256 shades of grey
Black and white is called monochrome. The mono part is misleading. Removing colours simply allows other aspects of an image – emotion, tone, and contrast, among them – to come into play. It’s a storytelling powerpack, if you will. Once the only choice, it is becoming, for a growing number of photographers, the first choice again. Candide McDonald reports.
The first black and white image was taken by French inventor, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in 1825. The image was destroyed as he attempted to make copies of it, but when he tried again, he managed to produce a black-and-white image of a window. It was an inauspicious beginning for a form of media that has fascinated people ever since. Even after Kodachrome was launched in 1935, black-and-white photography did not become obsolete. As colour photography improved, black and white was used less, but it has persisted for its ability to convey sophistication, timelessness, mood, and emotion, as well as its aesthetic appeal.
Some of the world’s most famous photographers have chosen black and white. Ansel Adams, an environmentalist ahead of his time, documented the Wild West of old America in black and white. Diane Arbus documented people outside the norm in black and white. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was considered to be the father of modern photojournalism and was one of the first photographers to use the new 35mm format for candid photography, shot in black and white. Robert Capa captured his famous real-life moments of people in crisis across five wars in black and white. Richard Avedon defined the style, beauty, and culture of the US during the 20th century in black and white. Helmut Newton defined the fashion world of the ‘60s and ‘70s in black and white. Annie Leibovitz’ most famous image, of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, was shot in colour, but very many of her famous images, including Nelson Mandela; French-American artist and sculptor, Louise Bourgeois; a naked Amy Schumer; and a very young Leo DiCaprio are black and white. Robert Mapplethorpe challenged the world of the ‘70s and ‘80s with his controversial portraits and self-portraits – all in black and white.
A new cohort of photographers is discovering the aesthetics and emotive power of black-and-white photography and a renaissance is blossoming throughout the world.
Adrian Cook has carved out a unique market for his work with tintypes, so black and white is his main option. It’s now 90% of his personal work and with some clever marketing, including his mobile pop-up studio, which hosts wet plate portrait sessions in venues across Sydney, business for that is thriving. He does, however, say that he came to black and white purely out of preference and a desire for distinctiveness, which is linked to his decision to shoot as much as possible with film. “Once, everybody shot with a certain camera and a certain film and processed in a certain way, so you created your own style and look that only you did, whether in black and white or colour. I can remember, as a young assistant in London, I’d be on a double-decker bus, I’d see a billboard and I’d know who did the picture purely by the way it had been shot. Only the photographer, his assistant, and the lab knew how each photographer did what they did.” But these days, he adds, when someone sees an image they like, they can push a few buttons and get the same thing. “It means that photography has become bland. Everything’s shot in digital. There’s no individuality – maybe in the style or way they shoot, but not in the look. And if someone does do something that’s different, all of a sudden you have fifteen people copying it. They think, ‘He’s working, I’ll do that’.” Other than tintype, Cook’s number one preference is his “little Leica” with black and white film in it. “And if I can, I go and print it myself.”
Sydney-based advertising specialist, Christopher Ireland shoots with black-and-white film simply because he thinks it is the most beautiful and elemental form of photography. “It is the Vivaldi Four Seasons of photography,” he says. “We get into photography because we get hooked on the magic of it. Seeing an image slowly reveal itself from the developing bath is almost spiritual. Digital photography is practical, but it doesn’t resonate with me and cross the ages the way black-and-white film does.”
For Ireland, the beauty of black and white is that it can be classical and straightforward. “I love the lack of choices my own personal workflow adopts – a Leica mechanical camera, Tri-X and Ilford ID-11. Or, if I’m feeling particularly expressive or feel the image has greater power, the Horseman 4x5 field camera with Ilford HP5 and Rodinal. I process everything in our laundry.” He adds, “What’s in it for me? It slows me down. It gives me a physical medium to work with. It inspires me. It connects me to the lineage of wonderful photographers who have gone before. It also leaves a family legacy, because I mainly shoot the immediate family and I convey my love to them through the emotional images we create together.”
Melissa Breyer, a street photographer based in New York, appreciates its aesthetics. “There is a certain purity and elegance to black and white. Colour screams for attention and can sometimes steal the show, while black and white sits more quietly and lets the content and composition do the work. Sometimes I succumb to the lure of colour, but black and white just feels right on an intuitive, aesthetic level,” she says.
For Sydney-based photojournalist, Paul Blackmore, it’s the visual clarity of black and white photography unencumbered by the distraction of colour. “The emotional and artistic vision of the photography doesn’t have to compete with the visual demands of colour. For me, there is a beautiful aesthetic harmony of tone, purpose, and light,” he says. “There is also an unexplained resonance people have with black and white that is a bit like our response to music.”
Valentina Piccinni and Jean-Marc Caimi, the photographer duo known as Caimi & Piccinni, suggest, “Maybe it has something to do with some primordial code of decrypting and interpreting the reality, stripping it to its essential dualistic traits, light-shade, day-night, happiness-fear, comfort-danger. Many people shoot in black and white when deciding to become photographers.” They note, “black and white opens up a world of different creative approaches. Like a chess game, the black-and-white process poses endless questions, leading to infinite possibilities and aesthetic outcomes. To us, it represented a journey into image-creation awareness and artistic growth, yielding to a photographic personal vision, our peculiar approach to image-making.”
Best known for his ocean photography, Trent Mitchell adds, “I’ve only been asked once to shoot black-and-white film for a commission. It was ten rolls of film, and a long time ago.” But he shot his recent personal project, an underwater portrait series called Inner Atlas, in black and white. The reason, he says, “has more to do with colour theory than anything else. I was creating these images in the surf zone and the palette was dominantly blue. Blue just didn’t bring the intensity and abstract quality to the series that I wished for. Colour almost seemed too beautiful and literal for me. Inner Atlas is an abstract study of human form, energy, movement, and expression. All of these things don’t need colour to be represented in an image.”
The advantage of black and white, Mitchell believes is, “Using the medium to strip things back to the essentials. This helps you refine what you’re trying to say, visually and conceptually. Also, not having to worry about colour when creating a cohesive body of work is a benefit too. The simplicity and limitations of black and white open up another way to see the world. It also has an undeniable timeless quality about it. The allure is definitely an emotional one for me.” Breyer’s reward is its simplicity. “Especially in a chaotic urban environment,” she states, “which is where I do the bulk of my work, black and white helps to streamline the mayhem. It calms the environment down. By soothing the visual cacophony, the subjects have less competition and can play a larger role.” Breyer adds, “There is also a certain timelessness to it. One knows that a colour photo is of a certain age, but black and white can be a bit more ambiguous.”
The emotional power of black and white draws Ireland also. “If, like me, you love soft light sources such as the magic light that permeates a room via a window, black and white will reward you. By taking away colour, we focus more on the emotional quality of an image. There’s more room to feel something because there’s less to distract the mind.” It draws viewers into things like the facial expression in a portrait, or a unique component of the scene, he states. Mitchell also appreciates its timelessness. “Colour can so easily tie an image to an era, and black and white takes some of this away and becomes more transcendent of time and place.”
For Caimi & Piccinni, black and white allows them to achieve an intimacy not available with colour. “When we did the first chapter of our ‘cities in transition so-far’ trilogy (Naples, Rome, and Istanbul), we decided to shoot black-and-white film only using simple point and shoot cameras. We found a small student’s flat in Forcella, Naples, in an old and Mafia-ridden neighbourhood, moved there, and set up a darkroom in the bathroom. We wanted to get under the skin of Forcella and other similar areas of the city, meet people, and get into their private lives as well as exposing ours in the process. The visceral nature of black and white and the unobtrusiveness of the small film cameras matched this aim. The neighbourhood noises, smells, and dust were all around, penetrating the film from the moment of the shutter release, to the developing process. The advantages of using black and white for some works are linked to a whole emotional panorama. We probably think, see, feel, and act differently when we shoot in black and white. To us, this is much more important than the mere aesthetic connected to it.”
While there may not yet be a black and white revival in advertising photography – although a number of recent ad films by Nike, Apple, and Body Armor, suggest that there is a growing interest – black and white has persisted in photojournalism. Caimi & Piccinni suspect that it is connected to the tradition of photojournalism, which developed its aesthetic in the black-and-white photographic era. “Robert Capa’s 1944 photographs of US forces’ assault on Omaha Beach on D-Day just weren’t thinkable in colour. Commercial 35mm rolls where still at a very early stage,” they note. “We also think that black and white is still capable of triggering a more emotive response through its very nature of demanding an imaginative intervention of the viewer to match a monochromatic evocative image to reality. So paradoxically, black and white makes it easier to emphasise the poignant content of a photojournalistic reportage.” Paul Blackmore agrees. “The dark tones and the starkness of black and white can express and support the often-challenging issues and subject matter you see in photojournalism. There is a set of different emotional responses you get from the richness of blacks in black and white that you don’t get in colour photos. The evocative and raw moods of black and white often help articulate the photojournalist’s intentions.”
Of course, not all black-and-white photography is great. “To make it great, make it timeless,” Ireland suggests. “Transcend trends, surprise people, wake them up. Great black and white photographs have a classical edge. A great black and white photographer would have a keen appreciation of tone and the relationship between subjects within a frame. A great black and white photographer would also have command over the simple but powerful ingredients of photography, like shape, form, tone, and texture.” Study the greats, he adds, citing Ansel Adams, Robert Capa, or Paul Strand from the past, and Sally Mann, Josef Koudelka, and Matt Black from the present.
Breyer states, “With colour one can build a composition with hues. With black and white it depends on tones, which are subtler. It’s all about light and shadow, and paying attention to the most basic forms of composition. Because of that, I love contrast. I love black blacks, white whites, and the creamy tones in-between. And I love film pushed a few stops. In order to protect the richness of the range, in digital I expose for highlights, and with film I expose for shadows.” Breyer thinks it’s interesting to observe what happens when digital is converted to black and white. “For a colour shooter to get their feet wet in black and white, I would recommend a scavenger hunt of light and shadow to get a feel for their power and beauty,” she adds.
A great working knowledge of black-and-white film and processing is essential, Ireland and Caimi & Piccinni concur. “The main challenge is to preserve the organic hallmark of black and white photography, as it was originally meant,” Caimi & Piccinni state. “If someone understands the principles of black and white, they have a frame of reference. Of course, rules can be broken for effect, but only if you understand what those rules are,” Ireland notes. “Practise, practise, practise,” states Mitchell. “Learn to see just light, contrast, and form when considering your photo. Learn how colour translates into black-and-white tones when composing your image.”
The question of digital vs film is more complex. Ireland is a strong proponent of film. “Otherwise you’ll be dealing with digital black-and-white conversions, which usually disappoint,” he says. Caimi & Piccinni believe that the intrinsic qualities of each make them better suited to different projects. “Sometimes you need the straightforwardness of the digital, other times the emotional dough of film,” they state. Mitchell believes that they have a symbiotic relationship. “The biggest difference is that with film, the contrast and tone is set at the time of exposure, to a degree. Colour filters are needed to achieve certain looks at the time of exposure. There’s no going back to change a thing. With digital, you have the flexibility and opportunity to process multiple variations of one RAW file into different black-and-white pictures.” He adds, “It’s quite incredible what’s achievable. I’d say understanding black-and-white photography through digital processing would teach you how to execute black-and-white film shots successfully in camera. I feel that’s how the two mediums work well together today.”
“A lot of young guys are shooting with film at the moment,” Cook notes. “Perhaps to get back that magic, to not see the finished image straightaway. And they’re using old film, which is nice. They’re buying it on eBay or it has been in someone’s fridge. You put it in your camera and you don’t know what’s going to happen. The results can be quite beautiful by accident,” he adds, “which you’re not going to get with digital. A lot of young people love that ‘Oh, the film is all flared,’ or ‘It’s grainy,’ or ‘It’s gone flat’, surprise.” Cook also loves the magic of not knowing what’s going to happen, of getting your film back, of seeing the contact sheet. “I shoot film also because I use a lot of old cameras and those lenses on old cameras do things that digital cameras can’t do,” he states. “I’ll use film for clients sometimes and they’ll ask me to shoot digital on the side. They’re scared of not knowing what they’re going to get. Usually you get the film back and it’s better than what you shot on digital. Shooting in digital just makes the client happy.”
Cook does concede that digital has an edge when it comes to keeping up with what is required these days in commercial work. “I’ve been on shoots where the art director is putting your image into a layout as you’re shooting it, then sending it on. You need digital for that.” Blackmore has also noticed a revival in film, and he believes it is triggering a renewed interest among photographers in black and white. “Younger photographers are attracted to the craft and romance of processing and printing your own work. Then there is simply the fact that film gives you a beautiful depth of tone and quality you can’t get with digital,” he says. Ireland’s preference for film is much simpler. “There aren’t many rational reasons why I shoot film, mainly only emotional ones. And that’s OK.”
Every style of photography has challenges, but for Adrian Cook there is really only one – getting a commission to do proper black and white, and by that he means any black and white, but especially film. “In the old days, Rolling Stone might have commissioned me to shoot in black and white because that’s what I was known for. Even on those rare occasions when a commercial shoot does call for black and white, it will be digital, which is achieved by simply pushing a button, so it’s not like shooting in black and white as it was.”
Trent Mitchell’s challenge is a corollary of this. “Knowing when to exclude colour and having the confidence to do so is, personally, the biggest challenge I’ve recently faced with working in black and white. I used colour for so long and then headed down the unknown road of black and white for a couple of years in my personal work. I definitely questioned it day in and out. I wondered if the perception of posting, exhibiting, and self-promoting black-and-white work was right for me professionally when my clients see and want high colour images. I was definitely feeling the risk and I still don’t have any clear answers. I feel for personal work, colour could be the safer road to take, but I like to challenge myself, so I’m sticking with no colour for a while and will see what happens,” he explains.
For Melissa Breyer, what makes black and white so appealing is also what makes it challenging. “Colour is bright and shiny. It has more immediate visual impact and can seduce viewers with its vibrancy,” she explains. “To compete with that, black-and-white photos need to be especially strong in story, mood, composition, et cetera. But that’s also what’s so great about black and white. When it works, it really works. It doesn’t depend on colour. It’s pure and elegant. And it’s in it for the long run.”
Perhaps it’s the fascination with digital editing’s options waning? Perhaps it’s the lack of thrill of being able to shoot now and “fix it later”? Perhaps it’s just because great black-and-white photography is remarkably beautiful? There is a renaissance of interest in black-and-white photography, and with that a revival of classical photography methods. Anything that preserves traditional crafts can only be good.
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