Fan ho finding love and light in 1950s hong kong in pictures
Finding Love Art Black And White Photography

Finding Love Art Black And White Photography Finding Love Art Black And White Photography

In Meyerowitz’s image on the left, his understanding of black and white (and the work of masters, like Robert Frank) are all in play. He’s pared down the idea to some simple shapes that are playing with lights and darks purposefully and poetically. Most notably, the woman’s jacket and the marquee sign above her head, which are the darkest forms on the image and, not coincidentally, both crucial to the narrative. On the right, dark shapes are strewn all about. A product of only discovering those shapes after the image was converted.

I’m but one of many who have built upon the works of masters. Even those who’ve extended beyond photography into the higher echelons of conceptual art find use in working with the foundational elements of black and white.

One of the most well-known photographers of monochromatic imagery is Ansel Adams, whose name is practically synonymous with black and white landscape photography. Several well-known photojournalists used the medium to document current events. Dorothea Lange is known for “Migrant Mother” (1936) and other images of life during the Great Depression, Robert Capa is famed for his war photo essays like “Capturing the Truth,” and Ernest Cole and David Goldblatt photographed apartheid life in South Africa. Modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz is credited with producing the first abstract photographs in his “Equivalents” series (1925-1934), which depicted the sky and clouds. Famous black and white photographs include Robert Doisneau’s iconic “Kiss by the Town Hall” (1950) and artist Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” self-portrait series (1977-1980). Other photographers famed for their black and white photography include Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Raoul Hausmann, Brassai, Seydou Keita, Malick Sidibe, Ray K. Metzker, Jacques Henri Lartigue, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and fashion photographer Herb Ritts.

Who were these famed early black and white artists and what qualities embodied their images? I actually like how it’s described within the Wiki entry on New York School of Photography, which talks about them as…

Takeaway: separate out the style of shooting from the content of shooting. If you love black and white, you can learn from the masters but still make the content and ideas your own.

Besides its obvious historical personal value, it does everything right, as an image — aesthetics aside, I simply feel the emotion of that moment, the weight of those baskets, the thickness of that fog. It transcends technique. I also love that the horizon line is not perfect, which for me speaks to the quickness with which Mydans saw and captured that moment. I can almost feel his excitement for it in the leaning of the telephone poles.

Photographers can choose to start with a color photo, then dramatically alter the overall effect using digital conversion to grayscale or edit their black and white photography with color accents. Conversely, those who prefer analog photography may choose to shoot using black and white film. Although the virtues of film over digital in the realm of black and white photography is highly debatable, some analog enthusiasts cite such subtleties as film grain, dynamic range (i.e. whiter whites and blacker blacks), and more detailed highlights as top reasons for shooting with black and white film. Photographers may also decide to manipulate their black and white photographs. Surrealist photographers, for example, used techniques like multiple exposures, brulage (in which the negative is heated and partially burned), and solarization (in which the color tones are reversed), to achieve an uncanny effect in their works. Regardless of the process, many contemporary fine-art photographers still choose to use some level of digital image editing for enhancement. 

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This is all enabled by shooting with black and white in mind to begin with. This way, you know very quickly if it’s right or not. You’re not experimenting in post to figure it out.

And when I’m out shooting in black and white, but it’s not driven by a conceptual narrative, it’s images like these and this mindset of composition-first that drives how I approach a shot. This image from Budapest, I took while out shooting in collaboration with Leica is an example of seeking out relationships of forms in that way.

I’ve annotated all of the moves I made on this image, which was processed in under :30.

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Masterful black and white photography comes down to understanding the masters of the medium.

That’s a basic black and white conversion and my (and a lot of other photographers’) rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t look great after doing a simple conversion like this, move on.

In the image of the man holding the large dog, by Joel Meyerowitz, there is none of the contrast of a Ray Metzker light/shadow shot. In fact, judging by the lack of shadow cast from central figure, it was likely a very overcast day. Yet, the purposefulness of the composition is flawless, creating simplicity out of complexity. Every single element of the image serves a purpose here, from the receding street behind the main characters to the shop window to the street lamp in the foreground.

Not every idea looks great in black and white, and certainly color photography is a far more contemporary art form. But black and white imagery has a particular place in art and image-making. When done traditionally and mindfully, it forces a certain look on the world. Some say, deeper.

“a loosely defined group of photographers who lived and worked in New York City during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s” and who, although disinclined to commit themselves to any group or belief, “shared a number of influences, aesthetic assumptions, subjects, and stylistic earmarks”.

Livingston writes that their work was marked by humanism, a tough-minded style, photojournalistic techniques, the influence of film noir

It’s a bit hard to grasp just what the difference is between a black and white photo that was intended to be black and white versus one that was converted. It takes a bit of eye-training. It helps to visualize it:

In these settings where the image is not being defined by light, the composition of the frame in capturing the moment is critical. You’re dealing with relationships — form to frame, form to environment, and form to other forms. In black and white, those compositional relationships stand out more than in color and so the black and white photographer must be purposeful with them.

So, whose style do you love the most? Photography is a process of choosing what not to shoot. Both in subject (your crop) but also in your style. This is the hardest part of photography, in my opinion. In many years of mentoring, I know I can get a student to learn almost any technique, but I cannot get them to commit to a singular style, even though I know that they will grow faster, artistically, if they can learn it deeply through that kind of narrow commitment. It’s hard. And it feels like giving up on opportunities to commit to the singularly of one style.

The takeaway: pre-visualize your shoot as one without color. This will lead to decision-making in shooting that simplifies your composition and accentuates different things. It’s seeing without the influence of color.

It’s tempting to think of it as a tonal curve, where you can weigh dark against light (and I’ll get into that), but if you look at the images above, you can see they don’t all fall into the same range. It’s not the quality of tones that makes it classic, it’s the pre-meditated approach where only black and white is an option. You can just tell they shot with every element of the photo, aside from color, in consideration.

What’s confusing is that different photographers did it differently, but the end result always still somehow came together into something recognizably of that style. It can be a difficult thing to fully grasp — exactly what makes up a classic black and white photo — but the more you stare at them, the more apparent I think it becomes.

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The Takeaway: When going out to shoot with black and white in mind, you use environmental elements to create relationships between forms. Every piece of that composition has heightened meaning and purpose.

Another defining element of classic black and white photography born of the “black and white era” is the journalistic purposefulness of it. More than simply going out on assignment, as the Life Magazine photographers did, it’s about going out to capture life. And black and white photography seems to want to really get into the depth of humanity. Even when the subject matter gets lighter, the classic black and white photographer finds a side of it that goes a bit deeper.

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Seeing colorlessly is about focusing your attention on the shapes and forms, and thinking about how they work within your composition. Shadows and pockets of light are the simplest form of this. My own style of mid-day shooting makes this very easy because the shadows are hard-edged and at their most contrasty. But even when there are not big obvious shadows to delineate forms in, there is still a way that objects and composition become more purposeful with black and white.

And if you buy into the idea that the classic black and white style was done as well as it can be done by the titans of Life Magazine, Magnum, documentarians, artists and fashionistas of the time, then the first important thing to do if you want to shoot in a classic black and white style is decide… who do you want to shoot like?

Black and white photography is a truly timeless medium. Line, texture, contrast, and tone are dramatically brought to the fore in monochromatic images. Even today, long after the advent of color film, some photographers still choose to work exclusively in B&W for how it allows them to portray their subjects in new, often surprising ways. Whether you’re looking for exclusive, limited edition black and white prints or high quality poster-sized prints, we’re confident that Saatchi Art’s global selection of black & white photography for sale contains works that suit your personal style and space. 

My own work, when I’m being extremely purposeful about it (not just going out and having fun shooting) is conceptual in nature. I shoot with a narrative in mind and prefer to work in a series. But my style is straight classic black and white.

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It’s not as simple as shooting in color and converting in post

This image here was just the first one I found for this quick demo of my post-process techniques. It’s a fairly typical touristy shot down the street from where I live, but capturing the VENICE sign in a way where it is isolated in the sky is actually a bit tricky (thank you, Anjelica Huston’s house). It’ll work fine for purposes of showing how I convert:

In this article, I’m going to outline what I think are the important factors in approaching monochrome photography in the way the masters did. But it’s only my own views on it. My approach looks backward as much as forward— which is to say, I believe that the art of shooting for black and white was perfected decades ago and anyone who wants to take classic black and white photos does best to approach it with deference to the masters who had to work in black and white.

We all have a photo that stirred us in this way. That connected us to the power of black and white. And I would venture to say that whatever photo that is, it was taken — or is emulating an image that was taken — during a specific era of photography.

I’m more than happy to let go of an image that just isn’t working and move on. It’s just part of photography.

Quintessential black and white photography (which, for purposes of this article, I’ll use as the common, colloquial expression for monochrome photography) is not a process of simply shooting in color and then converting to grayscale. And in my opinion it also differs (or at least is larger in scope) than the use of a monochrome camera or black and white film.

The lack of options for color created a heightened look at everything else. Form, composition, tone, contrast, light, shadow and, of course, moment.

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Vivian Maier shot differently than Weegee. Weegee shot differently than Bruce Gilden. Bruce Gilden shot differently than Joel Meyerowitz. Bruce Meyerowitz shot differently than Ray Metzker. And even Ray Metzker shot (slightly) differently than Fan Ho. But together, they cover a lot of the bases of classic black and white photography, born of an era where that was really the only choice. Figuring out which of these styles helps accentuate your own voice is the biggest step for a black and white photographer. A big step back, perhaps, to take a big step forward.

These “influences, aesthetic assumptions, subjects and stylistic earmarks” spread out far beyond New York, but they are an understood set of qualities that have become the pinnacle of black and white photography. Because they had no choice, they mastered and defined the process of thinking and shooting for black and white. For anyone looking to do effective black and white, the answers are all in the photographs of those who reached the height of photojournalism in the era where black and white was how it was done.

You don’t shoot in black and white, you shoot for black and white. It’s a mindset.

This image, “Fog Coming In (Swansea), 1954” by Carl Mydans is one I consider a classic, and to which I tend to judge all my own photography (and maybe all photography) by. Mydans was a Life Magazine photographer — more known for his war photography— but he of course shot well beyond that one subject, as all photographers do. I grew up with a real print from an edition of this photo on my wall, and it is how I was first introduced to black and white. It is still on my wall, today.

This screen grab below is of the main editing controls in Lightroom. They are normally all I use for establishing the look of my image (dodging and burning is a separate story):

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I picked these two partly for the funny juxtaposition but also for some very subtle and distinctive discussion about the use of blacks and whites in capturing imagery.

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IntroductionHistory of Black and White PhotographyBlack and White Photography TechniquesArtists Known For Black and White Photography

This dawned on me when I studied with Mary Ellen Mark. The entirety of her teachings involved going and finding an interesting place and interesting subjects — Day 1 of her workshop: look at your work. Day 2: go find someplace interesting. And that makes complete sense if you want to shoot in a documentary style like Mary Ellen Mark, whose most famous work followed interesting characters in interesting settings. But that would not be the schedule in studying with someone like, say, Toni Frissell.

The history of black and white photography originated in ancient times with the advent of the camera obscura, but the development of the medium did not really take off until the early 1800s. The refinement of the camera arose from a series of experiments, beginning with Thomas Wedgwood’s silver nitrate paper method. In the 1820s, Nicephore Niepce successfully created a photograph, though the process took days to complete and only produced negatives. His partner Louis Daguerre yielded better results with his well-known daguerreotype process, which was introduced to the public in 1839. This invention sparked a high demand for portraiture. Later experiments shortened exposure time and improved the formal qualities of photographs. Photographer Sergei Lvovich Levitsky introduced the use of interchangeable backdrops for photo shoots and retouched negatives to remove any imperfections. By 1884, portable film replaced glass plates, and soon after, the first Kodak cameras were sold. As cameras and film became more accessible to the public, black and white photographic art developed both inside and outside the studio. Today the tradition continues on both digital and analog platforms.

I’ve had to make, and re-make, this decision myself over the years. I’ve tried a lot of different styles, but in the end, I’m more Metzker than Mark. It’s just where my temperament and tastes live. But I’m fully cognizant that I didn’t invent the style, nor am I nearly the only one shooting in it.

I find it helps if you simply think of it as Human Journalism. All the images of the classic photographers of black and white seemed to be wanting to delve into something about humanity. To uncover our truth, our meaning, or even a human appreciation for the majesty of a great landscape.

Advice like “follow the masters” can sometimes seem like it detracts from one’s own creativity. But I find it helps to remember that this is purely a discussion of style, not content. There are ingredients that are inherent in a classic photograph just as there are ingredients inherent in a classic Italian meal. You can still change up the recipe, even if you’re relying on some age-old techniques.

I believe in a simple post-process technique that happens quickly and lets you know within seconds if you’ve got a shot worth keeping. Because so much of a shot should be predetermined by your idea and purposefulness of shooting, if you find yourself trying to make an otherwise average image great through post-processing, then it’s already a lost cause.

Takeaway: if you want to shoot in a classic black and white style, take the straightest path forward and find your muse. There are at least a hundred to choose from and they all have that purpose-built black and white approach to shooting, born of an era that had to succeed at it. Stand on their shoulders.

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