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Black and White Photography

by Sylvie Lacerte

" Photography is a new medium of expression. Since its working rules have not yet been frozen into inalterable dogmas, it has experimental potentialities. Moreover, by analogy, one may find clues, may approach other media with fresh insight. In fact, it can be assumed that the analysis of photo, drawing, painting, would prove mutually illuminating. " ( Moholy-Nagy 1947 : 177)

Moholy-Nagy aptly says of the three media that they " illuminate " one another, photography's materialization being possible only through the intervention of light. Nevertheless, eventhough photography was only one hundred years old, when Moholy-Nagy wrote these lines, it was critical for him that it be recognized, beyond its technical capacities, as an artform in its own right. However, for photography to reach that kind of status, it was crucial to apprehend it through a different lens than that of the traditional arts, such as painting and drawing. He said : " But fundamentally new discoveries cannot long be confined to the mentality of bygone periods. " (Moholy-Nagy 1947 : 177). A reflexion that is still of great acuteness today, considering the vehement resistance that we often witness towards technologically assisted art.

Of course, Moholy-Nagy ackowledged the importance of photography, up untill his time, as an undeniable instrument of documentation for journalistic, scientific or judiciary purposes, while the users, he conceded, were well aware of the technological, optical and chemical proprieties of this new medium. Moholy-Nagy. also admitted that photography had had a considerable impact on the nascent visual culture, but that its creative potential was still very much underestimated and that it was in fact looked upon with much suspicion by the artists themselves.

[…] " as in painting so in photography we have to learn to see, not the " picture ", not the narrow rendering of nature, but an ideal instrument of visual expression. If we can see in the genuine elements of photography the self-sufficient vehicule for direct, visual based upon the properties of the light sensitive emulsion, then we may be nearer to " art " in the field of photography too. " (Moholy-Nagy 1947 : 178)

According to the founder of the New Bauhaus, " Black and white photography revealed for the first time light and shadow in their interdependence. " (Moholy-Nagy 1947 : 178) Actually, Moholy-Nagy speaks more of black, grey and white photography, to illustrate the multitude of variations, that can be attained with this medium. Furthermore, the improvement of electrical light sources (lamps and spots of varying voltage) has allowed the developement of a whole gamut of light effects variations, as well as the achievement of a multitude of possibilities in the gradation of shadows. These " effects " have enabled the animation of the images and have made them reach a certain degree of sophistication in the depiction of details. Details understood not in terms of the reproduction process's realism, but rather in terms of a sensitivity that allows the mastery of " the proprerties intrinsic to photography […]" (Moholy-Nagy 1947 : 185) 

For Moholy-Nagy, the black, grey and white photography precepts represented the medium's foundation and could very well apply to color photography.

Several black, grey and white photographs illustrate the book Vision in Motion. In it, we can find photographs signed, among others, by such artists as Nathan Lerner, Lewis Fay, William Keck, Berenice Abbott, Milton Habe, Alfred Stieglitz and Moholy-Nagy.


© Sylvie Lacerte & OLATS, 2000


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