The Mother Tongue of Photography

Why black and white?

Wasn’t that was over years ago, even before digital?

First color, and now digital technology has essentially taken over commercial and amateur photography.  Although new possibilities have emerged in the making of fine prints in the digital age, the black and white darkroom remains the preferred route for many of us.

Black and white has been called the mother tongue of photography.  In the first century or so of the art form, black and white, or monochrome, was the only option, and it still remains favored by many photographic artists and social documentary photographers.

Monochrome is really a better term than “black and white”.  Depending on materials and the skill of the photographer or printer there can be a large number of gray steps from white to black.  It is these subtleties in gray tones that make monochrome imagery appealing.

Monochrome is said to be more abstract due to the lack of color.  It all gets back to personal preference.  To me, monochrome is natural to the way a camera works.  Admittedly, that may be cultural conditioning.  But in many ways, I almost see through the camera in monochrome.

Why film?

Contrary to some public perception, film photography, and in particular the black and white darkroom, has not disappeared.

For years, debate raged among photographers over the comparisons, merits, and faults of traditional silver-based photography against the new digital technologies.  While not totally extinguished among a few diehards (on both sides), the debate is over in the larger community as the realization has come that silver/chemical based photography and digital methods are really two different and very unique media in the same art form.

Like many photographers, I have stayed with film for black and white. I choose to remain with a medium in which I have developed a good deal of experience and skill over many years.  In this digital age, I’ve actually achieved some acclaim as a black and white film practitioner.  There have been exhibitions, lecture presentations, and even television.  I’ve had my 15 minutes.

I am hardly anti-digital. It is true that for much of digital’s early years, I did not take to it, as I viewed it as inferior to film in image quality.  I got over it.  “Image quality” is one of those terms that sounds objective, but despite a lot of physical measurements is still fraught with too much subjectivity as to just what those numbers mean.

I bought my first digital camera years ago.  I currently use two digital cameras, a micro 4/3 and a full frame dslr.  There is Photoshop on the computer, two scanners and large color printer in the house.  My most recent exhibition and one of my current projects is color digital work.

I recently read one photographer saying that (in his opinion) black and white was perfect in film, but color is only now becoming mature with digital capture.  He may be right.  I can’t say that I disagree.  The bottom line, though, is that film or digital; color or monochrome; are simply personal, subjective decisions.  It is no different than painters choosing oils over watercolors, or acrylics.  It is simply a choice of media.

Some of us (like some painters) can do more than one thing.