Thinking back on black and white- the masters of monochrome

In our modern lives the maximum impact of black and white often comes in the form of Instagram filters, and that too only when the mood to strike a chord or pose grips us, for some reason or another. We see in colours, we argue colours, we flaunt colours. Yet, the iconic photos and most of the important moments of history are immortalised in black and white photographs, and thus it becomes the chosen mode for the masters of the art.

As a part of our homage to all things of black and white photography, it is only fair we delve a bit into the works of masters of black and white, into their time and style, most of which serve now as keystones to today's fashion and portrait photography.

The inspiration of all inspirations is bound to start with Irving Penn (1917-2009). His dramatically lit figures are essentially living, breathing sculptures in the post World War II era. Inspired by surrealism, modern dance, and film noir -- his images register as provocative visual statements, not just commercial photographs.

Towing the same line as Penn, comes his slightly younger contemporary – Richard Avedon (1923-2004). Avedon did away with the standard trope of statue-like, frozen-in-time models of conventional fashion photography. The New York Times claimed that his photographs, "helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture" since the 1950s.

Helmut Newton (1920-2004) is also among the photographers who followed in Penn's footsteps. His breakthrough didn't come until the 1970s, primarily with the striking photographs he produced on commission for French Vogue. During the 1970's and 1980's, when Newton did the majority of his art, it was a time when social roles were changing. He strived for women to have a different image instead of them surrendering to normal gender assumptions and roles. Newton is responsible for a rich, authentic and complex oeuvre that can be considered one of the most iconic of the 20th century.

In the same time bracket of the 1980-s, Herb Ritts (1952-2002) gained a reputation as a master of art and commercial photography, while often being termed as notorious. In addition to producing portraits and editorial fashion for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Interview and Rolling Stones, Ritts also created successful advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein, Chanel, Donna Karan, Gap, Gianfranco Ferré, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, Levi's, Pirelli, Polo Ralph Lauren, Valentino among others. In his life and work, Ritts was drawn to clean lines and strong forms which allowed his images to be read and felt instantaneously. His work too challenged conventional notions of gender or race.

Another name with the outrageous label would belong to Steven Meisel (1954-). But his work hasn't been too outrageous for Clairol, the Gap, Barneys New York, Vogue or Vanity Fair. His reclusive nature and reluctance to give interviews makes him one of fashion's most elusive celebrities. But his works speak of signature completeness with meticulous planning and an obsessive perfectionism of his vision.

Moving away from fashion and portraits in black and white, comes Ansel Adams (1902-1984), whose work is an extensive record of what is still left of the wilderness, the shrinking untouched part of the natural environment. Photographs, he believed, were not taken from the environment but were made into something greater than them.

Another name, which cannot be overlooked in the black and white photography scene, is Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) and her images of Depression-era America. She is remembered above all for revealing the plight of sharecroppers, displaced farmers and migrant workers in the 1930s. Dorothea Lange is an inspiring example of the opportunities that lay open to strong, independent women photographers in the modern era.

Speaking of photographers who enjoyed monumental success in portrait photography, Yousuf Karsh's (1908-2002) work in photographing figures from Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemmingway to Colonel Sanders to Grace Kelly present an extraordinary volume of work. Furthermore, all his photos are presented as impressive, and solemn, with a heightened feeling of drama. 

As the portrait line-up continues, Arnold Newman's (1918-2006) name comes forward for pioneering and popularising the environmental portrait, which was highly unconventional in the 1930's. With his method of portraiture, he placed his sitters in surroundings representative of their professions, aiming to capture the essence of an individual's life and work. His signature image, the one most will remember him by, is a beautiful, black and white portrait of Russian Composer Igor Stravinsky seated at a grand piano, where the lid of the piano created an illusion that the lid is an abstract musical quarter note.

This compilation only skates the very edges of black and white photography and its masters at the expense of the many that have not been mentioned. Any single name from this compilation deserves their own exposition. With the exception of a few, most of the greats have had the opportunity of going through the constant change in photographing technology as well as the transition from monochrome to full colour. Photography itself cannot disappear, that much is clear; it is only the medium and the method that will change. Black and white too is bound to exist within these variables with the upcoming masters in the making.



Check out the life and works of the mentioned photographers at the following links

Irving Penn -

Richard Avedon -

Helmut Newton -

Herb Ritts-

Steven Meisel –

Ansel Adams –

Dorothea Lange - unitedstates/lange/

Yousuf Karsh-

Arnold Newman -


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