Postcards from 1935
A while ago, a coworker who saw my photos asked me if I ever played with black and white. I got started with photography in high school photography classes and year book assignments shooting, developing, and printing my own black and white images and later worked at a small newspaper shooting, developing, printing, and halftoning my own images. So, yeah, I was familiar with it.
But for many years, black and white film has been virtually unavailable to regular consumers. A few attempts were made to offer black and white film that could be developed on ordinary 1-hour photo machines, but it was never popular. Why should it be? No one makes black and white movies anymore (except, you know, artsy people like Spielberg and Clooney).
Of course, the digital revolution changed everything, and now any photo can be black and white with a few clicks. But I never played with it. So I told this coworker that no, I considered black and white to be either journalism or high art, and I'm not either of those types of photographer.
In the year and a half since then, I've produced a few images that I thought were uninteresting in color but which might "work" in black and white. The first was a snapshot past a table and out the window of the Palomino restaurant in Cincinnati, a photo I took blindly by setting the timer and putting the camera on the table and pointing it behind me.
That's the photo that made me think, "This isn't interesting in color, but the tones are nice. I think it would look interesting in black and white." So I started doing some experimenting.
I converted all my favorite photos to sepia tones and kept them in a folder for use in my screensaver. Some of my more recent ones I'm pretty proud of, so I thought I'd offer them here, along with my thanks to Bill for reminding me how much I always really liked black and white.
It's interesting how some images are uninteresting in color but striking and dramatic in black and white. And it goes the other way as well, of course. Some images hold no interest without their color and seem dead and cold. Of course, sometimes dead and cold is the right look for stuff that's, you know, dead and cold.
Black and white photography is all about tone. I have a few misty twilight images of New York and elsewhere that play beautifully in color, but turn into a muddy haze in black and white.
On the other hand, the backlit image of a cathedral in Cincinnati was worthless in color, but (with the shadows cranked up) converted to black and white with the drama of a medieval castle.
Black and white forces you to see the texture and shadows in the image and the play of relections in shiny surfaces. It takes away the "artificial" distinctions that color can make between objects that are otherwise nearly identical... or highlights the differences between things that are similar in color.
I find that, after I'm satisfied with a photo in color, when I convert it to black and white (or, rather, sepia tone), it needs a bit more contrast to give it snap and depth. I like a contrasty picture more than a soft gray one, like old, silvery-gray Hollywood portraits.
I always liked the effect I got with high contrast infrared film that I shot in high school from time to time. Of course, real infrared film looks into the invisible red spectrum, so it picks up light that is not visible to us but is just shy of being plain heat. (Really hot objects start to glow red, right? That's heat moving thru near-infrared to red.) IR-reflective objects like vegetation seem to glow with an internal light that can't be duplicated by converting color images to gray tones.
Most digital camera photo sensors can see into the infrared range, but this light is blocked. In the future, I imagine digital camera makers will offer infrared shooting as an alternative high-end feature, especially to enhance low-light photography.
"Night vision" video cameras already exist (from what I hear, Paris Hilton owns one). But they use ultrasensitive sensors to shoot in low light, not infrared. Real "heat photography" is thermography, which uses super-cooled cameras.
I find that I prefer different subjects for black and white than I do for color. I don't take pictures of people, of course (if you've seen any other of these articles, you know that), but I find that some pictures that just didn't "work" in color can work in black and white. It's all about mood.
I like black and white images that set a mood of expectation and solitude. The picture of the Hyatt hotel pool deck is a good illustration. It's like a paparazzi photo where the starlet has just left the frame. Another is the fancy letter box in an elevator lobby of Carew Tower. In color, it just sits there, lifeless. In black and white, it challenges you to examine its shape and texture.
Other photos work in black and white but work better in color for some reason. They pop more. I like the sepia tone version of an early gasoline engine that I took in my hometown during the annual Old Guys Show Off Their Old Engines Festival (I think that's what it's called), but it looks better still in color (med | hi res).
Stately old architecture often looks as good in black and white as it does in color, altho you lose the brilliant blue skies that may set them off. Black and white accentuates the architectural details and flatten the color variations that aren't important. Most big buildings are kind of monochromatic anyway, made of limestone, brick, concrete, or steel and glass.
I still see black and white photography as either journalism or high art, but I guess I'm more comfortable thinking of myself as a art photographer. At least now that I'm no longer carrying an ordinary point-and-shoot camera.
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