Those of us who grew up in an era of chemical darkrooms still remember the visceral joy of watching a print develop in a bath of liquid, affirming—or, more often than not, shattering—our feeling that we had “gotten the shot.”
For all the instant gratification that photography is today, not that long ago, it was about delay. When discussing the changing face of the business, I often tell people that when my father was a commercial shooter in the 1970s, the primary job of a professional photographer was to ensure that what they visualized in their mind would match what showed up on the strip of film hours or days or weeks later when it came back from the lab.
For the bulk of photography’s history, the final image being crafted in the photographer’s mind’s eye not only had to account for lighting and composition and texture, but for a non-natural set of conditions, as well as the removal of chroma from the scene. Most humans see chromatically, that’s to say, they perceive colors. Even most of those with “color blindness” see some colors, so an art form that depicts the world with a total lack of color is, by definition, not what humans see.
That means that black-and-white photography as a level of abstraction from the real world was something no other art form had until the advent of actual abstract art. During the advent of photography in the early 1800s, painters, illustrators and sculptors were working on increasing their accuracy and creating works that more closely resembled the real world.
Certainly, photography began with a resolution of detail unavailable to all but the most accomplished painters or illustrators, but it also was unable to capture the true literal nature of a scene for its lack of ability to capture colors. That meant that photography instead had to capture the essence of a scene, and with it, the emotion of a moment.
This was something that artists had striven for across centuries, creating representations of scenes that captured the true energy and expression of the moment. Even the early, stilted portraits created when subjects had to stand still for minutes in order to capture a frame showed more actual vitality than anything prior.
The monochromatic nature of photography’s first century helped establish the art form. By eliminating color, photographers found themselves able to hone in on the details of a scene, to cut out the superfluous details and get to the meaning behind a moment.
Monochrome photography gets to the heart of a subject. It’s possible to be a great photographer without being good at taking black-and-white photos, but it’s not possible to take great black-and-white photos without being a great photographer.
In our next issue, we look at monochrome photography and examine why black-and-white photography endures. It’s an especially interesting question because, unlike in the early days of photography, producing a black-and-white image requires extra work. With digital photography (with a few exceptions), it’s necessary to start with a color image and then convert to monochrome in software. That’s a lot of work to produce an image that’s missing something.
Many would argue that the process is worth it, that by taking away something, the photograph can gain much more, and for well-conceived images, I’d argue that’s true. That’s what makes monochrome photography so compelling—it’s like a magic trick. Take a subject, take a camera, remove something, and you have more than you started with.
In the next issue, we’ll look at some amazing black-and-white photographers, including work from Jerry Uelsmann (his work graces this column), who pioneered the “photo montage” movement. We covered Uelsmann many years ago, and his interview remains one of the most popular on digitalphotopro.com. His spectacular works combine images to create a transformative sense of place that’s otherworldly.
We also look at the technology of monochrome photography, delving into the hardware and software used to create the most professional black-and-white images possible. We’ll have a hands-on with the Leica M Monochrom, one of the few solutions for professional photographers that only captures in monochrome. We’ll also look at the tools you’ll need, both hardware and software, for creating great monochrome images, as well as techniques for creating the best possible finished images from your original files.
It’s unlikely that anything in photography will be as magical as standing in a darkroom and waiting for a black-and-white print to emerge from a bath of D-76, which is a shame. The process of watching a monochrome world spring forth from a colorful world was a remarkable one, and it helped develop the vision of generations of photographers.
But the process of creating a black-and-white image in a bath of chemicals wasn’t responsible for the amazing world view that monochrome photography provides, and that, fortunately, is timeless.
You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.