To many, traditional black-and-white photography is an out-of-date practice. At first glance, a colorless image may seem like a representation of the past — a piece of history captured for personal or collective posterity. And because today’s digital cameras can transform the most fumble-fingered into an accidental pro, black-and-white photography may hold little appeal for some beginners.
But for amateur and professional photographers, shooting and developing black-and-white pictures can present a unique challenge to their creative and technical skills. The craft of taking black-and-white photographs is what Michael Lising, who teaches a photography class at the MU Craft Studio, finds most appealing about the medium. Lising compares it to cooking, another pursuit with rules that beg to be broken.
“You can follow a recipe — deal in a style to come up with images,” Lising says. “Or you can just totally improvise and still come up with equally good or better images.”
In many ways, photographers who work in black and white are purists, says Kathy Aron Dowell, executive director of the Society for Contemporary Photography in Kansas City.
“They like the methodology,” Dowell says. “They’re not interested in immediacy. They’re more interested in craftsmanship.”
Another appeal of black-and-white photography to both the photographer and the viewer is the subtle but meaningful shift in perspective that the image creates. To most, color represents reality; taking it away changes almost everything.
“Some people like the fact that black and white is considered one step removed from reality,” Dowell says.
Dan Gemkow, a 29-year-old student at Columbia College, strives to build on traditional methods. He may add color to the image, paint on it or print it on wood, Plexiglas and mirrors.>
“I’ll push it as far as it will go,” Gemkow says.
Gemkow sometimes uses a darkroom technique called solarizing, or Sabattier printing, which creates both positive and negative images. Gemkow used solarization to impose a creative pattern over the body of Michelangelo’s David.
“It basically sums up how I feel about Las Vegas,” he says. “There’s a cheesy feel to it.”
Gemkow thinks the same image in color would lose much of its aesthetic appeal. The contrast between the dark background and the lighter statue “pops out what you want to pop out,” he says. “It’s harder to get that with color.”
The monochromatic tones of black-and-white photography add depth and mystery to images, Gemkow says. “The photograph becomes more abstract. It makes some things harder to recognize where, in color, it would be easy.”
Like Gemkow, Kevin Dingman, 40, uses black-and-white technology to make a statement. His photograph “Flatiron” was made using the bromoil process to pay tribute to two photographers of the early 20th century, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen.
Dating back to 1907, the Bromoil process involves bleaching a traditional black-and-white print to transform the surface of the image’s middle and darker tones so that it will accept ink.
“It gives the image a painterly feel,” Dingman says. He adds that the bromoil process was common in Stieglitz and Steichen’s day.
Dingman, who teaches black-and-white photography at Westminster College in Fulton, uses the colorless medium to teach the fundamentals of photography, such as composition and lighting. With color photography, Dingman says, students “get caught up in the eye candy and forget they need a subject and composition.”
Gemkow agrees. He compares black-and-white photography to drawing, which he considers “a fundamental seed of art.” Like drawing, black-and-white photography is, in Gemkow’s view, a gateway skill.
“It’s nice to know how it all starts,” he says. “Once you know the roots, you have a better understanding of the medium.”
Deanna Dikeman reached that understanding and has never looked back. Traditional black-and-white photography was not only a gateway to a particular skill but to a new career. She was so impressed by the depth of black-and-white photography after taking a course in it that she switched her plans from a career in business to a career in commercial and art photography.
That was 19 years ago. Today, Dikeman, 50, is a professional photographer who works out of her home in Columbia. Dikeman relies on black-and-white photography when she thinks color will distract the viewer from the emotional center of an image.
She points to a checkered hat her father wears in the photograph “Apple tree, 8/03” as an example. Without the distraction of color, Dikeman says the focus of the image shifted from the red-and-white hat to her father’s facial characteristics and expression. The quality of light, which shapes everything in the picture, was equally important to the final image.
“There are no harsh shadows,” Dikeman says.
Although darkroom techniques can lend a distinctly artistic quality to a print, developing black-and-white pictures is not a difficult process to learn.
“It’s not rocket science or quantum physics,” Lising says. “You just need an interest.”
Ease aside, some experienced photographers think the quality of prints made in the darkroom can never be surpassed by digital images. The gelatin silver print process is still the most common way to make black-and-white prints from photographic negatives. The paper is coated with a layer of gelatin that contains light-sensitive salts. The first silver prints appeared in the 1870s, and by the turn of the century had replaced albumen prints, which are made by coating the paper with a mixture of egg whites and water, because the silver prints are more stable and do not turn yellow.
“Silver prints have a little glow,” Dikeman says. “There’s a quality in them that you can’t get on the inkjet printer.”
“There’s magic in the process,” Dingman says of the darkroom’s appeal. “As soon as someone sees that image appear, they’re hooked.”
Hoping to get more professional-looking pictures, MU student Alex Durdello recently took an instructional photography course offered by the Craft Studio. Although she was a bit apprehensive about the darkroom, she found she enjoyed developing her own images.
“It’s a really neat process,” says Durdello, who plans to learn more about black-and-white photography. “It’s a lot easier than I thought.”
Lising describes the darkroom as “a dim room with a kind of submarine-safety-light feel to it.” Prints are subjected to water and chemical baths before a final image emerges. Although a certain chemistry is involved, the darkroom is a meditative, almost therapeutic place with its own rhythm.
“From the beginning to the end,” Dingman says, “it’s easy to get lost in it.”
For Lising, spending time in the darkroom “gives you not only time to think about what you’re doing, but to slow down and think about other things that are going on in your life. You have that time to just let your mind drift.”
Yet, for Dikeman, the darkroom isn’t sacred.
“Whatever means works the best I’ll go with,” Dikeman says. “I’m ready to embrace new technology.”
William Blunt, on the other hand, is going back in time further than most. Blunt, 55, photographs rural Missouri using the bulky old-time large format cameras and sheet film that were popular in the late 19th century. The platinum and palladium printing process he uses was patented in 1873. Because the required paper is no longer available, Blunt said he hand coats sheets of fine art paper.
“It’s just a different process and a different medium,” he says. Blunt photographs older objects because they possess tones that show up better in black and white. “There’s just a certain aesthetic that appeals to me more,” he says.
Blunt’s image, “Alley Spring Mill,” is characteristic of platinum and palladium’s ability to show exquisite detail and give the image of a three-dimensional effect. Blunt says this effect is created by platinum and palladium particles embedded in the fibers of the fine art rag paper. “There’s no glare or shine either,” Blunt says.
Perhaps the beauty of Blunt’s photographs — not to mention his commitment to a time-honored method — is the best indicator that black-and-white photography is in no danger of becoming obsolete, even among amateurs. Dingman sees the emergence of more sophisticated technology as a possible boon to black-and-white photography.
“It’s removed black and white from its commercial chains,” he says. “That allows people to explore the medium’s fine art possibilities.”
Nor is Dingman worried that the older techniques will disappear.
“It’s part of photographic history,” Dingman says. “Just because people get star-struck with technology doesn’t mean the old processes will evaporate.”