A Grain-based Gallery - SoCal Sojourn
Images from SoCal Roadtrip and Musings on Monochrome
When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!
How many times have you heard people express thanks for the colorful world in which we live? To make that point, did they ever contrast that with a world in black and white that sounds like an apocalyptic nightmare?
Indeed, we are often led to believe that the world in which we live would look like a nuclear winter if we couldn’t see it in color. What this perspective does is strip color away to create an imaginary world where there is an absence of color, which naturally conveys a sense of starkness, despair, or misfortune.
Black and white photography, in both technique and meaning, is not the same as the absence of color in pictures, nor does it have to be associated with negative (no pun intended) connotations. The enduring appeal and popularity of black and white images is evident in the extensive use of black and white images in magazines, wedding albums, and on billboards today, even in a time when our phones shoot in fairly high resolution color.
It’s important to note that photography as an art does not pretend to represent things as they exist, and even though the first color film was introduced to the masses in 1935, and now most photography is executed digitally, we continue to use black and white film or convert digitally captured images to black and white for aesthetic reasons.
From technological artifact to artistic option
I often ask myself, what it is about black and white images, whether my own or other photographers’, that draws me to them in a way that color does not.
If the technology had been available at the time, surely film (and later television sets) would have only been produced in color and we would never have had black and white images. Being able to see in black and white, therefore, is another happy accident in a long line of them that includes the invention of ice cream.
So why do I tend to favor a way of expressing things that is merely an artifact of technological shortcomings?
Black and white is a choice.
Whilst I could go on at length about how the human brain draws from experience and imagination to fill in gaps, which could be expanded to assert that black and white presentation provides greater room for imagination, I would prefer to refer back to the quote at the top of this post, which points to an essential aspect of black and white presentation, that being that when color is not present as a surface layer what is left is something more substantive - be it gesture, expression, dynamism, structure, facial features, or simply the magic interplay of all the "gray areas" that comprise the range of tones available.
When I view black and white images I don't stare into the deep blacks trying to imagine what is or could be there. But there is something to be said for the way black and white expression strips an image down to the basics of composition, form, and the interplay of light and dark tones known in fine art as chiaroscuro. And the grain - oh, the grain!
I remember how astounded I was by the images from my first DSLR and how “clean” and free of grain or noise they were, while at the same time something about their sterility tugged at me. At the time I didn’t miss the grain of analog photos, but since returning to film for nearly a decade now I believe it is the physicality of the grain, particularly on black and white photos where it can often play an important role in the character of the image, that draws me in.
As a self-described film lover and also a pragmatist, I find little need to shoot color film in 135 (35mm) format and smaller, as digital offers such wide variation of possibility. Consequently, when I shoot 135 film I tend to want to try something other than shoot it at box speed and develop regularly. So I end up pushing, pulling, or cross processing my color 135 film, or shooting it through a camera with a distinct funk, like my beloved plastic fantastic Superheadz Black Slim Devil.
Nowadays when I travel I rarely bring color film with me, but I still pack multiple rolls of black and white film. The below gallery features images from a recent sojourn to Southern California, a bright sunny and colorful place, in black and white.
For the foto geeks out there, I mostly used my late-50s Canon rangefinder and a Voigtlander Nokton 50/1.5 lens. Film was Eastman 5222 (Double X) and Kodak Tri-X. I exposed the XX at 400 and developed at 800, and exposed the Tri-X at 200 and developed at 400 in Rodinal.
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