Exploring, Engaging & Enlarging Black and White
By Jim Austin
I can still recall my first roll of black and white film.
It was Kodak Plus-X. One print on that roll looked decent, so I entered one of them in a school photo contest. While the photo of a girl painting a sign did not win any awards, the magic of seeing it develop in the school darkroom was fixed forever in the imagination.
Think back. Perhaps black and white snapshots documented your early memories, and were visual keepers of your childhood.
Over the years, many of us have shot b/w, experiencing its aesthetic beauty and finding reasons to shoot with it again. As we approach photography's 175th anniversary, we can be inspired to choose mono once more. Here, illustrated by photographs from FPP photographers, we look at three reasons why: for its austerity, authenticity, and abstract presence.
Authentic, Abstract, Austere
Seemingly authentic, abstract and austere, b/w photos are perceived differently than color.
B/W has an ostensible authenticity. Due to this, its gets used for advertising. In that context, we believe the monochrome message as we've learned to trust b/w images from the past. Today, living in a digital information age, we believe that we question the reality of photographs more than in in the past. Yet b/w photos appear authentic because they've been used for serious purposes such as war documentaries.
Abstract b/w images also present our curious minds with puzzles that we enjoy solving, and even seem to have inherently Platonic qualities. By this I mean the refer to universals of form. Using b/w inspires us to grapple with universals of texture, shape and form.
In print, seeing our black and white work, we even perceive it to be closer to the facts of what happened. This is so, even when a photo freezes a moment our brain can not perceive, the “optical unconscious.”
In effect, when b/w photos speak of these universals of form, they whisper to us 'take me seriously, this is art.' Moreover, since by tradition b/w is a serious medium, we often choose B/W to immortalize our formal occasions. Its formality infuses our personal snapshots as well. The more we learn about b/w, and see it, the more we are inspired to shoot and process b/w film.
What's more, like all photographs, b/w photos posess a tentative and complex relationship to reality or remembered reality. Using mono can remove a layer from the real world, making it more abstract. Especially when seen in next to color prints, a print with white, gray and black tones suggests a level of abstraction from reality.
Black and White photos are austere. This austerity makes them stand out in a crowded world of color. It fits with a defined vision of art photographers seeking to illuminate or transcend realty. Let's move now to the form, design and documentary aspects of b/w photos.
B/W portraits reveal the character of a person's face. Taken from the ancient Greek “kharakter”, the word originally referred to the impression that an engraving tool stamps into a surface. When we choose monochrome processes as our metaphorical engraving tools, we can show the character of our portrait subjects, building on the form and texture of their faces.
Clearly, monochrome photos emphasize form. They also create a delicate blend of tones which our brain uses to create lyrical, harmonious designs. Not only do these tones reflect emotions, with dark tones associated with despair, but without color we can get a more direct narrative story from some b/w photographs. In the photograph above, titled “Dog Days”, a dog statue in the foreground is linked to a guy getting a dog slobber at frame left. The two dogs are also linked because both dogs are a similar light toned bulldog-type breed.
Throughout photography's history, visual artists have utilized monochrome for documentary purposes because of its solemn, sober qualities.
For his film “The Dust Bowl” on PBS, Ken Burns switched from color to b/w images whenever he wanted to heighten a somber mood.
While Burns used color for the film's video interviews, b/w stills from FSA Farm Security Administration era photographers (including Lange, Mydans, Rothstein, Shahn, Vachon, and Wolcott) were used to enhance the emotional impact of The Dust Bowl.
The Bottom Line
Shooting b/w film expands our photography by encouraging us to experiment with form, texture, shape, and tone. Without bowing to popular taste, black and white photography lets us define our art through abstraction, austerity and authenticity. B/W is ideal for narrative and advertising. As we explore the possibilities of b/w photography and print personal photos, our passion for it grows ever stronger with our hands-on experience.
Special thanks for contributions from Dane Johnson, Lance King, Leslie Lazenby, Alex Luyckx, Mat Marash and Michael Raso.
Jim Austin (Jimages - http://www.jimages.com/) lives full time on the sailing catamaran Salty Paws, and is online at Jimages.com. Among other films, he shoots Kodak and Konica infrared, Kodak Tri-X, Plus-X, Ilford HP, Acros 100, TMAX 3200, and Tech Pan.
Adventure photo workshops, & online personalized photography courses are his special expertise. He moderates the Slow Photography Group on Flickr.
He studied photography at RISD and with a Masters Degree, was an assistant professor, teaching photography at Colorado University in the Design Dept.