Forums All About Photography Monochrome

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    I wish to go record as saying I have little interest in monochrome images except photo’s depicting a scene with historical interest, not just for the sake of “Black & White”.


    Ian McNab

    How come you’re not much interested in monochrome, Dennis? What is it that puts you off?



    The wonderful thing about being ” amateur” we can do and enjoy that which pleases us most. Having come into photography before colour came into clubs  I still appreciate monochrome   but can well understand those who prefer colour. I would agree with anyone with preference for colour when the subject best suits. However black & white mono comes into its own where colour cannot match when the subject not only best suited , but also with perfect lighting and gradation  creates a work of art that colour cannot match. So many of the snapshots  we now see and just clicked into mono are a poor representation and should be left as colour. High class mono is an art of work on its own and needs to be regarded as separate from colour as movies are to stills. I could not myself display a high class mono here and in my opinion do not think a high quality b/w mono can be produced  in  digital as good as film. I cannot recall ever seeing one excellent digital b/w mono . I recall those halcyon mono days  when club photographers from all over the county would be seen on Saturday mornings -gathered around leaning on their bikes   gazing at the mono  portraits in Desmond Groves  studio window  in Wilmslow. Only if Dennis and others could see that class of work  would they be able to appreciate   mono. I think with digital its best stick with colour as mono in digital is a poor second.  Not suggesting these are good mono”s   –but examples where colour would do nothing–in my opinion.



    Thanks for asking Ian, to explain a little more.  We live in world filled with rich colours and a multitude of tones.  Man has tried to use colour in his earliest images such as cave paintings and later in early hand written manuscripts and bibles etc.  Art galleries and stately homes are filled with historic and modern paintings and images the vast majority of which are in colour.
    This effort to bring colour into our lives continues in modern times with the change from monochrome to colour in just about all forms of media such as photography, cinema, television, magazines and now newspapers.
    To me black & white conveys very minimal information about a subject, Wallace Baxter has unwittingly provided me with a prime example with his image “spectator 6901” (follow the link in the “Critique Forum” “Nantwich Jazz Festival 2013).  The man’s scarf has in fact got two colours, his jacket looks like denim but is actually either leather or suede, his face has an outdoor ruddy complexion, his ears look red from the cold weather, his hat is brown like his jacket (colour co-ordinated) not grey.  Hope you don’t mind me using your images Wallace, as I’ve already said I really enjoyed your photo’s of the festival.
    I don’t understand this passion for monochrome especially converting a colour photo, it doesn’t make sense to me, how many people choose to watch B&W television?
    Maybe I just don’t understand art (probably true) but surely photography is not just about art it’s also about capturing a moment, recording history, recording news, telling a story, recording a family’s development and growth.



    Ken, reading your post was almost like writing it myself.



    D. Williams

    I have found that in street photography there is always a push towards mono and I sometimes shoot in it as A. it is very traditional and harks back … and B. It helps to deal with the busy backgrounds and focus on the main point of interest and away from distracting splashes of colour.  Personally I like both and try to go with what suits the image.  Busy is usually regarded as a problem to a judge and the bane of my photographic life.


    Ian McNab

    Thanks, Dennis, for giving us an opportunity to think about this topic.

    For a long time, monochrome was the only way to make a photograph, and photographers developed that kind of image-making into a highly sophisticated art form – one that is quite different from making coloured images, and not at all like painting.

    What were these photographers interested in? Well, there are said to be five elements, or basic aspects, of all visual art:
    1 texture
    2 pattern
    3 shape (2-D outline, or areas of tone or of light and shade)
    4 form (this is about representing 3-D solids on a 2-D surface to convey their weight, mass, and conformation)
    5 colour

    But colour is very dominant for us, and tends to swamp our awareness of the other four elements. However, the other elements take on a life of their own in the absence of colour, and reveal a rich visual world that we may not otherwise notice and enjoy. It is the other four elements that photographic artists working in monochrome were and are interested to explore. Here are some examples – masterpieces of texture, pattern, shape and form. (Remember, these are not merely photographs of something, but photographs about something)…



    Edward Weston – Pepper



    Alexander Rodchenko – Woman and child on steps



    Imogen Cunningham – Magnolia



    Imogen Cunningham – Two Sisters



    Bill Brandt – Coal searcher going home to Jarrow



    Bill Brandt – Snicket in Halifax



    John Blakemore – Tulips



    Arnold Newman – Igor Stravinsky, New York, 1946


    (We should remember that many photographers were trained painters or visual artists. They knew a great deal about colour, and often disliked the rather garish and inaccurate qualities of colour photography when it came in. If you look carefully, a great deal of colour photography even now is not realistic – the colours are not at all accurate representations of what we see in the real world, and colour photographs are as artificial in their own way as monochrome ones are – it’s just that our brains readily adjust to the pretence that colour photographs are realistic. But many artists will tell you that the colour of photographs comes nowhere near what the colour of paint can achieve in representing what the eye actually sees.)

    Of course, there are lots of reasons for making photographs, and often very good reasons for making them in colour. No one is suggesting that ALL photography should be monochrome. But monochrome photography is one very interesting and beautiful way of making pictures, and one that can help develop your eye for making good colour photographs, by helping you to pay attention to all five elements of a visual image and not just the one.



    What comes to mind Dennis regarding ” high quality” mono B/W–its a bit like cricket.   Only when you have an understanding and an appreciation of the rules and the game –is it enjoyed.


    Ian McNab

    It’s also important not to treat colour as if it’s just there by accident.  The colour has to matter, and it has to be doing something in the picture.

    William Eggleston, the great pioneering master of colour photography, is in the news because of receiving this year’s “Outstanding Contribution to Photography” award at the Sony World Photography Awards, so these two timely items have just appeared in Guardian Photography:

    William Eggleston’s photographs of eerie Americana – in pictures


    Approaching Eggleston, master of colour – a short article by Sean O’Hagan

    Whether you like Eggleston’s work or not, it is a masterclass in making colour actually matter in a picture.  (BTW, Eggleston is another photographer who was educated in the visual arts, and knows about painting.)



    Ian McNab

    Ken said, “high quality mono B/W – its a bit like cricket.

    That’s a good description, Ken:  we shouldn’t think that cricket is just an elaborate kind of walking in the park, or it won’t make any sense. 😉

    There’s actually something similar about high quality colour photos (“Fine Art Colour” – with capital letters!): merely showing us the subject of the photo is not the main point of the picture;  how the picture looks as a (colour) picture  – and what that says about the subject – is the main point.  (And that’s the only way to even start to appreciate Eggleston, isn’t it?)






    Well folks I suppose I’m just not as artistically tuned in as you are but it’s also a bit like “I say tomAto and you say tomarto” as in the song.


    Peter Robinson

    I understand where your coming from Dennis as I used to think like that. Colour photography has only became available to the masses in seventies. Before then it was relatively more expensive and black and white was the norm for most photographers So that’s probably why a lot of the old masters used black and white. Now colour is the norm and black and white is considered an art form. I’m learning to appreciate black and white more as I find it can eliminate distracting elements in a picture that compete with the main subject. It’s particularly good for displaying shape and form in pictures like Ian has posted. Black and white photographs look sharper too.
    Have a look at these I posted a while ago for a comparison of the two types:

    Bleak Winter's Day

    I like the creative use of mixing black and white with colour. I think they call it colour popping which make the colour stand out more from the B&W. However, I know some of Ian’s friends are purists who wont tolerate such behaviour! What do you think of ‘colour popping’?

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