black and white


[blak-uhn-hwahyt, -wahyt]

Black-and-white is a number of monochrome forms in visual arts. Most forms of visual technology start out in black and white, then slowly evolve into color as technology progresses.

Black-and-white as a description is also something of a misnomer, for in addition to black and white most of these media included varying shades of gray. Further, many prints, especially those produced earlier in the development of photography, were in sepia (mainly to provide archival stability), which gave a richer, more subtle shading than reproductions in plain black-and-white, although less so than color.


Some popular black-and-white media of the past include:

  • Movies and animated cartoons. While some color film processes (including hand coloring) were experimented with and in limited use from the earliest days of the motion picture, the switch from most films being in black-and-white to most being in color was gradual, taking place from the 1930s to the 1960s. Even when most studios had the capability to make color films, they were not very popular because early tinting techniques and Technicolor film were expensive and difficult. For the years 1940–1966 a separate Academy Award for Best Art Direction was given for black and white movies, along with one for color.
  • Photography was black-and-white or shades of sepia. Color photography was originally rare and expensive, and early on often less true to life. Color photography became much more common in middle of the 20th century, and has become even more common since. Black-and-white remains a niche market for photographers who use the medium for artistic purposes. This can take the form of black and white film or digital conversion to grayscale, with optional image manipulation to enhance the results. For amateur use, certain companies such as Kodak manufacture black-and-white disposable cameras. Also, certain films are produced today which give black and white images using the ubiquitous C41 color process.
  • Television was originally broadcast in black-and-white. Some color broadcasts began in the 1950s, with color becoming common in western industrialized nations during the 1960s and then standard by the 1970s. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission settled on the NTSC standard in 1953, and the NBC network began broadcasting a limited color television schedule in January, 1954. Color television became more widespread in the U.S. between 1964 and 1967, when the CBS and ABC networks joined NBC in broadcasting full color schedules. Canada began airing color television in 1966 while the United Kingdom settled on an official color system in November 1969. New Zealand began color broadcasting in 1973, and Australia kept airing black-and-white broadcasts until 1975. While no longer used much professionally, many consumer camcorders have the ability to record in black-and-white.
  • Most newspapers were black-and-white until the late 1970s; The New York Times and The Washington Post remained in black-and-white until the 1990s. Some claim that USA Today was the major impetus for the change to color. Even today, many newspapers restrict color photographs to the front and other prominent pages since mass producing photographs in black-and-white is considerably less expensive than color.
  • Jet magazine was either all or mostly black-and-white until the end of the 20th century, when it became all-color.
  • School yearbooks have (historically) been printed either entirely or mostly in black-and-white. All-color school yearbooks are still rare, but more common that before.

Today black-and-white media often has a "nostalgic", historic, or anachronistic feel to it. For example, the 1998 Woody Allen film Celebrity was shot entirely in black-and-white. Other films, such as American History X Pleasantville and The Wizard of Oz play with the concept of the black-and-white anachronism, using it to selectively portray scenes and characters who are either more outdated or dull than the characters and scenes shot in full-colour. This manipulation of colour appears in the film Sin City and the occasional television commercial. Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire uses sepiatone black-and-white for the scenes shot from the angels' perspective. When Damiel, the angel (the film's main character) becomes a human, the film changes to colour emphasising his new "real life" view of the world.

Since the late-1960s, few mainstream films have been shot entirely on black-and-white film stock, even if they are intended to be presented theatrically in black-and-white. The reasons are frequently commercial, as it is difficult to sell a film for television broadcasting if no color version exists. For example, movies such as John Boorman's The General and Joel Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There were obliged to be filmed in color by their respective distributors, despite being presented in black-and-white for artistic reasons. Clerks is one of the few well-known recent films shot in black-and-white for no artistic purpose; due to the extremely low out-of-pocket budget, the production team could not afford the added costs of shooting in color (though the difference in film stock price would be slight, the store's fluorescent lights could not be used to light for color; by shooting in black and white, the film-makers did not have to rent lighting equipment).

Some modern film directors will occasionally shoot movies in black and white as an artistic choice, though it is much less common for a major Hollywood production. This is also true of black-and-white photography, where many photographers choose to shoot in solely black and white since the stark contrasts enhances the subject matter.


Most personal computers had monochrome (black-and-white, black and green, or black and amber) screens until the late 1980s; however computers that could be connected to television screens, including the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, the Sinclair QL, the Radio Shack Color Computer, the Apple II, the Texas Instruments TI-99, and the Atari 400 and Atari 800 supported color.

In computing terminology, black-and-white is sometimes used to refer to an image consisting solely of black pixels and white pixels; what would normally be called a black-and-white image, that is, an image containing shades of gray, is referred to in this context as grayscale.

See also

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