Explore strong contrast and rich blacks
Black and white allows what colour does not: pushing toward a dramatic tonal range
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