“What the human eye sees is an illusion of what is real. The black and white image transforms illusions into another reality.” — Ruth Bernhard
From the early days of photography to the present digital age, monochrome photography has been instrumental in transforming the way we perceive the world. To celebrate the 2023 Black and White Photography Award (open for entries until June 30), we’ve surveyed some of the best submissions from past awards to curate a collection of 10 stunning images that showcase the enduring potential of the genre.
1. “Haenyeo, The Grandma Divers”, South Korea – Alain Schroeder (Finalist, People Award, October 2021)
Alain Schroeder’s absorbing monochrome series showcases the Haenyeo women, also known as the ‘women of the sea’, who have been practicing the ancient art of freediving to gather ocean delicacies on the South Korean island of Jeju for centuries.
He captures their incredible strength and endurance, exemplified in this remarkable portrait of a lone diver proudly presenting her catch. The classical nature of the image emphasized by the black & white tones, makes it a poignant documentation of a practice that is recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage, but is facing an uncertain future. However, efforts from the government and local communities to promote the sustainable lifestyle of the Haenyeo women have begun to generate interest among younger generations disillusioned with urban life, and Schroeder is optimistic, “Perhaps it is a renaissance” he says.
2. “Solitude is bliss”, Rhodes, Greece – David Pellicola
David Pellicola’s depiction of a lone diver is truly mesmerizing, possessing a vintage quality thanks to the subtle grey hues of the sea and distant mountains, beautifully contrasted against the sharp, angular diving board. The composition evokes the glamour of travel during the 20th century and brings to mind the works of renowned photographer Robert McCabe, whose monochrome portrayals of Greece similarly showcase its captivating beauty. Pellicola’s use of tonal contrast adds depth and dimension to the image, drawing the viewer into the scene and allowing them to appreciate the diver’s solitary moment of contemplation. A fitting tribute to the immense beauty and serenity of the Greek Isles.
3. “Balanced Contrast”, Australia – Renee Johnstone (First Prize Winner, Open Call Award, October 2022)
“One is drawn to this image by the immediate intimacy of the scene. Dreamlike and meditative, the photograph begins to capture the secret trance of childhood and the depths of innocent imagination” — Molly Roberts (National Geographic)
This mesmerizing image by Renee Johnstone, defies traditional portraiture, the photographer’s use of the creative aerial perspective adding a unique touch to the composition. The subtle soft focus, grey tones, and shallow depth of field give the subjects an almost ethereal quality, blending seamlessly with the water and creating a dreamy, otherworldly atmosphere. The result is a deeply compelling work of art that conveys the freedom and innocence of childhood while subverting our expectations of what a portrait can be.
4. “The Lost World”, Mercantour National Park, France/Italy – Aurelio Bormioli (Editor’s Pick, Landscape Award, November 2022)
The composition of Aurelio Bormioli‘s image is both simple and breathtaking, capturing the grandeur of the scene perfectly. The dark, rocky terrain gradually lightens as it stretches into the distance, culminating in the snow-capped peaks and soft white clouds that dominate the sky.
The photographer has captured the sense of scale and awe-inspiring majesty, reminding us of the incredible beauty and power of the natural world. It serves as a tribute to the great landscape photographers of the past, particularly Brett Weston, whose high-contrast depictions of rugged natural landscapes continue to inspire and captivate photographers and photo enthusiasts to this day.
5. “Purification By Water”, India – Cristina Dimitrova (Editor’s Pick, Black & White Award, November 2020)
The Ganges River holds immense cultural and religious significance for Hindus in India, believed to cleanse sins and bless bathers with good health and longevity. Despite being the second most polluted river in the world, millions of people still flock to its waters for purification.
This powerful image by Bulgarian-born, UAE-based photographer Cristina Dimitrova, captures the bather’s reverence and devotion, with his hands clasped in prayer as he gazes at the murky waters. Unlike typical portrayals of India, (which usually contain bright colors) this monochrome photograph is rendered in black & white, creating a somber tone, reflecting the dark reality of the river’s pollution and the risks that come with bathing in it.
6. “Secret Garden”, Florida, USA – Fenqiang Liu (Editor’s Pick, Black & White Award, February 2022)
Fenqiang Liu‘s stunning image is an effective advertisement for the artistic potential of monochrome. The framing of the shot is exquisite, with the oak branches and hanging moss creating a natural frame for the egret, emphasizing its elegance and beauty, whilst the timing is similarly perfect, capturing the egret just as it takes off from the tree. The use of light and shadow is masterful, with the darkened sky creating a mysterious and artistic impression, and the added light highlighting the bird’s form and creating a striking contrast against the background. The black and white tones also enhance the image’s sense of ether-realism, evoking a sense of nostalgia and reverence for the beauty of nature.
7. “Friends”, Varanasi, India – Stuart Chape
Taken on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi (regarded as India’s most ‘holy’ city) Stuart Chape’s striking portrait photograph captures a sense of stillness and peace. Expertly composed: the man sitting cross-legged in the center of the frame, his eyes fixed on the lens and the monkey resting comfortably in his lap. The monochromatic palette enhances the image’s tactile texture and tone highlighting the deep lines on the man’s weathered face, the piercing dark eyes, and the contrast between his dark hair and white beard along with the tactility of his clothing and the monkey’s soft fur.
8. “Dune View”, Death Valley, USA – Gary Wagner (Editor’s Pick, Landscape Award, April 2022)
Gary Wagner‘s stunning portrayal of Death Valley, USA, is a breathtaking image that captures the essence of the desert. The slight aerial viewpoint and expert framing emphasizes the scale of the dunes, while the contrast between light and shadow adds depth and drama to the image. The use of black and white photography enhances the image’s stark beauty, bringing out the fine, tactility of the sand and pays tribute to the master Ansel Adams’ depictions of the same subject.
9. “Unfinished Dreams”, Poland – Joanna Borowiec (Second Prize Winner, Black & White Award, February 2022)
Joanna Borowiec‘s black and white film photo of a woman in water is a haunting image that permeates with a sense of mystery and loss. The woman’s body, with her face hidden and her white form, strikes a ghost-like appearance against the dark water. The timing of the shot is crucial, capturing a moment of stillness and contemplation that echoes the themes of the artist’s “Unfinished Dreams” series. The black and white tones in the photograph enhance the image’s sense of otherworldliness, creating a feeling of the surreal and the unknown.
10. Inlay Lake, Myanmar – Ilaria Miani
Ilaria Miani‘s black and white photograph of a fisherman in Myanmar is a captivating image that captures a moment of skill and balance. The clever use of a domed net creates a circular frame around the fisherman drawing the viewer’s attention to his dark form, whilst the timing is perfect, freezing him as he balances on one leg on the boat.
The use of light and shadow is subtle but effective, creating a sense of depth and accentuating the texture of the dark water, whilst the black and white tones also add a timeless quality to the photograph, bringing to mind the work of the great 20th-century travel photographers and emphasizing the enduring tradition and skill of the fisherman’s trade.
All images © their respective owners
NB: The 2023 Black & White Photography Award is open for entries until June 30. Enter here.