ON SECOND THOUGHT…OR THIRD
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST AMAZING BY-PRODUCTS OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY, a trend still evolving across both amateur and professional ranks, is a kind of tidal return to black-and-white imaging. The sheer volume of processing choices, both in-and-out-of-camera, have made at least dabbling in monochrome all but inevitable for nearly everyone, reversing a global trend toward near exclusive use of color that was decades in the making. At one point, to be sure, we chose black and white out of necessity. Then we embraced color and relegated B&W to the dustbin of history. Now, we elect to use it again, and increasing numbers, simply because everything technical is within our reach, cheaply and easily.
Looking back, it’s amazing how long it took for color to take hold on a mass scale. Following decades of wildly uneven experimentation and dozens of processes from Victorian hand-tinting to the Autochromes of the early 1900’s, stable and affordable color film came to most of us by the end of the 1930’s. However, there was a reluctance, bearing on tantrum, among “serious” photographers to embrace it for several more decades. This article from the Life magazine Library of Photography, a history-tutorial series from the 1970’s, discusses what can only be called photography’s original anti-color bias:
Although publishers and advertisers enhanced their messages with pictures in color during the first few decades of the color era, most influential critics and museum curators persisted in regarding color photographs as “calendar art”. Color, they felt, was, at best, merely decorative, suitable, perhaps, for exotic or picturesque subjects, but a gaudy distraction in any work with “serious” artistic goals.
Of course, for years, color printing and processing was also unwieldy and expensive, scaring away even those few artists who wanted to take it on. Still, can you imagine, today, anyone holding the belief that any kind of processing was a “gaudy distraction” rather than just one more way to envision an image? Color was once seen by serious photographers as an element of the commercial world, therefore somehow..suspect. Fashion and celebrity photography had not yet been seen as legitimate members of the photo family, and their explosive use of color was almost thought of as a carnival effect. Cheap and vulgar.
Of course, once color became truly ubiquitous, sales of monochromatic film plummeted, and, for a time, black-and-white found itself on the bottom bunk, minimized as somehow less than color. In other words, we took the same blinkered blindness and just turned it on its head. Dumb times two.
Jump to today, where you can shoot, process and show images in nearly one continuous flow of energy. There are no daunting learning curves, no prohibitive expenses, no chemically charred fingertips to slow us down, or segregate one kind of photography from all others. What an amazing time to be jumping into this vast ocean of possibilities, when images get a second life, upon second thought.