Mono his­tory B&W de­vel­op­ment

Practical Photography (UK) - - History -

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.

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