What value does black and white photography have in a world of colour?
This article first appeared in Black & White Photography Magazine Issue 210, Winter 2017
We are now in the third photographic century. What is the continued relevance of black and white photography in a colour filled world? Or, in other words, what is the argument for monochrome representations of a polychromatic world. I don’t want to teach you to suck eggs but it might be beneficial to this topic if we remind ourselves of the history that has led us out of the dark age of non-photography to where we are now; an age that may be described, by the sociologists of many millennia hence, as the beginning of the ‘Photograscene’ era – the era which will not exist without photography.
All early emulsions were only able to record one of the primary colours. The first emulsions were made purely of silver halide which is only sensitive to blue and UV light (hence the astonishing white-blue eyes of portraits of the era) and insensitive to the other two primary colours; red and green. Then, in 1873, a German mineralogist called Hermann Vogel, discovered that by adding a dye to the emulsion he could extend the sensitivity to larger areas of the spectrum. So now film became ‘Orthochromatic’; sensitive to green and blue, but still red did not register. Red tones still registered as dark areas in an image.
An ‘all-seeing’ emulsion was the result of Vogel’s continued work adding dyes and altering emulsion base colour which resulted in the first panchromatic film; a film that could see red, green and blue. Through a process known as additive colour it became possible to render a full colour moving image by combining three black and white (panchromatic) images with different colour filters. Known as Kinemacolor or Prizma Color this process gained popularity in the UK and US and several colour movies were made this way in the early years of the 20th century. Unfortunately it was very expensive and there was some industrial squabbling between the inventors of the respective processes which critically slowed the early advance of colour film making.
However, the failure of the movie industry to adopt the new panchromatic film meant that this new monochrome emulsion, responsive to all areas of the spectrum was of massive benefit to photographers and still camera manufacturers such as Leica who adapted the 35mm wide film stock to the purposes of taking brilliant quality ‘panchromatic’ black and white images.
By 1935 Kodak Eastman had created the ‘Tripack’ film that became known as ‘Kodachrome’. And then in 1941 they introduced a way of making prints from the transparencies so now photographers had a way of reproducing and disseminating visions of the world in something like a natural colour spectrum. But what was added in the way of colour was deemed by many to ‘take something away’ from the power of a monochrome photographic image. This paradox pertains today and perhaps nowhere more than in the pages of this highly regarded publication, dedicated as it is to monochrome photography.
What is it that still draws people to a representation of the world without colour? As I write this I am on a train travelling from London to Crewkerne in Dorset. The view through the windows is gorgeous, with that peculiar (to southern England) mix of bright greens and purple blue that are the fields and sky on this early Autumn day. I’ve taken a picture out of the train window and I’m looking at it in colour and black and white in an attempt to understand the value of each. Here goes my explanation…
The colour version is informative in a literal sense. And, once I’ve removed myself from the scene, and I take a look at this picture in a few weeks when the weather turns bad, perhaps I’ll derive a pleasure from the combination of colour and tone as well as the bucolic scene it represents. Turning to the black and white version I am confronted with an interpretation of the scene. It records the terrain as faithfully as the colour version and it is clear that the sun is shining in a cloudless sky but here the meaning of the two images bifurcates. The reduction in optical data offered by the monochrome image requires greater engagement and subconscious insertion of ourselves into the image than the colour image requires. In the case of the latter our brains are tricked into thinking that all the information available is there which has a deadening effect on our imaginations rendering the image more a depiction rather than a human interpretation of a scene.
There is also an effect of simplification that is afforded by monochrome images that lends them better to the job of telling a story in one shot. A photograph’s essential elements can be manifested or hidden making the monochrome image a much more graphic pictorial representation of the world. In this way a black and white picture is more a myth than a fact; a quality to which we humans are perennially drawn. Colour photography (without post-enhancement) is necessary for photojournalism as colours are part of truth telling but ‘beautiful’ colour is often, as mentioned above, appreciated as a deviation from ‘the natural’. Digital raw files are so devoid of deviation that they need to be deviated through process to make them attractive to the human eye.
Lastly, a monochrome representation of a scene will always be a man-made interpretation. Nature is colour; man’s imagination can encompass black and white only through the complex combination of the neural system and psychology peculiar to human beings. Only we humans choose to reduce the values of nature to shades of grey to better represent the externalised manifestation of our innermost vision.
Black and white photography has long been a choice rather than a necessity. As we travel further and further away from the monochrome-only era some artists will always choose to tell their visual stories through monochrome images because of, and not despite, their deviation from nature.