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The Aesthetics of Black and White Photography: An Introduction.





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, with its own particular evolution; unique yet paralleling -so influencing and being influenced by- the worlds of fine art and graphics, partaking of elite as well as popular art forms. A specialism for the connoisseur 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 (time outside of us) but the time of our experience; the time we experience, time as we experience it… With all its contractions and longeurs - and an intimate immediacy which we can, nevertheless, never quite pin down. And a strange habit of suddenly fading off into a past or a future with whom it shares uncertain borders; borders that barely separate our sense of the present from our memory and our expectations… So close to what we are is time that all attempts at separation are of necessity artificial – how to approach something that is irredeemably intimate, already there, in there with us, ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘behind the eyes’? Ourselves, as present to ourselves as the things we see before us, in colour; but what of our memories, and our visions for the future? Faded, translucent in comparison. Lacking in colour; like a black and white photograph. Also a way of recalling the past. With its lack of presence (as compared to colour, with our perception of the present). Black and white photographs immediately remind us that they were taken in the past. Their presence to us is in part a lack or presence, a semi-presence.


Thus the subtleties of the black and white photograph. What was thought to be out there on the page, folded tidily into the image before us, turns out to have been already there, ‘before’ the image in time; in the time we bring to the image. If the black and white photograph and our sense of time share a difficulty of definition it is in all likelihood because their proximity to one another and so to ourselves is dependant and constitutive. The moods of the black and white photograph appear to be temporal, linked to time in some way, the same moods as those in which our consciousness swims. Indeed it may well be that the kinds of time we ourselves experience, through which we order our experience, may determine the varieties of mood we find in the black and white photograph.


Most evocative, most popular of which… the ‘Classic’ – the Classic black and white photograph; the photo-poster on everybody’s wall; images everybody knows (Family of Man, Cartier-Bresson). Images which have earned their place in the history of the popular imagination. The black and white photograph as the classic form of the photograph; providing its ‘classic’ images. Followed by the uncanny extreme of the ‘Surreal’ (a genre continuously popular since the 1930s, from Man Ray and Max Ernst to Kon Mitchiko). Images which defamiliarise reality or reincorporate into it the logic of the dream (much like ‘magic realism’ in the recent history of writing). Then there are the almost supernatural qualities of certain landscapes (Ansell Adams); where it is clear we are viewing something if not, not of this earth, then pointing elsewhere for its force of meaning (the ‘Sacred’). More rare (amounting almost to a taboo in black and white photography) are the images where we experience an eerie sense of something indefinable but foretold, a quality at once hidden and predictive as conveyed by the ‘Oracular’ (from constructed sci-fi images of the future to abstract emptiness that connotes anxiety, our fear of what the future holds).


What all these moods of the black and white image have in common is their relationship to a particular form of time; more precisely each mood has an affinity with a particular form of time as we experience it. Whether to our sense of a valued survival from the past; something which has matured, ‘arrived’, become definitive of a great photographic image (the ‘Classic’). Or we may find an encounter with the anxiety attendant upon contemplating our future (the ‘Oracular’). A relationship with time almost forbidden to the world of the image. So pushing the lack of full presence or ‘semi-presentness’, which is the key defining feature of the black and white photograph (as defined against the ‘full presence’ of colour), into the revealing of the ‘past’ – when its lack of presence could just as logically be read as indicating the ‘future’. Yet we read it as a form of manifestation of the past; both as an actual relation to a depicted event (the photograph was taken in the past) and as a rhetorical reading or mood (we read the images as something that actually happened, as opposed to the surreal dream image, for example). This reading is then free to slide into the sense of a ‘Classic’.

Or there may be a sublime sense of timelessness, as if evoking a place outside of time (the ‘Sacred’). Landscapes become visions of the heavens or the abodes of the gods. We are here in the presence of the rhetoric of eternity.  What is important here is the sense of a pointer pointing outside of our  everyday world.

And then there is the uncanny evocation of a dream world where temporal and a-temporal coexist in an often grotesque but always mesmerizing, if unstable, mix (the ‘Surreal’). All these moods, listed  here above, are founded on the removal from our immediate presence that is the constitutive moment of putting into black and white, of the making of a black and white image framed by a world made ‘in colour’ – a set of moods further differentiated by their relation to, or ability to suggest, the basic forms of time through which we live.


Including one type we have not yet mentioned. A special case that despite being a clear case of the past in the present (like all recorded events – or even all recordings, their reference point being their time of making) is nevertheless felt to be the nearest thing to the sense of the present, to the portrayal of the present, in black and white photography. A presentation that is the nearest thing to the real. The making present of a (past) event; the event of which the record is before us now - with the focus on the fact of the event’s having happened (or the presence of the past). The documentary black and white photograph. Partaking of a quality quite apart from the magical transfiguration of the others discussed in the paragraphs above; apparently earth-bound, ‘gritty’ (yet contributing -over time, with the passing of time- to the genre of the ‘classic’; so becoming another kind of past in the present). Perhaps the greatest of illusions created in black and white: the sense of an unvarnished presentation of reality contained in an image drained of colour, delivered (long) after the event. Immediacy conveyed by its opposite. Or not quite… for what we have is authenticity as conveyed by a code. A (historical) habit of reading the image that we have not yet quite abandoned, even now in the age of the glossy magazine with its high quality colour images. Augmented by the sense of black and white precisely as once-removed, as a record, but the most ‘immediate’ (we know we are not ‘live’; that would be the genre of an unsteady and confusing flow of colour images). Urgency as conveyed by a record (an image once removed, as we are reminded by its presence in black and white) so not pretending to an immediacy no recorded or even still image can claim. The unvarnished nature of black and white as testament to its authenticity; that is, the ‘authenticity’, ‘truth’, or ‘reality’ of the object or event portrayed. It is documentary and so ‘present’ because it (honestly) refers to its own present as taken in the past (our true present, our ‘now’, our self-presence in time, is an evaporating, moving target…). If the ‘classic’ conveys the sense of ‘the past in the past’ to us in the present then the documentary image is ‘the past in the present’ (or ‘the present in the past’) as present before us.


So even in the genre, mood, or voice, of the documentary image, we find a maintaining of the sense of the ‘once-removed’, lack of full presence, or sense of semi-presence, that is the essential distinguishing feature, the formal aspect or means of expression, that supports or is the precondition of all the codes or moods that define the black and white image and its potential readings. The proof is the ease with which documentary type photographs become ‘classic’ over time. Their increasing age or ‘pastness’ translating to our sense of a classic past (a classic from the past; only survivors can do this; accumulate value over time; the tautology of the survival of the ‘best’). Aided and abetted by formal aesthetic qualities that the picture always contained but were not perhaps key to its early life as a content-based documentary image.


The relationship of the ‘classic’ to the documentary image is a special feature of (the history of) black and white photography. These two kinds, together with their wayward sister, the surreal, constitute the overwhelming majority of images in the world of black and white photography. The oracular, or future-pointing form, is rare and too angst-laden for most. Its contest with the past for the occupation of the semi-present slot in human experience, occupying a space defined as against the presence of the present, is always already lost. A contest not for the placing of an event or the making of the image, but in its reading, the ‘feelings’ we associate with it; thus the event behind the ‘classic’ feel of an image need not be too distant in the past, it is, at least in part, a quality we attribute to it. Whilst the ‘sacred’ form, which points us to the outside of time, has a long history in religious art and is usually only found in landscape photography or as an option for interpretation in the background, sky or horizon as part of an image (as in art history). Religious content normally documents religion and is not of necessity itself sacred (conveying a sense of ‘elsewhere’).


The moods of black and white photography may well be reducible to codes of reading established in the history of the genre; codes which nevertheless bear an uncanny affinity to the temporal types of our being.


If we now turn to the categories of the Beautiful and Sublime, often dismissed, but always returning to the stage of aesthetic discussion (even if often under the guise of other terminology). These broad categories of sensation are also to be found in black and white photography: first in the sense of unruly Nature and other vast matters as beyond our merely human ken – so suggesting something bigger than ourselves, perhaps threatening to (our sense of) ourselves; and second in the sense of Nature tamed, and in intimate detail – a pleasure with no sense of threat. The first is the experience of the Sublime and it is best if we define it clearly as a confluence of two kinds of meaning-making: the first sublime-making feature stems from a certain discomfort due to the apprehension of a threat (whether from the incomprehensible vastness of the universe to the content of other’s minds); the second sublime-making feature is as a deictic or pointing as if to an outside, or realm beyond our everyday -historical- experience. The subtraction of the sense of an ‘outside’, or of a mixing of inside and outside readily gives us our sense of the uncanny, the world of popular superstition, the Gothic (not least in modern film) and so progresses to the sense of the Surreal. The Beautiful, on the other hand, can be found in the foundational sense of order in the classic black and white image (its sense of rightness, of not being capable of betterment). Clearly a given landscape image can veer between both categories and even contain them both (this is the usual state of play in Eastern cultures and may also be the case with more Western art than was previously thought…).


The best readings of the Beautiful and Sublime are anthropological, as forms of ritual or as functional to our sense of identity. The order of Beauty is to confirm: the intake of breath that signals the Sublime is to first shake us up a little and then to reconfirm our identity in a larger mode (as a moment of insanity heralds sanity’s return). The two moments of the Sublime experience resemble that of narrative, a problem and then a solution, a moment of chaos which leads to a new order, an encounter with a Grand Narrative or Big Picture. In temporal terms, the Beautiful offers order ‘this side’ or in the world (although the patterns of decorative beauty may often suggest eternity through their suggestion of ideal form): conversely the Sublime offers a glimpse of eternity, which ‘though shaking us up a little is part of a moment where we reconfirm what we are and what we believe (by reference to this ‘outside’ - precisely as in the functioning of religion). In black and white photography it is certain landscapes that most clearly carry this force of meaning; whereas the proportion and composition of the classic image together with the depiction of the simple and uncluttered ornamental best covey the sense of detached Beauty which is the special sense of the Beautiful as found in the history of the black and white image.


Although many images are clear-cut examples of one or another type of mood, for example, clearly either ‘classic’ or ‘surreal’, other images consist of (or can be read as) combinations of two or more of these aesthetic or temporal moods. This mixed mode is perhaps most typical of those images felt to be both ‘classic’ and ‘sacred’ (as for example in some Adams landscapes, or certain images from the ‘Family of Man’ collection). Here the sense of surviving time and so of referring back, which confers the value of the ‘classic’, of a perfect moment surviving to remind and astound us, slides into timelessness with its intimations of immortality.


Or we may find sub-categories such as the ‘melancholic’; a special case of the past, which whilst it may possess ‘classic’ overtones, does nevertheless foreground the elements of loss or mourning, so heightening the sense of nostalgia which is generally present in the classic black and white photograph into a darker, more somber or more sobering experience.


As in the history of the painted image, there may be a mixing of moods together in the same photograph. Different parts of the same image may carry differing temporal values and so differing moods, as when the background is read as ‘sacred’ or pointing to a ‘beyond’ as defined by a given category of religious tradition). Grounds and frames read as temporal, as indicating past or future to the centre- or fore-ground’s present constitute the basis of the depiction of narrative in the image and usually requires the coding of movements as from the left to right-hand side of the image (in the West) or from the right to left-hand side of the image (in the traditional painting of the East).


Elements of this narrative directionality can also be found to remain in black and white photography, as does another hierarchy based upon left and right-handedness in the image. The sense of the place of power, ‘Right’, or morality in the picture, usually in the top left of the image as we look onto it. This sense is true of both eastern and western cultures, probably due to the influence of the object point of view as found in the history of sculpture; not only is the ruler or god incarnate in stone, but his (or occasionally, her) left and right priorities, that is their right-handedness, are read as prior to our subject point of view (their right has the Right to come first). So our top left is or becomes the right hand of the picture or statue (the point of view of the object). A telling example: in no culture does one pass around a sacred figure or object from the (our) right; we pass to the (our) left, the object’s right, and so pass clockwise (this implied movement trumps the directionality of narrative if there is a conflict between the two directionalities, as there was in ancient Eastern cultures, where the(ir) direction of narrative, (our) right to left, had to be reversed to accommodate the passage of pilgrims around sacred interiors, and so around statues of deities). (See for example, ‘The Wake of the Annunciation’, featuring the Museum Ludwig Collection, Koln, as part of a quantitative study).


Black, white… and grey. Black and white photography also admits of shades of grey. Both in tone and in meaning: black and white versus shades of grey; clarity as opposed to a more somber tone, crispness versus blurring. Blurring/soft focus may indeed be read as either adding to sense of pastness (a sense of the barely remembered, or affecting an aura of the half-remembered, or of something improved by memory, improved by lack of clarity, like the ideal) or the uncertainty of the future. A preponderance of grey can often be read as de-classicising; a ‘dirtying’ of the image implying a critique of the present depicted (now past) or of the trajectory into the future that the image suggests (industrialization, cultural poverty, pollution etc). Effects from the darkroom (like those added-in later in digital photography) and the results on the image of the manner of materials used (texture and type of paper, chemicals used in print) are all forms of the ‘means of expression’ and include the incredible clarity of certain large-format camera images as well as the sheer beauty of charcoal and silver tonalities as found in certain print processes.


If its continued popularity, as evinced by consumers, collectors and photographers the world over, bears witness to the survival of black and white photography in the modern world, then this continuity has also resulted in trends from the art world at large, the human sciences and recent philosophy offering their influence, as can be seen in the blurring of documentary (including ‘vernacular’, medical, police) and anthropological forms of record, and in the conceptual, post-conceptual and post-modern uses of black and white photography.




Copyright, Peter Nesteruk, 2010