The Timeless Quality of Black & White Photographs

Why Timeless?

Timeless Quality of Black and White
A black white image with that timeless quality

Black and white images often possess a timeless quality that is more difficult to achieve with colour images. This is largely because colour provides more visual clues as to when a photograph was taken.

Variance in the colours themselves can sometimes suggest a specific era –  the difference between the colour renditions of the 1970s for example, and today are often clearly discernible; this is due to differences in colour processing, which have changed significantly over time.

Printed colour images may also be subject to varying degrees of instability as they age, which is also helpful in dating them.

The Advance of Colour Film

The first permanent colour photograph was taken in the 1860s using the colour separation, a method which required shooting three separate black and white photos using three different coloured filters. These were then projected together to create a colour image.

By the first decade of the twentieth century colour separation using the Autochrome process which used millions of tiny colour filters made of potato starch spread over the surface of a plate of glass was available.

In the 1930s multi-layered colour film was developed, the first of which was Kodachrome.  The 1960s saw the development of instant photographs by Polaroid, and in the 1970s the C-41 chromogenic colour negative process replaced the C-22 process that Kodak had introduced in the 1950s. For more on the history of photographic processes, see the article on this site ‘From Chemistry to Computation’

It was not until the 1970’s that colour photography became the form of photography. Monochrome photography continued but in niche markets such as fine art.

The Advent of Digital

With the advent of digital photography the clues provided by film have disappeared, but colour is also an element of fashion which inevitably gives a better sense of when the picture was taken.  Regardless of changes in fashion, colour provides a level of detail absent from black and white pictures – there is just less information for us to process, making a picture more difficult to date.   This is helpful in many genres of photography but is especially so for travel, street and portrait photography.  Whilst we know the approximate date we took our pictures, if when these photos were taken is difficult to discern, it seems to imbue them with additional value.  Why this should be a virtue is largely attributable to the notion of the ‘classic’ – something long-standing that does not date with age.  Synonyms of the word classic give us a clue to the value implied by the term: simple, elegant, understated, uncluttered, restrained, time-honoured, timeless, ageless, abiding, enduring and immortal.   Portrait photographer Anne Geddes made the point well when she said: “The best images are the ones that retain their strength and impact over the years, regardless of the number of times they are viewed.”

Photographing souls

Another aspect of timelessness, although more subjective, is that many photographers consider black and white photography promotes a stronger emotional connection with people.  Canadian photographer Ted Grant’s quote on this is well known: “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!

Souls being more durable and important than clothes (to all but the fashion industry!) this quality naturally creates a more timeless photograph.

The Weight of History

Another factor is that because black and white photography preceded colour, many of the pioneers of photography from Adams to Weston including many pioneering women, shot in black and white . Monochrome images were dominant beyond photography’s formative years – leading the way for the first 120 years or so of photography’s history. This resulted in a huge number of iconic black and white images and creates a significant pedigree and a degree of nostalgia for what is now a genre rather than a technology.

The accompanying photo is of Newcastle based photographer Irena Childers and was shot in Garth Park, Bicester, as part of a camera club shoot.  It is a digital shot but it strikes me that the picture could have been taken at any time between from 1950 and the present day. This only became apparent when I performed the mono conversion with Silver Efex.  The colour version just didn’t have the same timeless quality…

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