Black and White Photography (Part I)


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Black and White Photography (Part I)

9 Aug 2019 3:41PM   Views : 590 Unique : 426

Monochrome images can be appealing and they have a small but dedicated following. But why should black and white images exist at all?

Prior to photography all images were in colour, apart from pencil or charcoal sketches for example. People were used to seeing colour pictures. In a short space of time we had plenty of images that were realistic and lifelike (compared with hand crafted art however fine). But without any colour. It was this realism that was a large part of the appeal. It brought a level of creativity to those who couldn't paint or draw. That's still true today.

Let's take a step back to the origins of photography and imagine that Niepce, Daguerre and Fox-Talbot (the early pioneers) had created colour photography from the start. Forget that the chemical technology to enable colour capture was decades away. In that scenario would anyone ever think about removing colour entirely? I guess not. There was no precedence as painters didn't limit their palette to black, white and a few shades of grey. Jump forward a century or so and imagine we never had mono television or computer screens. Loss of colour would have been seen as a 'fault', or a result of 'effects' in 1960s sci-fi films or 1970s pop videos. As we'll see later, simple removal of colour (just going greyscale) is not the way to good monochrome images.

So it's a matter of technology. Then availability. Then cost.


A typical scene early in the 20th Century that would have been recorded in mono. But this was captured in 2019.

Throughout the nineteenth century photography became ever more cheaper and more available, especially when George Eastman came along with the 'Kodak' brand. In the early twentieth century colour appeared in the form of Autochrome. Over the next 50 or 60 years many different makes of colour film appeared. Technology had advanced so much.
People demanded colour images so black and white began to take some steps back in popularity, at least as far as the mass markets were concerned. So availability (of colour) had been overcome.
The boom in popularity also drove down cost for colour photography infrastructure, culminating in the boom of high street minilabs in the 1980s and 1990s. Black and white had become a specialist area and was more expensive in comparison. Cost had been overcome.

However, one area where monochrome survived was with the enthusiast. They could develop and print their films at home quite cheaply. It's a sad fact that people saw black and white as the 'poor relation'. It was promoted in some quarters as a cheap way into photography. But it did enable many photographers to learn their craft. Some just liked the 'hands-on' that this entailed. Colour processing was much more involved.

At school and university I had access to a darkroom. Black and white allowed 'hands-on' photography, you weren't outsourcing your creativity. At least that was the theory. More so for those who'd got a greater mastery of the processes could claim that. For me and many of my peers it was enough to get a result we were happy with, warts and all in some cases. But that's fine. Refinement comes with practice. Since then time and space were not available, though having black and white processed commercially was an option. I still have those negatives that I can return to. Treats in store for sure! What was learned along the way was invaluable.

One area where mono held out for a long time was sport and reportage. This was mainly technological. High speed mono film was much more available. Due to often low levels of light high ISO was (and is) the order of the day. Think sports stadia, concert venues and the like. High speed colour wasn't available until later years. Black and white film could be processed quicker, was more tolerant of processing errors, and was thus more suited for a quick turnaround for the press. Pictures of the action in an afternoon football match would be in that evening's papers. Practicality ruled the day.


A Peugeot 205 in the Lombard RAC Rally. Driven by Louise Aitken-Walker of Scotland. November 1987

Today we have a choice without any compromises, so in my next blog I'll look at why you might choose black and white over colour.

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saltireblue Avatar
saltireblue Plus
13 14.5k 88 Norway
10 Aug 2019 8:03AM
Very interesting reading, Keith. I look forward to the continuation.

Could the rise in the popularity of colour be connected to the boom of foreign holidays, which started with comparatively cheap package tours in the 60's?
People went to bright, sun-filled exotic places and wanted to be able to remember their holiday as they experienced them - in vibrant colour?
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
11 Aug 2019 10:06AM
That's true Malc. I do discuss the rise of colour and I'll add this bit in. The sixties were colourful (I'm told), though a lot of iconic images were mono..
pink Avatar
pink Plus
20 7.4k 11 England
12 Aug 2019 5:08PM
I feel that mono is used to a more creative end these days, I tend to use mono when I want textures and highlights/shadows to dominate/tell a story where colour can often woo the viewer into missing the message/story.
Interesting read
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
12 Aug 2019 8:16PM
That's the view I'm taking with this series Ian. At least that's the direction it's going as a write Smile
SlowSong Avatar
SlowSong Plus
15 11.1k 30 England
15 Aug 2019 5:57PM
I printed b/w and colour negs, and E6 when I had my darkroom. I never got the same satisfaction dev and printing colour as I did b/w. I've no idea why, perhaps it was more "immediate", or just because it was different not being colour. After all, we all see in colour, which does make b/w different to real life. I loved the variety of mono papers and chemicals which could give completely different outcomes. Colour has to be correct, or it just looks bad.
mrswoolybill Avatar
mrswoolybill Plus
16 4.6k 2634 United Kingdom
21 Aug 2019 9:31AM
Interesting reading, thanks Keith.

Quote:Prior to photography all images were in colour, apart from pencil or charcoal sketches for example.

I would approach that slightly differently. Man has always had access to both colour and mono in one form or another, from charcoal and ochre onwards. But colour pigments were outrageously expensive (and often poisonous). Oil paints were developed in the 15th Century, which widened the scope of work in colour, but it was only really the arrival of synthetic pigments in the 19th Century that opened up colour for widescale popular use.

In photography, colour photographic processing was developed in the 19th Century, and the first commercially available process, the Lumière brothers' Autochrome, went on the market in 1907. It was expensive and messy, but the same was true of photography generally...

Artists and photographers have long had both options available and made their choices according to subject and mood, from Dürer to McCullin.

Meanwhile a lot of us grew up in a mono era. All my early memories, from the 1950s, are in mono. For me it seems a perfectly natural way to see.
dark_lord Avatar
dark_lord Plus
19 3.0k 836 England
21 Aug 2019 7:54PM
Thanks Moira.

I knew about Autochrome but didn't mention it specifically. It was very ingenious I have to admit.

For a number of years when I was growing up we only had a black and white television so maybe that had some influence.

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