What went wrong and when – conversion of color digital to fake black and white

30 Dec

I was browsing through the mainly Francophone Scenes de Rue newsgroup on Flickr   and realized that a great deal of photographs are black and white fakes, that is fabrications made by people converting their color digital images to garish black and white. A while ago I stopped   looking at the Russian groups and photographic websites because of the proliferation of black and white forgeries.  The question is why do people do this sort of thing? I own several digital cameras including a fantastic Sony A800 DSLR. It is good for taking snapshots and can also be used an outstanding light meter. I would never think of converting a digital color image to black and white. It is foolish. It is pointless. I also love film. Film can either be of color or black and white variety.  I use both though when I want a black and white photograph I use black and white film – which has special grain and structure of silver based black and white emulsion that neither color film (except extinct Kodachrome) nor digital can emulate. Now – color film exists for some 60 years. It was always possible to convert color to black and white.  You can print black and white images from color negatives. The concept is not new.  But it was not done. It was considered something in a bad taste. Cheating.  Masters who worked in black and white  used black and white film. They never used color film and then thought well, that image would better look in color and this one in sepia, let’s tweak this, add some spice there, and that could be turned to black and white. This was not done. It was an unspoken convention that held on for decades. So users of color digital cameras are doing something en masse that is not new, in fact they are doing something that was almost always possible, but was also considered cheating and wasn’t really done much. I understand that Japanese camera manufacturing and marketing monopolies which have to promote their wares also fund photographic magazines  which in turn have to help their advertisers sell digital cameras and so they teach digital darkroom lessons to the public and insist that it is perfectly fine  to make fakes but I  believe that the art of black and white photography suffers, because art always involves skill, effort and a degree of hard labor otherwise it becomes just an automated manufacturing process, in this case a method of image fabrication, which has no value as shiny image made by a color office copier has, to me an least, lesser value than a good watercolor or oil painting despite the fact that the computer generated image might be more perfect and its dyes could be brighter. Deep down everybody knows this is to be true – we humans value things that were difficult to make and require skill and effort in their making. That’s why hand made furniture is more valued than machine made ready to-assemble junk which might look “more perfect” than hand made product. We also value authenticity – that’s why real gold is more valuable than metalized plastic that is even shinier than the real thing. I don’t see any aesthetic satisfaction in converting a color digital snapshots to a black and white fake. and I am obviously not alone as I haven’t heard of museums or private collectors going crazy over digitally produced black and white forgeries. One thing that distinguishes photography from other art forms is its documentary value and authenticity of material with which it is made, a photoshopped  digital image with “extensive post processing” that looks like a contrasty black and white photograph is worthless and is a fake no matter what it depicts.  The question is why would people who apparently like black and white photographs make the real thing with  film and chemicals. There are programs now that make fake Lomography-like conversion and mulate different types of film, but the question is why – I’ve never heard any film user trying to emulate digital and can’t see why anyone would want to do the opposite.


One Response to “What went wrong and when – conversion of color digital to fake black and white”

  1. Ryan February 10, 2012 at 19:43 #


    I completely agree with what you state in your article. I love black and white photography, and I only use black and white film to take photos I plan to always have in that style. And this is what brings me to my current dilemma. Recently, I took photos of a subject on black and white film that was expired by several years (I didn’t know it was expired; I was scammed by a seller on Amazon.). Anyway, the composition of the photos came out wondeful; however, the final prints have a reddish tint to them, making them more red and white than black and white.

    My question/dilemma is this. I’ve used Kodak Gallery in the past and love the quality of their prints. By using their online software I turned these particular photos into black and white and they look great – at least on the preview screen. However, I feel that despite shooting these photos on black and white film, changing their true color (the reddish tint) is “Cheating” in a way. Or is it? I mean, they were shot on black and white film, so am I messing with the appearance of the photo? The grain structure of the black and white film will suit the digital manipulation won’t it?

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    – aspiring photographer

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