All black and white photographs are not created equally
I have watched with interest over the past couple of years as art galleries and museums seem to have taken a new liking to photographs from the late 1920s and early 30s. There is a special quality to those images caused by the limitations of the film. Not only are they monochromatic, they are extremely flat. There’s very little shading. Blacks are absolute and highlights are generally various shades of grey, depending on the film processing. The look is unique.
Duplicating that look digitally is a bit challenging. For starters, there aren’t many photographers still alive who worked with the challenging films of the early 20th century. Most of those films are no longer available. Even if the films are available, the processing solutions are a challenge. Digital cameras inherently take brighter pictures with more depth and removing that depth requires more than just clicking a few buttons in Photoshop.
Of course, that didn’t stop us from seeing how close we could get. We hedged our bets a bit by using older images shot in 2005 using a five-megapixel camera. While it was a top-of-the-line model at the time, there is comparatively less depth to those images than anything taken more recently. We then used a selection of methods designed to especially work with low-key imagery. Some worked better than others. Images that had extremely bright highlights did not respond as well as those whose histograms were already flatter. We also had to accept that shadowed details simply disappear with this mode of processing.
What we ended up with is a mixed bag. There are plenty of images here so that you can compare how well the process worked—or didn’t. It’s an interesting study.
As always, clicking on any of the thumbnails opens the full gallery slideshow.