BACK TO BLACK (AND WHITE)

By Published on .

When senior art director John Edmonds designed a print campaign for Seagate Software, he took to the Internet for elements of the presentation. "Half of the images I used for the pitch I ended up using for the final because people loved them immediately." And the most popular ad, "Zack," was a monochrome, sepia-toned stock photo from that group. "It worked beautifully," says Edmonds, of Cossette Communications in Vancouver. "There's a level of class to black and white photography that is timeless."

He is not the only one who is enamored with black and white imagery. By most accounts, color photography hasn't given an inch of territory, but there's been something of a renaissance in black and white. It may not be a recent trend: Charlie Holland, director of photography at Tony Stone Images, recalls that "we responded quite early to what seemed to be a resurgence in the use of black and white, and I would date that to at least three years ago." For veteran stock shooter Rob Goldman, the shift to black and white photography occurred more recently. Maybe two years ago, he says -- but it's still going strong as ever.

"The reason I turned to black and white so definitively was that I wanted my photography to be more of a storytelling medium that left more open to people's imagination," says Goldman, who found that "the pure literalness of color destroyed that possibility." To be fair, Goldman does enhance much of his black and white work with a hint of color to add dimension. Clients took to the imagery, but Goldman's new direction concerned his reps. "It took a little time for my stock agency to accept it," he observes, "but no time at all for the clients to accept it."

Stock has become a multibillion dollar operation worldwide, with black and white stock photography occupying a much larger market share overseas than in the United States. Reps and photographers attribute this to a perceived desire on the part of American consumers to see something literal and representational, whereas in Europe and Asia, the public is used to more metaphorical concepts.

On the other hand, U.S. agencies such as TBWA/Chiat/Day and Goodby Silverstein & Partners have used high-quality black and white imagery for some years to produce ads with greater recognition and deeper emotional connections. However, selling the idea of a muted black and white treatment when clients want the greatest degree of visibility for their product in glossy color is often no easy task. Max Fallon, director of print production at Goodby, is charged with finding convincing imagery that keeps the client and the creatives happy.

"A lot of factors are involved in the decision to use stock photography -- whether the client can afford a new photo shoot, how the creatives feel about stock versus shooting it new, and whether it's in black and white or color," says Fallon. He agrees that stock comes into consideration mostly when there is simply not the time nor the budget to shoot new photography -- or a locale that is cost-prohibitive. "We did a print ad recently for Nike that was only going to be used once and we wanted to use a shot that was monochromatic," he recalls. "It was a hiker on a mountain peak, and there was no way we could possibly shoot it in the amount of time and for the budget, so we found a stock photographer that shoots a lot of things like that and he pulled it from his files."

Is that perceived as a necessary but not happy compromise? "Usually everybody's quite happy with the stock that is available nowadays," maintains Fallon. "The market has definitely come to accept that often black and white is the most direct, truthful way to reproduce an image."

He gets no argument from Dan Ligon, a copywriter at Blazing Paradigm/San Francisco."Sometimes it's best to order in," is the tagline for the new Food.com campaign that Ligon worked on; it uses lots of monochromatic photos. "Food and eating is as old as time," he explains. "So we designed a campaign that is 'retro-modern,' not just using campy photographs but taking vintage material and putting a modern veneer on it."

Agency head Ron Walters didn't relish the thought of using stock photos. "I thought, 'Oh, god, here's that same old idea that everybody tries.' " But Blazing Paradigm decided that if stock imagery was to be used, they were going to take it to a fresh place, literally building new images out of elements from various photos using Photoshop.The crude,collage-y humor of the ads contrasts with the bland offerings that surround them on the Internet.

A not-so-new fan of black and white is well-known stock shooter Timothy Shonnard, who photographed the dog seen in the aforementioned Seagate ad (p. 31). "I just can't stare at enough old pictures," he reflects. "There's something that catches your heart about those images." Like many fellow photographers these days, he uses a computer to add tone. "I sepia it. It gives it a little life and I like how it looks."

Shonnard believes that "We all have to reinvent ourselves and think metaphorically or symbolically, because the market demands that. Because right now, there's too much -- too much color, too much technology, too much of

In this article:
Most Popular