An enduring love that is black & white
Is black and white a facade, or somehow more real? Does it capture a moment or contrive it? Tim Grey spoke with four renowned specialists who shared their thoughts on these timeless questions.
Arguably, all photography is about time, in one way or another, but black and white, somehow, transcends it. Becomes timeless.
These days, thanks to the digital sensor embedded in almost every device, colour is the rule, rather than the exception. But in 1822, photography was by definition, black and white. Nicéphore Niépce managed to make a photo of his Parisian window in glorious monotone, though it took him another three years to duplicate it.
So entrancing was Niépce’s fenêtre, black and white became the default for almost two centuries. Even throughout the 20th century, photography continued to be dominated by monochrome. Any deviation from the one-colour orthodoxy was considered a cheap trick. For instance, when Color Photographs by William Eggleston exhibited at MoMA, in New York, the critics were apoplectic. The Village Voice called it “some kind of con” and The New York Times stated it was “the most hated show of the year” – and this was 1976!
The funny thing is that colour pictures have been technically possible since 1855 – though no-one even bothered to try making one until 1861.
Why, then, was B&W so popular? And why does it remain so? What is it that makes us think of monochrome images as inherently more ‘arty’ than our filthy saturated photos?
Photographer Julian Kingma, whose black and white photos appeared in his solo show at the National Portrait Gallery and regularly adorned the cover of publications such as the Good Weekend, doesn’t buy the ‘arty’ argument.
“People say ‘arty’ or ‘moody’ and I don’t really know what they mean,” he says. Rather, the appeal of black and white is its constraint; the fact it removes unnecessary information from an image and allows him to focus the viewer’s eye on his composition. “I look at gestures and movements and moments more than I do colour. Colour’s just kinda colour.”
Kingma, like many professional photographers, began his career shooting on film. As a cadet for The Herald (Melbourne), and later as Head of Features at The Sunday Age, the photographer was trained to be versatile. “I’m quite adaptable because of how I started my career,” he recalls. “I had to do a bit of everything. I didn’t necessarily love it, but I got good at it quickly, because I had to.”
While he spent a good portion of his early career ‘doing what he’s told’, Kingma’s always looked through the camera as an artist. And when he’s working as an artist, he’s working in black and white. “If my head’s in the square, and my eye’s in there, it changes the way I look at everything,” he explains. “A lot of people ask me whether I see in colour or black and white. But it’s not like that. It’s such a deep, emotive thing.”
Encountering the greats
That emotion was stirred for the first time in a suburban Dymocks, where Kingma came across a book by Arnold Newman. At the time, the teenage Kingma thought he was going to be an illustrator, but the directness of Newman’s compositions showed him he could achieve everything he needed without touching a pencil or a brush. “Seeing Arnold Newman for the first time was a pivotal point for me. It tipped me out of drawing and into photography,” he recalls. “I direct people
to him because he’s my person. I don’t look at him every day, but there’s a corner in my brain that I attach all my thoughts to.”
For Magnum photographer Trent Parke, The Americans by the great Robert Frank tipped him headlong into the world of black and white. “I was shooting on the streets and working at the newspaper when one of the other photographers saw my personal work I was doing in the newspaper darkroom after hours,” he recalls. “He asked if I knew Robert Frank’s work. I didn’t. The next day he brought me a copy of the book. I remember having such an emotional response to his pictures.”
For Parke, it was the gift of Robert Frank that pushed his personal work out into the open, and ultimately saw the Australian photographer move out from straight photojournalism into the art world more broadly. “When I was photographing on the streets of Sydney to make my first book, Dream/Life, I wanted to make work that reflected how I felt, not what the city of Sydney looked like,” says Parke. “I had come from suburban Newcastle surrounded by friends and family as a young man, to being quite isolated in a big city. I wanted the photographs to reflect that. Sydney is such a picture postcard place that I had to remove the colour to take it into my world.”
American photojournalist, and fellow Magnum member, Michael Christopher Brown agrees with Parke that using B&W simultaneously strips an image of information, while concentrating the viewer on what really matters. “It subtracts part of reality, which is in colour,” he says. “But by minimizing that visual reality, by simplifying it in a sense, it allows us to focus on what is in the picture, the content, and context.”
Recently, for example, Brown has been documenting the fallout from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, and the protests that have ensued. The images are always clear and crisp, their subject front and centre, despite the messiness of the scene: “With issue and justice-based work, black and white is often able to allow a viewer to more easily sense and understand the essence and core of the issue.”
Bending time’s arrow
But black-and-white photography isn’t always about stripping an image down. Sometimes, as in the work of Victorian photographer Hayley Millar-Baker, it’s about deepening it. Like Kingma, Millar-Baker originally trained as a painter. However, she found that photography (and digital compositing) was a more effective medium for telling the stories she wanted to tell. “B&W lends to the fact that I like to play with time,” she explains. “I try to make things seem current, but really old at the same time. Black and white seems to be able to bend time really well.”
For instance, in A Series of Unwarranted Events, Millar-Baker investigates the role of ‘truth’ in historical photography by illustrating stories from her family’s personal experience. Each photograph is a composite of hundreds of individual layers, which, when blended, create a scene that could be either from the past or the present.
“I shoot heaps, have them scanned, see what works and doesn’t work. I then have them scanned at high-resolution. Then I work to pull them all apart and stitch them back together to make the scene,” says Millar-Baker. “I want to break this cycle of being a reteller of history. I want to be more playful, contemporary, so it’s about me and my stories, and whatever my brain conjures up.”
Is the medium the message?
Perhaps one reason that monochrome feels ‘timeless’ is that it’s so strongly associated with film techniques of the past, particularly with photographers such as Arthur Steiglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Capa, who created a photography that felt, for the first time, like art. Of course, the use of black and white was compulsory at the time, as was the use of film, which many dedicated B&W photographers continue to use today. “When I’m shooting analogue, it’s for myself. If I’m shooting film, there’s just this massive divide in my brain,” says Kingma. “I can be lazy with digital. But with film, I do more of the ‘editing’ in-camera. When I play with black and white film, it’s almost like I use the computer as
the enlarger: I pull up the contrast, and the highlights I make smoother.”
Parke, likewise, is still an avid devotee of film photography. “If I am shooting a project in B&W, I use film,” he explains. “I don’t change colour to B&W in post. I still shoot film for all my projects unless an idea demands digital. And then I have no problem shooting digital. But I don’t convert it.”
Even photographers whose professional lives have been lived during the reign of digital still turn to analogue – as Millar-Baker does with her own work. “There hasn’t been a photo I’ve taken in black-and-white film that hasn’t turned out really beautiful,” she admits. “I’ve got a 6x7 medium-format camera, and a 6x6 medium format, and I take my digital just in case I need backup, because obviously I can see what I’m shooting at the time.”
For his part, Michael Christopher Brown understands the uncanny emotional connection to film photography. “I learned photography in my father’s home darkroom, a B&W darkroom,” he recalls. “There was an immediate connection between what I saw outside in the backyard to what was then seen on film, a craft and that physical sense of the process that helped slow me down and focus on each frame, and the reasons for taking those frames. With colour, we’d send the film off to a lab and receive negatives, but never printed them ourselves. So, B&W was much more intimate from an early age, as the process was more intimate.”
That said, Brown isn’t at all rigid about what he’s shooting on. If he’s got an iPhone in his hand, well, that’s a camera. “Clearly there is a quality difference, especially with prints and the look and feel of them, but ultimately whichever one is more effective and necessary in achieving the aim seems to be the name of the game,” he explains. “When shooting film exclusively, one needs to be aware of the limitations of film more than digital. But these days, when working on projects, I am generally more interested in the content of what is being photographed than the medium, and often more than the light or beauty of the scene. I like to be free and not have any fixed ideas or constraints technically in mind. When working on commissions, of course this is a different story, and one must be concerned.”
It’s a photo, Stupid
Nevertheless, it’s easy to become too wrapped up in technicalities. Parke advises against it. “I try and keep photography as simple as possible. The camera is just a black box to me that goes click,” he states. “When you’re trying to capture an emotion or a feeling, the last thing you want to be thinking about is technical stuff. Way too many photographers get caught up in technique.”
Despite his love for film photography, Kingma essentially agrees. “It doesn’t matter about the medium,” he says. “It’s just a matter of getting down what’s in my head.” And, it’s important to keep practical considerations in mind – like, how will your client feel about shooting on film, or whether you can turn a project around in 24 hours. “When I was dragged kicking and screaming into the digital world, I was still shooting proof Polaroids and getting stuff scanned,” he says. “But it just became a time-and-money thing in the end. I was gonna lose work if I kept that up.”
So, the gold standard might be carrying ten rolls of 120, but sometimes it’s just not practical. “If the composition’s unreal, I’ll do two versions, one of which is black and white. And I’ll see what it brings. Because if the framing is great, black or white or colour doesn’t matter so much,” suggests Kingma. “And clients do take the black and white shots. There’s no harm in trying. Sometimes you can change people’s minds, because it’s impossible to explain in words. If you lay it out in front of them visually, they get it.”
Likewise, Brown will often try something out in post to see whether it sticks. “Whenever I’m shooting digitally, I make the decision in post as to whether to continue with B&W or colour,” he says. “I’ll run with whichever is least distracting and most empowering to the aim and intent of the work.” And, let’s face it, having a little wiggle-room with dynamic range is really, really convenient. “When I shoot on digital, though, it’s all colour, because I find that it’s so much easier to play with the levels from colour to match it with film,” explains Millar-Baker. “I’ve been thinking I should go to colour film to give myself that extra headroom, but I don’t know. There’s just something about black-and-white film that I won’t ever stop shooting it.”
Ultimately, though, there’s no recipe for a winning image in black and white (despite what those Ansel Adams freaks will tell you). Monochrome, like anything else, is a tool, one more technique in the photographer’s kit-bag to transmit their message, to take unframed reality and make something great. “If someone shows me something, my question isn’t, ‘Is it film?’ Instead, it’s, ‘Is it arresting? Is it beautiful? Is it emotional?’ Whether it’s digital or film shouldn’t make a lick of difference. It’s just whether I like it.”
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