While color photography has been with us in one form or another since the early 1900s, black and white remains for many of us as the pinnacle of the photographic arts. Capturing a scene properly in black and white is challenging, but when it is successful, the results have a beauty and a clarity that can be breathtaking. Most of the truly great photographers of the twentieth century—at least through the 1960s—shot solely with black-and-white film, despite the rapid rise of color slide film in the late ’40s and ’50s, and the wide-scale adoption of color print film after that.
The digital camera and the smartphone have largely relegated black-and-white photography as an afterthought—often via the click of a filter in Instagram or Lightroom—and I have long felt that this is one of the sad consequences of our modern world. I see plenty of black-and-white photos across the web, but so many of them are simply snapshots with the absence of color, and they lack the gravitas of great work.
Learning to see in black and white, and how to expose and compose for the gray tones is an art that requires study, experimentation and care, and it’s rare to see contemporary photographers who focus exclusively in this world. One who does, and has stunningly beautiful work, is Jason M. Peterson.
Jason’s work is consistently amazing; I first discovered him on Instagram—his most active medium—although he posts regularly on Facebook (which compresses his photos to mush, unfortunately) and occasionally on 500px. Even on the small screen of a phone, Jason’s work jumps out as distinctive and unique, especially for its composition and tonal range. His work spans everything from cityscapes to landscapes, from aerial shots—his framed airplane-window shots are consistently beautiful—to minimalist scenes, but when you look at a photo of his, you know it is his. Looking at his work as a whole, you can tell that he thinks in the language of black and white.
Jason is the art director at an agency in Chicago, and his photography shows a broad sense of design and composition and a deep knowledge of photographic history. Chicago Creatives recently published a lengthy interview with Jason recently, where, among other topics, he talked about his relationship with the photographers of the past. (Emphasis mine.)
You are one who has studied the history of photography for quite sometime, with some of your biggest influences being Harry Callahan and Stanley Kubrick. How important is it in any medium to go back and do your research and history?
I think that’s the most critical piece. People ask about my work all the time and it’s rooted in what I know about photography. Being an art director, I was always a photo historian and had the craziest library at home. Every book had photo references that I could take and go to clients and say hey, I want to do this campaign and have it look like this.
I find Jason’s work on Instagram to be the best place to go; it is where he’s most prolific, and, it is a lovely happenstance to see one of his images pop up in my feed. They almost always make me pause, to look, to think, and to be inspired. And, while I find it hard to think in black and white, and I struggle with photography in general, Jason’s work always makes me want to go out and shoot. Not to mimic him, but to go out in the world and try to create. I think that’s one of the hallmarks of a great photographer.
Jason M. Peterson’s places on the web: