A Photo Teacher |

The New Color : The Return of Black-and-White

Posted in PHOT 165 by Paul Turounet on November 19, 2008


© Susan Lipper, from the series Trip (top left), An-My Lê, from the series Small Wars (top right), Osamu Kanemura, All The Needles Are Red, 1998 (bottom left), and Jason Evans, from the series The New Scent (bottom right)


Since the mid-1990’s, it has not been easy to generate popular interest in the small, black-and-white prints that psuedo-simulate human vision and capture the quotidian miracles that seemingly inundated photographers in the previous century.  In an era where exhibition visitors’ eyes have become used to the big, colorful spectacle of contemporary art photography, black-and-white photography – especially in 35mm format and in a series – has not offered the style or production values required to sustain clear legibility.

– from Charlotte Cotton’s essay, The New Color : The Return of Black-and-White


During this time, contemporary art photography has continued to predominantly shift in scale and materials from smaller, analog gelatin-silver photographs to larger, and even larger, digital color photographic prints (mainly hybridized digital C-prints from either Lambda or Lightjet printers that allow for an analog image (film) to be digitally printed on traditional analog color photographic printing materials).  The role and function of analog materials, particularly black-and-white, has been diminished with the continued development and refinement of digital tools and materials, including digital capture and output.


But it is definitely more hit-and-miss for a photographer working in black-and-white to anticipate whether or not the full meaning and contemporary relevance of their imagery will be understood in light of color art photography’s dominance.  At least that you could no longer take as a given that black-and-white was necessarily influential in art school discourses or read by exhibition-goers as anything more than an historic and once-important art form.

A career-oriented art photographer (and maybe this is the first generation of artists who can consider it a “career”) sticks very close to the now well-traveled path of contemporary color photography’s aesthetic homage and partial remembrance of, for example, gorgeous Kodachrome, or the beam of an enlarger. In a career-oriented era, perhaps this strategy is wiser than trying to beat a path through the resistance to presenting imagery in other ways and forms that actually respond to the potential of digitization. Of course I feel bemused at why a nascent art photographer would be so openly conservative as to adhere to apparent conventions, and at my most pessimistic, I wonder if there’s too much “trying-to-be-like” Eggleston, Shore, et al., and too little “creative-departure-from” the stellar standards that they have set.


After reading The New Color : The Return of Black-and-White, consider and respond to the following:

What are Charlotte Cotton’s thoughts on the possibilities of the return of black-and-white and why photographers might want to consider their choices in tools and materials with greater scrutiny?

In consideration of your own initial investigation and exploration into the visual language of color, how do you see your own photographic practice proceeding?  Will you continue to work in color or do you see yourself returning to black-and-white and why?

As you contemplate what you’ll photograph and how you will make work in the future, what is dictating this choice in working in color, black-and-white, or both and why? (Content and subject matter, accessibility to particular tools and materials, etc…)


Click on the Adobe Acrobat PDF file to download:  The New Color : The Return of Black-and-White Essay.pdf


Charlotte Cotton is curator and head of the photography department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Prior to her appointment at LACMA, she was the curator of photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum and head of programming at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.  She has authored many books on photography, including The Photograph as Contemporary Art, and is the founding editor of the website Words Without Pictures which explores various critical issues in photography.



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