Every time this award comes around, we are reminded of the infinite power of black and white photography and the many exciting ways it’s used to explore our world today. But what is it about this visual language that keeps it alive and kicking? From its emotional impact to the way it can direct our focus via its special relation to time, there are countless reasons black and white continues to capture the hearts and minds of these experts working across the contemporary photography world.

For this article, we reached out to each of this year’s jurors for the LensCulture Black and White Photography Awards to get their thoughts about why black and white photography is still so popular today. Here’s what they had to say.

“We love the fact that black and white images are a step removed from how we would usually see the world, because this enables us to appreciate form and beauty more readily”
Rachel Barker

As one of the jurors for the LensCulture Black and White Photography Awards 2022, Rachel Barker—co-founder of STANLEY/BARKER publishing house—ponders on the qualities she and her partner Gregory Barker watch out for when it comes to striking new monochrome work. “We are looking for some kind of romance, even if it’s not completely obvious,” she says thoughtfully.

© Ohidul Arafat

STANLEY/BARKER have published some of the most successful contemporary black and white monographs of recent years, working from their studio in the heart of the Shropshire countryside in England. “Black and white photobooks actually make up the majority of the books we publish—we love them and our collectors do too!” Barker says. Some of the sell-out black and white publications in their catalog include Paul Guilmoth’s At Night Gardens Grow, Mark Steinmetz’s Rivers & Towns and Richard Rothman’s Town of C. Though each of these books is very different, when looked at together they form a strong picture of the sorts of projects that will stand out to this juror —cohesive, narrative-rich bodies of work that utilize black and white to create new visual worlds from the one we already know.

Another of this year’s jurors, Jim Casper, LensCulture’s Editor-in-Chief, finds a similar fascination in the way black and white photography can transform reality.

“Black and white signals an artistic intention by the photographer. It tends to abstract reality quite a bit, and it creates a more timeless feeling.”
Jim Casper
© Agnieszka Sosnowska

Considering the steadfast popularity of black and white photography, Casper continues, “Since our day-to-day lives are so saturated with color, black and white really helps an image to stand out from the crowd and get noticed. I also think that black and white offers a soothing, refined look that invites the viewer to pause and soak up all of the details in an image without being distracted or seduced by the ‘real’ color of the scene.”

This powerful quality informs what he is looking for with the jury this year. “Black and white has a tremendous ability to show the stripped-down essence of what is in front of the camera—so it’s important that every element in the frame contributes to the emotional or storytelling content of the photo.” Casper has been collecting photographs since the 1970s, and many of his acquisitions are black and white. “One of the added bonuses of black and white prints is that you can display a group of them from many different photographers across many different eras, and somehow they always look good when they are grouped together. It’s almost like the monochrome similarities allow them to have ‘conversations’ with each other,” he says.

© Pellicano Antonio

Both collectors and gallerists are united in the search for photographs that will endure—and mature—across time as Tom Gitterman, who brings his insight to the jury, confirms. After working for the likes of Zabriskie Gallery and Howard Greenberg Gallery, Gitterman opened Gitterman Gallery in 2003, and now represents a roster of photographers spanning the history of the medium, from 19th century masters to contemporary greats—many of whom work in black and white. “I look for artists creating work that adds to my understanding and perspective,” he says. “In order for me to champion someone’s work successfully, I need to be moved by it personally.”

“I seek work that has depth of expression and sincerity; work that I want to spend time with, revisit, live with. It can be documentary or abstract, but it needs to be distinctive and additive”
Tom Gitterman

This helps us to understand that gallerists are often looking for something with emotional weight for their collectors—something they will want to live with as Gitterman says, and something that will reveal further layers to its depth over time.

While some of our judges are in charge of putting others’ black and white photography out into the world, Trent Parke speaks from behind the camera. Beginning his career as a press photographer, Parke became a member of Magnum Photos in 2007, and has won several awards for his groundbreaking photojournalistic vision across his career. Often working in black and white, he is best known for his poetic and emotionally charged images of life in his home country of Australia. “I am interested in ideas and stories, and the idea or story dictates what style or form of photography I choose to use,” he says.

© Akbar Mehrinezhad

“Generally speaking, I use black and white for heightened states of emotion, abstraction and symbolism.” So with his own approach in mind, what does he look for in work by other photographers?

“First and foremost, I am always looking for an original and personal visual style, and of course I want to be surprised and moved on an emotional level. I am interested in ideas, so I am always happy when I come across something new that I have never seen before”
Trent Parke

Several global editorial minds are also part of this year’s jury, one of whom is Sadie Quarrier, deputy director of National Geographic. Weighing in its storytelling power, Quarrier explains that the magazine will only assign black and white work if it is a deeply considered part of the photographer’s proposed vision. Black and white for black and white’s sake just won’t work—it needs to feel genuine and bring focus to the human elements of the story. “We take that very seriously,” she says, “and while we don’t choose it often, I think it has always been the right choice when we do.”

© Farshid Tighehsaz

There are certain circumstances that Quarrier finds black and white to be the most effective choice. “It can be very useful when the bulk of a story needs to be shot in hospitals or labs, for instance, which are notorious for their bad light and cluttered or unappealing backgrounds. In those cases, it helps focus our attention on, and care about, the main subject, distilling a scene down to a single moment and/or emotion,” she says. Other contexts in which she feels it can be most compelling are war zones. “Color can at times visually complicate a composition and distract you from the focus. In this case it helps focus your attention on the people and not on the blood and chaos.”

And like the other judges, she also points out the timeless feel black and white can offer. “Robb Kendrick did an amazing story for us on Vaquero culture where he used tintypes to take us back in time, even though the images were obviously present-day, and the choice of tintype portraiture for this story made the images very effective for the story we were trying to tell,” she says. When judging work devoid of color, Quarrier says she looks for great light, lines, composition and emotion.

“I want the image to resonate, to move me. I want it to feel special, unique, arresting, and hard to capture”
Sadie Quarrier
© Madhavan Palanisamy

Anne Nwakalor, the founding editor of British-Nigerian magazine No! Wahala, and Naoko Higashi, editor of the Japanese photography magazine IMA, are also editors on the jury. No! Wahala is a print photography magazine that champions visual stories told by African creatives, and Nwakalor is particularly interested in ideas of representation. “Black and white photography is timeless—you can look at a photo from 50 years ago in black and white and it will still look current,” she says.

“Representation and identity are topics that will always be relevant, so capturing these stories in black and white allows them to transcend time”
Anne Nwakalor

For this award, she will be looking for images that can hold her attention. “This can be down to composition, or a certain depth in the image that takes a while to uncover,” she says. “Most things look good in black and white, so I’ll need a body of work that is original and personal.” Higashi, meanwhile, particularly appreciates the world-building potential of working in monochrome.

© Munem Wasif

“Black and white photography is still popular, and I think one of the reasons for this, especially for art photographers, is that by transforming the real world with color into monochrome, they can apply a new concept to their work and create a new visual language”
Naoko Higashi

When making the magazine, Higashi and her team pay particular attention to the details when it’s black and white work, because of the limitation in color expression. “For instance, we choose a kind of paper which is suitable for each work and with black and white we often use double tone or add silver.” In other words, you always need to think of the ongoing life of the image, and how it will be consumed by viewers.

Despite the differing ways they live and work with images, each of this year’s LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards jury members share a belief in black and white photography as a powerful mode of storytelling that can be both timely and timeless, and together, they are looking forward to seeing work that has harnessed the emotional capacity of black and white to its full and arresting potential.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss your opportunity to get your best work in front of these Jurors! Enter the B&W Photography Awards 2022 before the deadline on Oct 19, and be sure to check out our free Black & White Photography Guide which is packed full of resources to fuel your passion for black and white photography. All of the images in this article are also featured in the guide — download your free copy today!

© Nanna Kreutzmann