“Black and white are the colors of photography. To me, they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.” – Robert Frank
The history of black and white photography is essentially a history of the medium itself, for, long before photographers captured the world in full vivid chromaticity, they did so in monochrome.
In 1826, French scientist Joseph Nicéphore exposed a bitumen-coated plate in a camera obscura for several hours and captured an image that would have seismic permutations. Entitled View from the Window at Le Gras, it is believed to be the first photograph ever captured, marking the inception of a medium that would dramatically impact the world at large.
A dozen years later, another Frenchman, Louis Daguerre, made another epic intervention when he conceived the ‘Daguerreotype’. His eponymous process involved the use of polished silver-plated copper which was treated to make its surface light-sensitive and then exposed in a camera for as long as was necessary. The plate would subsequently undergo mercury fuming and chemical treatment before being rinsed, dried, and then sealed behind protective glass.
Due to its short exposure time (compared with Nicéphore’s method) the Daguerreotype allowed for the photographing of people, demonstrated by the inventor himself in one of the first successful iterations he made using it. His now-iconic 1838 depiction of Paris’ Boulevard du Temple, contains two barely discernible figures (thought to be a shoe-shiner and his customer), believed to be the first people ever photographed.
The first photographic process to be available publicly, it became popular during the ensuing decades, predominantly as a means of capturing portraits, but was cumbersome and complex and thus, reserved solely for professionals.
In 1871, English photographer Richard Leach Maddox invented the dry-plate (also known as the gelatin process). Up until that point, exposed plates needed to remain wet in order to be processed, and his invention lent itself to a significantly easier and more practical experience. However, it wasn’t until nearly a decade later, when George Eastman, a young hobbyist photographer (and bank clerk) from Rochester, New York, developed a machine for producing the plates, that they became available commercially.
Four years later the same innovative young entrepreneur made an even more important invention: flexible roll film, followed by, four years later still, the first Kodak camera, which came preloaded with a 100-exposure roll.
The portability and simplicity of Kodak cameras transformed photography from a pursuit reserved solely for professionals, to one also accessible to amateurs.
One such ‘amateur’ was a teenager from San Francisco by the name of Ansel Adams, who was gifted an Eastman Kodak Brownie box camera by his father during a family trip to Yosemite National park in 1916.
“Our lives at times seem a study in contrast … everything seen in absolutes of black & white. Too often we are not aware that it is the shades of grey that add depth & meaning to the starkness of those extremes.” – Ansel Adams
Adams would go on to become the most important landscape photographer of the 20th century (perhaps of all time). His large-scale depictions of the US’ natural landscapes, which showcased the full tonal spectrum of black and white film, re-shaped the genre and had a dramatic influence on the leagues of distinguished photographers who followed him.
In 1925, Oskar Barnack developed the now-iconic Leica. The first camera to use 35mm film (which had been invented by Thomas Edison some thirty years earlier) was significantly more lightweight compact than the box cameras that dominated the market at the time and thus opened up a world of photographic possibilities.
The Leica would become the camera of choice for many of the most important practitioners of the time, pioneers of photojournalism and street photography, who demonstrated the rare power of the candid image. Its invention, combined with dramatic improvements in the quality of the film, which allowed for nuance, in detail, shade, and contrast, helped galvanize a photographic revolution, and the decades after its release were some of the most important in the history of the medium.
In the mid-1930s, Kodak debuted the now legendary Kodachrome. A color-reversal film, it allowed for the capture of highly detailed imagery in full, expressive chromaticity. Though it would achieve significant popularity among commercial photographers, and some amateurs, during the latter part of the twentieth century, for those working in what were considered more ‘serious’ styles, (with a few notable exceptions) black and white remained their palette of choice.
As a result: the zeitgeist of much of the 20th century – quotidian life; war; moments of upheaval or political unrest – was rendered in shades of grey.
By the turn of the 1980s, the near-supremacy of monochrome had dwindled, accelerated by the emergence of a new wave of influential color photographers who would further demonstrate the immense potential of the format.
Today color enjoys near monolithic status, ubiquitous from billboards to social media; print magazines, newspapers, and across the online sphere.
Yet, in spite of this, for some modern practitioners, the subtle tones of black and white continue to inspire: a palette that provokes, intrigues, and stirs the imagination.
“One very important difference between color and monochromatic photography is this: in black and white you suggest; in color you state.” – Paul Outerbridge
NB: The 2023 Black & White Award is open for entries until January 31. Photographers are invited to submit their work here.
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