Rad A. Drew Photography: Part 1. Exploring the Timeless Elegance of Black and White Films: A Watch List for Contemporary Black and White Photographers

Continental Divide at Dawn

Continental Divide at Dawn
Continental Divide at Dawn

Friday, September 8, 2023

Part 1. Exploring the Timeless Elegance of Black and White Films: A Watch List for Contemporary Black and White Photographers

Dancer, Cuban National Ballet
Fuji X-T4
© Rad A. Drew

Editors NoteThis blog post is Part 1 of a two part series. In this first part, I'll suggest Classic black and white films as a source of inspiration and influence for your own b&w photography. 

In Part 2: Black & White Photographers from Whom We Can Learn, I'll share black and white photographers from the 20th century who, through their creative black and white images, helped elevate photography to an art form.

(See my video tutorial, How I Did It!™️; Create Black & White Photos with Your iPhone!)

As a photographer who got his start in photojournalism in the 1970s, black and white photography is the medium upon which I cut my photography teeth. Black and white photography was my first love and maybe that's why I appreciate it so much today. 

But what is it about black and white photographs that captures our attention and draws us in? I think it's the textures, patterns, graphic elements, and light/dark contrasts, that, with the right post-processing, so effectively allow us to set a tone or create a mood. A well crafted black and white photograph often takes me into the past, allowing me to savor a melancholy memory or feel the mystery of a timeless scene. 

Take for example, this photo made recently on a country road in rural Indiana. 

Here is the color version.

iPhone 14 Pro Max, 1x (24mm), 48mp, ProRaw
Processed in Lightroom Mobile and SnapSeed

It's arguably a pretty picture with compelling leading lines to a vanishing point, the repetition of the poles, and the prominance of a great sky all making a contribution to hold viewers' attention. And the color is something most viewers can identify with as a beautiful midwestern summer day. But, for me, it's somewhat one-dimensional in terms of any deep meaning and leaves little to the imagination. 

Now, look at this version that I converted to black and white, adding a few other stylizations to affect the tone and create a somber mood. 

iPhone 14 Pro Max, 1x (24mm), 48mp, ProRaw
Processed in Lightroom Mobile and SnapSeed
Converted to B&W with Dramatic B&W on the iPhone

For me, the black and white version is far more compelling and engages my imagination much more. It pulls me in in an emotional way and invites me to consider various story lines. It sets a tone that is timeless, remote, distant, and evokes a mood that is simultaneously melancholy and mysterious. 

As I converted this image and explored its potential as a black and white photograph, I quickly realized its potential to be something more than the color version. The realization prompted me to think about where my inspiration for black and white comes from.

Have you thought about where you draw inspiration for your black and white creations? 

For me, much of my inspiration comes from old movies and from photographers from the 20th century. Films I watched as a young man, and photograhers whose work I was introduced to in college, both fuel my appreciation of black and white and inspire me to explore its potential in my own photography. (See more about B&W photographers who have influenced me and provided inspiration in Part 2 of this series.)

Black and white films hold a special place in the history of cinematography, capturing moments with a timeless elegance. Today, they continue to inspire photographers, provoking emotions and pushing creative boundaries. 

If you're a black and white photographer eager to enhance your craft, here is a curated list of influential black and white films worth experiencing. Each is viewable on Amazon Prime for a rental fee of only $2.99 to $3.99.

1. Citizen Kane (1941) - Director: Orson Welles (View on Amazon Prime)

Considered a masterpiece in storytelling, "Citizen Kane" showcases the exceptional cinematography of Gregg Toland. The film's innovative use of deep focus and low-key lighting techniques makes it a must-watch for photographers, providing valuable lessons in composition and mood-setting.

2. Seven Samurai (1954) - Director: Akira Kurosawa (View on Amazon Prime)

Kurosawa's iconic film is a visual treat, combining intricate camera movements and striking composition to capture the intensity of battle scenes. Photographers can learn from its masterful use of light and shadow, as well as the art of storytelling through visuals.

3. The Third Man (1949) - Director: Carol Reed (View on Amazon Prime)

Sought after for its atmospheric visuals, "The Third Man" perfectly encapsulates film noir aesthetics. Through its dramatic lighting and clever framing, photographers can learn how to create a sense of mystery and intrigue, and add an air of suspense to their work.

4. Raging Bull (1980) - Director: Martin Scorsese (View on Amazon Prime)

Robert De Niro's portrayal of volatile boxer Jake LaMotta is a visual masterpiece in black and white. Scorsese's use of high-contrast imagery and expressive lighting adds depth to each frame, providing photographers with valuable insights into creating powerful and emotionally charged images.

5. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Director: Robert Wiene (View on Amazon Prime)

This German expressionist film is a treasure trove of surreal visuals that continue to inspire artists to this day. With its distorted sets and exaggerated lighting, photographers can learn to experiment with unconventional framing, angles, and visual storytelling techniques.

6. Schindler's List (1993) - Director: Steven Spielberg (View on Amazon Prime)

"Schindler's List" poignantly tells the story of the Holocaust through black and white cinematography. Spielberg masterfully uses stark black and white imagery to convey the gravity and emotional impact of the historical events, demonstrating the power of simplicity and symbolism in visual storytelling.

7. Metropolis (1927) - Director: Fritz Lang (View on Amazon Prime)

A groundbreaking science fiction film, "Metropolis" offers a glimpse into a dystopian future through its innovative visuals. Lang's use of shadows, geometric shapes, and grandiose set designs make it a compelling reference for photographers seeking to incorporate architectural elements and dramatic lighting into their work.

8. La Haine (1995) - Director: Mathieu Kassovitz (View on Amazon Prime)

This French film examines the social tensions in urban environments through its gritty black and white aesthetics. Kassovitz's raw and documentary-like style offers photographers inspiration for capturing the essence of street photography, while also exploring the nuances of social commentary.

9. The Artist (2011) - Director: Michel Hazanavicius (View on Amazon Prime)

A modern silent film that pays homage to the era of black and white filmmaking, "The Artist" showcases the timeless visual language of classic cinema. Photographers can learn from its brilliant use of light, composition, and the art of storytelling through visual cues, without relying on dialogue.

Black and white films continue to captivate audiences, showcasing the immense creative potential of monochromatic visuals. By immersing yourself in these influential films, you can gain inspiration and valuable insights, equipping yourself with the tools and knowledge to enhance your own black and white photography journey.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I'll share the photographers from the 20th century (some still working into the 21st) who inspire me in my pursuit of black and white photography today.

Thanks for being here! 

Until next time be safe, stay well, and keep on creating!