Black and White All Over: The Riddle of Classical Photography

The following was written by Vice President and Director of Photographs & Photobooks, Daile Kaplan:


I love looking at photographs in both black-and-white and color iterations. Long before streaming existed, TV programs and noir films were produced in black-and-white, and print media was devoid of color. All of this was readily accepted by the public. Black-and-white, or classical fine art photography, was the visual language of the twentieth century. Although silver prints were often quite small, approximately eight by ten inches, they still presented myriad opportunities for creative pictorial expression.


Jimmy De Sana, book maquette for Submission, with 31 silver prints, 1979.
Sold April 17, 2014 for $22,500.


Today it’s hard to find pictures that don’t appear digitally, in color, or that aren’t selfies. Of course, images that utilize a full chromatic palette can be pretty astounding. But the whites, grays and blacks of a photograph made by hand, in a darkroom, often conveys a distinctly transformed reality. The bold graphic qualities of a black-and-white photograph render form, line, shape and texture in essentially new ways.


Ansel Adams, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, mural-size silver print, 1941, reprocessed 1948, printed early- to mid-1950s. Sold February 25, 2016 for $221,000.


Take the work of Ansel Adams, for example. He pre-visualized the image Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico; he saw the picture in his mind’s eye before it existed on film or paper. Moonrise is a profound visual poem—tombstones in a cemetery subtly lit by moonlight—that speaks to our common humanity.


Lewis W. Hine, Safety-man coming up on mooring mast, Empire State Building, silver print, 1930. Sold December 12, 2013 for $21,250.


Photography has always relied on advances in technology and optics. Adams himself was famous for developing a set of principles, known as “the zone system,” that articulated his masterful technique. However the attention he devoted to creating a photographic print wasn’t just a geeky exercise, it was a personal practice that drew from his longstanding belief in the inherent beauty and power of the photographic object: the print.


The next auction of Photographs & Photobooks at Swann Galleries will be held on October 19, 2017. To consign quality materials, please contact Daile Kaplan at