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often the best colour is black and white

November 6, 2009

[Smithsonian] Ansel Adams never made up his mind about color photography. Long before his death in 1984 at age 82, he foresaw that this “beguiling medium” might one day replace his cherished black and white. In notes tentatively dated to 1949, he observed that “color photography is rapidly becoming of major importance.”

Yet he once likened working in color to playing an out-of-tune piano. America’s regnant Western landscape photographer tried to control every step of picture-making, but for much of his lifetime too many stages of the color process were out of his hands. Kodachrome—the first mass-market color film, introduced in 1935—was so complicated that even Adams, a darkroom wizard, had to rely on labs to develop it. Color printing was a crapshoot in the 1940s and ’50s. Reproductions in magazines and books could be garish or out of register. Before the 1960s, black-and-white film often actually yielded subtler, less exaggerated pictures of reality. […]

“I can get—for me—a far greater sense of ‘color’ through a well-planned and executed black-and-white image than I have ever achieved with color photography,” he wrote in 1967. For Adams, who could translate sunlight’s blinding spectrum into binary code perhaps more acutely than anyone before or since, there was an “infinite scale of values” in monochrome. Color was mere reality, the lumpy world given for everyone to look at, before artists began the difficult and honorable job of trying to perfect it in shades of gray. (read)


One Comment leave one →
  1. maplesyrup10 permalink
    November 6, 2009 2:44 pm


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