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. 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 rate 😉 ) 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 🙂
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 🙂
What say you ?
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