I am one of the few living people old enough to remember something called a “darkroom”. Roaming the streets of Boston with my friend David Goldes and with Robert Frank as our hero, I shot tons of bulk rolled B&W film. Four hours in the darkroom and I might have one or two mediocre prints, if I was lucky. I knew one or two adventurous souls who tried to make prints from color negatives in huge home chemistry laboratories. I am not sure I ever saw a print emerge from these attempts.
The digital revolution in photography has been an unquestionable step forward (although I miss the wonderful graininess of silver images). Digital cameras shoot color effortlessly. I always assumed black and white photography would fade away in time like gaslights, the extended family, and barber shops.
But something odd is happening. It struck me when I was waiting for my hairdresser at his salon, browsing through huge glossy fashion magazines. I noticed that at least 30% of the photographs were in black and white. It is unlikely that these top end fashion photographers are doing this to save expense.
What is the special power of black and white?
When I photograph I am seeking to reveal something beneath the surface of the visable image. On some occasions black and white photographs draw me into an alternate psychological space. The image is stripped of the mundane. My perceptual assumptions fail, and I am drawn toward some vaguely discerned truth. Stripped of visual color, the emotional color of the place and the time are enriched.
Our brains process color and luminance information separately but in parallel. The information is analyzed at multiple way stations and aspects of the image such as lines, movement, patterns, and more complex features emphasized. Relevant emotions and memories are identified and woven into our perception. All of this happens effortlessly and without our conscious awareness.
I suspect the lack of color information disrupts this normal mental processing. The information reaching our awareness has not been properly screened and edited, Our perceptions become more primitive and more real, We become consciously involved in pondering the mood and meaning of the particular instant which our camera has captured in time.
This is ony one idea. If you have others please share them.