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Why Black & White?
Commentary by Robert Bruce Duncan
As one progresses, one simple step at a time, one learns how to expose for specific anomalous situations: To adjust for backlit scenes, or over-expose in situations snow, for example where the reflective meter isn't accurate. To expose to put a specific shade of gray, and the entire tonal range, where one desires.
Black and white practitioners learn the use of filters to change the tone of different colors as recordedon the black and white negative.
All this within the context of the fact that black and white negative film has immense exposure latitude, putting good images within the reach of even the rankest amateur.
In black and white photography, contrast control through development is fairly simple: overexpose and shorten development time (pull) to diminish contrast. And the reverse to increase contrast.
No experienced photographer would argue for a second that making good enlargements is easy, but with a good negative, it isn't hard.
(As a technical aside, I think it's only fair to warn against allegedly "black and white" films that are processed using C-41 chemistry. Chromogenic "B&W" films may be convenient for those who don't or can't process themselves, or don't have easy access to a black and white lab, but no black and white film processed by your local one hour mini-lab using color negative chemicals will match the tonal range and accuracy of legitimate black and white film.)
None of which is to claim that black and white is inherently a better medium than color photography. It's just different.
A resurgence in demand for black and white images
There's a resurgence in demand for black and white images, not only for print ads and television but from consumers who want timeless photographs that stand out. Black and white prints get noticed in a sea of color, digital and video imagery.
Better wedding photographers now offer black and white as a premium service and fine portrait studios have never stopped making black and white portraits for discerning clients.
Few have the time, equipment or expertise to develop and print their own work. For best results they rely on the few custom photo labs which focus on processing and printing black and white film such as Specialty Photographic Labs in California, recently lauded in the Santa Barbara News-Press for setting aside a separate rental darkroom for local photographers.
Admittedly, there are subjects for which color is more appropriate. Sports, for instance. Some landscapes, although it's easy for color to overwhelm. Few color landscape photographers have matched the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, for example.
And it's more than arguable that black and white is at it's best for people photography, and specifically portraiture. From early portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron, and later, Steiglitz and Steichen, early fashion, the WPA photographers who documented American life during the depression, to a whole slew of great Hollywood glamour photographers in the '30s and '40s, and all the masters that made Life magazine perhaps the best periodical of its era.
Not to mention Paul Strand and August Sander. Margaret Bourke-White and Imogene Cunningham. Kertesz, Lartigue and Demarchy. Horst and Karsh. Bill Klein and Robert Frank. Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts.
Look... I'm not for a second about to argue what is or is not Art. I'm as baffled as the next person when I walk into a contemporary gallery.
But as to art photography, one of the early, and probably still strong arguments against color, is the fact that it just doesn't last. Opinions aren't so adamant now. Type C color prints have become common in artistic circles.
Even though the early claims concerning the archival characteristics of Ciba/Ilfochrome prints now seem exaggerated, and at least one manufacturer of color printing paper has the audacity to name its paper "... Archive," we just don't know how long color prints and negatives will last before fading.
Am I the only photographer who would like his images to be around after he's dead?
Finally, as a working photographer I'm and I'll admit it obsessed with two aspects of the camera's ability to create images: Photography can capture beauty, and it can stop time.
As often as not, black and white is the best way to capture beauty and stop time.
Robert Bruce Duncan
Published January 22, 2004 by Robert Bruce Duncan. Robert is a commercial and portrait photographer in Santa Barbara, California. This article was reprinted with permission from the January issue of ACE Camera Photography Magazine, Copyright (c) 1996 - 2004 ACECamera Web Services, All Rights Reserved. Authors for ACECam.com retain full copyright to their words and images.
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