Why Black & White? Commentary by Robert Bruce Duncan

by Robert Bruce Duncan

Black and White Photography always lasts PREFACE : 25 years ago the buyer of an old house found an abandoned trunk in the attic and carried it to the alley for the garbage men. I rummaged through it. Inside I found this sepia toned black and white portrait of an elegant woman, protected by a cardboard folio and accompanied by a studio receipt dated 1920. Dozens more heirloom family photos were in yellowing envelopes. I saved them all. Black and white photos survive time.
--- Scott Kilborn, AceCam.com

Why Black & White?

black and white photography sepia print Commentary by Robert Bruce Duncan

In this day of pixels and printers, a time when a diminishing number of photographers relish the acerbic whiff of acetic acid stop bath, or the pungent smell of fixer, why black and white?

Why black and white, when colors are so brilliant and images so easily seductive? When digital manipulation has become the norm, and flash has ultimately diminished the appreciation of the exquisite, yet perhaps too subtle, tonal range of ambient light?

Why Black and White?

Forgive my bias, but this seems to me a rhetorical question. The answers are many, and call me old fashioned, but black and white, the original art that inspired Sir John Herschel to coin the term "photography" drawing with light will always have a rightful place in the pantheon of legitimate art forms.

Because it's an easily learned technology although the best take years to master it and even a beginner can expose, develop and print his own images. Because few pleasures match that of watching an image slowly emerge on paper, beneath a red or amber safelight.

Because despite the claims for color printing products, as far as we know black and white prints last much longer than color.

Because black and white has an inherent dignity.

Because color, especially in the hands of an amateur how many photographs of sunsets have we seen, masquerading as "Art"? has the facile attraction of an easy woman. (Which may be why we see sunsets in so many advertisements.)

Black and White is both the simplest, and the most sophisticated of photographic disciplines.

Shall we start at the beginning?

For most, an introductory photography class includes exposure although most contemporary cameras are so technically advanced as to preclude the necessity of a very deep understanding of the relationship between f. stop and exposure time development (learning how sensitive and capable our fingers can be in total darkness is a discovery bordering on epiphany for some); and then, the creation of work on paper: contact prints and enlargements.

To me, this is the equivalent of learning to draw in an art class: After you've mastered the basics, you may take this proficiency where you will, but it's a pre-requisite of making informed art.

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