Black and White Photography
A study in contrasts
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With the emergence of digital imaging in the last 20 years, inkjet prints have gained in popularity among many photographers. While there are different names for some of these processes, they share certain common features. An image (print or negative) is scanned into a computer, and the image is then produced with an inkjet printer. The essential difference between traditional darkroom processes and this technique is this: The traditional process produces a print in which the image is in the emulsion of the paper, while inkjet prints are simply what their description implies—ink on paper. For this reason, if the same image is printed both ways and compared side by side, an inkjet print will often have a “flatter” appearance. This flattened aspect can also be produced by using papers that absorb the ink, such as papers traditionally used by watercolorists.
Making multiple-image prints (printing from different negatives onto a single piece of paper) and then hand-coloring them, is a technique that dates back to the late 19th century. Local photographer Barbara Kline is well-known for using this process. She is constantly excited by the magic of watching an image appear in the darkroom trays, and works with up to five different enlargers, adding portions of the different negatives into a single print. After the prints are dry, she uses Marshall’s Oils to color specific areas of the image. Although she works in editions (a limited number of the same image), and different print sizes, Kline says no two images are exactly alike.
Photograph: Michael Wickes
Among the many contemporary artists represented at Gail Severn Gallery—which also handles vintage black and white photography—Jack Spencer and Luis González Palma work with black and white photographs, but alter the image in some fashion. González Palma often makes straightforward frontal portraits, but after printing the picture, he changes and adds to it by toning, bending, folding, scratching, burning, or painting on its surface. He may then combine the image with other materials such as documents, other photographs, or transparencies, to produce a unique kind of collage. The final results are often disquieting, sometimes reminiscent of religious icons. Spencer seeks out adifferent kind of spirituality in the dreamy portraits and landscapes of his travels—from the South where he grew up, to more exotic locales, like Mexico.
His black and white prints are subtly colored with toners, making them timeless in an evocative fashion, as they are both records and feelings about their subjects.
Barbi Reed, owner of Anne Reed Gallery, which has a national reputation for exhibiting photographs (both black and white, as well as color) is a photographer herself, and for many years has worked with black and white film developing and printing in her own darkroom. “Black and white photographs are classic and timeless,” she observes, “whether vintage prints by Imogen Cunningham, contemporary images by Misha Gordin, or wedding photos. When a wide tonal range is achieved, black and white prints can be breathtakingly beautiful, poetic, or even mysterious.
“Often, a collector can install black and white photographs on the same wall, whether in a grid, a straight line, or salon-style,” says Reed. “While similar groupings of color photographs could be visually intrusive, black and white prints can be complementary and hung together make a compelling and cohesive installation.”
While black and white images have almost become an anomaly in today’s world of color photographs, photographers exploring the world in this way provide us with a poetic and evocative window into their luminous imaginations.
Mark Johnstone has been writing about photography and art for magazines, catalogs, and books in the United States, Europe, and Japan since 1978. He has taught photography since 1973, and has made photographs since 1968.