First color, and now digital technology has essentially taken over commercial and amateur photography. Although new possibilities have emerged in the making of fine prints in the digital age, the black and white darkroom remains the preferred route for many of us.
Black and white has been called the mother tongue of photography. In the first century or so of the art form, black and white, or monochrome, was the only option, and it still remains favored by many photographic artists and social documentary photographers. Contrary to some public perception, film photography, and in particular the black and white darkroom, has not disappeared. Many photographers have chosen to remain with this method of working for all or part of their creative output, or have returned to it after embracing the evolution to digital.
For years, debate raged among photographers over the comparisons, merits, and faults of traditional silver-based photography against the new digital technologies. While not totally extinguished among a few diehards (on both sides), the debate is over in the larger community as the realization has come that silver/chemical based photography and digital methods are really two different and very unique media in the same art form; not unlike oils, pastels, and watercolors are in painting.
Monochrome is really a better term than “black and white”. Depending on materials and the skill of the photographer or printer there can be a large number of gray steps from white to black. It is these subtleties in gray tones that make monochrome imagery appealing. As is often the case, common usage trumps literal meaning.
Monochrome is said to be more abstract due to the lack of color. With color not a factor, a photograph depends more on shapes, textures and light. Light! There it is! To many photographers, light is what photography is all about. This may be an oversimplification, of course, but a common teaching exercise is to “photograph the light”.
It all gets back to personal preference. To me, monochrome is natural to the way a camera works. Admittedly, that may be cultural conditioning. But in many ways, I almost see through the camera in monochrome. The way I see with a camera has been influenced by many that have come before. But, that’s another post, another day.