The options for manipulating an image after capture are endless today. Creative edits can include composites, the addition of graphic elements, and the use of finishing treatments such as texture overlays, painterly conversions, grunge and high dynamic range (HDR) effects. These are just a few possibilities.
But as recently as 1935, the only manipulation available to a photographer was around how much highlight and shadow to reveal in the print and where (a.k.a. dodging and burning). All film was black and white. The most creative photographers played with different development processes and printing surfaces, but these were all still monochrome results. Others tried coloured filters at image capture, or layered emulsions that could produce different colours, but this made the capture and processing much more complex and the results were often poor.
In 1935, Eastman Kodak Company introduced Kodachrome and changed the world forever. Despite this, colour photography did not become widespread, at least not in the consumer market, until the 1960’s. So colour image capture has really been in broad use for just 50 years.
Today, all digital cameras capture colour data by default. Black and white conversion is available both in-camera and through post-processing. The irony is that the same debates about colour vs. black and white that drove the creation of Kodachrome still exist today. Here’s my take on the creative debate.
Colour has been a part of the images of humanity since cave dwellers created art on cave walls. Fine art painters use it to convey their individual interpretations of the world, just as they use line, shape, texture and shadow. Rarely do you see a monochrome painting. When photography first emerged, with its monochrome images, it was discounted as an art form and relegated to documentary functions at best, and novelty status at worst.
Photographers sought other means for artistic expression, including the above mentioned process variations, print surface variations and manipulation of light during printing. They also framed their subjects differently than fine art painters, with more close-up detail, new angles and the deliberate addition of exposure effects such as blurring.
Just as photography was initially discounted by true “artists”, colour photography was equally discounted by photographic artists on its arrival. Colour was deemed to “get in the way” of the essence of a photograph, and was often labelled a distraction rather than an enhancement.
This view has never really gone away; if anything, it has solidly entrenched to the point of creating communities of artists that shoot exclusively in colour or in black and white. Somehow it’s also now considered “trendy” to shoot in black and white – perhaps as an acknowledgement of the giants of photography who came before. But I think there’s a more fundamental basis for the ongoing popularity of black and white photography.
Photography is one of the more challenging artistic endeavours because, like painting, it conveys a three-dimensional world in two dimensions. No flat replica can ever fully recreate the beauty of a three-dimensional landscape.
Because of this, a photograph succeeds, in my view, when it isolates an aspect of reality and presents it to the viewer in a way that they have not seen before. A successful photograph draws attention to one or two key ideas, encouraging the viewer to linger beyond the typical casual glance given to most snapshots.
Converting an image to black and white isolates the tones and textures of the image, presenting it in a way not previously seen. Something new is discovered. It’s the perfect enticement to linger. It also provides the opportunity to play – to see what the image can become. Curiosity is a wonderful thing in art, and black and white photography is the perfect hook.
That’s not to say that conversion works for all images. The decision to convert should be made carefully, in consideration of all other ways of presenting the image. Working exclusively in one or the other might be an unnecessary limitation.
I encourage all photographers to experiment with black and white. Convert an image and let your eyes wander. Where do you focus? Do you see something new? Does the image have more “dimension” and pop? If so, you may have just added a new form of artistic expression to your toolkit. Congratulations!