Black And White Is Back...Again

Those who have been around for a while have to be amused by the occasional proclamation that another black and white renaissance has occurred. This pronouncement from industry wags is made every few years to usher in another glorious age for black and white photographers and printers. This time around the gushing is around new inkjet papers, dubbed "exhibition quality" by some, and printers to match, as well as a new formulation of T-MAX 400 film from Kodak. On the film side this is the first remake of T-MAX from Kodak since it was introduced back in the 1980s, promising the finest grain and best sharpness of any film in this speed class. On the print side these new papers were in abundance at the recent PhotoPlus Expo show in New York from a wide variety of paper sellers and makers. They promise enhanced blacks, textural whites, and a look that emulates the famed double-weight glossy dried matte (non-ferrotyped) papers prized by darkroom workers and collectors, and hung on gallery walls.

In truth, printmakers looking for high-quality inkjet papers and printers capable of delivering "silver halide-like results" in the past had a bit of a struggle. Inherent problems such as gloss differential (where ink on prints took on an unwanted sheen when viewed at an angle) and what was commonly called metamerism (the change of ink color when viewed under various light sources) tried the patience of most printers. There was also a lack of deep blacks, dubbed D-max by connoisseurs, that made for muddy images and lack of crisp shadow detail. But multi-black inksets and gloss optimizers built into more and more printers have, for the most part, solved those problems. The new papers are also capable of creating, with correct profiling and use of paper/ink combos, truly "snappy" prints. And the nice weight and fine finish of these new exhibition papers certainly are impressive. While the irony of the inkjet industry pursuing a silver halide look is not lost on those who have worked in black and white for many years, it is certainly a welcome improvement.

I abandoned the wet darkroom many years ago and began a pursuit of printmaking on the desktop. Having worked as a custom black and white printer for almost 12 years, with four days and sometimes six days a week in the darkroom, I knew that the chemical exposure was going to catch up to me and welcomed the change, despite the struggle it often entailed. I no longer wanted to work with allergy-causing chemicals, and worse, and thought the less exposure I had to compounds such as Metol and potassium ferricyanide, the latter being crucial to my work, the better. But leaving the wet darkroom did not dampen my enthusiasm and love for the black and white image. I had and still do view it as an essential part of my photography, one that allowed for the most individual interpretation and manipulation of an image. I know that many photographers share this passion, and I am glad to see that digital is beginning to catch up in the monochrome medium.

Photographers now have tools that allow for making black and white images in their digital cameras, with Monochrome modes, and great conversion features for raw images found in the latest versions of image-manipulation software. Indeed, for me, Photoshop CS3 is when Adobe finally recognized the importance of black and white to photographers using their software. Those who want to digitize their legacy film images have new tools as well, with multi-pass scanners and scanner software that can handle what had been an often grueling task of obtaining quality scans in the past.

So perhaps the pronouncements about a new black and white renaissance are not so far off after all. While for many of us black and white has always been and remains at the heart of their photographic expression, these new tools certainly allow access to the joys of the medium to more and more photographers. What has remained are the aesthetics of the medium and a recognition of what makes for a powerful, compelling black and white image. The fact that the paper and printer manufacturers have adapted to that point of view only reinforces and carries forward a tradition that spans many generations, one that sees black and white as an essential part of the heart and soul of photography.