Black and White Photography – Pictures for the Imagination

A very personal view of black and white photography.

Escaping the literal

For me this is the real motivation for creating black and white photographs.

My particular current obsession is getting away from the literal. Colour is great for making a photocopy of the world. Well, maybe that’s overstating things a bit. Maybe I just mean I find it difficult not to get seduced by the colour in a scene, and I end up with pictures that say nothing else. Monochrome helps me get away from that trap. And you can really stretch the processing to suit your purposes.

Colour makes it harder to leave gaps in our images for our imaginations to fill. You are more likely give away the whole story in one go. In monochrome it’s easier to hint at the answer and let the viewer get there themselves.

The longer you can detain the viewer, the more they are likely to consider you picture is worth spending time on.

You CAN do this in colour but I find it’s easier to detach myself from grim reality by losing the colour and then adopting what might be considered quite extreme processing tactics.

North Berwick

You can get away with an awful lot in monochrome! In colour this sort of treatment would be well over the top. Again it’s clear where this is. But I was more interested in the sweep of the bay, and the clouds leading back round to the Bass Rock. 

The original colour frame is flat and probably not worth even trying to retrieve, but I was able to collect enough light to work with in monochrome.

A lot of extraneous detail is removed by darkening the beach way more than would be justified by a straight colour “landscape” shot. But the light bouncing off the water more than makes up for lack of detail!

Bamburgh Castle

You’ll recognise Bamburgh Castle of course but what the black and white allows me to do is emphasise the similarities between the stonework of the castle and rock of the foreshore, with a nice layer of mist cushioning the castle.  

In colour the rocks (and seaweed and water and the rest)  and the castle are all quite different from each other. Black and white allows me to skate over the differences and emphasise similarities, or at least to ignore undesirable elements.

The specific nature of the colour experience conspires with our modern equipment to be too exact about where we are and what we’re looking at. Black and white has inherent ambiguities which you can exploit to direct the viewer’s attention while not giving too much away.

Cammo Estate

Meanwhile at Cammo near Edinburgh, reflections in the long fish pond give no clues as to where we are or even what exactly we’re looking at. Your eyes tell you it’s an ordinary landscape but there are lots of jarring details. Leaves drift by in a dream, what appears to be water swells away from us in a most disconcerting manner. 

Just wouldn’t get away with this in colour – it is far too obvious what the trick is.

Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh

Using black and white you can remove all sorts of cues you’re used to seeing in colour. Our eyes are quick to make assumptions about where the light is coming from. This is one of those new galleries in Edinburgh National Museum, or is it? There’s something not quite right about this …

In monochrome you can adjust scenes in all sorts of ways that wouldn’t be acceptable if you tried it in colour.

The use of monochrome helps to detach the steps from their normal position without giving the game away too quickly. As a result we focus on the light and the shapes and respond to them quite differently.

Actually quite small details mislead us – the diagonal shaft of light on the far right, and the “downlighters” along the left “wall”

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