When cinema was invented film stock was black and white and, bar a few notable exceptions such as two strip colour and even early 3D, this remained the predominant format until the emergence of colour film during the 1930’s. Even then, colour was often associated with large scale productions and most films continued to be produced in black and white. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s Black & White Cinema: A Short History explores the development of this wonderful format from its inception until today, despite the dominance of colour film in modern day film-making, and presents examples of the format that turned the revolution of cinema into an art form.

Understanding monochrome is key to understanding the evolution of cinema, both technically and artistically. Black & White Cinema: A Short History provides a detailed history of the format, decade by decade, up until the 1960s, 1965 being the declared year that single-strip colour film became the dominant – and cheaper – process in cinematography. Technology is integral to the creation of cinema as an art form and black and white film’s eventual decline is discussed as technology developed and evolved and new formats emerged. Wheeler Winston Dixon examines not only the evolution of the film process but also the camera techniques necessary to achieve the creative requirement of both directors and cinematographers, from the implementation of complex moving shots and editing to the emergence of other film technologies that affected the way that film could be used as an artistic medium. Particularly noteworthy was the emergence of sound in the late 1920s which required the damping of the noise made by the mechanics of the cameras and temporarily restricted film aesthetic techniques until technological innovation allowed them to become realised once more. The early history is especially informative as it covers not only the work of Lumière and Melies with their respective perspectives on cinematic purpose, but also comments on film-makers such as Alice Guy and her artistic portrayals of fantastical biblical formats with compositions that appear to be like black and white photographs of classical paintings. The way these are linked with the evolution of narrative in silent cinema and its continuous alteration through the development of editing and sound throughout the decades forms an integral part of this book. The works of prominent cinematographers are studied in-depth through their participation with directors’ desires as well as the later emergence of black and white film becoming the essential (and appropriately defined) film noir, where the worlds of shadow and darkness prevailed visually as well as narratively and thematically.

Black & White Cinema: A Short History also features a number of well chosen illustrations (all of them, even behind the scenes ones, are, of course, in black and white) that emphasise the narrative, historical and artistic nature of the medium. It is essential reading for anyone interested in film media and especially its technological history. Highly recommended for cinephiles and academics alike.