9.04.2015

The real reason many of us photographers worked in black in white early in our careers.


I pretty much "re-fascinated" with black and white photographic imagery these days. I've found fun ways to shoot in monochrome with digital cameras I own, I've had much fun with a program called, DXO Filmpack, which converts images from normal digital images into emulations of various film types (while there are color profiles in Filmpack my interest is in the emulations of many of the b&w films I used to use), and I've found settings in an free program I use called, Snapseed, that work pretty well. I know that I am being guided by my own nostalgia but I was working backward in trying to understand the continuum and to remember just why most practitioners in my cohort started out shooting their first, tentative photographs mostly in black and white.

While it was a mainstream way of working in the middle to late 1970's I must be honest and say that it was a combination of cost and learning curve that kept us shooting black and white and printing in our own darkrooms.

Color film was at least twice the cost of black and white films and, if you were willing to roll your own film from a bulk film loader, the cost dropped even more. I remember saving up cash to buy 100 foot rolls of Kodak Tri-X, inserting it into the Bakelite bulk film loader and counting the clicks to make sure I loaded just enough frames into each film canister. I preferred empty Ilford canisters because the top and bottom rings that held everything together clicked in with more pressure and were more resistant to unhappy failure. I got the canisters from the professional lab that used to be on 19th Street in Austin.

It was the same with printing. A box of black and white, double weight, fiber paper was about a third the cost of a box of color paper and the chemical used for developing the black and white paper lasted a long time.

Long before the advent of PhotoShop, etc. the common way to print one's own color prints was to do interactive test strips and then develop the prints in drums. There was so little control and for every print that was a success there were an embarrassing number of failures. With no color casts or shifts to worry about black and white promised quicker success and, as in hand grenades, a lot of variation fell into the "close enough" camp.

I remember decades of standing in my various darkrooms sloshing prints around in trays and then baptizing them in the archival washer. It always seemed like a quiet and meditative process, even under the tightest deadlines. But the magic was almost always there as you stood, holding your breath, and waiting to see the first glimmer of an image emerge in the developer tray.

Now I have all sorts of rationalizations for shooting in black and white: It's more abstract, there's no distraction from needless color, it distills an image down to its composition, black and white is more about graphic design, it's easier to see into the subject instead of being seduced by the color, etc., etc.

I don't know if any of the rationales are really apt but I do know that one becomes acculturated and comfortable with what one is familiar with. Since black and white images were my first love my own inculcated prejudices always serve to position color work lower in the hierarchy for me. Now black and white imaging is popular again. Now we'll get to see if there is more to it than sentimentality.

The image above was shot with a Nikon D750 and the 85mm f1.8 G lens using available light. Conversion to black and white via Snapseed. 

2 comments:

Gato said...

Back in my film days I convinced myself black and white was an artistic choice, but once digital came in I realized it was all about control. When Photoshop gave me the same control over color images I was used to having in the black and white darkroom I moved almost entirely to color. The only exception, for me, is people. For portrait and figure work I feel color is often a distraction and most often prefer the slight abstraction of black and white - usually toned, so monochrome is a better term I guess.

Peter Wright said...

I got my home darkroom going at my parent's house in the early sixties. Black and white was mandatory as I had no money: that's also why I did my own processing. Later on I got seduced by color, but the cost of a home darkroom was still well out of my reach, so I settled for the lack of control and quality inflicted by professional labs.

Now in this digital age I shoot in whatever media I like. But I find that I get my most satisfying pictures when I stay in b&w. I really believe that my current work is light years better than anything I did in my teens, but I can't prove that my current strong liking for b&w is not somehow due to the "training" of my youthful brain. I don't care either! Now off to see if my negs have dried and are ready for the scanner!

(btw. If you like excellent original, b&W photography, and very good writing, then visit ULTRAsomething.com (I have no affiliation).