In 1839, photography as a process was engineered successfully, and almost simultaneously, by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787–1851) in France and William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) in England. Both the daguerreotype and the talbottype (which came to be known as the calotype) reproduced single images in black and white. The manifold advantages of this new process were immediately ascertained, both as a documentary medium and an artistic resource. Most immediately, it was employed as an inexpensive way to reproduce the likenesses of loved ones, a much more affordable form of portraiture than painting. In the Victorian age, as a record of one’s travels and a way to relive the experience long afterward, photographs proved unrivaled. They also provided documentary evidence of previously rarely seen locales, a boost for the travel industry, armchair adventurers, and researchers alike.
By the 1860s, innovators such as Julia Margaret Cameron were beginning to change this approach by delving into the artistic possibilities of the photographic process. By the end of the nineteenth century, Alfred Stieglitz had moved photography into an even more sophisticated realm, using the camera to create images rivaling the luminous beauty of his contemporaries working on canvas. His innovative approach coupled with his tireless energy in publishing photographic journals such as Camera Notes and Camera Work, created a new generation of fine artists who worked solely as photographers. Their moody, atmospheric depictions reflected the tonalist trend in painting while not aping it. Photography had come into its own.
In 1900 the invention of the Brownie camera made photography available to everyone, and by the turn of the last century photography clubs were popping up around the globe. Accessibility and ease of use created an international market, and with the creation of the first moving pictures it was clear that photography was not just a fad and had almost boundless possibilities. The black-and-white imagery, while lacking “color,” often caught the nuances and suggestions of shadows in a way that left much to the viewer’s imagination, creating a dialogue that was unprecedented in the photographic field. This same element was now captured in films.
With the invention of color photography, some of this changed, though black-and-white photographs are even today acknowledged as “artistic” because of their innate suggestiveness rather than clear definition. Color is not needed to create impact. In fact, color would be detrimental to the message of Stieglitz’s The Steerage or the pristine beauty of Ansel Adams’s Moonrise Over Hernandez. It is this that keeps black-and-white photography still very much in use.
As can be seen in this exhibition, the term “black and white” is inexact. Some of the early processes, like calotype, printed as lovely shades of brown, from dark chocolate to light taupe, or a cyanotype, rendered in depths of rich blues, or platinum prints, in lovely shades of silver. These all come under the rubric of “black-and-white photography” and serve to emphasize the beauty of an image rendered in one tonal spectrum. This exhibition presents a small sampling of that art, from the 1840s to the present.
Nancy E. Green
Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs