Mono history B&W development
The first 100 years of photographic history were almost exclusively black & white, and whichever process was used to produce the final image, it was always presented in monochrome. The only variation from pure black & white came via the toning chemicals used to archive photographs against the ravages of time and sunlight, which stained the prints sepia brown or cyanotype blue.
But while this mono representation of the world was initially seen as a limitation on the artistic merits of photography, it didn’t take long for the more creative practitioners to embrace black & white for its own unique merits. In the early years of the 20th century, photographers such as Man Ray, Edward Weston and Lee Miller embraced the monochrome image for its ability to present a view in an ‘otherworldly’ way, which aligned perfectly with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements that had the art world firmly in their grip at that time. And with the discovery of the solarisation technique, black & white photography moved into the realm of fine art.
At much the same time as the Surrealists were utilising the abstract nature of the monochrome, legendary landscape photographer Ansel
Adams demonstrated black & white’s ability to capture the majestic and graphic nature of the great American wilderness. Stripped of the distraction of colour, Adams’ prints are a study in pure light, form and composition.
The post-war years saw an explosion in reportage photography, both in war zones such as Vietnam, and among the urban decay of blighted cities. Here, photographers such as British photojournalist Don McCullin utilised the stark, gritty nature of mono to produce images that challenge the viewer in a timeless manner that remains relevant and inspiring today.
Above This image of a Crimean field, taken the day after the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1855, is the earliest known war photograph.
Above From left, Man Ray, Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange helped to establish black & white photography as an art form.