There was a time when all photographers shot black and white film. For the most part, the decision to shoot in black and white had very little to do with choice or preference for black and white photographs. In most cases, it was because black and white film was more convenient to develop, when compared to color film. And in case you’ve forgotten what develop means, it’s not when you drop off your film at the local photo-mat. It means going to the darkroom and developing it yourself.
It was in developing film and printing images that separated real photographers from those who just took photographs. Whereas the latter group had no control in optimizing the look of the images (after it was developed and printed at a photo-mat), the former had complete control limited only by the scope of his ability in the darkroom.
It is true. Darkroom work can be an art in it of itself. What a skilled photographer could achieve, with just dodging and burning the print with his hands under the light of the enlarger, was simply breath taking. A photographer skilled in the darkroom could completely change the focus or even the narrative of the print, by merely increasing or decreasing highlights and shadows to emphasize or deemphasize details. Most famous example is Ansel Adams’ “Moonrise over Hernandez”, which required a considerable amount of darkroom acrobatics to achieve.
Yet despite the possibilities of darkroom work, photographers of the generation, before the digital era, were usually mindful of the Zone System, in that a desired black and white image tend to have a range of tonality from the darkest black to the lightest white. The objective of adhering to such a system is to optimize the the tonal variation of an image, to provide greater clarity of detail in documentation.
Mind you, this is not always the case. On occasion, photographers would bend the rules and print images that would either be overexposed to the point of blowing the highlights or underexposed to the point of blocking the shadows. Usually, this is done as an effect to elicit a mood, rather than optimize details for documentation.
But for the most part, photographers generally stayed away from mood photography, during the film era. Those kinds of images were shot by artists. Instead, most serious photographers concentrated more on documentation. That meant more tonal range for more detail for better documentation. Besides, it’s easier to print a mood image, that’s very black or white tonally – or at least it has always been in my experience. It took skill to expose images properly on film, and even greater restraint to print it with tonal optimization.
Strangely then, in the modern era of digital capture, that no longer seems to be the case. With digital photography, it seems that black and white images have flocked towards mood photography. While I understand it’s not fair to pass judgment like this, I do believe that this is a fair observation to make. Modern black and white photography seems overly moody.
Mind you, I don’t believe it’s necessarily wrong to overexpose or underexpose for the sake of mood. I understand it’s a form of expression. But it’s a form of expression that cannot be a cure-all-crutch to turn the image into something else other than a normal image.
I get it. It looks cool. But it’s overused. And worst still, it doesn’t demonstrate the skill of the photographer in executing a properly exposed image, at the decisive moment, and after on post.
Unlike my laissez faire attitude towards full negative prints, I am much more critical when it comes to the integrity of black and white images. I have been brought up in the school of thought that a proper black and white image needs to have a full tonal range starting from the darkest black to the lightest white.
It’s only when a photographer understand this, and demonstrates it in a body of work, is greater expression warranted. I know we all want to be artists, but that distinction needs to be earned, and not appropriated undeservedly. I mean, if Pablo Picasso couldn’t paint realistically, his abstract paintings wouldn’t hold any value. It’s not because he cannot paint realistically that he paints abstractly. It’s because he can paint realistically, but chooses to paint abstractly that justifies his choice of artistic expression.
So why has black and white photography arrived to this state? It’s the medium of digital photography that has made it easier for more people to take photographs. Taking pictures today has never been easier. No need to learn about exposure. No need to learn about the rich history of photographic tradition. And no need to know about the Zone System. All you need to do is point and shoot, and instantly, the image is ready to be shared.
As a bonus, if you want to make the image appear more artistic, you can desaturate it, and crank up or down the exposure in post to make it moodier. And just like that, with a touch of a button, you’re an instant Ansel Adams in developing your digital files – only without his restraint in over doing it for the sake of a misguided sense of artistic expression.
Alas, this is the problem with digital technology. It has made a once perplexing skill into a low barrier to entry activity. So do I think that digital technology has ruined black and white photography. Not at all. It’s not as if the practice of proper black and white photography is dead. There are still practitioner of the medium that’s keeping it alive.
Where digital technology has failed black and white photography – it’s how it has misguided the public’s perception of what proper black and white photography is.
Given the perpetuation of poorly executed black and white photography, especially on social media, the public no longer knows what’s good or not good. The only way to resolve this problem is to show the public what proper black and white photography is. Only then would today’s Instagram generation be inspired to follow a better and more correct path in documenting black and white images.
Admittedly, this is a pretty hard sell to the Instagram generation, but we have to start somewhere, in order to fix this problem.
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