I sometimes muse on the origins of monochrome photography. What if we were starting today with our current technology and someone produced some colour images taken on a telephone for the very first time. Would we even consider monochrome pictures as valid, or useful? Would we understand the convention? If the first pictures we saw were in full colour, would a grey-scale version mean anything?
And again, what if when silver nitrate chemistry was invented, the results were blue and white rather than back and white? Would it have taken off in the same way if all pictures were cyanotypes? Would we feel the same if all old pictures were “blue and white” rather than “black and white”?
Monochrome for impact
But we are where we are, and monochrome is a choice to make with both historic and fashionable connotations. Done right, the results can be powerful and expressive but getting it right can be challenging.
I suppose my leanings towards monochrome have an element of feeling a connection, however tenuous, back to photographic greats like Adams, Weston, Cartier-Bresson and the like. But I like to think I produce B&W pictures for reasons other than cheerleading.
Working in monochrome means you can’t rely on colour contrasts to separate elements in your photographs. You have to use the light and capture differences in luminance to produce an image with impact. This is both a blessing and a curse as you’ll see below.
When you’re working in colour you may find yourself falling into some of the following traps.
Colour as the subject
Although colour pictures are superficially closer to real life experience than monochrome, sometimes it feels that colour actually limits one’s expression. What is there in this image other than blue? I mean, it’s blue and it looks like a shed. The risk is that the colour becomes the only reason for the picture.
Actually the contrast between the different painting techniques could be interesting, and the hint of a window frame on the left leaves questions to be answered, but the picture doesn’t hold our attention for long.
Colour as camouflage
Where there is insufficient colour separation going on, the picture risks looking flat and uninteresting. (This can of course happen in black and white too, but bear with me!)
Even stone circles on Orkney need a little more help when you take pictures of them at midday.
The monochrome treatment of this image is far more powerful when you can define the stones more clearly against an accentuated sky. Even better, lose all that yellow grass. It’s far easier to do this sort of thing in monochrome. With the colour image, adjusting the contrast to the same extent would probably ruin the colours.
Colour adding complexity
The problem with much colour photography is that the colour can add degrees of complexity to an image. It can distract the viewer from the main subject. Here my intention was to present the curved cast iron girders of the railway bridge. While they are there in the colour version, so also are the red brick office at the end of the tunnel, the double yellow lines on the road and the various shades of red brick on the left.
With a monochrome treatment, the girders stand out as planned due to their strong lines. Meanwhile the red brick subsides into a more homogeneous grey mass that doesn’t force itself upon your senses. Removing the colour leads to a simpler composition.
Colour disguising lines and structure
What I saw at St Abbs was this colourful jumble of crab fishing gear. But the mass of different colours gets in the way of seeing the similarities. Most of the floats are ball shaped for instance. The shapes and the knotted cords had piqued my initial interest.
In monochrome many of the distractions are removed. The flags on the marker buoys fade into the background. The line on which they all hang is emphasised more, as are the knots holding them on.
Getting away from the literal
You do get the layers in the colour version. However in the mono picture, the castle looks like part of the underlying strata more than in the colour one.
Monochrome: blessing and a curse
The blessing: monochrome removes one of the variables that can add unwanted complexity to an image – the colour. If you’re aiming to simplify your photographs and increase their impact on the viewer, monochrome can get you there.
The curse: you have to relearn how luminance works. It’s not intuitive. Separating elements in your pictures requires you to really look.
And that’s why I like working in monochrome. You really have to look at a scene, and producing a black and white picture of it proves you have actually seen.