Robert Frank said "Black and white are the colors of photography," but he was wrong. Turns out, black and white were the colors of film photography—mainly, anyway—during the medium's first hundred and fifty or sixty years. The colors of digital photography are highly controllable, easily reproducible, effectively unlimited colors, thank you very much. (It was Carl Weese who said to me way back in the mid-'90s that B&W was already essentially perfect—true—but that digital was the coming of age of color. Also true.)
But black-and-white's long, 160-year period of dominance was a happy historical accident in my view. Not only did it "encourage" practitioners into a long and fecund concentration on tone and its many mysteries, but the basic "double negative" nature of the majority of photographic techniques meant that the print was a common necessity. We and the culture of our chosen medium are the richer for both those things.
Today I just wanted to mention that for any practitioner (and I've always written for practitioners), seeking out and continually appreciating examples is an important learning tool as well as, of course, an ongoing delight. Regular readers know how much I adore photobooks, and there are many reasons why, mainly that they are the basic form of artworks created by photographers. But one lesser reason, for me, is that they're an easy and practical way of keeping examples at hand. That avuncular and energetic paragon of 20th century American landscape photography, Ansel Adams, even published a whole book called Examples.
I've only had the opportunity to collect photobooks occasionally and sporadically, so my library is quite small, less than a thousand volumes. But one thing I'm always on the lookout for, even if I can't buy them when I find them, are books that are examples of fine B&W photography. I appreciate beautiful B&W for its own sake, and the pictures don't have to be to my own taste in tonality for me to appreciate them; I like distinct and coherent styles finely rendered in well-crafted books.
It would be absolutely impossible to compile a list of great books that are examples of well-done B&W, but I'll mention a few now and more as we go along here (and, if all goes well, we'll be offering a great one ourselves soon, for a bargain price). If you work in monochrome, whether film or digital or both, it's a very good idea to keep a lookout for excellent examples by successful masters of tonality.
You can find them anywhere if you're on the lookout. They need not be great books and they need not be by famous photographers. In the past I've bought auction catalogs and even fashion magazines because they contained examples of superb B&W. One little thing I love is a publication of a photo gallery to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. It is Seeing Things, published by the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco in 1995. It's meant as a little shopfront window for the gallery's offerings and Jeffrey Fraenkel's excellent taste, and it contains a wide variety of work by many disparate photographers in both B&W and color. It pulls off the hard trick of reproducing many different kinds of work, mostly with great success. The cover is an snapshot, an exquisite one. As a book it's close to ephemera, but the judgement brought to bear on the reproduction was outstanding and this slender, modest paperback is a little gem.
Then there's Ground Time, the legacy of Kent Reno. Kent died in 2011 of Parkinson's disease. He was a most interesting photographer, in my view. He started with an ambition to be a photojournalist, but was diverted into a long, successful career as an airliner pilot. At first he tried to practice professional photography in the spaces between flights, but he found that impractical, so he became a devoted amateur who photographed while he was on the ground all over the world in between flights—hence "ground time." He remained ambitious and serious. He was a superb printmaker, with highly refined judgement. Ground Time, his book, is a treat. Kent's taste in tonality is somewhat different than mine but it is highly coherent and purposive, and beautifully reproduced in the book. One could do worse from a life as an amateur photographer (amateur in the highest sense of the word) than to leave behind such a well-seen, well-made testament.
Ground Time is hard to find, and so is this next book—Explorations by Ray McSavaney. Ray's name will be familiar to practitioners and fans of the West-Coast school of large-format photography. His book on the other hand can be appreciated by anyone. There's a bit of dissonance in it for me—his prose is foursquare and earthbound, but the pictures soar, and sing. I find them collectively to be very close to magical; as a photographer he's a great favorite of mine. I didn't know him. I hope he was a good guy. I'm a fan and a devoted admirer. In the present context, you could do a lot worse than to study Ray's great command of tonality.
I'm apparently alone in my admiration for this next book. Mexico: the Revolution and Beyond is a superlative presentation of the archive of the Mexican working photographer Agustin [sic] Victor Casasola. If you don't mind historical pictures or if you have an interest in Mexico, this book is a very fine example of the preferred tonalities of an earlier era (of which you can also get a good taste from Shorpy). Produced by Turner in Madrid and printed and bound in Spain, it's a ravishing example of expert bookmaking. The reproductions balance on the razor's edge of spot-on.
I guess that's enough for now. Even with my small library, as soon as I start talking about books, more and more start popping into my mind, both before I publish the post and afterward.
Before I go I would be remiss not to mention two of TOP's previous Books of the Year, Richard Benson's The Printed Picture and our friend Keith Davis's Multitude, Solitude: the Photographs of Dave Heath. I hope you bought the former title during the stretch of time that I was urging you to, because it's already gotten pretty expensive. If you're interested in B&W tonality, the latter is one you need to have. It, too, is already out of print and rising in price. I should have bought two!
At any rate, these are just a few of my exemplars. Yours could very well be different. Whatever style of photography you practice or prefer, however, collecting some examples helps you calibrate your eye and gives you something to strive for. And I have to say it has brought me great joy.
Original contents copyright 2017 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Eric Brody: "I had the privilege of doing a couple of workshops with Ray McSavaney. He was a genuine photographic hero to me and to many others. Bruce Barnbaum prophetically said years before his passing that he'd not get his deserved fame until he died; sad but true. His book is inspirational but spending time with him was the real treat. He spoke incredibly slowly and with long pauses, but if one had the patience to wait, what came out was pure excellence.
"I spent one of the best photographic afternoons of my life in a house at Bodie, just him and I, chatting and fiddling with our view cameras. His print reviews were incredibly thoughtful and well done. His death from lymphoma was just sad. John Sexton and others got together and have saved his archives.
"Glad you mentioned him, Mike, brought back some wonderful memories."
Joe Holmes: "My all-time favorite book of B&W photos is the crazy-wonderful Cherry Blossom Time in Japan: The Complete Works by Lee Friedlander. It's published by Frankel Gallery and printed, according to the description, 'by the laborious dry-trap process (in which one ink at a time is laid on its page and must dry before the next ink is printed).' I don't know anything about the process, but the images are incredible, at least in the hardbound first edition I found in a used bookstore a few years ago.
"The other crazy but genius trick of the book is that the landscape and portrait oriented photos each get their own half of the book. Open the book one way and you can view the horizontal images until halfway through the book. Flip the book over and it turns into a book that you look through in portrait orientation. Two books in one!
"Of course the most crazy-wonderful of all about the book is that Friedlander created an entire body of work about Japanese cherry blossoms in black and white!
"Googling about, I see that plenty of used copies seem to be available, and far less expensive than, say, Friedlander's Flowers and Trees. (Be sure you're getting the hardbound—don't know if the trade version is printed as well.)"
Mike replies: Your comment by itself is an excellent little thumbnail review of that book. Extreme measures in printing taken in the service of rendering gentleness, delicacy, and subtlety.
I had to have it when it came out, even though I didn't have the money for it at the time. "Crazy-wonderful" is the perfect description, you hit the nail on the head.
Roy Feldman: "Everyone has a different palette. For me any book by Salagdo and the Turnley French Kiss book provides the template(s) I try to achieve."
Jeff Markus: "Ray was a very good guy, one of the best. In the ego-driven eighties/nineties L.A. photo world he was a calm oasis, a gentle soul. Always modest about his talent, which was very large. An absolutely sublime printer."
Steve Caddy: "One of the finest, most nuanced black-and-white books I've ever seen—Pentti Sammallahti's Here, Far Away—was also a TOP discovery."
Mike replies: And right on theme for this post, because it too is out of print now and hard to find. Buying photobooks is like buying a house—gotta seize the opportunities when they present themselves!
"Kent was a very cool customer. Picture Sam Shepard in 'The Right Stuff.' Kent had been a Flight Safety Officer in the Air Force, and was an excellent pilot. He was DC-8 Captain and had thousands of hours flying for Trans International Airlines out of Oakland, California. When seeing Kent he might mention something about one of his flights. He had a great sense of humor. His delivery was almost emotionless, like he was just recounting a humdrum event.
"So, Kent says, telling me of a flight from Europe to the States: 'We were out a few hours and a flight attendant came into the cabin. She said a women in seat 17F [or whatever] is causing quite a commotion. She's handing out large amounts of cash to the other passengers. She's up and down the aisle giving out money.'
"Kent said the crew was always playing little jokes on each other, so he smiles at the attendant and says, 'nice one!' Then the attendant showed him a fistful of large bills saying, 'She says this is for us.' Kent answered, 'I'd better go back and talk to her.' So, he takes the cash and goes back to her seat. He said she was well dressed but looked a bit ruffled and had been drinking. He sat in an empty seat next to her and introduced himself. Returning the cash, he said, 'we can't accept gifts. It's company policy.' The woman just looked at him and was quiet for a bit, then grabbed him by his coat and began screaming, 'who's flying the plane? Who's flying the plane?!?' He told the women the co-pilot was a very good pilot and that the aircraft was in good hands. He got her calmed down and they landed safely.
"He figured the women had some illicit cash in her carry-on, and had gotten through screening at the departure airport (this was the 1990s) but then, en route, she figured Customs in New York would find the money and she'd be in trouble. So she decided to give it away rather than be detained in New York.
"Kent was a really good photographer. We met through our Stock Photo Agent. Kent sold a lot of stock. He loved photography and loved flying. When he retired, he spent a lot of time on his photo projects.
"When he wanted to fly for fun he would rent a Stearman Biplane. He said flying the Stearman was 'really flying.'
"Kent was a great guy. Thanks Mike."