Do monochrome photos require pure blacks and whites?

Nick Brandt, The Day May Break, copyright 2021 –

By Douglas Stockdale

This question, ‘do monochrome photos require pure blacks and whites?’ was a somewhat rhetorical question that was asked by a good friend of mine on social media recently. This question may relate back to the years of modern photography espoused by photo-realist like Ansel Adams, where really dark black&white values were revered even if Adams also created lower contrast photographs without absolute black&white values. It is stated that he did not want absolute black or white in his photographs, thus most of this photographs utilized nine of the eleven zones we think of for the Zone System of photography. In retrospect, I think that what Adams was trying to get at is if you are attempting to accurately represent a landscape, natural or urban, and under normal lighting conditions, that there should also be really dark (e.g. without detail) areas and really light (holding some detail) areas in the resulting photograph, either color or black&white.

Adams, using the zone system developed by Minor White, was about identifying the dark shadows and white highlights that you can observe translated to the final photographic image, aka ‘pre-visualization’. The point of the question is that some photographers have taken this absolute black&white concept a bit too far and have missed one of Adams key points about pre-visualization; translating what you observe and feel (think) about an image and then creating an interpretation. Which is what the Nick Brandt example is about from his recent book, The Day May Break, a portfolio of staged photographs (metaphors) with few absolute black&white values, such as the featured photograph above and first book spread below. (This is also where I need to state that I am the book reviewer for PhotoBook Journal that featured Brandt’s book). Also to say that where needed, Brandt did include an absolute white, see bottom photograph.

As I hope you might imagine, Brandt’s use of low contrast photographs was about the intent of his narrative; global warming is creating some dire living conditions in Africa, as well as worldwide (like California where I live), that where we live now is not a bright and sunny situation. In many parts of the world, the environmental conditions are dire, dingy, and gloomy. In part his low-contrast visual narrative was developed using fog machines to simulate the dust storms that haunt regions of Africa. That what may lay ahead for mankind is not that clear. Nevertheless, as in the bottom photograph he does include a bare shinning light bulb, with a resulting absolute white, to imply that there is also some Hope. For the environment and thus mankind.

So to answer the question; no, monochrome photographs do not require pure (absolute) black and white values. Nevertheless, absolute darks and whites can create a more dynamic appearing image. It depends on what your narrative, idea, and concept is for the resulting photograph. Just don’t inadvertently create an image that was meant to have pure blacks and pure whites that is instead a low contrast photograph without these present. Btw, with auto cameras and auto Photoshop conversions, this can easily result, so pay attention to your histogram curves!





Douglas Stockdale is a visual artist, book-nerd and science-geek, as well as the Editor of this blog. His opinions are his own.

Articles & photographs published on PhotoExchange Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the staff and the photographer(s).

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