A Theory of Black and White Photography:
Black and White Photography in China
(China Nationality Art Photography Publishing House, 2015).
Languages: Chinese & English.
Publication Date: November, 2015.
Why Black and White Photography? An Introduction
Evoking the Past: What makes a Black and White Photograph a ‘Classic’?
Making Present: Making History (Making Present History). The Documentary Image in Black and White
From ‘Being Timeless’ to the ‘Outside of Time’: Photographing the Sublime
Dreams and Nightmares: Photography as Ritual Transgression
Another Kind of Dream: Visions, Prophecies and Anxieties
Conclusion: The Future of Black and White Photography
The reason why the magic of black and white photography persists long after its technological supersession can be hard to define. Definitive is: that we still find the atmospheres and moods it evokes compulsive. It enchants and enthralls us and, just when we feel that its spell is of an altogether delicate cast, it pulls us up short with an image as earthy as the others were ethereal.
Black and white photography is an art form out on its own. Unique, with its own particular evolution; yet paralleling -so influencing and being influenced by- the worlds of fine art and graphics, as of the recording of events and the documenting of history. It partakes at once of ‘art world’ meanings, as well as those of popular culture and reportage. A specialism for the connoisseur and archivist which nonetheless elicits popular affection. Yet despite many attempts to describe its essential difference from the other genres of the image -not least of which, its only recently accepted younger sister, colour photography- the closer we peer at this particular aesthetic phenomenon, the more its apparent clarity of line disperses and disappears. Like mist approached, or reflection dissolved as the surface of water is touched, black and white photography resembles most closely that other phenomenon that -examined too closely- also becomes ever more evanescent, ever harder to pin-down. In this respect photography resembles time. Not the time of clocks and calendars (time outside of us) but the time of our experience; time as we experience it (from inside). An intimate immediacy which is where we always seem to be, but which we can never quite pin down. And with a strange habit of suddenly fading off into a past or a future with which the present, that which is present to us, shares sometimes uncertain borders; the borderlines of memory and of expectations. Our sense of the present, we, ourselves, as present to ourselves as the things we see before us, all in colour - ‘live’. But what of our memories and our uncertain visions of the future? Memory, we normally can (and must) differentiate from the present. It is less vivid, less… present; as past, as what has past, we must not confuse it with the present. Faded, translucent in comparison. Lacking in… colour: like a black and white photograph. Once also a way of recalling the past (once the only way of recording the past). With its lack of presence (as compared to colour, the colour of our perception of the present). Black and white photographs immediately remind us that they were taken in the past. In this they do not lie. Their presence to us is in part a lack of presence, a semi-presence. Or a ‘different’ kind of presence. A ‘half-truth’ that has survived, is all that is left of what once was true.
The suggestion put forward in this book will be that this survival, the continuing presence of its charm and its force, is due in part to the sensitivity of black and white photography as a genre to the suggestion of meanings associated with time and temporality. Just as in the history of art many effects of meaning are traceable to the painterly use of time or the rhetoric of time, indeed to the deliberate and strategic confusion of space with time, so with the history of photography. The photograph also partakes of the appropriation of space for the expression of time; a product of our temporal sense, of our living in time (of having a past, present and future) and in our sense of being in some manner in debt to something, somewhere, ‘outside of time’ (the rhetoric of eternity or the reference to an absolute ‘outside’). We only need to add the indeterminate, ‘in-between’, world of the dream to complete the list. The meanings of art are always in some manner a product of the human experience of time as applied to the realm of the image. The back and white photograph not only is no exception to this rule, it may even be especially, even generically, sensitive to the portrayal of the different modes of human temporal apprehension. Certainly, as we shall see, the present, past and surreal (or dream) forms of temporality appear to have a special affinity with the black and white photograph – one key perhaps to its lasting fame.
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2015