The Black and White Renaissance

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by Bellamy /

3 min read
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The Black and White Renaissance by Lee Nutter
A guest piece today, that is sure to get a few a few people talking, not least because it is aimed at the digital photographer. But I wasn’t about to avoid sharing this piece just because of that. Film, Digital, it is all welcome here, especially when the photographs are this good. And healthy debate is important for photography.

Fuji’s new X-Pro2 looks to be a near perfect camera, but of all its new features, by far the most significant is the Acros film simulation.
To some this might seem like a small thing. Most established photographers shoot raw, and treat their files later in a raw editor like Lightroom. Why does a film emulation mode matter in the slightest?

It doesn’t matter so much to the photographers who have an established work flow, or an already established style, but it does matter to newer photographers, who are surrounded by the ubiquitous Kinfolk inspired hipster aesthetic, who might never seen a carefully crafted black and white image, or have much of an understanding of the nuance and potential that a beautiful black and white film emulsion offers.
They don’t understand tonal range or separation, they don’t understand luminosity, or contrast, or the various interpretations that coloured filters offer a black and white image. Why? Because their experience with black and white imagery is currently limited to Instagram filters, or desaturated snapshots passed off as black and white photographs.

And the Acros film simulation will change that.

A film emulation mode will never be an end point for anyone that knows anything about the subtleties of black and white, but it can be a great starting point for someone who doesn’t. The Acros film simulation mode brings black and white images with a degree of depth and richness to within easy reach of even the most casual photographer, and because of this we’re going to start to see a lot more black and white photography. More black and white photography means a greater understanding of it, and in time, people will learn to speak black and white, just like they learned to speak the low contrast Kinfolk aesthetic.

What will that mean for established black and white, or predominantly black and white photographers? What will that mean for Daido Moriyama, or Nobuyoshi Araki? What will that mean for Bernard Plossu, Jacob Aue Sobol, or Anders Petersen? And what will that mean for Josh White/jtinseoul, Hugues Erre/interieurbleu, or Brent Williamson/Teknari?

Hopefully what it doesn’t mean is that they will get lost in the deluge. Instead, I hope it will mean a greater appreciation for the people who speak the black and white language more eloquently than most people speak their native tongue.

Black and white film emulation, no matter how good it is, is not going to make anyone a great photographer. But perhaps, as the technology filters down to more affordable cameras from Fuji and other manufacturers, and more and more people start using black and white film simulation modes, photographers will get a taste for what’s possible, and start to look towards the people who do it best for inspiration.

And perhaps the black and white photograph, out of mainstream favour since the proliferation of affordable colour film, will make something of a comeback. All but ignored for decades by everyone except learned photographers and those of exceptional taste, they will once again enjoy widespread appeal, and the artists responsible will finally get the appreciation they deserve.

All above images courtesy of Josh White. Images below courtesy of Lee Nutter.

It will be the black and white renaissance.
Hugues Erre/interieurbleu: https://www.flickr.com/photos/interieurbleu/
Brent Williamson/Teknari: http://teknari.tumblr.com/ or http://teknari.com/
Josh White/jtinseoul: https://jtinseoul.wordpress.com/ or
http://instagram.com/jt_inseoul/
and I’m http://leenutter.com/ or http://instagram.com/leenutter

Thoughts and comments below. Please keep it civilised, many thanks.

24 comments on “The Black and White Renaissance”

    stanislaw riccadnna zolczynski April 6, 2016 at 4:08 pm / Reply

    Really, cmon. Overprocessed high contrast, blown highlights, grainy- is that Across? Dear friend, you don`t need a 2K pseudorangefinder to get there. Old Zorki with any lens and any film would do. Or disposable b/w cam. Not that I criticise the pictures. that`s another thing. Crude japanese style I guess, Moriyama otaku?

    lewy April 6, 2016 at 6:01 pm / Reply

    Hey you know,
    Get them taking B&w shots in digital, they will then see that their shots are all shit!
    The hunger for real B&w film will then take control of them,
    and bingo more film nerds!!!
    Not so bad after all :)

    lewy

    James April 6, 2016 at 10:47 pm / Reply

    I get the point of the article, but are those photos supposed to look like Acros? The whole point of shooting Acros is its fine grain and long tonal range. You might be able to pass those off as Tri-x pushed 3 stops, but not Acros. Not even close. I am all for innovation and mass marketing, but I feel kind of bad for people who are buying up digital cameras in hopes of getting film photos out of them. They are being sold a bill of goods that just doesn’t exist. It takes even the simplest of observers about 30 seconds of side by side comparison to tell the difference and make an aesthetic judgement between noise and grain. Keep working on it Fuji. I wish you luck.

    Mark April 7, 2016 at 12:17 am / Reply

    I hear on the rumour mill that the next Fuji X-Pro 3 is going to have a FP100C peel apart mode…

    halo April 7, 2016 at 2:03 am / Reply

    Lee’s photographs are quite good, so he don’t deserve a cold digital rejection. The end result is not that important to the medium used after all. I love film, but do digital from time to time. I guess I’m still exploring the difference, what it is and what it do, but so far I’m more and more drawn to film. I’m crossing my fingers for film, but respect and admire any photographer who can breathe life into their work reagardless the medium used.

    Lee April 7, 2016 at 5:16 am / Reply

    Hi all,

    I’m Lee Nutter, the writer of the article.

    Stanislaw: I don’t shoot Fuji, and didn’t mean to imply that you need to if you want great black and white. The popularity of the Fuji, and the proliferation of Acros and other black and white modes on digital cameras (Like the new Panasonic GX80) will give lots of photographers a great starting point for decent black and white, and this will mean more people shooting it, and therefore more appreciation of it. Grainy, high contrast black and white might not be your cup of tea, but I think we can all agree that there’s more to black and white than a perfectly sharp Ansel Adams landscape with tones landing perfectly all the way across the zone system. And either way, it’s important that people realise there’s more to black and white than simply desaturating a colour image. Oh, and when I shoot film (regularly, tho not as much as digital) I use my M6 :)

    Lewy: Exactly right!

    Halo: Thank you for the kind words! And I was honoured when JT agreed to submit some of his pictures for the article too, I really really love his work. And I very much agree with you. For me the medium is photography, I don’t really care how the image was exposed. (This relates to Mark’s message too) If I was going to split hairs, I would break photography up into Colour vs Black and White photography, not film vs digital. Black and white photography is my medium, film or digital. It doesn’t matter if I’m shooting my M9 or my M6, my experience is almost identical. I spend hours dodging and burning either way.

    Lewy April 7, 2016 at 5:16 am / Reply

    Oh no,
    My comment was not aimed at this photographer, (Lee)
    But really at the digital world in general.
    That just seems to be not really what you see.

    Lewy

    Gavin Go April 7, 2016 at 8:14 am / Reply

    Digital is just easier and makes sense but I just cant take shots with it. I still want to understand why – that is why I will try to buy a native af 28 and 50 prime for my sony a7ii because maybe that is the reason. All my film cameras have a native mf 28 and 50. I hope this solves it as film takes so much time. Cheaper I think than buying more digital gear but time is so precious.

    Puster Lee April 7, 2016 at 1:51 pm / Reply

    Once a photographer used software like Silver Efex Pro, all such kind of B&W film simulation would become useless

    Floyd Takeuchi April 7, 2016 at 3:25 pm / Reply

    I’ve gone back to shooting mostly film these days, and most of it Tri-X or XP2. And I’m waiting for the right project to use a small stash of Plus-X stored in the fridge. But I also appreciate the many virtues of digital gear, particularly when on an assignment or fulfilling client commissions. It doesn’t much matter to me whether a “black and white” image was captured on film or a sensor — what does matter is the image.

    And in that regard, I really like Lee Nutter’s portfolio that illustrates his interesting article. The work is evocative and emotional. I particularly like the photo of the subject with tattoos. It isn’t how how I would previsualize that print, but it’s a very compelling image (as are the others).

    stanis riccadonna zolczynski April 7, 2016 at 10:08 pm / Reply

    Lee- I have nothing against grainy and contrasty picts. As a matter of fact my favorite all around was and hope will be is TRI-X rated 1250 ISO developed in Diafine, a wonderfull 2-bath dev allowing for wide temparature swings and time control ( after some 5 min. the process stops and what`s important to me highlights are not burned out). This metode gives me more honest output. I dont see reason why to take digital noise/grain free pict with latest wonders to add afterwards some grain simulation. I do use digital, my old and ridiculed Ricoh GXR which goes only up to a bit noisy 3200 ISO but there are situations I prefer to use 1600-3200ISO exactly because of the grittiness of scene ( things look like charcoral drawing somewhat ). As to Across in your picts, personally I think they would be served with Neopan 3200 simulation. Finally, even if I do have taken some fav of mine picts with Zorki and russian glass ( I`m Polish by birth ), now I do use M6 with array of old german, russian and japanese glass. Cheers Stanislaw

    Matthew Martin April 8, 2016 at 4:46 am / Reply

    Who would’ve known this would descend into a film vs digital debate? Boring! Film is awesome, we all agree on that, but it isn’t always convenient. I think Lee’s article was a good one. As a fairly new photographer and almost exclusively digital shooter I completely agree with his comments. Shooting jpg with a decent film simulation gives you the appreciation of what it’s like to shoot film, working on your technique and lighting – the requirement to get it right in camera rather than just taking a RAW snapshot and adjusting later during conversion. I totally understand what he’s talking about. Talking about these images being too high contrast or too grainy is irrelevant. It’s up to the artist to decide how he uses his brush, who are you to dictate his aesthetic?

    Matt

    kappuru April 8, 2016 at 9:04 am / Reply

    I guess I’ll chime in and say it’s strange that these photographs were chosen as examples of Acros when that’s not the results I get at all… where is the smooth grain and tone transitions?

    Example here : http://i.imgur.com/hQ2VVIS.jpg

    stanislaw riccadnna zolczynski April 8, 2016 at 5:44 pm / Reply

    matt- seems you don`t pay attention to what`s been said, my words- I have nothing against grainy and contrasty picts. The thing is not digital against film. They are two different things, yet.
    One thing that sets them apart is the grain many digitals try to add to simulate film feel or to cover up digital artefacts in videos. But it`ll be the feel not the real thing. When you blow the picts up you`ll notice that notwithstanding clever grain filters you`ll always end with mesh of square or rectangular pixels while emulsion grain is stochastic if you know what it means. And discussion film against digital is still a valid and not boring subject in film industry but of course it can be to you.

    Bennyd April 8, 2016 at 7:57 pm / Reply

    Getting it right in camera? Shooting decent Jpg?
    The camera is just implementing some build-in setting on your RAW data with as output a jpg.
    Nothing more, nothing less.

    Its better to shoot RAW.
    Lightroom will recognize your camera profile so filmsimulations like Fujifilms’s ‘Across’ can be implemented out of camera too.
    Those profiles are developed in association with Fujifilm and Adobe.

    Happy shooting ;-)

    Jesse April 8, 2016 at 9:07 pm / Reply

    An interesting read and good to see it sparking some debate, and some great pics accompanying.
    I think I like the idea of what you’re saying Lee, I’m just not sure if I can believe that introducing a new film simulation could really be that significant. I shoot with an xpro1 predominantly, and I basically never use the simulations. Maybe the acros addition is great, but how many people will commit to sticking to the one simulation long enough to really focus on say, improving their composition, or developing a genuine personal style, because they’re not worrying about post processing or shooting colour jpgs? Even if a couple of thousand xpro2 users really fell in love with black and white because of this simulation (and I think that’s optimistic), surely it’s incredibly unlikely this would have any real flow on effect on the massive cultural force of instagram and whatever comes next. I’m not saying black and white won’t have its ups and downs in popularity, but this camera and simulation can’t possibly have such an impact even if they’re a raging success in terms of sales.

    Dan Diaz April 9, 2016 at 10:08 pm / Reply

    Very nice read. Do one on the Leica Monochrome.

    https://danjazzblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/roll3-kodak-trix-1600/

    Cam April 19, 2016 at 3:33 pm / Reply

    I’m not sure that a film simulation (even if it is somewhat better than the equivalent instagram filter) trickling down from high end kit is really going to result in a black and white renaissance. The market for standalone digital cameras is shrinking rapidly, and this is especially so at the low end. When the Acros app is released you might be in business.

    As an aside, I think that setting your EVF to monochrome is a better exercise in understanding tonal range, luminosity, and contrast than shooting film simulation jpegs.

    Andrew Gemmell April 19, 2016 at 8:32 pm / Reply

    120 Tri-x …. a warm place in my heart!

    Zack Schindler April 24, 2016 at 10:06 am / Reply

    I find that I shoot a lot of digital B&W and really enjoy the results. One of the real cool features of the Fuji digital cameras is that you can activate a red filter when shooting B&W and you can get spectacular skies.

    Check out a few of mine on flickr.

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/21738771300/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/25750892083/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/26355855825/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/25735205243/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/23484956412/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/23267029342/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/22796963462/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/15261626370/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/10954306453/in/dateposted-public/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/10025089@N05/10680489844/in/dateposted-public/

    Paul May 4, 2016 at 8:42 pm / Reply

    I’ve been a keen amateur photographer since my teens in the early 70s. I’ve used – and will continue to use – film ever since. I also shoot digital – and I like shooting digital. However, although the technology exists to shoot “simulated” film emulsions in digital, I haven’t, yet, come across any digital software that is capable of the infinite and subtle tonal nuances that can be achieved from actual film. The same is, I believe, true when comparing inkjet printing to traditional chemical darkroom printing.

    I regularly convert colour photos (RAW and JPEG) via Silver Efex Pro2 and, with a little time and patience, can produce something that approximates to a preset emulsion type and which suits my needs as an amateur. Perhaps, if I hadn’t spent all these years shooting various B&W films, I might be less critical / demanding.

    However, my issue with in-camera simulation software is that it might actually be limiting, creatively. Yes, it’s clever in its own way and it’s also very convenient. If the photographer isn’t sufficiently curious to experiment with more capable software / plugins (or even film), they may come to believe that the in-camera software is as good as it gets – which would be a shame.

    I’ve always held the view that good art (and craft) takes some time and is worth a bit of effort / experimentation. In-camera digital film simulation can be fun and, hopefully, will lead some photographers to see what else is possible. I suspect it is more likely to be little more than the next level of instant gratification.

    Alex Jackson-Smith August 3, 2016 at 5:16 am / Reply

    > Get them taking B&w shots in digital, they will then see that their shots are all shit!

    One does not need FILM to do black and white. You just need a good eye, manual control and the good old analogue lenses. Surely if the camera has or can be made to have settings that give a film look the photographer wants then…!

    I do b&w with digital, fully manual, DX body, AIS Lenses, No editing – and I don’t think my shots are that bad!

    Alex Jackson-Smith August 3, 2016 at 5:32 am / Reply

    I like your composition. Different to mine, but I think that is more important than the film type.

    Chis Hoult September 16, 2016 at 2:13 pm / Reply

    I have been a professional photographer for nearly 40 years and have used both digital and analogue with more emphasis on digital than film in the later years. However after losing a few years of digital files when my computer crashed and my backup decided that it would be a good time to do the same thing, I returned to using mostly film. I’m loving it, I’m spending more time contemplating the shot and taking far more care and far less photos but my success rate is higher. I still use digital for colour and for my clients but when I’m shooting for me it’s film then into the darkroom. I love the physicality of film and darkroom work, hands on wins for me.
    Having said that I can remember reading articles on the arrival of colour film which predicted the death of black and white, all hail the new messiah as it were, and while black and white did fade from view for a few years, it never died and as far as I can see is still going strong. I think they both have their places and will happily co-exist despite any debate raging around them. A great image is a great image whether it’s digital, film or charcoal scratched on to a cave wall.
    Happy shooting.

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