A Black and White World

A colorless sunrise

I love black and white photography. I love the way it forces a person to concentrate on composition. Colors are beautiful, but they can be a distraction. Test it yourself sometime. Take a photo that you think is good. A colorful sunset, balloons at a fair, a field full of flowers, whatever you like. Now convert it to grayscale. Then ask yourself – is it still a good photograph? The answer depends on how well composed the photograph is. If the image has strong compositional elements, shape, line, texture, pattern, or others, it will be able to stand as a black and white. If not, then it isn’t the photo that was good, it’s the color, blinding the view to all else.

I learned to be a photographer working with TMAX and TRI-X films. I learned to bulk load my own rolls of film. I learned how to develop my own film and then examine each image with a light table and a magnifying glass. And I learned, after months of experimentation, that there really is no cure for the headaches induced by breathing in dektol, stop-bath, and fixer. You just have to make yourself grow accustomed to it. I have always considered myself fortunate that I came into photography by this time-tested path. Those early days, wherein I built the roots of personal style, are with me still. These days I am completely in love with the freedom and instant gratification of digital. But while I enjoy color and am just as distractible as the next person, I try to think in terms of other compositional elements when I am shooting.

That is true for most days, but yesterday I didn’t need to eliminate the colors from my mind’s eye. There weren’t any to see. The dense clouds from a recent snow storm still blanketed the sky. (Snow. Mid-April. Welcome to life in Montana. Sigh.) The hills along the lake looked dark and equally dense except for the snow on the pines and the fog in the air. And the glassy lake reflected it all back, equally colorless. For me, this was exceptionally beautiful. Once, when I was in college, I had a dream in black and white. I woke up, or at least I thought I was awake, and could see my room in the early morning light. Everything was white or black or shades of gray. It was the most peaceful dream I have ever had. And though I have wished for it often, I have never gotten back to that particular place. The irony is, this was years before I became a photographer. Perhaps this is another reason I love black and white imagery. Who is to say? Anyhow, I don’t know how another person would have viewed this gray morning, but for me it was like re-entering that dream world. It was as if I had entered a world where all uncertainties are banished and everything really is clear and simple, and black and white.

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