Is the end nigh for black and white photography?

T.S. NAGARAJAN writes: Is it twilight time for black and white photography? Yes. It appears that the days of traditional photography are numbered. Modern technology is driving this art form from flash bulbs to digital imaging, bringing in major changes in its practice and appreciation.

After all, it’s simpler to make digital photos with increasingly automated cameras coming out every day. As digital image processing and inkjet printing take hold as the preferred means of producing photographs, one would tend to ask: Does a century-old technology still have relevance in the digital age?

But there is still an ardent group of diehards, among the senior citizens of black and white photography, who would have nothing to do with digital. At the same time, they do know in a corner of their minds that they would see the demise of photography itself, as they have understood and practiced, well within their own lifetime.

Their fears are not totally misplaced. The complete domination of colour in the snapshot market, which has pushed the black and white version into an area not commercially attractive, is certain to influence the future of photographic technology to sway in favour of the colour image.

Photography is no longer the preserve of the elite. Almost everybody owns a camera. You just point and click; the camera does the rest. Almost everyone wants only colour prints. There is a mini-lab next door to do the job in a jiffy. Most professionals these days work only in colour. Black and white photography is considered by many as old fashioned and professionally not very lucrative.

So, where do the black and white specialists, who produce eye-catching pictures in varying shades of grey, print them arduously in their wet darkrooms, mount them in artistic frames and try to sell them (as painters do) at high prices in art galleries come in, when the age-old question whether a photographic print is an art object still remains undecided.

Then, is it twilight time for black and white photography?

Black and white photography has been around for years. It had its days of glory. When the colour revolution arrived, black and white remained on the back-burner. Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in black and white photography. Museums have opened their doors to photography throughout the world. It is simply being pushed into the realm of art by critics, gallery owners, dealers and auction houses.

But this good news is only for those professionals who have made a name for themselves internationally and whose work is sought after by leading galleries. There is no doubt that the black and white image has lost its people’s mandate. Today their king is colour.

I thought my black and white days were over when colour photography arrived and mesmerized the world. But, it was not so. I took to photography in the early fifties. I shot my first roll of black and white film as long ago as 1950. I still have those negatives in good shape even though it had been processed in a wayside studio in Mysore city. I produced my wedding album of black and white pictures nearly fifty years ago. Even today the prints in the album remain bright and beautiful while the wedding albums of my daughters, produced wholly in colour, have already begun to fade away!

This is where colour photography, despite all improvements in its chemistry, lags behind its poor cousin the black and white version. The most obvious advantage of the black and white print as an art object is its longevity. The Daguerreotype was essentially a black and white image, which is still there as a vital part of the history of photography. Black and white prints properly processed to archival standards can last a few centuries. Even the badly processed prints have a long life. Though technology is still trying to give colour images some stability, most of them, irrespective of their developing process, can’t go beyond forty or fifty years. Photographic colour chemistry still has a long way to go.

I feel the supremacy of the colour image in visual communication and in advertising remains unchallenged. Black and white is preferred only when one needs to make an image conspicuous in a world full of colour. I am curious about the future of black and white in journalism too, especially because digital journalism has taken root with the help of film-less technology.

What is the future of the black and white image, digital or otherwise? Digital photographs taken today may be or may not be around for a long time. There is no guarantee that you will be able to read a CD after a few decades and print pictures from it. Yes, this may be possible if you find a computer in an antique shop! Everything digital needs constant upgrading. Wet darkrooms have dried out. The digital camera aided by versatile softwares can produce unimaginable pictures. But to me all this is nowhere near the drama and delight of seeing a picture come to life in the darkness of a good old darkroom.