The case for black and white

Copyright by Karim Ghantous 1999

I feel wary of the easy realism of modern color-film materials. Color photographs are quickly seductive, but there is no question that for me it is the black-and-white picture that lasts. I don't think I have ever seen a really great color photograph.
- Irving Penn
My policy [on colour] is that I don't like it, maybe because I haven't learnt to use it properly. Whatever the reason it doesn't thrill me - it looks cheap and goofball.
- David Lynch

Despite the fact that black and white film stock is more forgiving, more tolerant, tougher and more controllable than colour film, more than 95% of photographs taken are in colour. Most amusing is the fact that most photographs in fact do not need the presence of colour - some can actually be improved by being taken on b&w film.

The first step is to decide whether to take b&w pictures in the first place. A good place to start would be to say that most pictures that you normally take can be taken in mono. Especially if they’re ‘happy snaps’ (boy how I cringe when I hear that term) or casual record shots. But every sort of photograph can benefit from the emotional depth of black and white pictures. Landscapes, cityscapes, time exposures, portraits, close-ups, night and low light shots and wildlife shots -there just aren’t any occasions when you can’t use this marvellous film. Here’s an assertion that can be used when discussing the lighting of a subject rather than the subject itself: if you’re interested in capturing the texure of the lighting, use b&w film, whereas if you’re interested specifically in the colour of the lighting, use... well... colour.

But even if you have decided that you want certain pictures or events captured in monochrome, you may think to yourself, ‘why not just take everything with colour negative just in case, and print what I like on b&w paper?’ Some photographers would go one further and store all their photos on Photo CD or other electronic means, then merely change the colours to greys if they feel like printing out a mono print. I don’t buy all that. Firstly, silver b&w films (that’s just about most of them) last longer than any other emulsion. Secondly, you are making a commitment by shooting on b&w film instead of the ‘just in case’ colour. Imagine this scenario: you take the finest mono pictures of your life on colour film. But nobody knows that your prints were taken from colour originals. Then sometime later, someone discovers those originals and some magazine prints them long after you’re dead, with the headline, ‘For the first time in living colour.’ If people want to ‘colourize’ your photos just like they colourized old movies, then you had better not make it easy for them. Effectively, there is no point to b&w if you are just going to remove the colour from colour originals. Where is the integrity in that?

Sorry to have to say this, and I can presume that lots of teachers and professional mentors will not like me for it, but black and white photography is not for beginners. It will not allow you to understand colour, exposure or lighting as well as colour slide film will. Experimenting in the dark room is all very well for students or beginners, but all you’re going to learn is how to print b&w pictures. You won’t learn too much about photography.

In any case, those experienced in b&w photography will tell you that there is so much to be learnt, so much experimenting with films, processes, chemicals, papers, enlargers and so on. All of this knowledge alone is equal to that of photography in general i.e. the actual taking of the picture. There is just as much to learnt about latitude and contrast as there is about framing, composition, lenses, depth of field, shutter speeds and all of that. Many photographers, both amateur and professional, will stay with a particular film stock far longer than those who use colour. That’s because of the subtlety involved with a given film. It may take a long time for one to gain enough experience to have total command of a given emulsion. This may involve getting to know its contrast limitations, the maximum size of prints made from the negative, its tolerance to temperature changes and chemical mixtures, its granularity characteristics and so on. Of course, you don’t have to know any more than the general basics to use b&w film effectively and enjoyably, but if you’re patient you will be richly rewarded for your efforts.

Like colour, black and white pictures can be technically poor. There is little worse than seeing flat black and white images - especially when they have been monochromized from colour slides or prints. Let’s make it clear straight away that b&w pictures need texture - graininess, toning, anything which makes the image rich. Colour pictures seem to supply their own texture. Even if the colour is dull, or contains a cast, it still gives the shot character. Black and white shots on the other hand might be printed sharply and cleanly, but only to lack texture. However, even if a mono image is reproduced in a lively quality, the whole effect can be ruined if it is surrounded by colour pictures on the same page; your natural reaction is more often than not to think of the b&w photograph as ‘inferior’, ‘cheap’ and ‘anachronistic’. If b&w were kept separate from colour, the world would be a better place and more people would enjoy it.

Most photographs do not need to be taken in colour. Snaps of friends, family and strangers often look much better if captured on a b&w negative; or at least these would not benefit from colour film. The advantage is long term: black and white negatives and prints - if processed correctly - have a much longer lifespan than any human being. I’m talking about the real, silver-based negatives, not those oddball emulsions, Ilford’s XP2 400 and Kodak’s T-Max 400 CN. Those are C-41process black and white films which have the same, poor archival characteristics as colour negative film. XP2 and T-Max CN can be processed in the same chemistry as the rest of your colour negative films, butresist the temptation of C-41 films if you want long lasting images.

Processing films at home is a pain in the backside, however. Many black and white devotees do this all the time but personally, I would rather someone who knows what they are doing to handle my delicate negatives. The worst dilemma might seem to be when it is time to print an image. The black and white medium is adored for its subtle flexibilty in the darkroom, but that flexibility can be a curse if you don’t want to spend your time stuck in a darkened room. But when you actually see the prices people charge just to contact print your negatives, creative isolation might not be such a bad idea after all.

I guess that’s a reason why so many people use colour exclusively: they have to have a darkroom to use b&w effectively. Although it’s cheaper to do it yourself, the cost is still a factor when people think of taking up b&w. For the same money, you could either process a whole roll of colour negative film, complete with an (often incomplete!) set of prints, or just get the black and white negative done.

For a lot of photographers, b&w photos are what they want to take, whereas colour photos are the ones everyone else wants them to take. This is quite a dilemma; many of us are so bored with b&w pictures of World War 2 that we would much prefer to see pictures of historical figures in ‘living’ colour. This is not surprising. Most photos, whether mono or colour are just snapshots, lacking excitement in lighting or composition. No wonder we see the need for colour photographs of Churchill, Hitler, Rommel and so on. After all, who would pass up the chance of seeing a scene captured on the brightness of a Kodachrome slide?

Look through a newspaper. If you see a colour reproduction, don’t you immediately focus your attention onto it before the mono illustrations? It wasn’t too long ago that colour was so rare in newspapers that even front pages were in black and white. Now, just about every major newspaper has a colour front page, at the very least. Black and white does look mundane in newspapers, because of the cheap-shit print quality and paper grade. The photos often have ink marks on them or transfers from the text on the opposite page. B&w in newspapers is plain yuck! However, there is some good news.

Many of the colour magazines - there must be thousands of them - often reproduce mono images to large sizes. The quality of the paper is much better -depending on the publication - and it can also be glossy, or have some other rich attribute. Because of this the photographs are of good quality and the subtlety of monochrome can be appreciated. Sometimes colour can take away the drama of a situation, so even today we see press photographers using real black and white film to capture everything from political activity to everyday life. Sadly, many photographers use colour negative film so their picture editors can decide how they will be reproduced. This might be fine for newspapers but I think magazines should know and do better.

‘TIME’ had a good cover in black & white where every photograph in the accompanying feature story was also in black & white. That particular issue was 18/08/97. There was too much text cluttering the cover, but otherwise it displayed the elements of good design for b&w: the traditional red border of about one centimetre’s thickness; the bold ‘TIME’ logo in red, shadowed, as if floating above the surface of the page. Strong primaries framing monochrome images work very well, particularly red and blue.

In fact, colour can be somewhat offensive, a bit too loud for some subject matter. Even worse, colour can actually make an image less interesting, which is contrary to why some people shoot colour in the first place. Black and white film is a bit easier to use in one sense, that is you can use filters to control tones such as the depth of the sky or grass or whatever. Just put a yellow filter on and deepen the sky. With colour film, you need a polarizer, and that doesn’t work all of the time, although at least you don’t risk subjects the same colour as the filter going white.

Even sunsets/sunrises (or dusk/dawn shots) can look just as good in black and white as in colour. Sometimes, a colour evening shot just appears superficial. The viewer wants to see tones, not fluorescent colours, and the loud colour loses the mood. What’s more, evening and morning scenes are by no means just about colour. In fact, it’s the shadows, haze and brilliant transparency of foliage that make up most of the mood at the beginning and ending of the day.

There’s no way that anyone today would give up colour for good. It’s just too useful. Still, take American celebrity photographer Herb Ritts - not only is he exclusively a b&w user, but he even watches TV with the colour turned right down. And darkrooms aren’t for everybody. So if you really must, then use the C-41 based films like XP-2. I would never use them, but if that is the only way that you can enjoy the medium, then by all means exploit this technology. At least then you don’t have to set aside a whole area of your house for the processing equipment just to see the results. But if you are a colour user, and even if you only shoot with a compact camera, use B&W film a bit more regularly. You’ll have your collection of photographs topped off with some long lasting, refreshing and unique pictures.

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This article previously appeared in Photographic Trader #80