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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.

Wizardlings 1

Wizardlings 1

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.

Wizardling 1 Color Original

Wizardling 1 Color Original

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.

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7 Comments

    • Doug Stockdale
    • Posted March 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm
    • Permalink

    attributed to Paul Outerbridge (in the late 1020’s): “in black and white you suggest, in color you state”

    • joe
    • Posted April 3, 2009 at 2:08 pm
    • Permalink

    Actually, students still use dark rooms today.

  1. Of course they do, and it’s a good thing. But I do think dark rooms for photography are becoming endangered species.

    Wayne

  2. That was tongue in cheek. Of course they do, and it’s a good thing. But I do think dark rooms for photography are becoming endangered species.

    Wayne

  3. Wonderful, profound stuff in your article. I, too, seek to reveal or evoke something below the surface when I shoot a photograph. I took a course in Black&White photography when I was in college just so I would have access to the laboratory. My father taught me the art of photography when I was a child; on a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex – to this day, I am hard-pressed to get the fine black & white results that camera gave. But, getting back to the black & white photo itself – the place I chose as my main black & white project, was a very old cemetary. To have shot those views in color would not have given the optimum results – for I felt that it was quite appropriate to shoot at a cemetary in black and white – it evoked the mood you mention. And, I completely agree with your statement of what we do when we take a picture: we capture that instant in time … and, capturing an instant in a cemetary in color would not convey the same feeling and mood the same photo shot in black and white would convey.
    Sincere Regards, Sandra Pinnel

  4. Sandra, I think those of us who grew up in the era of film photography are blessed with a special heritage. The magic of working with film in the dark, the smell of darkroom chemicals, and the experience of trying to dodge an area in the enlarger … these experiences seem both obsolete and relevant. When I developed my first roll of color slide film using my own chemicals the process seemed magical.

    Perhaps a photograph is determined not only by what is beneath the surface of the picture, but also by what is outside of it, i.e., the physical process of creating it. And there also has to be a viewer of the photograph, doesn’t there …

    Wayne

    • Johney
    • Posted January 28, 2015 at 5:33 am
    • Permalink

    I don’t worry about b&w being existance since it is cheaper and more relaxing to your eye’s it also seems to look sharper then color images,HOWEVER,what i found interresting is that our brain is able to fill in missing colors on object for wich it assumes that it is supposed to be that color,like a licht gray banana is supposed to be yellow while a dark gray apple is supposed to be red,however a dark gray banana is supposed to be green and a light apple is also supposed to green,i light gray human skin is supposed to be pink will a dark gray skin is supposed to be brown,so not only does our brain bases it’s imagnible colorization on the shape of objects,but also on the shades of gray,so let there be such cpu algorithm to allow us to realtime colorize b&w foto’s & video’s with no geusswork at sll.


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