#677. London in B&W

#677. London in B&W

Before we start :

 

 

There will always be two camps on any topic. If recent history has shown us something, it’s that not acting to defend progress has always let greed and distrust rule the day. There’s not much we can do from Europe but if you’re in the US and still on the fence about acting or not, think back about the outcome of your presidential election, about Brexit and about Catalunya when an important portion of the community chose not to speak up. You’re just one click away from making history.

 


 

All right, all the colour blasphemy of part 1 (London in colour) is over, we can now be serious again : B&W baby!

‘coz yeah, you can use contrast and saturation to produce a series of colour photographs that range from fuzzy and warm pastel to downright nasty & spectacular (heck, one commenter almost threw up at the sight of those photos).

But, come on, really, between you and me, who cares?

If The Mighty One had wanted us to photograph in colour, he wouldn’t have imposed the Bayer filter upon us, am I right? There’s a reason photoshopped cocaine infused models are photographed in colour but nobly aged faces of wisdom shine in monochrome. David Hamilton ? Colour. Helmut Newton, Lee Friedlander, Daido Moriyama, HCB, St Ansel, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Sebastiao Salgado …? Monochrome! (Joakim, if you’re reading this, back me up, I’m running low on believable arguments here).

 

 

All right, so, London is a wonderfully colourful city and it was a lot of fun to shoot in brash colour. But here’s the thing: there’s not a single emotion that colour can produce that B&W can’t. Tell me the 18th (?) century mood of the photo above wouldn’t be ruined by the garish colours in the Brexit Jack and the mind-boggling browns of that Bentley! You can’t. Also, it’s impossible to produce a tourist postcard in B&W. Electrons rebel, they won’t let you do it. It happened in the past, but a unicorn died every time, so the Laws were changed.

 

 

More seriously, because an untouched monochrome image (particularly one from a modern camera with a huge dynamic range) is usually so drab, you have to work on it to make it sing the song you want it to. And whether you want it or not, be it a deliberate, checklist, process or a purely intuitive one, some of your tought-process rubs off onto the image, when you do. Colour photographs can be superficially pleasant and meaningless at the same time (that’s the secret power of beauty). Not so with B&W. Either you make choices or you don’t have a photograph at all. Only a file. Choices instill meaning. The reason you took the photograph becomes more obvious. You story becomes more obvious. You reveal far more of yourself and what matters to you (which may be why beginners usually prefer colour).

 

 

Alright. So, really seriously, now. Nothing wrong with colour photography. I recently published an article on the autumn colours of Provence and don’t renounce it.ย  But I prefer B&W. It’s a personal thing, yes. But I do believe that B&W, well done, can transmit a far greater range of emotions than colour can, because colour is often about superficial wow or ugh. And also that the learning process that goes with trying to do just that is invaluable. So B&W it is, for this second instalment of London photos.

Why is B&W so potent? Because it’s no longer about the object. It’s about the light the object is sitting in. Take two porkers surrounded by flabby mercs and delightful Mayfair architecture. Place one in the shadows and backlight the second. One becomes a cuddly bear, the other a mass murdering weapon. Dr Jekyll and Tony Stark.

 

 

Many will refute my initial assumption. How can a photograph not be about the subject? Well it ain’t. In B&W, it’s about how the light falls on the subject. Nothing else matters (in my very biased book, at any rateย  ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) In colour, the photograph below would be a meaningless archway with brick building in the background. In B&W, the only subject here is how the light propagates from that background splash all the way to under the arch. And you need to work to convey that. Colour won’t do : the story will be about the red bricks and the white stone. Also, you can’t keep that alive with sloppy post-processing. Everything you do is guided by the desire to preserve the light.

 

 

This is not me jesting (I know you’re not used to me being serious …) I do believe light really is the most important subject in most succesful B&W shots.

“What about HCB’s man jumping over water, or his Degas-like ballet or Sifnos”, you ask? Well, have you looked at those photographs beyond the situation being depicted? HCB’s been described as a master of the decisive moment, but that’s missing his mastery of light completely! Do you really think the jumping man of Place de l’Europe would have been as impacting as a dull grey silhouette? Do you really think the stairs of Sifnos or his Italian nude would have been as interesting after sunset? “Donne moi une cassure”! HCB was a master of lighting drawn to interesting situations and able to combine the two into a style that’s become legendary.

 

 

Two things happen when you admit this to be true. One is that you’ll compose for balance of light and dark, as above (in colour, I would not have gone for the fan blowing the clouds composition). The other is that you’ll start photographing stuff just because the play of light on it is interesting. The photograph below, in colour, would have been completely meaningless.

 

 

In B&W, if you’re interested, you can follow the individual struts, see how their blend in with the sky or stand out from the shadows, follow the gentle falling of reflectivity as the light becomes more grazing in cylindrical shapes, enjoy a specular flare, inspect the deepest shadow, count the little black squares of windows in the background …

B&W photography is about shapes, which is a direct corollary of the previous argument. Shapes being defined by the reflection and absorption of light on objects, a same scene can lead to an infinity of compositions depending on the prevailing light conditions.

It’s also about mood, again a direct consequence of the quality of light bathing the subject.

Pushed to extremes, fine art B&W photography can forget totally about the subject (peppers, anyone ?) and simply devote all its attention to the rendering of shapes, textures, shadows, albedo …

 

 

This blog is about creative travel photography. As mentioned in a recent article, this implies available light. Understanding the direct link between light, story and mood will enable you to make the most of almost any situation, unlike those who have to return to a place a dozen times to fulfill a predefined vision. Both approaches are equally valid (though only one is travel photography, the other being photographic travel), but I find it a lot more satisfying to create on the fly. And understanding the cards you are being dealt is essential to that process.

 

 

Being receptive to light is one of the keys to making the most of whatever is provided.

It’s an absolute lie that photographs reproduce reality. That’s why camera manufacturers drive me potty when they use arguments along those lines to sell new technology that hinders creativity more than it helps it. It’s why photo competition juries insult our intelligence by refusing any form of photoshopping (journalism is one thing, art is another).

All photographs are lies, interpretations of how the light bounced off a subject at given moment.

It’s the understanding that photographs are lies that has driven the huge surge of their selling price in arts markets and auctions, over recent years..

 

 

Colour isn’t absent from monochrome images. The sensitivity of film to different hues, the impact of filters on the transmission of various wavelengths, the post-processing decision to lighten a colour or darken another … all this translates colour into tone, enabling you to make a brightly lit green patch appear less light than a rad patch in the shadows.

Anchoring can make a zone look brighter than other that are really of lighter tone.

 

 

Studying B&W is studying light. Light and how to best convey it through post-processing. You’ve read my diatribes about the validity of phones as photographic tools but you’ll rarely see any B&W photographs made by phones. Not that they are not capable of producing great ones, but we don’t usually take the post-processing route with our phone pics, and B&W needs, begs, urges post processing skill and dedication.

More is on the way in our collective “Let the be Light” project. Still time to hop in and join the group ๐Ÿ™‚

 

 

And London in all that ?

Well, to be honest, B&W photography, which focuses on light, often has little to do with the subject itself. It’s all about the light, as the two following photographs (I hope) illustrate.

 

 

But London happens to be a stunning canvas for this sort of experimentation. It’s a lot more chaotic than Paris, with modern glass buildings next to ancient abbeys and neon-laden fast food. There are cranes everywhere, old sites being destroyed, old sites being rehabilitated. While not comparable to Shanghai, London still is one of these cities where, if you space your visits by mere months, you will notice significant changes from one to another.

 

 

Also, the light there is wonderful. Sometimes soft and veiled like an Italian summer morning, sometimes bright and warm, sometimes utterly drab and depressing. You could be stuck there for months and never make the same photo twice.

So yeah, whether colour or light is your thing, go to London and enjoy ๐Ÿ™‚

 

What say you ?

 


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18 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron December 13, 2017

    It’s just as well that I live on the opposite side of the world, Pascal, because I do love these photos more than the colour ones you posted recently.
    To be honest about it, I think that during my period with analogue photography I “chose” B&W in preference to colour, and only used colour when I specifically wanted it – colour was definitely in the minority.
    Whereas with digital, I only switch the shots to B&W when colour simply isn’t working (EXAMPLE – a colour shot at night, where most of the lighting is sodium vapour and other colours are overwhelmed by it).
    Of course, it’s not as simply as just choosing one or the other. You can take a photo in colour which is a perfectly good shot, but in which the tonal range is extremely limited. If you turn it into a B&W shot, it will probably be hopelessly flat – devoid of the strong contrasts that make most B&W shots.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 13, 2017

      Oh, well, familiar terroritory, Pete ๐Ÿ˜‰ Your film years certainly reflect my feeling today. My default is B&W and it’s only if colours really feel too good to be forfeited that I’ll leave them in.

      One thing that helps with the Sony is that I’ve turned the EVF to monochrome. Truth be told, it was on a dare and I can’t remember how to turn it back to colour, such is the beauty of the Sony menu system. And that’s how it’s staying in the future. I’ve found that having the viewinder showing B&W only has made a world of difference to my photography.

      • Avatar
        jean pierre (pete) guaron December 14, 2017

        OUCH – well I done did something similar to my iMAC – deleted something accidentally, and can’t find how to get it back. And my Canon PowerShot’s instruction manual is so awful I fumble with the controls instead of reading it – which generally works, but not always. Best of luck with the Sony. ๐Ÿ™‚
        I didn’t bring my passion for B&W forward into the age of digital, Pascal. I decided it was time for a complete change, so I’ve opted to shoot basically in colour – except when I think B&W might be better, which has been relatively uncommon, for me. Likely because of the stuff I’m shooting, too. I have to admit that the instant I clapped eyes on that shot of the Bentley outside the Connaught, I could see at once why you chose B&W for the shot – it gives it something colour simply couldn’t. (And if I’m asked to explain that, my response is likely to be something like “if you need to ask, you’d never understand anyway”).

  2. Avatar
    Peter Oosthuizen December 13, 2017

    It’s all about being in the light place at the light time!

    Nice images and thoughts.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 13, 2017

      Ha ha, I love a light pun ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Thanks, cheers

  3. Avatar
    John W December 14, 2017

    For the first 45 years of my photographic life, colour pretty much ruled the roost. BW, though a lot of fun and highly educational, required a trip to the dark side and lots of smelly wet stuff. Colour was sooo much easier … let someone else do all the heavy lifting; and take what you get. Along came digital and now I was completely in control, and not much changed; until 2012. Yes there was the occasional BW image … Silver Efx is such a joy … but it was pretty well all colour. In 2012 I discovered I’m really a “Street Photographer” at heart. Landscapes et al are nice and I do do some, but, as my Finance Professor would have said, “street” is my “preferred habitat”. 2012 was pretty much a monochrome year – Cuba, Greece, Africa all in monochrome. (Everyone photographs Kolemanskop in colour; all those beautiful pastels, peeling paint and pinkish sand. When was the last time you saw it in BW?). Colour has a way of masking our vision … we tend to look at the colour more closely than we look at the “image”; it provides it’s own contrast and visual story, which may not have anything to do with the real story. BW forces you to really LOOK at the image … the light, the shadows, the textures, the tones, the structure. All become much more evident and crucial.

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 14, 2017

      Aaaah, the smelly darkroom

      Cuba, Greece, Africa in monocrhome : that sounds wonderful. Iโ€™d love to see those !

      Colour does have a way of grabbing our attention in a way that prevents us from analysing shape and shading. Itโ€™s probably a matter of sensitivity to different things, different parts of the brain. And, yes, I agree with you that B&W forces you to look harder, beyond the obvious subject. Thatโ€™s what draws me so much.

  4. Avatar
    NMc December 14, 2017

    Pascal
    Thanks for the post. In your previous colour article it was colour for emotion and mono for info. If I read this post correctly, you think that mono is better for depth and breadth of emotion rather than emotional impact?

    It is a bit confusing (for me) to just compare brash colour to more contrasty monochrome. In fact I kept thinking about the sepia monochrome photos that Dallas shot with your Otis 55 where subtle tonal and textural contrasts modestly describe mood, atmosphere and luminance more than expressing shapes ( https://www.dearsusan.net/2017/08/16/632-zeiss-milvus-1-450-2-months/ ). I was probably overthinking your text.

    In your colour post I think most of your shots worked for communicating how the designers and architects would like us to see their creations. To be honest you stayed on the side of good taste compared to a lot of photos presented to us every day in advertising. So comparatively that post caused only modest visual indigestion ๐Ÿ˜‰ . With monochrome, more extreme processing is not so obvious and only two of these photos stood out as OTT, the ones with darker than mid grey cloud bottoms. Otherwise I would agree with the sentiment that monochrome requires more skill and dedication before and after pressing the shutter. In this set I think I liked the more extreme ends of the tonal presentation best, the brooding low key Porsche or the mid-tone dominant garden photos.

    Thanks again, Regards Noel

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 14, 2017

      Hmmm, you got me there, Noel ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Let me try to clear this mess up. Colour act on us in an emotional way. Whereas we are hard-wired in the eye’s very construction, and in various ‘old’ regions of the brain, to recognise shapes and faces and other forms of information.

      But I still think that, through careful use of light and post processing, we can trasmit a lot of emotion in a monochrome image, more so than in colour which offers a more limited palette of like / dislike reactions.

      It’s a very personal point of view but one I believe is supported by examination of good photographs. Even in the case of someone as colourful as Steve McCurry (in India, eg, I feel the monocrhome component is providing much of the emotional content, and colour just adds a wow factor.

      I hadn’t thought of my pics as you describe them but that’s very interesting : colour shots being more literal, showing buildings like the architects wanted us to see them, and b&w with more interpretation. That speaks to me.

      Interestingly, Hiroshi Sugimoto has a series of out of focus monochrome images of buildings that are meant to depict what the architect had in mind before the building was actually built.

      Thanks for the interesting insights !

      All the best, Pascal

  5. Avatar
    Joakim Danielson December 14, 2017

    Well if you want more names I can supply two Swedish photographers, Christer Strรถmholm and Anders Petersen. As far as b&w goes I agree with you that it’s about the light and the shapes and patterns created by light and of course shadows. Shadows and dark parts are many times what makes a b&w photo interesting and dramatic but you don’t want complete black so even in the shadow you need the light. So yes, light, light, light.

    I find that when shooting b&w I tend to look more for patterns and contrast and how the light falls many times and sometimes when shooting street for instance it can be a relief not to care about colours and only concentrate on the scene or person you want to photograph. Of course it’s no silver bullet this b&w thing, you can take an equal amount of crappy photos in b&w as in colour ๐Ÿ™‚

    PS
    Some very nice photos
    DS

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 14, 2017

      Thanks Joakim ! I was hoping you’d share your opinion.

      2 photographers to look up (Petersen is famous for a dog photograph (among others …), right ?), that’s going to keep my week-end busy !!! Great stuff.

      Looking for patterns and contrast : so many abstracts fail because there is neither subject nor light. When the light has created the abstract it always works. The light becomes the subject through the patterns it creates.

      And yes, crappy photography is the great leveler of colour and b&w ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜€

      Cheers

  6. Avatar
    Sean December 14, 2017

    Hi Pascal,

    Love it. Love it. Love it.
    To me, black and white gets to the bones of the image by stripping away any interference colour may present.

    Regards
    Sean

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 14, 2017

      Wow, thanks Sean ๐Ÿ™‚ ๐Ÿ™‚

      Yes, stripping away the superfluous is a great way of putting it. In a reply to a comment above, there’s a link to one of Steve McCurry’s photographs of India and I can’t help feel that the photograph would carry as much emotional content and information in B&W. And that the vivid colour in most of these photos is just there to add some visual “wow for the masses” Maybe I’m just being cynical, because those photographs are beautiful. But would they be more effective in B&W ?

      Kind regards, Pascal

      • Avatar
        Sean December 16, 2017

        No worries Pascal,

        Just to add, I’ll refer to some other photographers who also have an opinion regarding this area.

        Edward Weston held that colour and black & white photography share nothing in common, because they are two different means to achieve different ends.

        David Finn suggests that black and white speaks more directly and with more authenticity, because it is a more real representation without embellishment.

        Elliott Erwitt opines that black and white is what you boil down to get the essentials.

        Wynn Bullock indicated that black and white will surpass the surface and reveal.

        Source:
        Art Sets.
        The absence of colour.
        Tamara Tobing
        ART Gallery NSW
        https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/artsets/j4g12e

        Regards
        Sean

  7. Avatar
    Kristian Wannebo December 14, 2017

    Yes!
    I mostly agree.
    B&W photography can be expressive in a way colour photography never can.
    But occasionally colours DO unite to make a colour photo necessary!
    ( When colours express themselves, they do it very differently…)

    [ I grew up with b/w film and a darkroom at home.
    Later I had to rely on photo shops, and colour became a natural choice.
    But I soon found that colour photography is much harder!
    Except perhaps in nature, where colours are almost part of our own nature.
    And in snow – where the colour OF the snow can surprise, it’s seldom white.]
    – – –

    Lots of very nice photos!

    But I especially like those not about any subject…:
    #3 (backlit sidewalk),
    #6 (an un-car),
    #15 (timeless (pillars)),
    #19 (light),
    #23 &
    #24 (in park)

    • Avatar
      pascaljappy December 15, 2017

      Thank you Kristian, much appreciated.

      It’s entirely possible that my preference for B&W is closely linked to your remark “But I soon found that colour photography is much harder!”. For me also, colour is more difficult. It’s very rare that I look at one of my colour photographs and feel that it’s just as I want it. It happens, mostly in low contrast situations. But more often that not, it’s the monochrome component that makes the image sing for me ๐Ÿ™‚

      All the best, Pascal

  8. Avatar
    John W December 16, 2017

    I had a look at the McCurry shot. The first thing that hit me was the child’s face, and that to me is where the real impact of the images lies. Then I got yanked sideways by the red sari. Each time I try to focus on the child I get pulled away again by the bright red of the sari because that’s the highest point of “visual” contrast in the frame and its right next to the child’s face. I committed GRAND HERACY … I dragged it to my desktop converted it to a TIF and dropped it into Silver Efx. DRAMATIC difference … the red is reduced to a tonal block, the contrast on the child’s face goes up highlighting the eyes even more and the emotional punch goes up an order of magnitude.

  9. Avatar
    Graham December 28, 2017

    Stunning photos of London. I live in the suburbs but love going there with a camera but having taken shots of most of the buildings you have, I have not found the interesting aspects that you have. I think I am too impatient to look for the best vantage points. Case in question, your shot under the Millenium Bridge. I have loads from above, to the side, from afar, but none from where you took your picture. Having said that, I have stood on the exact same spot but did not see the shot. Also, the shot of St Paulโ€™s from the alley, brilliant viewpoint.

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