Before & more than anything else, I am a nature lover. And, photography for me has been a wonderful medium to capture and document those profound, priceless moments in nature so that later I can live them again, and ponder on them to write & create art. I must have shot thousands of colorful nature photographs to date, while occasionally experimenting with monochrome.
Going through a few of my black & white nature images, I realized some important things about their powerful artistic appeal as well as emotional impact, which led me to write this post.
I had read this sublime quote somewhere –
“If you want to learn what someone fears losing,
watch what they photograph.”
If you are a nature photographer, it’s for a reason. And it’s simple. You value Nature. And you inevitably wish everyone else does so too.
Of course, the best way to make someone fall in love with this often overlooked gift of ours – nature, and thereby care for it, is to make them experience its effects & joys in person. However, not everyone is fortunate enough to do so. In most cases, it’s hard to find even a small park in the urban jungles of cities. In such a world, that the great naturalist John Muir would call “overcivilized”, the second-best way is to make them look at the precious beauty of wilderness through photographs/videos.
Thousands of nature lovers & photographers do exactly that. And a plethora of social media platforms has made this phenomenon even more widespread.
But, if you are a nature photographer whose sincere desire is to send the message of conservation to the world through their work, I am suggesting you photograph nature in black & white every once in a while, or at least convert that heartfelt wildlife shot or that masterful landscape frame in color to a monochrome one before sharing it on social media.
Following are my reasons why.
Make them perceive nature with heart (and not just admire it)
Today, there are too many cameras everywhere. Practically, every other person has one. Therefore, there are hundreds of pretty nature photos being served to people’s eyes in a matter of hours, while their attention span is getting shorter and shorter. In the sea of those dreamy photographs specially curated for social media, a nature photo gets reduced to another eye-candy. Before the object/life in the photo can penetrate the heart of the viewer, the beauty of it all overwhelms them…the person casually praises it and moves on.
Nature is beautiful. In all it’s colorful glory, a valley, forest, hill, bird or butterfly can sometimes look too good to be “true”. And, that’s a problem. To an average person, it’s just something that is “out there” somewhere, they fail to perceive it as a valuable endowment to them, from the earth, an invaluable part of experiencing life! What we need today is that we start perceiving nature with heart, we make our relationship with nature a contemplative one rather than that of a passing admiration.
“There are three phases of awareness: to look, to see and to perceive;
A camera looks. A mind sees. A heart perceives.”
We see our world in color and still, black and white images look more “real” than their color counterparts. Black & white photographs talk directly to the heart. The first phase of awareness –“looking” is often very short in their case. When we look at a black and white photograph, we can directly “see” the subject matter, and then we go on to “perceive” its meanings.
Even though we look at the world around us in color, when we take a deeper interest in the subject we look at, try to understand its significance, in other words, when we actually see it, the colors slowly start fading away and by the time we reach the level of perceiving the essence of that subject- be it some person, object or event, the colors cease to exist at all. At this stage what remains in front of us is the very elemental reality of that subject and what our heart is left with, is the unique mood created by it. Have you noticed that when some event or place has a strong effect on us after many years have passed, we tend to forget colors, even if the event, person, or scene in question is itched in our memory forever!
I always see questions & answers hidden in nature photographs. When a photo is stripped of the colors, for the viewer, it becomes even easier to unwrap them and see the crux of that special moment when the photographer decided to press the shutter button.
Make them nostalgic, remind them of the fragility of nature’s beauty
Recently on the internet, I unexpectedly stumbled upon this photo of Cathedral Rocks & Merced river at Yosemite. Looking at this suddenly, I skipped a heartbeat…I almost panicked. The photo kept me uneasy for what felt like a full minute. It felt as if I had lost this magical spot, as if, it no longer exists!
The fact is, I have been to this place just a little over two years ago and thanks to America’s exceptional national parks system, Yosemite valley is protected, alive, well, and as glorious as when the Master himself, the legendary Black & White photographer Ansel Adams captured this photo in 1949.
That’s the effect of black & white photographs. We are emotionally, culturally wired to associate them with something that is lost, and that’s why something that is invaluable.
Not just a landscape photography artist, Ansel Adams was of course a renowned conservationist too. After almost a century, he still shows us how to see nature and tell other people about it in an effective way. How to spark something in their heart that is primeval, something so strong, they cannot deny it, they would yearn for it, and eventually, will strive to protect it.
Make them appreciate the unmatched handiwork of nature, beyond colors
Be it the cells of a honeycomb, an intricately patterned nest of a weaver bird, or the print on a leopard’s coat, craftsmanship present in nature is nothing but awe-inspiring.
Man has learned and copied so much from nature and still, centuries of learning remain. Realizing only this much should make a person humble and wise!
Poet extraordinaire Mary Oliver said:
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
As a nature photographer, especially if you carry a Macro lens around, you are already following the above instructions and you have a truly powerful way to “tell about it”, your photographs! You are bringing to people’s notice the elegant nuances in nature that they themselves would most probably miss.
A monochrome photograph lets the textures, lines, lights & shapes in a nature scene speak for themselves making them impossible to be ignored by viewers. A black & white frame of nature makes a viewer’s experience of the subject, almost tactile.
By making a nature photograph in Black & White, you offer the viewer a chance to grasp the depths and details present in nature that would have been lost in the distraction of colors.
There are subjects in nature, where colors should take a backseat for us to make our visual experience visceral, and truly meaningful. Ansel Adams once said that he could get “a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than (he had) ever achieved with color photography”.
Make them fall in love with the art and consequently the subject – nature
One of the reasons why we artists do what we do is – we want to tell a story with the help of our creations and we love the sheer challenge of crafting it. The art of creating black and white images is absolutely beautiful, and delicate enough to be difficult – Just like the art of molding clay and creating sophisticated shapes out of it!
In the absence of colors, you have only two things to tell a story. One- the shades of grey, and Two- the shapes available in the frame, making the story-telling a challenging task indeed. The artistic endeavor a photographer passes through in bringing out the shapes of the subject translates into this unique honesty that only black and white images have about them.
This is the reason why even a very mundane subject matter can be turned into a masterpiece with Black & White photography. As a result, when a viewer perceives a frame in black & white, they approach the subject with an altogether different level of grace.
A good black & white composition of nature will never fail to grab the attention of a viewer with its unexpected elegance no matter how disinterested they are in the actual subject of nature.
Humans belong to nature, and when a person pays genuine attention to nature once, it affects something at the very core of their being. Even if for a brief moment, it does. Whether they are aware or not, it does. And sometimes, that’s all that is needed to make the difference! :)
Images & Article © 2020 Gyaneshwari Dave