An outstanding brief comment from yesterday, continuing the topic of B&W tonality, from "sneye":
I once tried to illustrate the "emotional gamut" of monochrome. Having allocated one axis to brightness and the other to contrast and then describing the "feel" of different areas of the field obtained, I was impressed with the richness of expression allowed by this seemingly primitive medium. It goes from murky and industrial (low tone, low contrast) to airy and dreamy (high tone, low contrast), to mention only two "moods" (I got to about a dozen). Adding tint and graininess as variables would widen the creative space even further. The possibilities are almost endless. My point is, some colour photographers tend to regard black and white as a monolithic modus operandi. However, being surrealistic to start with monochrome is a vast field of expression. Unlike colour, it can't really go "wrong."
Great comment. Not much I can add to that, but as an aside, doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is? I don't know—not fair to make that assumption any more? Others don't think so? We do almost exclusively use cameras that shoot color c. 2014, and it quite naturally follows that color is the lingua franca of photography today. (This, I think, is a huge change from the 1980s when I got started in photography seriously.)
Another vein of commentary I've been hearing over the past two days during our discussion of B&W is from several people, both in the comments and privately, who point out that only a small percentage of photographers really know how to be creative with B&W and "print" it well (in the broad sense of "print" that Ctein used, meaning presenting it in any fashion, whether post-processed digital for display on the web or a paper print for the wall.)
In other words, not many photographers are very good with digital B&W, but then, not many people could print B&W well in the film era, either. Generally speaking I agree. Whenever any experienced photo-dawg says they like B&W, it has to be tempered with the assumption that what they mean is that they like the 10% of B&W out there that's purposeful, skilled, and deliberate. We're not talking about just any old digisnap that's been desaturated because the colors happened to clash.
Gordon Lewis pitched in on a similar note:
Many if not most of us have an appreciation only for what we have learned or been taught to appreciate. So some people simply have no appreciation for any type of B&W image. Others like only one type of B&W rendering. For those of use who do like to use B&W as a way to show the world, you really hit the nail on the head when you said that the trick is to "develop...a look that you really like and that not only suits but enhances your own work." That can be very difficult. It can also be very rewarding, and in more ways than one.
And finally, James Eaton asked:
I was interested in your comment about the learning curve on conversion to B&W. I have the same issue. So I wondered about this possibility: could you post a straight from-the-camera color photo and invite readers to do a conversion, documenting their process? It might be interesting to crowd-source this issue.
Interesting it indeed would be, but we've already done it. (I guess that's one of the problems with a "mature" blog like this one—we don't cover what we've covered before, but maybe lots of people haven't been following along religiously and quite naturally missed the topic the first time around. Anyway, here is the link:
If you don't care to take the time to read that earlier post, you can get the gist of it just by looking at the pictures.
I see to my consternation that I never finished writing "Interpreting Black and White Part II"! Uh-oh. That was a mistake. I have a half-finished Part II in the stack but never followed through.
(Thanks to sneye, Gordon, and James)
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Featured Comments from:
John Camp: "Painters since the Renaissance have had a reasonably complete color palette to work with, but some significant painters, from Rembrandt to Picasso, have spent time working in near-monochrome. (And drawing and printing is often simply black and white.) So B&W has always had a dramatic appeal. I think, though, that B&W only works (in an artistic sense) with really good photos. Color adds punch to photos that otherwise might be unremarkable."
Don: "'Doesn't everyone take it for granted that black and white is far richer, more communicative, and more nuanced as a medium for expressive photography than color is?' That's an out of character, unusually sweeping statement. The problems with colour are what makes it more expressive but harder to do well. If you take that 2D graph example, that B&W has a range on two axes for brightness and contrast, for colour you can add a third dimension—a rainbow of possibilities. Colours can be associated with emotion (psychology) and an era, and like it or not with computers we have phenomenal control over how we express those colours. If B&W were really so special, how come the art galleries are hung with colorful oil paintings and not charcoal sketches? Ditto man's earliest art—cave paintings filled with colour? I think you may have allowed your passion for B&W to colour your vision!"
Mike replies: Nicely argued and nicely written, yet you misunderstand me pretty thoroughly. 1. It's not a contest, and one doesn't win nor the other lose. 2. It has nothing to do with me; I wasn't expressing my opinion. I'm a color photographer now, like most, and I'm not anybody's arbiter of anything.
The view I expressed and that you quoted was simply the prevailing view throughout the history of photography up until at least the 1990s. It was taken for granted. Color was considered vulgar, commercial, decorative, literal, workmanlike, and unartistic, the poor stepchild of "real" photography. Photographers who committed to color before then were being bold and making a departure from convention; they were taking a risk, a stand. I was merely trying to make a point about how much that old view has changed. Sorry my meaning wasn't clear! I have appointments all day today and I was writing in a rush.
Dave Karp: "Regarding the idea of various interpretations and styles, it is good to point out that even within one photographer's set of work, interpretation or style may change. Ansel Adams' work demonstrates this phenomenon. People generally associate his work with dramatic vast landscapes, but he started with a very different approach. Even after his embrace of 'straight' photography his work changed and progressed to that dramatic style many remember. Even within my own work, I have made adjustments that impact the look and feel of my photographs. Changes in brands or types of papers, developers, and toning processes impact the look and feel of your work and these choices change over time and interact with 'artistic' choices to impact a photographer's prints."
Mike replies: The late David Vestal used to argue against "vintage prints" for this reason. He felt that later prints made by the same photographer were usually both better prints and also embodied the photographer's most evolved vision and style; whereas the market preferred (and prefers) prints made closest to the time the exposure was made, feeling that they are more authentic and more of the moment. I've personally always felt that as long as the photographer makes the prints or is working with the printer-person of his or her choice, then the print is valid—sometimes earlier ones are better, sometimes later ones are. But certainly every photographer should have the artistic right to revisit, re-evaluate, and remake his or her own work.
(Awkward that "printer" means both "printing machine" and "person who makes prints." Another unfortunate accident of arbitrary terminology.)