Tuesday, December 4, 2007

G9: The Black and White of It

The very first photographs were monochromatic. The first “pictures I took” were black-and-white – not for lack of color technology or for the sake of art but because black-and-white film and prints were cheap and readily available. In a strange but fortunate turn of events, those old black-and-white prints turned out to be archival whereas the color dyes of those years have faded away. In fact, if you have color prints stored away, better scan them while there is something to scan!

Try to imagine how different our world of photography would be today if the chemistry for color photography had been obvious, easy and archival. Would black-and-white photos even exist? Why would anyone make a black-and-white photograph if it were easier to make one in color? With digital photography, we are nearly to that point; however, the basis for those color prints is still light sensitivity and color dyes. In other words, black-and-white technology is still around even if we are less aware of it.

Today when someone makes a black-and-white print, they are probably doing it for the artistic effect or perhaps to invoke a sense of nostalgia. I believe that traditional black-and-white print making (meaning film, paper and chemicals hand-processed in a darkroom) is well on its way to becoming the domain of a fine arts and crafts cottage industry. Meanwhile, you and I can easily get black-and-white inkjet prints from our color digital cameras that are nearly - but not quite - indistinguishable from traditional prints to many, if not most, people. Even better, if your darkroom skills were similar to mine, you can probably get a better black-and-white print digitally than you ever dreamed of getting in the darkroom.

(This post is getting a bit long, stay tuned ...)

1 comment:

Jim Fisher said...


Thanks for the article. I've been struggling too with digital B&W. It was my life in college (70's) then the ability to convert color images to B&W digitally is way too easy. It makes you wonder what is the purpose of B&W under these new capabilities.

I still believe there is a higher art to be found in both schemes.