There’s something arresting about black and white photography. For decades, its subjects have challenged, terrified and connected us at the same time.
From hard-hitting images of the Vietnam War, the Sharpeville uprisings, controversial United Colors of Benetton advertising campaigns, to moments of hope captured in film forever (like the famous Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics).
There are black-and-white images that changed the world forever. Recall the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki in 1945 taken by Lieutenant Charles Levy; the shocking image of a burnt naked Vietnamese girl running from her village after it had just been bombed; Nelson Mandela raising his fist in the air after being released from prison in February 1990.
These images have also allowed us to find something in common that we never thought we had. They have the power to tell us stories we never knew, weren’t prepared to hear or just didn’t want to know about. And behind these images are photographers who became synonymous with being able to wield their magic with the simplicity of light and dark, black and white.
Classic images of American photographer Richard Avendon, when The New York Times said that ‘his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century’.
Our very own David Goldblatt, who managed to portray the sad reality of South Africa in the apartheid years, helped share the message with the rest of the world. A personal favourite of mine, Herb Ritts: there wasn’t a celebrity, model or cultural figure in the 80s and 90s that he didn’t photograph in spectacular black and white glory.
And lastly, the genius that is Annie Leibowitz. From her years at Rolling Stone Magazine, to holding the record for the most Vanity Fair covers, ever, to capturing the last image of John Lennon on the day he was assassinated, not to mention her most beautiful homage to her wife, poet Susan Sontag in her last days before she passed away. When thinking of all these images, this quote of hers makes perfect sense, ‘A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people’.
These images have helped change perception, persuade politicians, move mountains, influence revolutions – and even sometimes make the world a better place.