An excerpt from ESSAY, Issue Four by Daniel Milnor.
If you search Google for the “best photography books of all time,” you come up with quite a few black-and-white photography books, some of which have influenced countless photographers: The Americans by Robert Frank, The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph by Diane Arbus, American Photographs by Walker Evans and Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail by Ansel Adams, to name a few.
Of course, many of those are from photographers working in the era of analog black-and-white photography, but you’ll find many black-and-white books being published today, as well. For example, the Aperture and Paris Photo 2018 PhotoBook Awards Shortlist, which celebrates the evolving narrative of photography in book form, had quite a few black-and-white fine-art photo book winners. And in a casual web search through various lists of best photography books of 2018, I came across some powerful examples: Rocks and Clouds by Mitch Epstein, a large volume of extraordinary images of just those two elements: rocks and clouds; Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply, which includes many black-and-white photos from Bey’s long career; the powerful and disturbing images in A Procession of Them by master documentary photographer Eugene Richards, who explores the inhuman conditions suffered by the mentally ill and disabled in many countries; and the masterful work by Matthew Genitempo in his debut book, Jasper, which depicts recluses living in the Ozarks and the world surrounding them.
And all the images (or nearly all of them) in these volumes by contemporary photographers are black-and-white photos. The question is that although we’re living the age of amazing digital color photography, some photographers still choose to publish work in black and white—why?
Why Black And White?
In The Photographer’s Black & White Handbook by Harold Davis, the author says that for most photographers during the history of photography, black and white was the only option. “But as color photography became available, the orthodox position became that black and white was the only true expression of the art of photography.”
This changed again with the advent of digital photography, Davis says, “This orthodoxy became irrelevant. Digital cameras allow you to choose on a frame-by-frame basis whether you are creating a color or black-and-white image. Furthermore, most digital workflow incorporates the possibility of creating color and black-and-white versions of a single image. You can then put the two versions side by side to see which works best.”
For photographer and author Brian Matiash, there’s something unique and ideal about the format of a black-and-white photography book: “I’ve always viewed black-and-white photography as the purest form of this medium. Before introducing color into our exposures, photographers learned to wrangle tone—light and shadow—in order to convey emotion. As such, I believe that photographers will always instinctively be drawn to the emotive power that you can only achieve with black-and-white photos.”
And then there’s the book itself. “Furthermore, as humans, we rely very much on tactile sensation,” he says. “Despite the displays on our desks and phones, there really is nothing like holding a black-and-white photography book in your hands and feeling the actual photos between your fingers.”
For most contemporary photographers, what it comes down to is a choice of whether or not to work this way. And there are at least a couple of reasons why.
“The number one reason is an aesthetic choice,” says photographer and author Henry Horenstein, who wrote the best-selling Black and White Photography: A Basic Manual and has also just published a new book, titled Make Better Pictures: Truth, Opinions and Practical Advice. He says, “Some photographers prefer the look of black and white; others, color. It’s a more abstract” way to look at the world. “Color is more ‘realistic,’ usually, but not everyone sees or favors a reality. It allows the photographer to put more of his or her ‘look’ to it.
“For others, it’s a workflow issue,” since it’s much easier, says Horenstein, to work in an analog fashion developing black-and-white film and prints in “a darkroom process, where realistically color cannot….You can set up your own black-and-white darkroom fairly easily. Not so for color.”
For photographer Daniel Milnor, who splits his time living in California and New Mexico, black-and-white photography allows him to focus on specific elements. “Black and white is a way of seeing the world based on shadow and form,” says Milnor.
“Shooting in black and white is the exact opposite of shooting in color because you must study the shadows and expose for those shadows…I think good black-and-white photography comes from…the understanding of light and shadow.”
Black-And-White Photography Books: The Marketplace And Trends
But in the publishing world, is there still a market for such books? That may depend on whom you ask and how they see the marketplace.
According to a 2015 Time magazine article, published on June 2, the marketplace for photo books (of which black-and-white books are a subset) may look robust, but the appearance is deceptive.
“While the number of photobooks produced has increased, the number of people buying them has seldom shifted,” the story said. “Already a niche trade, it seems to be heading even further in that direction. Large bookstore chains are ordering fewer art publications to fill their inventory and the share of sales through Amazon has dropped between five to 10% in one year.” That was according to the two publishers quoted in the story, Dewi Lewis and Maarten Schilt, who described the market as fragmented.
But it also depends on the type of photo books you’re looking at.
“First, we have to classify black-and-white photography books,” says Matiash. “To me, there are two primary types: One, fine-art photography books that contain a photographer’s particular collection or body of work, to be enjoyed methodically. Two, technical books that teach how to expose and post-process black-and-white photos. All you need to do is perform a cursory search on Amazon for ‘black-and-white photography book’ to see that the dominant theme falls under the latter type.”
However, Matiash notes that there are still art photography books getting out in the marketplace. “Whether or not people still buy printed books…publishers do seem to back the production of them…I do believe that there is an enduring audience of photographers and art enthusiasts alike who will always have an affinity for consuming black-and-white photos in a physical way as opposed to a digital one.”
Still, to some, there are some promising trends.
For Milnor, there’s a lot of variety in the black-and-white work being created and published. “These could be selective color or selenium-toned or high-key,” he says. “As for books, there are a lot of black-and-white photography books being done. And even better, these run the full range of genres, from landscape to war, portraiture to fashion. I don’t see this changing any time soon.”
B&W DIY: Printing Your Own Black-And-White Photo Books
An exciting new trend that today’s photographers have access to is that they can now print their own black-and-white photography books.
In addition to being a commercial photographer, Milnor is also a creative evangelist for Blurb, which provides photographers with an online self-publishing platform. It’s one of a number of such online printing and publishing services available to photographers.
“Blurb…enables anyone to create, print, share and sell beautiful books and magazines around the world,” says Milnor. “We offer free book-creation tools and Adobe integrations, so anyone can make a book, no matter your skill level. Once you finish creating your book, you can choose to print as little as one copy at a time through print-on-demand printing. Or you can place a volume order, which is either printed digitally or offset.”
Blurb allows photographers to use various software tools and apps, including plug-ins for Adobe InDesign and Book Module in Adobe Lightroom. “Blurb offers a free plug-in that allows for seamless integration with this amazing design tool,” says Milnor. “Blurb is also built right into the Adobe Lightroom Book Module, so you can do photo editing and book-making all in one place.”
Blurb also offers high-end materials like archival, fine-art paper, multiple binding options and even customizations (depending on the specific book), says Milnor. “Blurb users are not committed to a single trim size—they can create multiple formats at the same time. This means someone could create a black-and-white photo book and then a smaller black-and-white magazine.”
For photographers looking to produce their own book, Milnor suggests collaborating. “Self-publishing doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself,” says Milnor. “Build a good team. If you have no design training or background, then think about working with a full-time, professional book designer. Or, if writing isn’t your strong suit, then perhaps you need to work with a copy editor. Working with a strong team can make your project far more complete and can also make the entire experience far more enjoyable.”
Also, set realistic expectations. “I’ve had plenty of conversations,” says Milnor, “with first-time bookmakers who ask me ‘How am I going to live off my book sales?’ My response is typically, ‘You aren’t going to live off your book sales.’ Remember, the number of people living off their photo book sales is incredibly small, but the book is far more than sales numbers. The book is a strategic piece of your career as an artist.”