A Critique on Mainstream Black and White Photography
Last month, I purchased a twenty-roll box of Fujifilm Neopan 1600. I had no idea if it was stored correctly. For all I knew, the seller’s claim that it had been frozen since the day it was purchased as new may not be entirely sincere. However, my friend Mr. Japan Camera Hunter alleviated my concerns. According to him, a significant number of Neopan 1600 fans hoarded the film in deep freeze right before it was rumored to be discontinued. As such, my film was probably stored correctly shortly after it was sold from the store.
Of course, the only way to know for sure is to try out the film itself. Unfortunately, the summer monsoons were in full swing, and I was leaving again for New York the following afternoon. Moreover, Judit is seldom available at nights. So, my prospects of trying out this batch seemed unlikely. But just as the proverbial door had closed on me, a window had unexpectedly opened. Anna had finally returned from her extended sojourn to save the day… or rather night of barometric uncertainty, given the dark clouds rumbling overhead.
The photowalk had to be at night. After all, it is a high speed film at ISO 1600. I wanted to evaluate its usability in the cover of darkness. I mean, what would be the point of shooting ISO 1600 under the noonday sun - even if the weather had permitted? As it turned out, the weather report was more favorable in the evening, with the day already consumed in heavy downpour. So to test out this batch of film, I had to bite the bullet. Either I took a chance with the weather, or waited a month when time permitted. So, I braved uncertainty.
Since I had to leave the next day, I had to bring my exposed film to New York for developing. I could’ve waited another week to sort that out. But, I was anxious. I needed to make sure my box of twenty wasn’t a dud. I have been bitten before by very expired film, which explains my apprehension. However, all that went away as soon as I retrieved my negatives back from Color Resource Center. Every roll came out the way it should - filling me with satisfaction and reminding me how mainstream black and white photography had lost its way.
Fundamentally, the problem I observe is a product of digital imaging in its continuing and unending resolve to optimize realism in documentation. This comes as no surprise, given how an expectation for higher resolution and increased sharpness has become the norm upending contemporary photography. As such, mainstream black and white photography has unwittingly prioritized definition of fine details to a point of hyperrealism. To my eyes, reproducing reality to that extent has never been the intent of black and white photography.
By comparison, I have always been of the opinion that rendering an impression of reality is the intent of black and white photography. Since color is removed in documentation, black and white photography by definition must be an abstraction of reality. Except for those afflicted with color blindness, black and white photography is not an accurate reproduction of reality and therefore cannot be considered a medium for optimizing it. So when reality is sought in black and white photography, the effort often exaggerates image definition.
Given the absence of color as an additional variable to define details in communicating the visual narrative of a black and white image, mainstream photographic enthusiasts tend to compensate this shortfall by globally increasing sharpness and contrast throughout the image, in an effort to reproduce greater perceived realism. Consequently, lines as well as edges between different tonal regions hardens while midtones recede in favor of deeper shadows and stronger highlights, thus diminishing the tonal gradation of the grayscale.
In the end, this exaggeration of detail definition in an effort to offset the absence of color typically overwhelms the overall impact of image presentation. Invariably, subtlety is lost to increased incidences of grotesqueness, with wrinkles and blemishes emphasized along the way. With every minutia of detail defined with great clarity, there’s nothing left for the imagination to fill in the blanks. When I’m subjected to look at these black and white attempts at hyperrealism, I feel like I’m being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. It hurts the eyes.
I admit. I am exaggerating in the writing of my critique of mainstream black and white photography. Moreover, I am being unfair. But, do you blame me? When the bulk of black and white photos you see tend to emphasize flaws instead of accentuating refinement for the sake of reproducing realism, you know there’s something out of alignment in the state of contemporary photography. I mean, you would expect that a photographer should opt to photograph a subject in the most favorable way and not in the most brutally honest way.
Besides, where is the honesty in bumping up the contrast and sharpness of the image in order to emphasize unflattering details? When striving for increased realism requires the use of editing software, the overall effort is wholly disingenuous. After all, depending on the magic of software is not a demonstration of photographic ability. As such, what’s the point of feigning realism in documentation? If realism were in fact originally sought, then greater attention to proper shooting fundamentals would have been practiced in the first place.
Still, this does not mean that the chosen objective of black and white documentation cannot be an attempt to reproduce realism - albeit without the variable of color. The absence of color can undoubtedly accentuate the interplay of shapes and lines throughout the tonal range from true white to true black. However, any attempts at reproducing realism in black and white photography must be intentional at the moment of documentation -wherein proper shooting fundamentals must be practiced to optimize retained details in image definition.
Generally, practicing proper shooting fundamentals is not the most practical option for the majority of photo enthusiasts. Recreational photographers tend to be opportunistic in undertaking and therefore cannot afford greater premeditation and deliberateness in undertaking, given the rush to capture the ever elusive decisive moment. For that reason, I suggest that recreational photo enthusiasts refrain from their desire to reproduce realism in black and white photography and instead opt to render an impression of realism.
The mind is remarkable. It does not need a photographer to spell out reality to the nth degree in order to be convinced that a presented image is a representation of reality. The mind only requires a sufficient amount of details in visible lines and shapes to recognize the contents captured in-frame - despite an absence of color. Given that an optimization of details shouldn’t be the focus of black and white photography, what then should it be? In my opinion, it is the interplay of tonal variation from true black to true white along the grayscale.
You see, the grayscale is the building block of a black and white image. It reproduces lines and shapes in the image capture. Moreover, it also creates an impression of three dimensional volume through tonal gradation within each tonal block. From that, details are formed and become recognizable. Faces become faces, arms become arms, and bodies become bodies. As a result, an impression of reality is rendered. Any more details from increased artificial definition of details would needlessly interrupt the interplay of tonal variation.
The images I am sharing on this blog entry is what I believe to be a proper demonstration of black and white photography. What you see is mostly what was shot on film with only a minimal adjustment in exposure for a handful of images. What I sought to capture is the elegance of tonal variation ranging from true white to true black in highlights, shadows, and desaturated colors without adversely impacting the grayscale. No attempts were made to emphasize reality because it has already been established with sufficient details.
With my emphasis kept on tonal variation, the resulting photos will be more natural in presentation. They do not try to be more than what it is. They are not brutally honest with the blunt force subtlety of a sledgehammer intensifying details to a point of unflattering hyperrealism. In contrast, the photos on this blog entry attempt to capture my partner-in-crime in the most favorable way. And in the final analysis, isn’t that the point of a proper photograph - whether in black and white or full color? To take a visually appealing photograph?
If however it is your desire to strive towards hyperrealism, be upfront about your intent. Get permission from your subject to photograph them unfavorably (for whatever reason) and do not depend on software to feign realism.
But, I suppose I understand the inclination to artificially bump up reality with software when processing digital files - whether natively captured with a monochromatic sensor or desaturated from a color sensor. Digital files are designed to be neutral in its raw state and can never replicate the look of real film capture without the aid of software in post processing. That said, software can never quite reproduce the look of film, given too many variables to address. Unsurprisingly, this leads to over-editing in post, which results in hyperrealism.
Personally, I believe the prevalence of poorly edited hyperrealistic photographs is an attempt to emulate the feeling of proper black and white film capture. For my sensibility, I just find shooting black and white film to be noticeably less tedious than shooting digitally. What I lose in the immediate gratification of digital capture, I gain in skipping the editing process. Besides, it is not like you could ever get the look of Fujifilm Neopan 1600 that easily in post… if ever at all! It’s just too bad Neopan 1600 has been discontinued in production.
All images have been digitized on a Pakon F135, cropped automatically from full negative during the scanning process. A handful of images had some minor adjustment in exposure. All images shot at box speed.