Ex­plore strong con­trast and rich blacks

Black and white al­lows what colour does not: push­ing toward a dra­matic tonal range

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Two per­sis­tent aes­thet­ics that keep oc­cur­ring in black and white pho­tog­ra­phy (mean­ing, in the early days, in dark­room print­ing) are strong con­trast and deep blacks. They’re not uni­ver­sal, but are a part of back and white im­agery much more than colour, for good rea­sons. First, black and white lends it­self to high-con­trast treat­ment be­cause it’s not held back by the ex­pec­ta­tion that it has to be a faith­ful and re­al­is­tic ver­sion of things. This makes re­ally high con­trast, even with solid blacks and pure whites, per­fectly ac­cept­able. Sec­ond, there’s an almost lux­u­ri­ous feel­ing in the rich­ness of blacks and near-blacks, like a heavy ink­ing in other kinds of print­ing.

Two pho­tog­ra­phers in par­tic­u­lar are known for us­ing solid blacks in their images: Bill Brandt, who pho­tographed Bri­tain from the 1930s through the 1960s, and Don McCullin, best known for his war pho­to­graphs, but who then turned his at­ten­tion to land­scape. In the case of Brandt, his wife said of his pictures of build­ings in New­cas­tle that they “looked to him as if they might have been built of coal,” and he made his prints darker and more con­trasty in later years. McCullin, talk­ing about mak­ing his own prints, said. “I lay it on a bit thick, I know I do, but I re­ally like work­ing with an­gry clouds…” Even Ansel Adams, who usu­ally stressed the im­por­tance of hav­ing “a full range of val­ues, clear de­lin­eation of form and tex­ture…” saw the need for us­ing deep blacks to cre­ate a par­tic­u­lar mood, as in “The mood of the scene was dra­matic and called for a deep-val­ued im­age.”

Early morn­ing at the East Gate of Dali old town, in Yun­nan. The deep blue sky made it too pretty in colour for my taste, but of­fered a great op­por­tu­nity for a stark geo­met­ric com­po­si­tion with the blue turned to black in con­ver­sion

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