“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Elliott Erwitt
Black and white photography has a rich and fascinating history that dates back to the medium’s very beginning. To honor and celebrate its enduring power we have compiled a list of 10 of its most iconic exponents, whose inspiring images showcase its profound potential.
1. Ansel Adams
Widely considered the most significant landscape photographer ever, Ansel Adams captured the breathtaking natural beauty of the United States in large-format, black-and-white images that are still revered today. His gift for photography was discovered during a family trip to Yosemite National Park in 1916 when he was given an Eastman Kodak Brownie box camera by his father. He would go on to forge an extraordinary photographic career which saw him build a unique and impressive oeuvre that would redefine the genre of landscape photography, influencing generations of notable practitioners, and which today, stands as a compelling testament to the profound potential of monochrome.
2. Sally Mann
A masterful photographer, Sally Mann is perhaps best known for her series, Immediate Family, which comprised intimate images of her three children captured in and around her woodland summer home in Virginia. Invariably captured in black and white, her analog images are atmospheric, absorbing, and at times, imbued with a palpable sense of foreboding. Blending beauty with the macabre, they at times, evoke the ghost-like ambience of the early Daguerreotype photographs, exemplified most potently in her 2003 series, What Remains, which cuts to the very heart of the human condition.
3. Sebastião Salgado
Few contemporary photographers extol the potential of black and white in the manner of Brazilian photojournalist, Sebastião Salgado, who is renowned for his powerful monochromatic images that express some of the most critical questions of our time.
During his nearly five-decade-long career, he has traveled to more than 120 countries, in the process, capturing some of the most powerful and sometimes harrowing images in existence, and creating numerous long-term documentary projects, including, most recently, Amazonia. Six years in the making, the landmark body of work saw Salgado work closely with twelve indigenous groups to capture hundreds of stunning black-and-white images that convey the dramatic beauty, incredible biodiversity, and rich cultural diversity of the Amazon, thus highlighting the importance of its conservation in the fight against climate change.
4. Don McCullin
Britain’s most renowned photojournalist and one of the medium’s most important living figures, Don McCullin has, over the course of his extraordinary career, covered, with brutal realism, conflict, disaster and catastrophes, on almost every continent, imparting the realities of war and famine to people back home,
Renowned for his uncompromising and forthright approach his skillful use of light and his incredible bravery (which saw him earn a knighthood in 2017), he has photographed in some of the most dangerous and challenging places in the world, capturing striking black-and-white images that convey the human stories behind some of the most significant events of our time, and which would unlikely have the same impact were they rendered in color.
5. Henri Cartier Bresson
Widely regarded as the most important photographer of the 20th century and the father of photojournalism, Henri Cartier Bresson was one of the founders of the prestigious Magnum Photos, and his remarkable oeuvre continues to inspire to this day. Born in France in 1908, he originally studied painting before discovering photography in 1929 when he was given his first camera by an American expatriate. He bought his first Leica in 1931, which became instrumental in his signature street photography style, characterized by an instinctive ability to capture spontaneous and fleeting images that convey the essence of his subject matter, a concept he dubbed ‘the decisive moment’.
6. Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark spent much of her five-decade-long career capturing those on society’s peripheries with unwavering honesty, acuity, and compassion. Born in Philadelphia in 1940, she studied painting and art history and later earned an MA in photojournalism at the University of Pennsylvania, before traveling to Turkey on a Fulbright Scholarship. She moved to New York City in the early 1960s, and over the ensuing decades, photographed countercultural movements and the marginalized for renowned publications such as LIFE, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. A remarkably perceptive photographer, Mark possessed the rare ability to truly capture the personalities of her subjects, her candid black & white images emphasize their humanity thus engendering empathy in the viewer.
7. Herbert List
Herbert List was a trailblazing photographer who made significant contributions to the genres of fashion, portraiture, and still life. His innovative approach, inspired by Bauhaus and surrealism, was characterized by stripped-back compositions that highlighted the sculptural quality of his subjects, particularly potent in his homoerotic male nudes. His use of monochrome tones further emphasized the classical tone of his work, marking him as one of the foremost practitioners of the Fotografia Metafisica style, and cementing his place as one of the medium’s most influential figures.
8. Dorothea Lange
Widely regarded as one of the most important photographers in the history of the medium, Dorothea Lange is best known for her poignant and humanistic depictions of Depression-era America, which not only captured the zeitgeist of the period, but helped dramatically reshape documentary photography thenceforth.
Marked by their uncompromising honesty, their compassion, and their anthropological attention to detail, Lange’s images for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which were invariably rendered in monochrome (emphasizing their potency) remain some of the most powerful and enduring of the era. Anthropological in nature, yet rooted in compassion, her images conveyed a unique sensibility that set her apart from other documentary photographers of her time. Exemplified most powerfully in her best-known image, ‘Migrant Mother’, which is considered one of the most iconic examples of social documentary photography in existence.
9. Daido Moriyama
Few contemporary photographers demonstrate the unique potential of black & white in the manner of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama. Undoubtedly one of the medium’s most important living figures, he is best known for the subversive, black & white portrayals of his homeland captured during the 1960s and 70s, which left an indelible mark on the medium.
10. Elliot Erwitt
One of the most significant photographers of the 20th century, Elliot Erwitt was born in Paris in 1928 and spent the ensuing 7 decades creating an extensive and diverse oeuvre that has continued to inspire and influence photographers and enthusiasts alike. His work encompassed a wide range of genres, including photojournalism, commercial photography, and street photography, the latter, includes some of the most exquisite and enduring images of the genre in existence. He joined Magnum in 1953 and later served as president. His legacy is a testament to his skill and dedication to his craft, as well as his ability to capture the essence of the world around him.
All images © their respective owners
NB: The 2023 Black & White Photography Award is open for entries until June 31. Enter here.