For well over a century, if you were talking about photography as an art form, you were talking about black and white photographs produced using film and photographic paper.
From Eugene Atget through Henri Cartier-Bresson to artists as different as Diane Arbus and Ansel Adams, black and white was indisputably photography’s gold standard.
But no longer.
Today black and white silver-process photography finds itself resituated, placed in a new relationship to the rest of the image- making arts. In the past several decades, colour photography promoted itself from mere document to fine art, with the help of artists from Cindy Sherman to Canadians Jeff Wall and Ed Burtynsky. Meanwhile, almost everyone who has taken a snapshot in the past few years has navigated the shift from view finders and film rolls to LCD displays and megapixels. The photographic landscape has shifted so much that the huge photo suppliers—Kodak, Ilford, Agfa and others—have laid off workers, closed plants and cut way back on their production of both film and paper for making prints. As Craig Richards, known for his crystalline black and white images of the Canadian Rockies, says,
“Two years ago I thought I was on the bow of a sinking ship. But now I think black and white photography is always going to be there. In the history of art, no new art form has ever completely displaced a previous one.”
In the following pages, five artists working in Alberta talk about why they retain such an affection and respect for the traditional black and white process, and reflect on a favourite image they created this way.
They remind us that before it became a matter of just clicking, downloading and pressing “print”—all in the glare of daylight—making a photograph involved a truly elemental magic. There is alchemy in the simple idea of impregnating a piece of paper or film with powders that react to light in exactly the same way your old silver teapot blackens as it sits on the shelf. Then, to point a lens at the world and essentially allow the light itself, as it bounces off of people and things, to etch a scene into the light-sensitive chemicals; to take that negative image into a dark room and use an enlarger to project it onto another light-sensitive medium; and at last to watch the final positive image emerge as the fragile sheet of photo paper soaks in a bath of chemicals—all of this seems like one part Leonardo da Vinci and one part mucking about in the kitchen.
Listening to these photographers speak, it soon becomes clear that this kitchen-sink magic—which is really a careful play with light, time, chemistry and the fabric of paper—is how they create new images and new ways of seeing the world.
George Webber was born in Drumheller. In 2005, his photography earned him a National Magazine Award. In 2006 he published two books: People of the Blood: A Decade-long Photographic Journey on a Canadian Reserve and A World Within: An Intimate Portrait of the Little Bow Hutterite Colony.
Since the mid-1970s I’ve photographed mainly in black and white and within a day or two driving from Calgary. Some subjects and themes are really well handled in colour, but it’s true that my real passion and love, and what I am best known for and best suited to, is black and white. Part of it has to do with the tradition of Atget and Evans. It’s a really powerful tradition and it continues to be a vital and living tradition.
Photography is one or two steps back from reality: it’s flat and it’s still. Black and white maybe takes it a third step back from the real. That capacity is a way of simplifying or abstracting. This can heighten the drama of an image… much of the greatness of art comes from that simplification.
Photography is done in a public place, but the darkroom is a private, intimate space. It’s a little bit magical with the running water and the amber light. The making of the print is part of what makes it a George Webber photograph. It’s inherently a one-off process; each one will be different. The process makes you labour long and hard and slow.
It invites reflection and analysis. Kenneth Clarke said, “Facts become art through love.” A contemplation or a looking at ordinary stuff, if done with that affection and love, can lift it to the level of art.
From People of the Blood:
“The Blood Reserve of southern Alberta is Canada’s largest native reserve. Established in 1880, it is an arrow tip of land wedged between three rivers…
“Named ‘Blood’ by the early fur traders for the red ochre with which they paint- ed their faces, band members often refer to themselves as Kainai, a word meaning ‘tribe of many chiefs’…
“Elizabeth Eagle Speaker stands alone as I pull over at St. Catherine’s Cemetery, near Standoff. She is awaiting the funeral service of her 21-year-old grandson, Roland Scout, who was killed in a car accident. A friend joins her a while later, and the two wait in my truck until the hearse and funeral attendees arrive.
“During the burial Elizabeth cries out, ‘My grandson, my grandson!’ then sobs quietly. Later we drive to St. Catherine’s Church, where a simple meal has been laid out for the mourners.”
Canmore’s Craig Richards has photo- graphed and exhibited all over the world. Printing the photograph in the darkroom is a key part of his process. He “dodges” and “burns” to create areas of darker or lighter tones by selectively blocking the light from the enlarger.
I was driving up to Jasper. It was a February morning, really quite cold. I had initially stopped to shoot the mountain to the left of Mount Wilson, because the light was playing on it. Mount Wilson was completely socked in, you couldn’t even see it. I had set up on the other mountain, and was waiting, when suddenly I sensed something was going to happen on Wilson. And the light started to break.
It was about 11 in the morning. The sun was in the perfect place. It was the perfect time of year for the sun to hit it like it did. It probably lasted a total of about a minute.
And really, you know for 25 years I have driven past this spot, and I have always stopped at Mount Wilson—it’s an incredible structure—and I’ve never really been able to do anything that I felt captured what was there in the mountain. What was given to me that day was absolutely unbelievable.
In many ways I feel like this image contains everything I try and do in my photography in the Canadian Rockies: all of those elements of beauty, surprise, wonder, mystery—to me this image contains it all. You have the mystery of what’s coming in behind this mountain. It also captures the delicacy of what’s going on. One of the things I didn’t notice at the time, but it was there in the printing, is the little visual surprise of the avalanche in the middle.
I don’t think this image would have come close to having the same feel in colour. First of all I used a yellow filter so all of these quartzite buttresses that are behind, back there, are illuminated a little bit more. They’re lighter in tone, and the yellow filter darkens some of the shadow. Also, in the darkroom I do a lot of burning into the right-hand side to even out the shadow. What you can’t really do in colour is increase contrast. You can make the sky darker but then the blue becomes an unnatural blue. One of the reasons I work in black and white is that I get to interpret what I want the scene to look like, not document it.
We recognize this as reality but because it’s in black and white it’s abstracted, and nobody questions, “Why is the sky dark?”
You’re basically looking at tones, and it’s abstracted reality. I have never seen this mountain look like this. Hopefully I’ll see it look even better than this one day. I stop and pay homage every time I go by.
Steven Dixon is a printmaking technician at the University of Alberta. He uses photogravure, a printmaking process with an “antiquarian” element that is appropriate to the neglected post-industrial sites he photographs. Mine Site No. 4 was taken at an abandoned coal mine near Nordegg.
In a lot of ways this image comes closest to a feeling I want to get in a lot of my photographs: a transition back to nature, from something that’s mechanical, rigid, pragmatic and functional. As it makes that transition back to something that’s part of the earth again, the cluster of pipes is like a bush or a group of trees. It’s gathered so much patina of dust and stuff over the years that it is starting to look more organic than man-made, so it’s easing itself back into a different realm.
Before this I was doing hand-drawn images, visiting archaeological sites in Scotland, South America, literally all over the world. This kind of subject is so close to the present it’s not really archaeological, but I read [the subjects] as if they are.
What’s interesting is that I’ve visited some of these sites repeatedly and documented the change that has taken place over as little as five years.
Photogravure is a 19th-century process. It’s much harder to make a photogravure than to make a traditional photograph: you adhere sensitized gelatin tissue to a copper substrate and then you actually etch the image into the copper plate, and it prints multiples from the plate. That means you don’t have to necessarily print in black; you could print in yellow, for example. But if you print in black you extend the tonal range as much as possible. I can get exquisite highlight details, and the richest black imaginable, depending on how I body the ink and what type of ink I choose and how much transparency I have in it. I don’t have to rely on something that’s off the shelf.
It wasn’t until graduate school that I started to experiment with photographic processes that took me back to printmaking, through photography.
The traditional black and white print has always been exciting for me to look at but never to do. For some reason I have endless patience with printmaking but I don’t in the darkroom. I find there’s just a natural flow between the ideas and the work and this process. They sort of came together and I just can’t imagine any other way to do it. The subject, the technique and content and everything surrounding the project just sort of gelled really nicely.
Ernie Kroeger teaches photography at Thomson Rivers University in Kamloops. His work has been exhibited across Canada and in Europe. In April and May 2006, the Kamloops Art Gallery exhibited work from his ongoing photo-based series of images developed from mountain pine beetle markings in dead trees, which can give the appearance of a strange form of writing. Kroeger makes a rubbing, or “frottage,” of these markings and exposes the resulting image in an enlarger to make a photographic print. He has dubbed this process “frottography.”
Kroeger recently returned from Torino, Italy, where an exhibition of his black and white mountain photographs will be shown until May 2007 at the Museo Nazionale della Montagna, an institution working to create links between the many diverse mountain cultures around the globe.
The image shown above is taken from Kroeger’s first book, The Great Divide, published in 2001 while Kroeger was working as photography facilitator at The Banff Centre.
His was taken at the Plain of Six Glaciers. It’s a great hike: you start at the Chateau Lake Louise and walk around the lake. The trail goes a couple of kilometres past the tea house, and then you’re at the end of the trail—after that it’s mountaineering.
The photograph is taken from that point. The mountain in the middle is Mount Lefroy. And the ice fall just to the right of that is called The Death Trap. The pass there, that little col, is Abbot Pass, right on the Great Divide.
It was also the site of the first Rocky Mountain climbing fatality, as far as I know: Philip Abbot from Yale fell to his death there in 1896. I photographed [the site] almost 100 years later, not just because of that, but for me it’s revisiting a place that I’ve read about. A kind of homage.
I teach the history of photography, so I think a lot about the 19th-century photographers, the survey photograph- ers in the Canadian and American West. I would say that part of the reason for using black and white is to connect with that imagery.
I did shoot this at the same time in colour, and the colour version is quite realistic but looks too much like a conventional picture postcard.
The black and white is more abstract. It’s almost like when you think of fiction and non-fiction: black and white has more of a fiction quality. And maybe it has more drama.
Digital photography was designed primarily as a colour medium. You can get black and white images quite easily, but not the full tonal scale. It’s really not quite there yet. Except for the high-end stuff, it’s still incapable of making this kind of image.
Another part of black and white is that you have a lot of control over it. I know exactly what I want out of it, I can control the contrast, and I can also dodge and burn.
Colour can’t be controlled the same way, especially in terms of contrast. This is taken with a Widelux camera. It’s a panoramic camera that covers an angle of 140 degrees, which is supposed to approximate human vision.
There’s also something a little bit quaint about black and white, I have to say. While I appreciate the history, it feels a bit anachronistic.
But you know, when I teach photography, I teach black and white, and students are still signing up for it like crazy. They like developing film, they like printing, they like seeing the photograph appear out of the developer in the darkroom. There’s a kind of craft that they really like.
I guess what I’m saying is that I’m surprised by how much interest there is among young students in black and white. I find that heartening.
Sarah Fuller was born and raised in Winnipeg. She studied at Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, and now works as photo facilitator at The Banff Centre. Her most recent project was “The Photographic Tarot.” She is working on a photo series depicting diners and family restaurants in the West.
Although I don’t work only in black and white, I made a conscious decision to do this project in black and white. I wanted to evoke my memories of tree-planting. I have the journals and the photographs taken at the time, and I wanted to use a certain idiom to give a historical tinge to something recent and personal.
When I decided to do this project I thought I was done with planting, and I wanted to sum up a period in my life. I did end up doing later [photographic] work on tree-planting, using the Van Dyke printing process, but it has a different feel.
This project was really about the rite of passage aspect. I called it “Culls,” which is what people call the trees at the bottom of the planting bag, the ones too tattered to plant. You just bury them in the ground, ideally no more than one or two per day.
The full text of the journal entry is “Bears on the block—my lunch was stolen.” The planters are all waiting for bears to leave the area so they can resume planting.
I used two negatives stacked together in the enlarger: one photo of the scene, and one page from my journal.
Because I used a very long exposure in the enlarger you can see the texture of the paper and the sprocket holes from the film.
For me, making the photograph in the darkroom is an important part of it. Things appear that I might not have stumbled upon otherwise, like the way the sprocket holes came through. A lot of times for me it’s all about the process, and about the photograph as an object.
I started out as a “draw-er,” but taking photographs was something I always did. I got my first camera at eight. The main point of interest was to see how it was done.
Whether I choose to use black and white, and especially alternative processes, is sort of determined by the subject.
The more I do photography, the more I think there is to explore—instead of getting a digital camera, I just keep getting bigger traditional cameras.
For me as an artist it’s important to have the different processes available as a way to communicate. Each process has a different feeling or ideology to it, so it’s important to have access to them all.