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Black and White Photography

A study in contrasts

Photograph: Michael Wickes

Photograph: Michael Wickes

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Photographs are interpretations of the world—optical, chemical, or digital images recorded by a photographer. Black and white images are a further abstraction, and more clearly about an idea or concept, than color images of the same subject.

While equipment, film, and paper have evolved, the basic principles and processes of black and white photography have remained virtually the same for the past 100 years. But while in some ways it may seem a medium of the past, thankfully, there continue to be photographers “seeing” the world in black and white, translating what we experience as color into startlingly vivid gray tonalities that give us another way of looking at the world.

Among local photographers, Michael Wickes is emblematic of a generation who grew up with black and white influences—black and white television, classic movies, black and white photographs in newspapers and magazines. As a consequence, he became keenly aware of lighting.

“Black and white is harder to shoot,” observes Wickes. “It is more demanding of exact exposure, and you need to pay close attention to elements of composition and texture. Black and white focuses you on the story, the subject; and, like poetry, it is lean. After all, the black areas in a black and white photograph are silence—quiet passages in an audio sense.”

Ketchum resident Thia Konig was trained to use many different film formats, types of cameras, and processes, and matching the combination of equipment and technique with her subject has always appealed to her. Among the techniques she employs is sepia toning, which imbues an image with a warm brown tone. The effect delivers an antique look to her tribal portraits, adding to the timelessness of the images.

Another method involves shooting with infrared film, which responds to heat and records subjects differently from standard black and white film and it adds a grainy, ethereal effect to the scene.


Photography courtesy of Gail Severn Gallery.
Left: Jack Spencer, Right: Louis Gonzålez Palma

“You have to train yourself to think like the film,” she says. Konig prefers to shoot people in black and white, “because you are not distracted by the colors, and can better appreciate the subject.”

Different types of film, paper, and processes enable photographers to control and affect the final image. The simplest conventional photographs commonly made in a darkroom are gelatin silver prints. A vintage print is one that was made, usually by the photographer, around the period when the photograph was originally taken, and is often dated or signed. This distinguishes it from a print that might be printed years later, often by an assistant. Vintage prints are usually rarer, and consequently more valuable. There are many variations among black and white images, usually involving printing techniques (how a negative was printed onto paper in a darkroom), alteration of the image after it was made, or the process of recording it onto a surface, which can be paper or any surface to which a photo-emulsion (light-sensitive emulsion) has been applied.

At the end of the 19th century, several new processes emerged that made it possible to reproduce photographs onto paper, and photographs began to appear in newspapers, magazines, and other media involving paper (such as advertising). Photogravure is a high-quality printing press process that dates to the beginning of the 20th century, which copies the image onto a printing plate, and allows many copies to be made.

Several notable artists used this process to mass produce images, including Alfred Stieglitz, who used it in the production of his seminal magazine, Camera Work, and Edward S. Curtis, who used the process to mass produce his images of American Indians.

In addition to being a remarkable photographer, Curtis recognized the potential benefits of mass marketing, and had his images printed in photogravure for the purpose of selling them. Today, his prints are recognized for his artistic vision, and their unique place in the arc of the 20th century evolution of black and white images. Curtis prints can often be found at the Broschofsky Gallery in Ketchum. >>>


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