and Rope"

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Black and White is more abstract in that it stands further away from reality. Hence it is easier to 'make art', or make something look like art by simply removing the colored layer of reality. And so even very bland or everyday pictures in B&W immediately look more intruiging than their color counterparts. Plus people think it 'looks cool' ... see also the popularity of all kinds of filters which also take away the 'normality' of a photo.

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