In 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope sent back to astronomers at the University of Arizona a series of vivid colour images of the Eagle Nebula, a dense formation of interstellar gas and dust the likes of which cradle newborn stars. As evidence that our perceptual universe, in every sense of the word, is defined by the representational powers of colour technology, the Hubble's “cosmic close-ups” are a clear case in point. Colour has become a standard representational form and hence the visual form. If so, what can be said of the recent popularity and proliferation of the black-and-white image?
No self-respecting café-bar or discriminating home, it seems, can now do without a black and white print on the wall. Commercial photography and certain forms of advertising have found a new niche in black and white, and even sepia is staging a come-back. The popularity of the black-and-white image cannot be divorced from the commercial culture in which it circulates; it is a “look” and a marker of taste. Monochrome is a stylistic trend but a revealing one, especially if one considers the growing preoccupation in America with heritage and memory. Both Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes give black and white a status of authenticity judged in relation to past time “properly” captured. For Sontag, monochrome gives an image a sense of age, historical distance, and aura. She writes, “the cold intimacy of color seems to seal off the photograph from patina.” Likewise, Barthes comments on the artifice of colour, how it is a “coating applied later on to the original truth of black and white.” For both critics, monochrome is an aesthetic of the authentic figured around a basic quality of pastness.
Grainge, P. (1999). TIME's past in the present: nostalgia and the black and white image. Journal of American Studies, 33(3),