It seems to me I have been seeing and thinking in black & white more lately. Not seeing the world as black & white. Things are not that simple and clear cut. No, seeing the world as black and white images. That is the interpretation of reality I am leaning more to these days.
Contribution of photography
I believe black and white is one of the great contributions of photography to the art world. Yes, at the time it was a technical limitation rather than an artistic choice. The processes and chemistry of the late 19th century through mid 20th century could only create monochrome images.
But the look stuck. It became associated with photography, with “reality” in image making. It helped establish photography as a distinct art form from painting.
Because that is the medium they had, the practitioners of it became extremely proficient at creating beautiful, artistic images. A good artist learns how to use his tools. Some people say their achievements of the old masters of black & white photography have never been equaled. I’m not so sure. We can do a pretty good job today.
Most people view black & white images as obsolete today. Why do that when we have a wonderful world of color imaging? Why throw away all that rich color information?
The reality is that black & white is still a unique and vibrant art form. It can create very captivating images. Well done and well printed I believe we can still rival the best of the “old masters” like Ansel Adams.
There are magazines that only showcase black & white. There are galleries that only accept black & white works. Some artists only do black and white. Why? Because many art lovers look to it as a wonderful medium for conveying emotion and feeling. It is still quite popular.
Advantage of black & white
But why? What advantage does black & white have? These days, since we have an equal choice between black & white and color, there must be a reason to chose black & white at times.
Black & white is an abstract medium. Eliminating color brings a new and different view of the world. Without color the image becomes shades of tone and forms. It creates a whole new way of looking at things. It is clear that it is not just a representation of reality, it is an interpretation, a new view. The photographer could have worked in full color. So black & white was a conscious choice to show something different.
Being so different, it is immediately set apart as something to be looked at in a new way. That helps with the reinterpretation of the scene. Plus, many viewers appreciate the pure tonal variations without the distraction of color. It becomes a new type of art.
So creating black & white prints is no longer a technical limitation of the medium, it is an artistic choice. We use it because it can better express our view of the scene.
As I said, it is an artistic choice. Some subjects seem to work better in black & white. There is a lot to be said for removing color distractions and focusing attention on tonal variations. Shapes and form and relationships take on a new prominence. It is a different interpretation of a scene.
And the technology now shifts the work from the darkroom – in the dark and where you are breathing all sorts of chemicals – to the computer – in the light, maybe with a glass of wine nearby. Sounds more pleasant and creative to me. The masters, like Ansel Adams needed to make a number of test prints to work out the “map” of the dodging and burning and sharpening and spotting required to create the final print they like. Then they, or more likely their assistant, would spend many hours in the darkroom hand creating each print. Each print required hours of work.
Now technology lets us push the time consuming work up front. I may spend hours on the computer working with an image to get it exactly the way I want. Then in a matter of minutes I can print it. If my systems are set up correctly, the print is a very good match of what I created on the computer. And I can push the button again and produce perfect duplicates every few minutes. The computer and printer technology completely changes the game. No more colored filters on black & white film, no more long sessions in the darkroom in possibly harmful chemicals, no more having each print be a performance piece that may of may not match the artist’s template.
Technology-wise, this is the best time in history to be creating black & white prints. Artistically it is a great time, too. The world is saturated with color prints and black & white seems fresh and unique – a different point of view. It is time for a resurgence of black & white. At least for me.