Sunday, February 20, 2011

Thoughts - Moving to Black and White

I have now completed the "colour" exercises in Project 3 and turn toward black and white.  As I have written elsewhere I am very unsure about BW and what it represents in modern photographic practice, why has such an old technique continued to thrive.  Black and White went from being a constraint to becoming its own art form.  Whilst I have genuinely enjoyed looking at BW images from the past whilst reading about the history of photography, I continually ask, "But, what would this have looked like with colour".  I am tempted to think that many photographers stuck with BW because of the relative ease of processing.  Colour film processing and printing is difficult and expensive, with frequently unpredictable results unless performed by experts with access to the correct equipment.  BW, on the other hand, can be processed in a simple darkroom and the photographer retains significant control over the final result.

Digital brings with it this degree of control with colour.  I am the first to admit that correct profiling of screens and printers is difficult and time consuming, however, if done carefully predictable and high quality results can be achieved with relatively inexpensive technology.  I have recently been looking at replacing my aging HP B9180 pigment based printer.  I am still happy with the quality, but HP has exited the prosumer photo-printer market.  HP Advanced photopaper in anything other than gloss cannot be bought and I wonder how long the Vivera ink I use will continue to be available, the ones I buy now still use HP's old branding, which worries me as to the intent to keep this going.  So, I have looked at other printers, in this range they are generally between 500 and 1,000 Euro's, expensive, but less costly than a good lens, of which most photographers own many.  So cost should not be an issue in achieving a quality colour print; I do find it strange that people spend significant money on cameras and lenses, and yet are reluctant to invest in the device that finally brings the image to reality as a physical object. Bottom line, other than having a grumble about my printer, is that colour is now manageable, so this reason at least should go away.

So I ask myself again why Black and White?  Clearly it need no longer be a technical issue. So it must be an aesthetic choice consciously made by artists, however, outside of photography very little art is done in a monochrome pallete, whether BW or anything else.  In my reading on the history of art only etchings really used BW, but that was a constraint of the then printing process, these artists did not paint in black and white, even sculptors selected stone with properties of colour.  I am tempted to think that BW progresses for many almost as a nostalgic reference to the past and even because BW is associated with art photography, therefor to create art one must shoot BW.  However, fine art photography largely switched from BW to Colour in the early 70's, 40 years ago.

I struggle with all of these thoughts, but must admit now that I am being drawn towards BW, partly it is curiosity, a question around can I do this?  Recently I have processed a number of photographs in BW and even submitted one as part of an Assignment.  What I am finding is that if a scene is already very flat in colour terms, removing what little there is makes the image easier to look at and allows far more aggressive processing choices.  I also begin to see that colour obscures form and texture, the eye is drawn to strong colour and interprets that before texture and form, I suspect we are programmed to look for danger in the colour of flame or a wild animal.

My view has changed, I now see BW not as a throwback driven by nostalgia or sentimentality, but a creative option that can be deployed to emphasize certain properties in an image.  However, it is not a panacea, I still do not understand the desire to shoot all subjects in BW, we see in colour, we should use it.

Moving away from philosophy to practicality I made the mistake of purchasing a couple of books on digital black and white photography, thinking these might help me to learn the art.  Like all "how to" photography books they are largely useless, pages of introductory composition and how to use a camera, with a small section on actually processing BW images, meant I found these books to be almost worthless.  However, I am currently reading the first of Ansel Adams' Photography Series.  Written in 1980 for the then technology of film, this is a marvelous book, interesting and full of insight into image making.  Sure, it is out of date, but the principals of lens design, camera use, and technique are universal.  I do occasionally get a hint of "Before your time, Sonny, when photographers were real men...", but this adds to the fun of reading the book.

It is a very good primer to photography and entirely orientated around BW photography, so reading between the lines I am learning more about this art form than in either of the "How To" books.  Although most of the discussion is how to operate a view camera, this is really useful stuff, my tilt-shift lens is going to get some outings.

Time now to head out the door and do my first ever Black and White shoot.

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