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Why Black and White?

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Why Black and White?

A friend once suggested that if colour photography had been invented first we’d never have bothered with black and white. I would suggest that he was wrong and although working in colour is now in prominence, especially since the explosion of digital capture, many photographers have maintained their love of working in monochrome. In fact the digital revolution may now have encouraged many to return to the simplicity of using shape and tone to create an image. Along with the resurgence of Ilford and even the legendary Rodinal developer the black and white photographer is well catered for. Photographers paint with light and working in monochrome is the true photographer’s material. Using only shape, tone and texture the process is simplified, the distraction of colour removed. Look at the work of Trent Parke if you want to see the true potential of black and white photography.

By the 1960’s colour film was readily available and one of its earliest exponents was Ernst Haas. His series of the bull fight and The Creation still engage the viewer. However documentary photographers such as Ian Berry and Philip Jones Griffiths stayed with black and white. This was partly due to technical problems in reproducing colour and managing colour temperature when working under mixed lighting. However there were exceptions and photograph of the two Vietnam soldiers reaching out to each other is an outstanding example of colour documentary work. It was not until the 1980’s when Paul Reas, Martin Parr and Paul Graham started to break the mould. Their work was not greeted with universal acclaim and the latter’s photograph taken inside a social security office of a small child dressed in pink came under particular criticism for beautifying the scene, because it was said that serious photography was done in black and white.

By the 1990’s colour reproduction had improved and it is now expected that colour photographs are used in the printed media. There is also a growth in the new style shown by Simon Norfolk and of photographing the aftermath of an event. Shot in large format colour, this work has moved from being shown on the pages in the mass media to the art gallery wall.

So why has black and white photography remained and in fact many would say is making a resurgence? Part of this is the romantic link to the past when it was the only real option. A certain generation of photographers will have been educated and brought up on a diet of shooting and contact sheet reading, influenced by Magnum, David Hurn and the Newport School. However digital workers have found that it is easy to convert a colour file into a monochrome image and in fact have more control than film workers. The recent development of new printers and papers now allow the photographer to output prints that show all the qualities of those produced in a darkroom. The darkroom had always been a place of mystery and frustration for many. The computer has freed many, as well as opened up the world of black and white to new workers, giving a level of control that had previously only been accessible to the advanced worker, who had the patience and resources to realize their ambitions. Certainly fine print control is essential in creating a finished monochrome image. Also photographers have increasingly attempted to make the move into the fine art market, seeing the monochrome image as a more pure and serious realization of an artist’s ideas.

The monochrome photographer will see the world in a series of shapes and textures, they will watch how the light moves and paints itself across the landscape. There is simplicity to a monochrome image and good composition is crucial, the photographer will use the viewfinder to design the final picture within it. The viewer is not distracted and will be drawn to the centre of interest. The photographer is also freed to work all day when using black and white, loosing the demands of early mornings and evenings that are the domain of the colour photographer.

If black and white photography was going to die it would have done it by now. Many purists have criticized the growth of digital technology as the death of real black and white photography. However in fact it has liberated the modern photographer, for many of us shooting on film remains the way to work but the ease of creating exhibition standard prints from our desktop is a development that we should not ignore.