Is Black & White photography an art form in its own or is it a way to salvage images that just didn’t work in color? Hear me out before you flame me. I love B&W and believe it is a special medium.
Black & White is where we started. It is our history and beginning. Looking only at commercial films, the early world was totally black & white. There were a variety of film designs, with tradeoffs of speed, contrast, fog level, etc. Because processing was done chemically, the entire roll had to be exposed at the same speed. Generally, a photographer became familiar with a handful of films. Lots of work was required to become familiar with the film’s exposure characteristics. Different films were selected for different uses and effects.
In the black & white days lots of work was done in camera to adjust the tone values. Filters, usually red or orange, were used while shooting. Their selection was based on the artist’s subjective judgement of predicting the outcome.
The system worked pretty well for decades.
Then along came color. It really took off in the 1950’s with the introduction of Kodachrome.
Finally ordinary consumers had what they thought they were missing – a color image. Color film sales dominated black & white.
In the early 2000’s digital cameras became practical and affordable. Now color film was eclipsed and it virtually disappeared from the market. Digital had better resolution, better dynamic range, it was cheaper, and we could print our own pictures on cheap inkjet printers.
So why, with all these advances, does anyone care about black & white anymore?
Digital saved black & white
The technological benefits that made digital imaging take over mainstream photography also brought huge advances to black & white images. A modern sensor is amazing. It captures more information than black & white film and it captures and retains the color information. This can be used later to tailor the tonality of the b&w image. And it allows far more control than color filters and a chemical darkroom.
The tools we have, like Lightroom and Photoshop, are very advanced and are able to exert a degree of control that would have been unthinkable in the film days. At the same time we have highly mature multichannel inkjet printers with sophisticated inks giving us archival prints. Added to that the development of many types of papers for printing and the options available to a black & white artist today makes this a golden age.
Why black & white?
But color is readily available and everyone can print it cheaply. Why would anyone still want black & white?
This gets to the heart of the issue. A black & white print is perceived as an entirely different experience. Black & white sheds the distraction of color. What is left is tones, shades of gray. These emphasize the shapes and forms of things. Composition and graphic design comes more to the fore. It is an alternate view of reality. That causes us to look at the image differently.
This difference is the beauty of it. It is a different interpretation of the world. The viewer immediately sees it is different and the artist can lead them through his composition more easily to see what he wants to emphasize.
I have heard photographers say “this didn’t work in color, lets try black & white”. That is a very limited perspective. I would turn it around and say “this image really needed the color information to make it work, so we can’t do it in black & white”.
Ansel Adams once said “the negative is the score, and the print is the performance”. This is still true, except the negative is a raw file and the print and processing are all done digitally. No dark room. No chemical mess.
So is black & white a thing in its own right? Definitely! It is a great art form with a long and glorious history. Today is the best time ever to be doing or viewing black & white images!