Arts August 14, 2008

Black and White Photography

A study in contrasts

Photographs are interpretations of the world—optical, chemical, or digital images recorded by a photographer. Black and white images are a further abstraction, and more clearly about an idea or concept, than color images of the same subject.

While equipment, film, and paper have evolved, the basic principles and processes of black and white photography have remained virtually the same for the past 100 years. But while in some ways it may seem a medium of the past, thankfully, there continue to be photographers “seeing” the world in black and white, translating what we experience as color into startlingly vivid gray tonalities that give us another way of looking at the world.

Among local photographers, Michael Wickes is emblematic of a generation who grew up with black and white influences—black and white television, classic movies, black and white photographs in newspapers and magazines. As a consequence, he became keenly aware of lighting.

“Black and white is harder to shoot,” observes Wickes. “It is more demanding of exact exposure, and you need to pay close attention to elements of composition and texture. Black and white focuses you on the story, the subject; and, like poetry, it is lean. After all, the black areas in a black and white photograph are silence—quiet passages in an audio sense.”

Ketchum resident Thia Konig was trained to use many different film formats, types of cameras, and processes, and matching the combination of equipment and technique with her subject has always appealed to her. Among the techniques she employs is sepia toning, which imbues an image with a warm brown tone. The effect delivers an antique look to her tribal portraits, adding to the timelessness of the images.

Another method involves shooting with infrared film, which responds to heat and records subjects differently from standard black and white film and it adds a grainy, ethereal effect to the scene.


Photography courtesy of Gail Severn Gallery.
Left: Jack Spencer, Right: Louis Gonzålez Palma

“You have to train yourself to think like the film,” she says. Konig prefers to shoot people in black and white, “because you are not distracted by the colors, and can better appreciate the subject.”

Different types of film, paper, and processes enable photographers to control and affect the final image. The simplest conventional photographs commonly made in a darkroom are gelatin silver prints. A vintage print is one that was made, usually by the photographer, around the period when the photograph was originally taken, and is often dated or signed. This distinguishes it from a print that might be printed years later, often by an assistant. Vintage prints are usually rarer, and consequently more valuable. There are many variations among black and white images, usually involving printing techniques (how a negative was printed onto paper in a darkroom), alteration of the image after it was made, or the process of recording it onto a surface, which can be paper or any surface to which a photo-emulsion (light-sensitive emulsion) has been applied.

At the end of the 19th century, several new processes emerged that made it possible to reproduce photographs onto paper, and photographs began to appear in newspapers, magazines, and other media involving paper (such as advertising). Photogravure is a high-quality printing press process that dates to the beginning of the 20th century, which copies the image onto a printing plate, and allows many copies to be made.

Several notable artists used this process to mass produce images, including Alfred Stieglitz, who used it in the production of his seminal magazine, Camera Work, and Edward S. Curtis, who used the process to mass produce his images of American Indians.

In addition to being a remarkable photographer, Curtis recognized the potential benefits of mass marketing, and had his images printed in photogravure for the purpose of selling them. Today, his prints are recognized for his artistic vision, and their unique place in the arc of the 20th century evolution of black and white images. Curtis prints can often be found at the Broschofsky Gallery in Ketchum.

With the emergence of digital imaging in the last 20 years, inkjet prints have gained in popularity among many photographers. While there are different names for some of these processes, they share certain common features. An image (print or negative) is scanned into a computer, and the image is then produced with an inkjet printer. The essential difference between traditional darkroom processes and this technique is this: The traditional process produces a print in which the image is in the emulsion of the paper, while inkjet prints are simply what their description implies—ink on paper. For this reason, if the same image is printed both ways and compared side by side, an inkjet print will often have a “flatter” appearance. This flattened aspect can also be produced by using papers that absorb the ink, such as papers traditionally used by watercolorists.

Making multiple-image prints (printing from different negatives onto a single piece of paper) and then hand-coloring them, is a technique that dates back to the late 19th century. Local photographer Barbara Kline is well-known for using this process. She is constantly excited by the magic of watching an image appear in the darkroom trays, and works with up to five different enlargers, adding portions of the different negatives into a single print. After the prints are dry, she uses Marshall’s Oils to color specific areas of the image. Although she works in editions (a limited number of the same image), and different print sizes, Kline says no two images are exactly alike.

Photograph: Michael Wickes

Among the many contemporary artists represented at Gail Severn Gallery—which also handles vintage black and white photography—Jack Spencer and Luis González Palma work with black and white photographs, but alter the image in some fashion. González Palma often makes straightforward frontal portraits, but after printing the picture, he changes and adds to it by toning, bending, folding, scratching, burning, or painting on its surface. He may then combine the image with other materials such as documents, other photographs, or transparencies, to produce a unique kind of collage. The final results are often disquieting, sometimes reminiscent of religious icons. Spencer seeks out adifferent kind of spirituality in the dreamy portraits and landscapes of his travels—from the South where he grew up, to more exotic locales, like Mexico.

His black and white prints are subtly colored with toners, making them timeless in an evocative fashion, as they are both records and feelings about their subjects.

Barbi Reed, owner of Anne Reed Gallery, which has a national reputation for exhibiting photographs (both black and white, as well as color) is a photographer herself, and for many years has worked with black and white film developing and printing in her own darkroom. “Black and white photographs are classic and timeless,” she observes, “whether vintage prints by Imogen Cunningham, contemporary images by Misha Gordin, or wedding photos. When a wide tonal range is achieved, black and white prints can be breathtakingly beautiful, poetic, or even mysterious.

“Often, a collector can install black and white photographs on the same wall, whether in a grid, a straight line, or salon-style,” says Reed. “While similar groupings of color photographs could be visually intrusive, black and white prints can be complementary and hung together make a compelling and cohesive installation.”

While black and white images have almost become an anomaly in today’s world of color photographs, photographers exploring the world in this way provide us with a poetic and evocative window into their luminous imaginations.

Mark Johnstone has been writing about photography and art for magazines, catalogs, and books in the United States, Europe, and Japan since 1978. He has taught photography since 1973, and has made photographs since 1968.


This article appears in the Summer 2006 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.