Black & White Is Really Color, cont’d

Church On The Way To Colca
Church On The Way To Colca (Department of Arequipa, Peru late 1980’s)

In my last post (no excuses, I have had to be away for a while) I started talking about how B&W photography is really color photography. It is the careful translation of colors into gray tones, aided by the use of color filters placed before or behind the lens, at the time of image capture. This was the way it was done for more than a hundred years, but it was far from ideal.

Filters often had a different effect from the one expected and even when they worked as advertised, lots of gray tones in a photograph were not what the photographer wanted. Other techniques, such as dodging and burning, would have to be applied at the time of printing, in order to control the rest of the photograph.

It is necessary to understand that silver-based B&W printing papers were never made with artists in mind. They were made for commercial use and though some were certainly better than others from an artist’s perspective, manufacturer’s rarely considered artists. A paper that lent itself to artistic use usually existed more by accident than design, advertising claims notwithstanding.

I am reminded of Agfa’s decision in the early 80’s to change their Portriga Rapid paper, a favorite among artists. They changed it enough to make it useless to artists. The resulting tidal wave of complaints had no effect on Agfa whatsoever. They viewed Portriga as a commercial paper, not a paper for artists.

There have been many silver-based photographic papers promoted as having been made for artists, but I have always found that claim suspect. So much more could have been done for artists and never was. And shortly after such claims began to appear, everyone else jumped on the bandwagon. Even some of the most horrific, Eastern European communist block papers were repackaged and promoted as having been made for artists.

Controlling the translation of color to gray tones of a photograph after the fact of exposure has always been a desirable goal. If one could somehow apply that colored filter in the darkroom, instead of the camera, mistakes could be corrected and different options tried. This possibility did in fact exist with film. In theory…

Color negative films would have allowed a photographer to take the colors of the scene home and choose how to affect gray tones later, in the darkroom. There was no reason that wider and infinitely alterable control of the gray tones of a B&W print could not have been achieved by using color negative film for image capture and applying filters to that color film in the darkroom when making a B&W print from it. No reason, save one:

No one ever made any decent panchromatic papers with which to print B&W images from a color negative. Standard B&W papers would print a color negative as though it were a blue-sensitive only, B&W negative. The only panchromatic B&W paper ever in existence, to my knowledge, was one made by Kodak. And for artistic use, it was utterly out of the question. It was made on a plastic base, which no self-respecting B&W fine art photographer would consider using. Prints looked like plastic and had very poor archival qualities. For all practical purposes, there were no papers available for this approach, ever, despite the fact there easily could have been.

What silver based materials were never able to deliver, digital capture and printing have now delivered ten-fold. Digital capture is always in color (save those few digital cameras purposely designed to capture only in B&W, an idea I simply cannot fathom, as it removes precisely the giant leap forward that digital capture provided to the B&W artist), so the photographer can take the color scene home and work on the gray tones at leisure and without limitation.

Photoshop (I don’t know about any other software) allows extreme control via its B&W layers and other controls. Instead of applying a single filter, as is the only option with film, different filters can be applied to different areas of an image, or to the entire image. Using masking, one set of filters can be applied to one part of an image and another set to the rest. The options are almost limitless. It is of course, substantially more difficult to do this digitally than with film, but the learning curve is worth it.

Not only is this a wonderful new set of tools, but it has resulted in the most amusing contradiction…

The best way to create a B&W image in the digital age, is to start with color and never convert it to B&W, at all! EVER!

(I think that is what’s called a teaser. More later.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *