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Black & White : a photographic esthetic. Collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France


“The world in black and white has a certain mystery that cannot be put into words but is incredibly appealing to the eye. Is it wrong to believe that this strikes a particularly strong chord given that we are living in a time when anything can be photographed in colour?” Shoji Ueda.

This exhibition brings together masterpieces in black and white from the photography collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF), given a rare outing from its archives for the occasion. Nadar, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Willy Ronis, Helmut Newton, Diane Arbus, Mario Giacomelli, Robert Frank, William Klein, Daido Moriyama and Valérie Belin are among the leading lights of French and international photography brought together in an exhibition that spans 150 years of history in black and white photography, from its 19th-century origins to contemporary creation.

150 years of black and white photography

Following on from the major photography exhibitions held in the Southeast Gallery of the Grand Palais since 2012, the exhibition Black & White presents more than 300 prints that represent the exceptional collection of the Print and Photography Department of the BnF.

This presentation focuses on the 20th century and the contemporary period, as well as an introduction with several photographs from the 19th century, thus exploring the theme over more than 150 years through the work of some 200 artists of more than 30 nationalities.

Black and white, a constantly evolving technical and aesthetic approach

Black and white is integral to the history of photography. Its developments, from the late 19th century to today, have produced increasingly contrasting and sophisticated nuances that reveal the visual power of the technique. While the use of colour intensified throughout the 1970s, the use of black and white was maintained as a means of aesthetic expression emphasising the artwork and the material.

Until the years 1980-1990, it dominated production in terms of quantity and value: like Walker Evans (1903- 1975), many photographers considered colour photography as “vulgar”, to be used only for banal subjects and practical purposes. Beyond an economic and technical explanation, the persistence of the use of black and white can be explained by the fact that it embodies, in the common sense, the very essence of photography and therefore “beautiful photography”.

It took on the role of conveying a universal, timeless or even reminiscent dimension, in contrast to colour which translated the contemporary world. The Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BnF) has always sought to be a key custodian of black and white photography, encouraging its continuing practice and its appropriation by today’s young artists, in reaction to the colour-saturated digital world.

Black and white in the photography collections of the BnF

The exhibition examines the theme from an aesthetic, formal and sensorial perspective, with an emphasis on image-creation methods that are specific monochrome : visual and graphic contrast effects, plays on shadow and light, textures captured across the entire palette of values from black to white through scales of grey.

The selection places an emphasis on the photographers who have systematically focused their artistic creation on black and white, exploring its possibilities and its limits, and at times even making it the very subject of their photography; Imogen Cunningham, Man Ray, Ansel Adams, Florence Henri , Ralph Gibson, Mario Giacomelli, Valérie Belin are just some examples.

Special attention has been paid to the quality of the prints and the variety of techniques and photographic papers (pigment prints, gum bichromate, gelatin silver on baryta, etc.). The theme of black-and-white printing is also highlighted, as for a long time books and magazines were the primary vehicle for photographic creation.

The treasures of the BnF photography collections exhibited at the Grand Palais

The photography collections of the Print and Photography Department of the BnF, which is now home to some 6 million prints, are particularly representative of the history of black and white photography.

The BnF photography collection – one of the world’s most extensive – now includes hundreds of thousands of prints, albums and portfolios by close to 2,000 photographers from the 19th century and over 5700 photographers from the 20 and 21st centuries, with all styles and nationalities represented.



Sylvie Aubenas, director of the Print and Photography Department of the BnF

Héloïse Conésa, curator in charge of contemporary photography in the Print and Photography Department of the BnF Flora Triebel, curator in charge of 19th century photography in the Print and Photography Department of the BnF Dominique Versavel, head of photography and curator in charge of modern photography in the Print and Photography Department of the BnF

exhibition design: Maud Martinot


Black & White: a photographic esthetic. Collection of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

12 november 2020 – 4 january 2021

Grand Palais

Southeast Gallery

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