Whenever the terms "black-and-white" and "landscape photography" are mentioned in the same sentence, most of us conjure up the dramatic work of Ansel Adams or perhaps Edward Weston. Along with several other photographers, Adams and Weston formed the ƒ/64 group in the early 1930s and set the aesthetic standard for American photography for years to come.
At the same moment in time that Adams and his colleagues were mastering the art of black-and-white photography in the ’30s, Kodak and Agfa introduced the first modern color transparency film. It may come as a surprise to the general public that Adams began working with color photography soon thereafter and made more than 3,000 color images during his career. He was the consummate experimenter, always seeking new ways to capture his subjects on film. He stated on many occasions that he felt color was the future of photography and that he had no hostility toward it.
It took many years, however, for color to replace black-and-white as an accepted form of fine-art landscape photography. As color began to dominate the field, black-and-white receded into the background. But just as radio didn’t disappear when television came on the scene, black-and-white was always there and more recently has made a big comeback with the advent of digital technology. While purists still may argue that using digital technology to convert a color image into black-and-white is somehow cheating, most people familiar with the career of Ansel Adams would likely agree that if he was in his prime today, he’d have the latest version of Photoshop installed on his computer and he’d spend more time developing images on his computer than in his darkroom. And as a consummate experimenter, he’d surely explore the realm of color-to-black-and-white conversions.
The extraordinary prints produced by Adams during his career weren’t simply a direct reproduction of what he captured on film. Capturing the image was only the first step in his workflow. Once he entered the darkroom, he spent hours dodging and burning to achieve the exact effect he wanted. That was simply his era’s version of image manipulation. While he employed analog techniques, we have an entirely new toolbox of digital tools at our fingertips.
When I first ventured into landscape photography, I concentrated much of my attention on the surreal landscapes of the Colorado Plateau in southern Utah. If there was ever a location for which color film was invented, this was it. Looking back at the evolution of color landscape photography in America, the vivid colors found in this region probably acted as a catalyst for many early landscape photographers to make the switch to color film. Although I experimented with black-and-white capture early in my career, once I began to focus my attention on landscape photography, I couldn’t imagine not using color film. Even before the days of Photoshop, I knew that I could always produce an acceptable black-and-white print from color film if I wanted one. I simply didn’t want to take the chance of missing a dramatic color scene because I was shooting in black-and-white.