A work made in black and white is not a work lacking color. It is instead a conscientious choice made by an artist, a decision that engages them with a set of historic conventions. Whether artists adhere to these conventions or overturn them, the results are charged with a specific energy.

In the world of printing, black on white is the simplest and most economical option, ensuring high contrast without losing detail, making it ideal for newsprint. In Chris Ofili's drypoint etching, The Healer, the contrast produced through the short strokes of his etching pen give texture and richness to the image, while duotone simplicity and the symmetry add spiritual and iconographic connotations.

Black and white of course evokes pencil, a medium often associated with the first draft or a quick sketch. In Tracy Emin's Sunday Morning with you, the viewer is privy to an intimate moment, rendered as if from memory. That this artwork is a monotype (a single printed impression made from a wet source) befits the singularity of the moment. In the face of a memory that is fallible, the artist captures fleeting moments of intimacy.

Despite the short history of the medium, any photographic print in black and white carries with it the history of early modernist photography. At the beginning of the 20th century, the increasing accessibility of cameras moved artists like Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp to experiment formally with the play of shadow and light, using the photographic frame to dislocate the ordinary and make it stranger, pushing the utilitarian medium of photography into the realm of fine art. In Duchamp's The Shadows Cast by Readymades, the artist photographed the implacable shadows that his "readymade" sculptures cast on his studio walls, making an abstraction in black and white.

Though any black and white photo made thereafter carries with it these “fine art” associations, Robert Gober's Untitled, for instance, is an irreverent take on the modernist aesthetic. Though the shadow play of this still-life signals a kind of modernist "formalism," upon closer inspection, his subject matter is a soggy, stomped-on grocery bag.

A more direct reference to the history of modernist photography is Richard Hamilton's Readymade Shadows of 2005, a work in direct conversation with the Duchamp photograph referenced above. However, in Hamilton's photo, the object casting the shadow is in plain sight, thus drawing back the veil of mystery that Duchamp had sought to evoke almost 90 years prior. A post-modern mise en abyme (a work within a work) fitting of Duchamp himself, Hamilton's photo upends the tropes of the format while also paying homage to one of his artistic heroes.