Exploring the History and Relevance of Black and White Images and Timeless Appeal in Modern Photography

In exploring the history and continuing appeal of black and white photography, a quick history is in order. Weissmann Preservation Center at Harvard Library has gathered and printed Harvard’s History of Photography Timeline from 1926 to 2004, a bullet-point list of important moments in photography.

Key stops for all photographers from amateur to professional include:

  • 1851: Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet collodion process – This innovation in photography required less time for exposure.
  • 1874: Silver gelatin paper becomes commercially available. The widespread use of silver gelatin paper in the 1890s made it the most common black-and-white photographic print process of the 20th century.
  • 1885: French criminologist and anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the modern mug shot. Taking mug shots provided professional photographers with income.
  • 1888: George Eastman markets the Kodak No. 1 box camera with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.

1900: Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie camera at the retail price of one dollar, their goal was to sell film and development services.

From Brownie To Black and White Art

The Eastman Kodak Brownie camera made the art of photography accessible to everyone. It is hard to fathom the excitement of the average person to be able to document the history of their lives in crisp black and white glossy printed photographs. In its day, the Brownie was the equivalent of the Apple iPhone with a built-in digital camera.

The Kodak Brownie camera

Michael Grecco may or may not have known the history of photography as a young pre-high-school man who was gifted his first 35 mm camera, but he quickly learned to document history and create art with black and white photography.

Experimenting For Perfection

The joy of taking a picture soon became an obsession in photographic experimentation for young Michael Grecco. The Brownie was the everyman camera, anyone could take a picture. On the other end of the spectrum were 35 mm precision machines that required the operator to calculate the aperture speed based on light and the required effect.

Taking picture after picture and examining the results taught Michael Grecco the fundamentals of framing, and how to use shadows and light long before his days studying with photography historian and photographer Carl Chiarenza, a master of black and white photography. Michael Grecco was fascinated with the light, framing, shadows, and effects of black and white photography.

The Human League photographed by Michael Grecco.

The artistic, documentary, and technical aspects of photography that Michael Grecco learned through experimenting paved the way for the future perfection of his detailed career as a multi-faceted photographer. He has filled roles as a freelance news photographer for the AP and captured the alluring details of the emerging Punk movement from Boston to New York for the music press.

Michael Grecco being helped across a stream by a protester at the Seabrook Nuclear Protests in Seabrook New Hampshire, 1977.

Killing Joke photographed by Michael Grecco.

As his portfolio grew, he captured candid and innovative portrait shots of people in the entertainment and sports industries. He is often a guest of fashion designers unveiling their latest runway creations.

The Timeless Appeal of Black and White Images in the Digital Age

Michael Grecco shares his knowledge on capturing black and white images for the amateur and professional in two books, The Art of Portrait Photography, Creative Lighting Techniques and Strategies, and Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait, the Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography.

As the digital age matures with the introduction of AI, VR, AR, and the pursuit of other galaxies, the appeal of the interplay of shadows and light expressed in black and white keeps its appeal in modern photography. Michael Grecco is intrigued by the horizon of photography and realizes that the fundamentals he learned shooting with 35 mm black and white film will serve him well in modern photography.