Monarchs of Monochrome
Photographers began trying to add colour to photographs almost as soon as the first photograph was taken. Photos began to be hand-coloured in 1839, thirteen years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce shot the first surviving photo in 1826. Even when interest in “perfecting” colour film became fierce before Kodachrome went on sale in 1936, some of the world’s most famous black and white photographs were being taken. Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Man Jumping the Puddle and Lunch atop a Skyscraper were both shot in 1932. The passion for black and white is still strong nearly a hundred years later. Four masters of monochrome explain why and how they use it.
Most people find taking a black and white image very difficult.
I bought my first camera, a Mamiya, when I was thirteen. By that stage, in the early 1960s, my mother had been working for Magnum for some years. Through her conversation, and particularly her collecting, I was exposed to the work of many photographers – some of them now considered historically important. In this milieu, there was a complete belief in the value of photography, particularly in its ability to capture and convey meaning in a socio-documentary context.
Influences, idols, and muses
The Magnum photographers were my idols, my heroes. My mother hung their photographs all over the walls of our suburban house in Rye, New York. I ended up assimilating their images, and by the time I went out to photograph seriously, which was around the age of eighteen, I had a clear idea of the level I was aiming at. At an early age I was captivated by the work of Paul Strand. He operated as a photojournalist, but considered himself an artist. He was a street photographer, yet he worked with his subjects in a very intimate way. Even today his work seems timeless. And yet, in its idealism, it now strikes me as belonging to a previous era. His deep respect for the inherent formal qualities of a photograph, and his use of the square format, were to be significant for me. He was my first role model.
I got to know André Kertész through my mother’s friendship with him. Kertész had left Europe for the United States during the Second World War. He had been influenced by the surrealists: their qualities of puzzlement and contradiction were intrinsic to his eye. My mother was the first person to sell his work in the States, at a photographic gallery that she had opened. Americans had considered his work unsaleable. He, in turn, was appalled at the unsophisticated state of photography in America. I often visited his apartment with my mother, and during these visits, like the great master, I photographed from his balcony overlooking Washington Square Park. On one occasion I photographed a metal rooster that he had sometimes featured in his own works. It was a kind of tribute to him. I owe to Kertész the understanding of enigma, the quixotic, and formal complexity that underlies much of my work. He taught me that photography could be an art form. Among other photographers who have influenced me are Henri Cartier-Bresson (the decisive moment), Elliott Erwitt (the humorous and the absurd) and Ralph Eugene Meatyard (the psychological).
Like no other art form
Generally speaking, most people find taking a black and white image very difficult. This is one of the most important reasons that colour so dominates the photographic media. Because of the abstract and reductive characteristics of this media, it can be very difficult to master on the most basic level. I am part of the last generation to have been born into a black and white dominated photographic world. I have only been shooting in colour for the past four years, whereas I have dedicated to working for five decades in black and white. Black and white is a more abstract, reduced formal media. When one views a black and white photograph, one does not assume it has reproduced reality. The most important advantage of black and white photography lies in the fact that it can be a unique art form. It is able to convey a world that is individual and separate from other media.
I believe that a great print should be an alternative universe, a place of wonder and beauty, a source of inspiration and refreshment.
It began in a Catholic school
I was born and brought up in what might be described as a poor, working-class family in Widnes, an industrial town near Liverpool in North West England. While attending primary school, I was an altar boy at my local Catholic church of St Bede’s. At age ten or eleven, I decided that I wanted to become a priest myself and was accepted at St Joseph’s College, Upholland, a Catholic seminary boarding school. I would stay there for seven years. It taught me many important lessons, and there were aspects of this religious upbringing that I believe strongly influenced my later photographic work, including discipline, silence, meditation, and a sense that something can be unseen, yet still present.
The broken lens that shaped my style
I developed my first roll of black and white film in a makeshift darkroom at St Joseph’s when I was eleven or twelve. The pictures were made with a plastic Diana camera that I was given as a Christmas present. At one point I accidentally dropped it on a school field trip at Chester Zoo and the lens broke off. I managed to glue it back on later and continued to photograph. Unfortunately, the camera then always had some strange light leaks. I don’t suppose it was a coincidence that I would later be fascinated with plastic cameras and have a book published on my Holga images.
The quieter, more mysterious art
Black and white has been my preference since I first started photography. In the distant past, I have worked as a commercial colour printer and have also photographed in colour for advertising assignments, so I don’t have anything against colour, it’s just not my personal preference. I remain firmly attached to the somewhat old-fashioned and wonderfully traditional silver printing process. I work solely with film cameras and print from original negatives. I spend hours contentedly working in the darkroom. Sometimes, I feel like a sculptor trying to discover and free the hidden figure inside the block of stone. Burning, dodging, cropping, playing with contrast filters is so much fun, albeit simultaneously often hard work. I love the long, slow, unpredictable journey to produce these interpretations. All prints are subtly sepia toned, mounted, matted, retouched by hand, titled, stamped, numbered, etc., before they are sent on their way. The reasons could go on, but the bottom line is that it continues to work for me, so I have absolutely no incentive to change.
We see in colour most of the time, as everything around us is in colour. Black and white is therefore immediately an interpretation of the world, rather than an attempted copy. I like that, as I am not so interested in trying to duplicate the world as we see it. I have always found black and white photographs to be mysterious and quieter than those made in colour. For me, the subtlety of black and white inspires the imagination of the individual viewer to complete the picture in the mind’s eye. It doesn’t attempt to compete with the outside world. I think black and white is more malleable than colour, and I believe it is also calmer and more gentle than colour. Perhaps it also persists longer in our visual memories.
Every time we make a photograph, we have to make many decisions, so each image is, to a degree, premeditated. I often say that in my own photography I prefer an element of suggestion over a detailed and accurate description. I feel that a few choice elements can be enough to fire our imagination to see much more. I often try to make photographs which have more in common with haiku poems than full-length novels. No matter what is visible in front of the camera, I am also trying to hint at what is unseen, but suggested. For all these reasons, I prefer black and white.
At the beginning of my photographic explorations, I preferred to photograph in the early morning. I liked the calm and peacefulness, the lack of people around, the escape from the constant chatter of normal life. Morning light is often soft and diffused. It can reduce a cluttered background to graduated layers of two-dimensional tone, just hinting at what is present, without overly stating or describing. 3D can become 2D. Now, many years later, I still attempt to eliminate inessential details and content. I try to simplify, reduce, and minimise. I suspect my time in Asia has also contributed substantially to this minimalistic aesthetic tendency. Again, black and white works for what I am looking for.
Generally, my working methods are quite simple. I look for what is interesting to me, out there in the three-dimensional world, and translate or interpret so that it becomes visually pleasing in a two-dimensional photographic print. I search for subject matter with visual patterns, interesting abstractions, and graphic compositions. The essence of the image often involves the basic juxtaposition of our human-made structures with the more fluid and organic elements of the landscape. At this point in my career, I find it impossible not to have an idea of how the image will end up. But, I must admit that I have never been completely enamoured about this. For example, I often make long exposures because I know the final image will be something that I cannot actually see or foresee. Photographing at night is exciting in part because it is unpredictable. During long time-exposures, real can become surreal. Surreal is interesting. I am very happy not knowing ahead of time exactly what I am getting. What is the fun of Christmas presents when we already know what is inside them?
My “influencers” are everything
I've been a photographer for 49 years and have had around 500 one-person exhibitions. 85 books have been published on my work, and my black and white silver gelatin prints are in the permanent collections of well over 100 museums internationally. Somehow, and it is a great mystery to me, I have stayed in business, doing essentially what I want to do, black and white photography, all this time. That, for me, is great success and I feel extremely grateful and appreciative. Whether using black and white medium rather than colour has had any bearing on this, I just cannot say.
Born and raised in England, I come from a European tradition and my photographic masters were Eugene Atget, Bill Brandt, Mario Giacomelli, and Josef Sudek, amongst others. These photographic giants, along with the Americans: Ansel Adams, Ruth Bernhard, Harry Callahan, Edward Steichen, and Alfred Steiglitz, have influenced me greatly. I suppose they are all romantics at heart, particularly the Europeans, all concerned with photographing a feeling as much as documenting external reality. Eugene Atget inspired me to photograph the Le Notre Gardens in and around Paris. His dedication to photographing Paris all his life taught me that nothing is ever the same; the same subject matter can be photographed in many different ways and in different conditions. Bill Brandt took me back to the industrial towns in the North West of England. He showed me that beauty is very much in the mind of the beholder and I would go on to photograph power stations and factory interiors. His sense of drama, even melodrama, his use of atmosphere, his night photography, and willingness to completely change reality into an abstract and graphic print, all helped my own vision. He also taught me the value of empty space in a print. Mario Giacomelli’s sense of powerful two-dimensional black and white abstraction and design also profoundly affected me. Here was somebody who would use a thick marking pen to fill in black lines on the photographic print. I loved his liberation from the traditional “fine art photographic print.” Josef Sudek taught me that light can emanate from within the subject matter, rather than only illuminate the exterior. His images reminded me of infrared studies. His commitment to photograph only Prague was also instructive. With all these photographers I actively searched out places where they had photographed, their camera angles, and techniques.
I sincerely believe it is normal and healthy to study the work of other artists, and even imitate their efforts, as a means to both respect their work and explore one’s personal vision. One advances by “standing on the shoulders of giants”.
I love black and white, simple as that!
I was drawn to black and white firstly because one can tell just part of a story and let the viewer’s imagination make up the rest. Secondly, black and white shifts emphasis within a composition, as there is no colour, making shape and form so important. And thirdly, well it’s just cool! I have always loved old black and white movies, which somehow feel so stylish, mysterious, and glamourous, and the first 15 minutes or so of Luc Besson’s classic ocean movie, The Big Blue, filmed in black and white, got me hooked on monochrome ocean photography and the Mediterranean coastline.
I’ve always shot in black and white, from my early days developing film and printing in the kitchen, right through the advent of digital photography up until now. I have been tempted once or twice to shoot a form of colour, using fundamentally blue tones in yacht sails, but I find myself reverting back to black and white. It feels more ‘me’ and I’m still so passionate about the medium. Black and white gives me a sense of self-satisfaction, and because I feel so comfortable with black and white, I feel I have the confidence to push the boundaries within that parameter and grow as an artist. Added to that, it completes my ‘brand’ as a photographer, a look that is hopefully recognisable and timeless. I think that the fact that I am so passionate about shooting this way gives me a focus and coherence. They say, “shoot what you love,” and I think this not only covers your subject matter, but also the medium you use. I love black and white, simple as that.
The beauty of black and white for business
As my business is what has been described as ‘fine art photography’, the work I produce is hopefully destined to end up on walls. While I would never take a photograph to please someone else other than myself simply because I think it might sell well, it is clear that black and white does of course work beautifully well on walls. There are no confines or clashes of colour palette, and the rather graphic shapes add design and ambiance. These days my work is selling in very large sizes, 1.5 metres square and bigger, and this is quite a statement in a house or hotel. Often, I find one of my sail prints hanging next to one of my horse prints, and because of the rather minimalist compositions and the use of black and white, they sit together rather nicely. I also release my work in series – sails, horses etc. – and within each series there are themes and coherent compositions. So, print collectors and businesses are encouraged to buy two or three at a time to sit alongside each other. Again, I don’t think about this during the making of each photograph, but rather afterwards, choosing to show, for example, a horse portrait facing right alongside a similar one facing left, thereby creating a satisfying composition on a wall.
I guess the only disadvantage is that my work holds zero appeal to buyers and lovers of colour photography or art, but I’m perfectly comfortable with that. It has never been my aim to please everybody, just to make photographs that I myself love and hope that others may love them too.
Jason M. Peterson
I’m essentially colour blind.
What attracted me to black & white photography? Firstly, I am colour deficient, I have an issue with seeing colour tones. I’m essentially colour blind. Secondly, shooting in high daylight. I like direct light. Are there any disadvantages? I don’t know how to shoot or edit in colour at all. I started shooting, developing, and printing in the black and white darkroom in high school and eventually developed a style that I consider to be more photo graphic than photography. Pure blacks and total contrast in whites. I started shooting film, 35mm and medium format, but always black and white because I had a black and white darkroom. Black and white gives me a timeless focus on the emotion of an image. To me, a great image makes you feel something. The lack of colour as a distraction allows you focus on the subject, pure composition, and narrative. Yes, it has cost me jobs. I have turned down jobs that have asked me to shoot in colour or in a different style. I pick jobs based on what I believe I can bring to the project.
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