There are more than sixteen separate
emulsions from which to choose. These range from slow, ultra fine
grained emulsions to extremely fast, reasonably sharp, available-light
film, permitting photographers to shoot scenes inaccessible in the
past. A shared characteristic of all these films is their vastly
improved grain structure. This in turn has led to improvements in
adjacent edge sharpness. The result—sharper negatives from faster film.
Although black-and-white film use only accounts for only a small
percentage of total film sales, however, it still remains the most
persuasive form of photo expression because, say its adherents, its
aesthetic potential cannot be matched by the realism of color. Whether
or not this is a defensible position is not the point What is obvious
is the fact that black-and-white forms much of the body of photo
expression that is regarded as the highest form of the art.
Black-andwhite film has some notable advantages over color. First, its
use reduces all the visual elements in a scene to levels of gray.
Skillful manipulation of the camera and, even more so, skillful
darkroom work give careful and dedicated users almost infinite control
over the look of the finished print. The range of control is far
greater than with any color process.
At one time, local commercial photo labs routinely offered extensive
black-and-white processing and printing services. With the ascendancy
of color, especially the color print as the medium of choice for the
masses of amateur snapshooters and advanced amateurs, these
black-and-white services have dwindled alarmingly. Significant numbers
of photographers who would like to work in black and white but don't
live near large metropolitan areas are finding it increasingly
difficult to find custom blackand-white facilities. And even if a
nearby lab does black-and-white work, turn-around time can be three to
five times longer than color printing.
Aside from the difficulty some experience finding dependable and
professional black-and-white labs, the medium draws to it those
individuals who see the world as some of the greatest figures in our
craft did and still do. Names like Bresson, Lange, Smith, Weston,
Adams, and Brassi come to mind. All evoke memories of symbol-laden
imagery. Form, shape, line, light, and contrast were content. Today,
those traditions are carried forward by the likes of John Sexton, Eva
Rubenstein, Jerry Ulsemann, and many others. For them, black-and-white
makes their visual statements immediate and clear, unobstructed by the
imposition of color. It is the medium of choice because of its ability
to distill a message down to its basic elements. With no concerns about
elements such as color balance, black-and-white photographers are free
to concentrate on the composition and meaning of the image itself.
Whether this is true or not is a matter of great debate.
Black-and-white is not for everyone. The fact remains that many
photographers, myself included, simply do not see in black-and-white.
We prefer color for numerous reasons, some of which we don't quite