The Approach to the B&W Photograph That Never Was

During the 1980’s and early 90’s when I was more inclined to be inventive, one of the many ideas I had that never saw print was to use color film for making B&W photographs. Unfortunately, not all the pieces were in place at the time. They did all come along, sort of, eventually, but not in an order that was conducive to the actual birth of such an approach. Not until now, anyway.

You see, much of making a fine art B&W photograph has to do with the manipulation of color. I have talked about this before on this blog. One can manipulate gray tones by manipulating the colors of a scene and by choosing the color sensitivity of one’s B&W film. Choices are limited now, but once, you could choose between films sensitive to only blue light, or blue and green, or blue green and red; today’s modern panchromatic films. There are still blue and blue/green sensitive films, but for the most part they are special purpose films, usually of higher contrast than normal.

The colors in the scene were manipulated by the choice of color filter through which the photograph was taken. Filters lightened their own colors and darkened all the others. Between filters and film choice, the alteration of gray tones was a useful tool, but not broadly so. You could only use a single filter per photograph. If more manipulation was wanted, tough!

Some years ago I invented and published a technique called Dye Dodging. It involved using specialized dyes employed by color photograph retouchers. I repurposed them to manipulate the gray tones of a B&W image, in the darkroom. A blank piece of film was attached to the top of the negative and both made immobile in the negative carrier of an enlarger, so that the carrier could be removed from the enlarger, the dyes applied to the blank sheet of film where required and the carrier returned to the enlarger for a fresh print. The blank sheet threw the dyes out of focus so that the work done was not detectable in a print. It was quite effective. Sadly, this technique is no longer available because the dyes no longer exist. The lady who manufactured them and taught their use is deceased. (This did not stop an entirely shameless individual from publishing what he mis-represented as his own idea, an idea blatantly borrowed from the early 20th Century and having nothing whatsoever to do with my technique, under the title:  Dye Dodging.  And he did so in the exact same magazine where I had  published the original Dye Dodging technique. Unfortunately, the magazine had a new editor who was something less than observant.)

At any rate, if memory serves me, the concept of dye dodging was what stimulated my original thinking on the subject of using color negative film for capturing B&W photographs: the logic being that if images were captured on color film, there would be no need for the tedium of using color filters or choosing which film might be more appropriate at the moment. A standardized approach could be taken to image capture and color manipulation of gray tones could be postponed until later, in the darkroom. This would also allow experimentation with different gray tone alterations based on color. The scene colors would be there in the negative, so all the filters could be available via a single image capture. This broadened the potential printing options for a B&W image, considerably.

A great idea that was fundamentally sound, except for a few deal breakers. There was no Zone System for color negative film. That would come later, but I could not know in advance what I, or others might invent. (Working separately, I and a fellow named Robert Anderson, invented complete contrast control for both color negative film and color paper, unknowingly announcing our discoveries in the same issue of the same magazine, in 1990.) So, there was no contrast control via film development for color negative film, at the time. Development of color negative film was standardized. And there was no paper on which to make B&W images from color negatives: well, not a viable one.

There was a paper for just this purpose. Kodak made it and it was called Panalure. It was a panchromatic B&W paper designed specifically for making B&W prints from color negatives. But it came in only one contrast grade (again, this problem was at least partially remedied by later inventions, but I could not know it at the time). No approach to B&W fine art photography could be based on a single grade of paper, but worse, far worse…

Panalure was a resin-coated paper: anathema to the fine art B&W photographer. No self-respecting artist would ever consider offering prints made on a plastic paper. That was the end of the trail.

So there you have it. The lack of an adequate paper for printing was the real killer of this idea. Until now!

Digital photography, in particular the scanner and the inkjet printer, have breathed, if not new life, at least new viability, into this concept. Now, a photographer can capture an intended B&W photograph on color negative film, scan the negative and alter gray tones via the manipulation of the colors, in Photoshop. Whether printed digitally or a new negative made for printing by chemical means, this route is finally viable.

Of course, one can now accomplish very much the same thing with a high-end digital camera, so the desire to stick with film must be strong. And then there is the fact that only three color negative films still exist in sheet film sizes, all made by Kodak and carrying, shall we say, impressive prices. Though I think B&W films will be around for a very long time yet, I suspect color negative films will soon breath their last. All the indicators point in that direction. After all, Kodak makes color films for which they DO NOT make a single paper on which to print them!

The approach now actually exists, though somehow I doubt it will be a blockbuster. Timing IS everything!!


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