Tag Archives: black and white photography

New black and white

Recently I put black and white film into my old Rolleiflex again for the first time in several years. I haven’t gone very far with it, at least not yet. Nor have I hauled out my old 4×5 view camera. But with Spring finally here I have a feeling that could happen.

So far I’ve just poked around near my home and a little farther afield, across the river in Loudon County, Virginia, with the Rollei. There’s a Catoctin Creek flowing into the Potomac River from both sides, and it’s around this territory that I’ve made a few exploratory photos on film again.

My Rollei takes beautiful portraits and I look forward to doing more people work with it. Although I make mostly digital photographs these days, many of the photos in my portrait gallery on this website were made with this camera (see it here). It feels good to crank film again. And after the sterility of constant digital work I even enjoyed the tactile experience of developing it – something I loved to hate back in the days of shooting all film, all the time.

Anyway, just for the fun of it here are some late winter black and white images from around my neck of the woods. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I enjoyed making them. I think there may be more, even better b/w to come – stay tuned.

Catoctin Creek near Myersville, Maryland

Underneath Crow Rock Road bridge near Myersville

Awesome roots of a venerable sycamore

Roots of another tree nearby, in a tributary stream. Can you tell I love roots?

St. John’s Lutheran Church cemetery, Myersville. I love how the two cypress trees echo the two grave stones in the foreground.

Route 17 near Burkittsville, Maryland. I saw the clouds and the light coming off those wires and had to pull over, run into the road and snap this before any more cars came along. This was purely for that beautiful light.

Loudon County, Virginia, late afternoon light

Storm debris in a small tributary to Catoctin Creek near Lovettsville, VA

Milltown Creek near Lovettsville, VA

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Color or black and white?

The invention of digital photography changed forever how we experience the world. How visual information is captured, stored, processed, transmitted, bought, sold, and even owned has been irrevocably altered. All these technical and legal aspects of the digital revolution have been written about at great length. Far less noted is what’s being lost or overlooked as digital technology reorders our analog world.

Too much information

Everyone who owns a computer knows about information overload. We often have more data at our disposal than we know what to do with. Digital storage devices handle astronomical amounts of information. Gigabytes can occupy a chip the size of your fingernail. But just because we command that much data doesn’t mean we make sense of it; sometimes it needs to be reduced to simpler units to use most effectively. And effective is what we’re after, isn’t it?

Color is the ordinary mode for nearly all visual communication now. Video, print and the Internet flood our eyes with it. Not so long ago color used to be a deluxe option, something special – but today it’s 3D that’s special and everything is interactive. A generation from now, who knows what will be on the cutting edge?

Let’s acknowledge right now that color is critical to our functioning. We process a vast amount of vital information through color perception; in fact it’s such a fundamental part of how we experience the larger world that black and white can sometimes take us by surprise.

There’s a reason for this. The rod cells in the retinas of our eyes perceive only light and shadow; they don’t do color. But they are much more sensitive than cone cells – they’re able to perceive variations in brightness many times dimmer than anything we can see in color. Our night vision is largely monochromatic. The kind of vision we depend on for survival in marginal situations is stripped of all unnecessary distractions. Just the facts, ma’am. And that’s what black and white delivers.

Of course it’s much more complex than that. Black and white lives in the light of day, too, and often is filled with exquisite amounts and variations of detail. But it’s a huge distillation of the information coming at us in color. Black and white helps the mind snap to attention much faster regarding the essential content of what is being seen. Whether that content is topical or purely abstract composition, it’s delivered without the distraction of color and often is more powerful because of it.

Consider the classic image of Tomoko Uemura being bathed by her mother, taken by W. Eugene Smith for Life magazine in 1971. Tomoko suffered severe birth defects from industrial mercury poisoning in the fishing village of Minamata, Japan. The photograph is so powerful, so complete in every way, the mind recoils at the idea of adding color to it. This is what I mean by “too much information.”

Of course we must find images powerful and essential enough to work without the aid (or distraction) of color – and that’s another matter. But assuming we have that potential, the key will always lie in knowing when to use such restraint, to the end of increasing the overall impact of an image or series of images.

The default function of all digital cameras is to take color photographs. Using the marvelous processing software available now it’s a simple matter to desaturate any good digital photo and reproduce it beautifully in black and white. This after-the-fact adjustment may be the most practical path to black and white when a photographer is shooting a general project with multiple uses in mind.

But a special sensibility comes into play when a photographer approaches his or her work with the express purpose of creating black and white images. Composition, expression, and above all, light must be given extraordinary attention. Often color alone gives a photo interest sufficient to make it work on a magazine page. Take away color, and the content, composition and light become infinitely more critical. Just the facts, ma’am – and how powerfully they speak is a testament to the power of the medium, stripped of all distractions.

Film is not dead

Making black and white photographs on film remains a powerful, sometimes preferable alternative to digital capture. Black and white film has grain structure and tonal and aesthetic qualities that digital photography hasn’t yet been able to match. Digital scanning and processing enable superb reproduction from black and white negatives and integrate the best of both analog and digital worlds in the end product. But consistently maximizing the properties of any film demands that a photographer understand the emulsion, how to use manual cameras and most of all, how to intelligently manage light.

Not long ago all these things were at the base of every photography course. But technology has made it possible for photographers to call themselves pros without understanding any of them. Modern digital cameras make all the critical decisions and processing software fixes everything else. Exposures are perfect, skin tones creamy smooth and when shooting raw files, color temperature is hardly a consideration. This can be liberating when a photographer is tuned perfectly to his subject. It also can become a crutch that allows a photographer to be lazy – to churn out eye candy that does little to inform viewers or deeply touch their emotions. That is the essence of stock photography, but that’s a topic for another time.

Suffice it to say, informing and connecting with the emotions of others lies at the heart of journalism and every worthy communication medium. To fail at this is to waste valuable resources. Photography has preeminence due to its immediacy and ability to convey far more than words can. Together, words and visual content breathe life into our shared past and bind the current story of humanity together. Both color and black and white photography have played venerable roles in that history, and both remain powerful tools that are far from obsolete.

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