This exercise asks us to read a piece on Bill Brandt, and then consider how black and white came to be considered so authoritative. This would be fine except that this question is not really addressed by the item on Bill Brandt. Anyway – moving on…
The piece looks at Brandt's development through the lens of a single image “Parlour maid and Under Parlour Maid Ready to Serve Dinner”. It was part of one of his early work – The English at Home – a publication which has little early success. It is perhaps an early example of Brandt preference for single images – despite his Picture Post work. It is suggested that although Brandt moved away from the poetic realism of photo essays of the time, preferring the ideas of surrealism, that he never really changed this image very much in subsequent printings – unlike some of his other images. It also appears to suggest – I’ll have to read it again – that Brandt was at the cutting edge of moving documentary to an art form rather than juts a social conscience.
Moving to the broader question. A cynic – or even a practical observer – might suggest that B&W was seen as authoritative because photography was historically seen that way and there was no other form. As a result it developed a momentum which made it difficult to knock off it’s perch. It was aided in this by publications such as Picture Post, which made huge use of B&W photos – so ensuring a large supplier base tuned in to these materials, and a perception that black and white was associated with newsworthiness and truth.
There are other considerations however. Some suggest that colour is distracting – that the increased abstraction of B&W allows greater concentration on the message. I find this unconvincing. If we look at the variety of ways in which B&W film can be processed and printed it is clear there is huge latitude for the use of tone – but no-one seems to suggest that this is an issue. If a large blob of red is distracting – why not a ludicrously deep shadow.
Technologically there were also areas in which B&W retained an edge – in particular it could be used in situations where colour film was simply not fast enough, which meant it could – for a while – tell stories that colour photography could not. To all intents and purposes advancing technology nullified that advantage – although it certainly took a couple of decades, during which time people could reasonably claim that B&W was the only way to get some kinds of material.
B&W was also an amateur medium – which freed it from the supposed taint of big business and perhaps holds it closer to the photographer as artist maintaining control over their materials. The snapshot aesthetic developed as a result of the very easy production of colour prints – and the democratisation that brought perceptually reducing the influence that big business could have on the output. And yet – it was the automatism – the non-intervention of the photographer that gave photography it’s “camera never lies” reputation in the first place.
A similar claim for an older technology occurred at the advent of the CD – vinyl was seen as more true for some time – despite aural evidence to the contrary, and the same is happening with digital photography. All changes in technology are met with resistance by people who have spent a lifetime investing in and making a living from the previous version – and one way of doing this is to invest the old technology with mythical powers. I’m afraid I have yet to be convinced that the driving factor was not simply custom and practise, with the other issues playing a lesser part.