The Allure of Black and White Photography
Black and white photography: Compared to the old days, color photography today is so easy. It used to be that setting up a black and white lab at home was relatively easy. I mean it still would take securing a dark place, maybe a large closet or blacked out bathroom, mixing up chemicals – developer, stop, fix and handling the enlarger, photo sensitive paper, negatives, trays of chemicals, rinsing setup and drying area. Simple as pie right?
“Colour is everything, black and white is more.” – Dominic Rouse
But developing color negatives and prints took the process to a whole new level of complexity with more chemical processes that were really out of the realm of most darkrooms. Even today in art schools and high schools that still have traditional darkroom set ups, a color set up is extremely rare. The equipment needed, chemicals required and temperamental quality of color film and paper is just something usually left to a lab.
“One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state. Much can be implied by suggestion, but statement demands certainty… absolute certainty.” – Paul Outerbridge
But now with digital camera, computers and color printers, color photography is relatively easy. So why the continuing allure of black and white photography? The photographer as artist uses all elements at their disposal from the subject to the composition, to the equipment and the final processing of the image.
The conceptual idea of Modernist photography is look at this, look at how photography interprets the world: through light, lens, glass, film, paper, brain and eye.
Black and white photography’s appeal is the removal of color information and the ability to drill down to the tonal range of the light and the essence of the subject. Often my black and white still lifes or perhaps a photograph of an old barn is a study of shapes, texture and light rather than color. Lines, age, weathering, shapes and subject rather than reds, yellows, greens, blues etc.
This still life image of fruit in bowl came about with the exploration of texture in black and white photography. It came about over a few years of collecting objects with deep texture, the old worn wooden planks are actually “raccoon” stretchers – a simple plank of wood used in the skinning of raccoon. I found a bunch of them in an old barn reclaiming business in Windsor, Vermont. The wooden bowl is a family heirloom past down through the generations. It was probably hand turned by a family member or family friend. Finishing off the composition is a trio of ripe pears with a beautiful textured skin and gorgeous lighting that has been dodged and burned to bring out the highlights.
When you process a color image its easy to get bogged down in non-essential elements that don’t really contribute to the communication of your concept. White balance, tone, saturation, vibrancy etc can all attribute to the pleasing aspects of a color image but does the color processing contribute much to the message of the image?
In black and white processing the artist is free to work on the essence of the subject, bring out the texture and detail of the old car slowly rotting in the snow or the wrinkles on a time worn face. The drama of the scene can be enhanced by working the highlights and dark areas. Or as Ansel Adams put it:
“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.” – Ansel Adams
“I think it’s because it was an emotional story, and emotions come through much stronger in black and white. Colour is distracting in a way, it pleases the eye but it doesn’t necessarily reach the heart.” ― Kim Hunter
“One sees differently with color photography than black-and-white… in short, visualization must be modified by the specific nature of the equipment and materials being used.” – Ansel Adams
“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Elliott Erwitt