Masters of Black & White
Living in a world awash with colour but shooting and producing images in black and white not only allows one to experience the world in an entirely different light, as those interviewed reveal, it also provides an opportunity to shift one’s artistic expression. Sophia Hawkes shares valuable insights.
A black and white photograph will strip away an element of life most of us take for granted and engage with all the time, colour. In doing so, our attention will focus on aspects we might easily have missed if colour was present. “Black and white has a way of simplifying and focusing our attention. The absence of colour leaves behind the essential elements of an image – light and dark, shapes and lines, expression and gesture,” says Brence Coghill. Coghill is a Melbourne-based multi-award-winning photographer who since 2018 has used the wet plate and tintype technique from the 1850s to create black and white images. Coghill has an affinity for black and white photography and feels that critical elements of a portrait can be enhanced by the absence of colour. “When I’m shooting portraiture, a black and white image removes distractions and brings greater focus onto the gesture and expression of my subject. I’m less distracted by the background or the colour of their jacket, and instead more captivated by their expression and drawn into the moment captured in the image,” he says.
Tim Booth also believes one of the powers inherent in black and white images is that they remove distraction. Based in the UK, Booth gained international recognition after publishing his seminal project and award-winning book, A Show of Hands. “Black and white imagery encourages the viewer to appreciate structure, tone, and composition above all else. Sometimes, it’s almost as if colour acts as a camouflage that stops our brains looking deeper into the substance of the image,” says Booth. “If someone’s looking at a colour photograph of a tree, the brain spends far more time evaluating the colour of the tree, rather than the shape of it – so if the photographer shot it because of its shape, rather than its colour, they’re sending a mixed message,” he says.
The absence of colour also moves us one step further away from reality and into the realm of the dramatic. Veteran photographer Ralph Gibson has been shooting for decades and early in his career was assistant to greats including Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank. “Reality exists in three dimensions, one hundred percent scale, and colour. When making a photograph, you reduce reality into two dimensions, as well as reducing the scale of the subject. Then, if you reduce it again into black and white, you’re three steps away from reality and a lot of drama comes into the picture as a result. Colour is only two steps away, so it’s less dramatic,” says Gibson.
A black and white image might invoke the dramatic, although Chris Reid, owner/operator at Blanco Negro (one of the last dedicated professional black and white film darkrooms in Australia), also finds freedom in black and white images. “Black and white is unnatural to the human eye, so there is an instant freedom from the usual and familiar,” he says.
Although we use the term ‘black and white’, there’s naturally another element to consider: grey. “Black and white is such a misleading term as we usually deal with every shade of grey in between. Compared to colour, the main focus is the highlights and shadows, and we worry about having too much or not enough,” says Reid.
Simplicity is one of the keys aspects of black and white photography. Coghill believes an uncluttered image with a dominant subject is where it’s at. “If your image feels disconnected and uninteresting, this is often because it’s not clear what the subject is in your image,” he says. Once Coghill is clear on his main subject, he sets out to make this more prominent. This understanding guides him in his pursuit of the ultimate black and white image. “I will look for a subject with compelling lines, shapes, and texture, and generally a harder light source to provide good contrast and definition. If I’m working with a softer light, I want there to be a strong light direction to ensure that there are obvious bright and dark elements to give definition to the shapes in the scene,” he says.
Cast your gaze on the shape of things
“Things are seldom what they are because of what colour they are; it’s because of what shape they are,” Booth says. “Our brains look for patterns before colour. Say you’re photographing the sea, for instance. If you’re shooting it because it’s a wonderful blue, then obviously it’s a colour shot. If you’re shooting it because of the shape of it, the curve of the beach, a jut of rocks, whatever, then I’d argue it should be in black and white. If on the other hand you’ve been drawn to the tonal range within your image, then you’re pretty much on the fence and only you can decide which way to jump,” he says. Is colour important to the story of your image? Booth knew he wanted to tell the story of the hands he was shooting for A Show of Hands. “For the hands, I was looking at shape, texture, and composition. The colour of the hands was irrelevant to their story and would just have been a distraction. The ‘colour’ in a black and white image is all in the tonal range,” he says.
Black and white photography is about lines, shapes, structures, and distinct textures. Adrian Cook, who recently showcased his silver gelatin and wet plate collodion artwork at his exhibition, Some Pictures, has one top tip to photographers wanting to understand how to master the interplay between light and dark elements in black and white photography. “Learn about the zone system,” he suggests. “One white, one black, and seven greys, and don’t crop in post – get it all in camera.”
In order to learn how to create images with ultimate definition, you have to understand how tonal values work, and Coghill urges photographers to study certain paintings to figure this out. “Look into monochromatic painting and how different tonal values are used to define an object or a scene to show shape and dimension. Without a distinct difference in tonal value there’s not enough distinction between the elements in a scene, and the image will feel flat,” he says.
Exploring a world beyond colour
The quest to capture a brilliant black and white photograph is an adventure, an act of daring to be different. You have to be fearless in the face of that ugly creature called failure. “I don’t think one should have the goal to ‘master’ black and white photography,” says Booth. “There’s no winning post you pass. Photography is a journey without the need for a final destination. I haven’t ‘mastered’ black and white. I am constantly trying to improve.”
To improve, you have to experiment. There’s no growth without experimentation, no experimentation without mistakes, and experimentation is the birthplace of originality. Gibson learnt about the importance of originality from Robert Frank who called Gibson while working on his movie, Me and my Brother, and said: “I might fall flat on my face on this one, but at least I’m trying to do something different”. Gibson says that the top advice he got from both Frank and Dorothea Lange was not to imitate other photographers which he admires. “Somehow manage to do your own work, become your own photographer,” he says.
Persistence and an acceptance of the price of greatness are golden keys offered by Reid. “Photography is a challenge and analogue photography is even more so. But learning from one’s mistakes just makes you a better photographer/printmaker. It takes time to learn in the darkroom or behind the camera, and experience generally always costs something, either money or time, but usually both!”
As with anything, having a theoretical understanding of how a great black and white image is created isn’t enough. You have to practise, of course. Begin to search for scenes and subjects you think will translate well in black and white. “There are plenty of instances where you’ll find potential images that either contain little colour or have such strong contrasting colours that they immediately lend themselves to black and white. The most important thing of all is to go out shooting in the first place. When something stops you and makes you bring your camera up to your eye, ask yourself the questions: ‘Why did I do that? What drew me to lift up my camera?’. The answer should tell you whether to opt for colour or black and white. Trust yourself,” says Booth.
Remain active in your search. It’s not enough to simply take your camera with you and sit down somewhere hoping a suitable subject will appear. This is something Gibson was told early on, but which took him years to truly understand and begin to act on. The twenty-one-year-old Gibson showed his work to Dorothea Lange who shared some invaluable insights. “Dorothea said, ‘I see your problem, Ralph. You have no point of departure,’ and I replied, ‘That’s true, Dorothea’. She gave me what turned out to be the key to my entire career. She said if you’re going down to the drugstore to buy toothpaste and you have your camera, you might intersect an interesting event worth photographing, but if you just sit around on the street waiting for something to happen, you won’t get anything. I didn’t pay attention until much later, at about the age of twenty-eight when I was working on my first book, The Somnambulist, at which point I realised just how important a point of departure really is.”
Traditional or modern, film or digital?
Gibson points out that digital and film are but different languages, as are black and white versus colour. When he began his photography career, digital wasn’t an option. It wasn’t until 2012 when Leica sent him a digital camera and asked him to do a shoot, because he was known for his black and white photography, that he used a digital camera. “The day that camera arrived, I’m talking to my psychoanalyst and I say to her, ‘I’ve been fifty years in the darkroom. I don’t know what to do with this thing’. But I walked out on the street and took my first digital photograph of the manhole and the bicycle. I look at the display, and I say, ‘That looks like it could’ve been taken by me’. Since then, I have not loaded a roll of film or shot a single frame [on film] and probably never will again. I really like digital. I got to reinvent myself at the age of seventy-five; not something you get a chance to do very often,” Gibson says with a cheeky look in his eyes.
Booth has learnt a lot about how to shoot black and white images from his passion for wet plate images. “Shooting wet plate introduces a load of constraints and complexities that I have to understand and work with. These limitations make me slow down and work in a more considered way – thinking more critically about my composition, lighting, and approach. I’m frequently forced to approach things differently, and this leads to more interesting results that I may not have arrived at otherwise. It’s also very satisfying to step away from the computer and use your hands to create images with a physical medium,” he says.
Cook largely learnt how to shoot black and white images by developing other photographer’s photographs in the darkroom he worked at in London. “Because I already knew how to print, I knew what to look for in terms of light and shade when composing an image,” says Cook. He began to carry a camera loaded with black and white film everywhere he went. “Having the knowledge to print one’s own work well on a fibre-based paper is a really lovely and satisfying thing to do. For me, a beautifully printed silver gelatin image is the final part of the B&W photographic process.” Reid agrees. “I think you develop your eye by developing and printing your images, although it is not an intuitive process to begin with.”
Although Coghill has a passion for wet plate photography, he doesn’t discredit digital and how useful it can be. “Try shooting in black and white mode on your digital camera. This will help you learn as you shoot by focusing your attention on the highlights, shadows, and shapes in your composition. You can do this on most cameras and still capture your images in RAW so that you can still process the image however you like after the fact. You may even find that this helps the compositions of your colour images,” he says.
Reid, on the other hand, suggests that shooting with film will help you evolve as a black and white photographer. “With analogue, I love the idea that mistakes can happen no matter how experienced one is using a camera or an enlarger, and these ‘mistakes’ can often lead to new ideas or inspiration. With film, every frame or sheet is considered before pressing the shutter, as every frame is one less frame on the roll, and every frame costs money! I find this attitude helps to keep me focused on the subject at hand. I have no delete or Command Z,” Reid says.
Whether or not you choose to use film or digital when you endeavour to capture those strong lines, shapes, and contrasts of your subject, be sure to have made yourself at home in the shadows. Be inspired, study other photographers, but heed the warning not to imitate. Be clear on the story you want to tell and why black and white is the best language in which to tell it. Then watch the drama present itself through your images. Make tonal values your allies as you embark on the adventure of capturing a bit of the mystery lurking beneath the layer of colour.
Tim Booth – timbooth.com
Brence Coghill – brencecoghill.com
Adrian Cook – adriancookphotography.com
Ralph Gibson – ralphgibson.com
Chris Reid – blanconegro.com.au
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