The en­dur­ing power of the black & white image

Practical Photography (UK) - - History -

THE MOD­ERN dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­pher en­joys a free­dom that any prac­ti­tioner from the film era could scarcely imag­ine. In-cam­era pro­cess­ing, plus the gamut of fil­ters, ef­fects and edit­ing op­tions avail­able in post-pro­duc­tion, mean that an image can be pre­sented in a huge range of dif­fer­ent styles and fin­ishes. From sub­tle tweaks in colour bal­ance all the way through to cre­atively artis­tic rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of the orig­i­nal pho­to­graph, the op­tions are al­most end­less. And yet, for all these choices in how to present the fi­nal image, the most pop­u­lar and en­dur­ing edit is still the sim­ple de­sat­u­ra­tion to mono.

The mono ap­peal

Why does black & white still en­tice pho­tog­ra­phers? Un­de­ni­ably, a large part of the ap­peal is that it links di­rectly to the his­tory of pho­tog­ra­phy. For roughly 100 years every pho­to­graph ever taken was a monochrome image. It wasn’t un­til the end of the 1950s – which was also when Prac­ti­cal Pho­tog­ra­phy mag­a­zine launched – that colour re­ver­sal and emul­sion stock be­came widely avail­able and of prac­ti­cal use to the hob­by­ist. And even when this colour rev­o­lu­tion did oc­cur, many am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers still stuck with black & white for its com­pat­i­bil­ity with home pro­cess­ing, while re­portage shoot­ers also stayed with mono as the film speeds were higher and could be ‘pushed’ more than the early colour emul­sions.

Graph­i­cal clar­ity

Tap­ping into the his­toric aes­thetic of the mono image and pro­duc­ing a ‘time­less’ clas­sic is clearly a key fac­tor in de­cid­ing to present your work in black & white rather than colour, but there are other ad­van­tages to shoot­ing in shades of grey. Search for a colour pho­to­graph that you

re­ally like and it’s a safe bet to guess that it prob­a­bly con­tains four or fewer dis­tinct colours. Any more than this and there’s a good chance that the image will be­come overly fussy and con­fused. Try­ing to limit the num­ber of com­pet­ing tones in a colour image is a real chal­lenge for a pho­tog­ra­pher who doesn’t have the op­tion to ‘edit’ them out as a pain­ter might do. But by shoot­ing, or pro­cess­ing, in mono these jar­ring el­e­ments are re­moved, leav­ing noth­ing but the power and pu­rity of line and form.

A mat­ter of light

The graphic stark­ness of the mono image is fur­ther en­hanced by the way that black & white pho­tog­ra­phy in­ter­acts with light. For while every great shot, no mat­ter the medium, re­lies on an un­der­stand­ing and con­trol of the avail­able il­lu­mi­na­tion, monochrome im­ages dis­play a much starker di­vi­sion be­tween light and shade.

This in­ter­play be­tween the dark and bright el­e­ments in a black & white image can al­low the mono prac­ti­tioner to push the graphic ap­peal fur­ther for dra­matic ef­fect, or else em­brace a del­i­cate soft­ness that colour can rarely repli­cate, all de­pen­dent upon the pre­vail­ing light.

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