Black-and-white images at their most evocative exert an enduring hold on the imagination, imbued with a sense of mystery that goes deeper than memory, into dreamscape. Where color photos, like old postcards left out in the sun, can succumb to kitsch or nostalgia, the most iconic black-and-white stills inhabit a deeper, darker remove, peeling away the superfluous and working their magic with shadow and grain. Shadows are where secrets dwell and history hides, where what’s being concealed gives rigor and haunted ambiguity to what’s being shown. (In Gilbert Fastenaekens’s Le Havre, the isolated glow of the telephone booth amid the looming noir darkness possesses an extraterrestrial eeriness.) Graininess can suggest the crackle of dark matter or outbursts of ragged energy, as captured in the elegiac Leica snaps of Robert Frank and the peekaboo shots of Daido Moriyama, or it can testify to the careworn erosion inflicted by poverty and hardship, the scarrings of war.
With “Black & White: A Photographic Aesthetic,” the Bibliothèque Nationale de France draws upon its vast collection to pay gala tribute to the 150-year history of black-and-white photography, from A (Eugène Atget, Ansel Adams, and Diane Arbus) to Z (Émile Zola) and all the illustrious shutterbugs in between (Brassaï, Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Josef Sudek, et al.). Eye candy is dandy, but make mine monochrome. —James Wolcott