More About Black & White
by William Lulow
I last wrote about black & white images back in March, so I thought I’d add a few notes to that discussion.
Since black & white was all there was at the dawn of the photographic process, it has evolved into an art form all its own. I’ve noticed that with the great proliferation of color images these days, the New York Times Magazine often runs a black & white image on its cover just to draw attention! Sometimes, a lot of color can be dazzling and actually detract from the overall composition. When color film first was introduced back in 1935 or so, everyone was taken with the process. But, it certainly wasn’t very “life-like.” Early Kodachrome slides were often not color balanced properly and therefore had an unrealistic tone about them. As films were perfected, they became much better at recording realistic color. But, color itself, was still innovative and often was used for effect. I remember developing Ektachrome slides as a science project in high school. I even did my own color printing at one point so that I could learn the process. I found that good color rendition depended upon quite a few variables: time, temperature, condition of the chemicals, humidity of the darkroom, storage and age of the film and, of course, the lighting conditions under which the photo was taken. So, without machines to regulate everything, achieving correct color balance was an arduous task for the photographer.
This left black & white image making to develop its own appeal. For this reason, I like to make black & white images shot as originals and not converted from color, digital files. First of all, we tend to see things differently if we’re shooting monochromes. With the absence of color, objects and the world at large take on more compositional meaning. That is, it’s easier to see the relationship of shapes and lines to one another. Darks and lights, shadows and highlights become more clearly defined. It’s harder to maintain detail throughout a scene with no blocked highlights and no black shadows. Exposure becomes more critical. Second, shooting in monochrome mode or with black & white film, opens up the whole subject of filters and what they can do to control an original image. It’s one thing to be able to add “effects” in Photoshop, but it’s another to “previsualize” these effects directly in the camera.
I am first and foremost a photographer. I am more than capable with image-editing software and can achieve quite a few effects, but I don’t consider myself a Photoshop Artist. There are many illustrators out there who can turn images into amazing works of art with all kinds of combinations of effects, layers and filters after the fact. But to create an image from an idea in your head and then have the camera reproduce it with success is quite a different skill. And this is the skill to which I have aspired for some forty years now.
This is an example of an original Black & White image that was seen as a monochrome image and carried all the way to a beautiful print.