Sunday, 20 October 2013

Shades of Grey

Despite the many hours I spent in the darkroom, I think I never really got black and white photography.  I admired it tremendously, but could never quite do it myself.  Like the vast majority of darkroom amateurs, I never acquired the implacable "fail again, fail better" attitude that is necessary to end up with genuinely eye-pleasing prints.  I always ended up settling for a murky mid-grey porridge of tones that had no sparkle and neither a true black nor a true white.  Moving to colour was a revelation, and moving to digital was salvation.  Hallelujah!

Sometimes, of course, colour can be a little overwhelming, and easily veers towards the tackily tasteless.  The image above is saved (I hope) only by that yellow ball and the yellow stripes on the grey kerb.  Without them, it's the equivalent of an X-Factor contestant's impression of Whitney Houston.

 Of course, one of the major advances of digital photography is that anyone can now master the monochrome print, using easy-to-operate plugins for Photoshop.  Adjustments to tonal value and contrast are simplicity itself, and fancy stuff like filtration and toning and even different "film" characteristics can all be simulated easily and retrospectively using a colour original. But what many digital monochromists don't appreciate is that, in the darkroom, every single one of these adjustments and choices would have required the full processing of a test print (more likely, several test prints) and that every single one would have to repeated cumulatively for every single test print, like one of those songs ("The Twelve Days of Christmas") that add more items to the chorus with each iteration.  You can't save processing changes onto a film negative.  There are no adjustment layers in a sheet of light-sensitive paper. 

And yet, curiously, good black and white work is still rare, and mid-grey porridge still predominates.  I think this may largely be because very few of us get to see examples of outstanding monochrome prints, made by true masters.  I remember the first time I held one of Thomas Joshua Cooper's book dummies in my hands, containing tipped-in original prints.  It was a stunning experience.  The range of tones and the subtle coloration applied to the shadows and highlights by split-toning Agfa Record Rapid paper in selenium was a real treat for the eyes.  there was nothing dry or austere about them: they were richly dark and full of complexity like a good Christmas pudding or a single-malt whisky.

Monochrome doesn't reproduce well, paradoxically, so even excellent images in books and magazines are not good exemplars to follow.  I suppose it also carries built-in retro-truthiness values: the past happened in black and white, after all, and some of the most exciting bits happened with that grainy Tri-X look, ideally with a black border to show nothing has been cropped out.  It often seems that fans of monochrome are pursuing false goals.

The point of black and white, in a colourful world where blood can now be shown to be shockingly red under clear blue skies, is not simply to remove the "distraction" of colour, in the hope that other qualities will shine through.  It is to find images where interesting shapes and subtlety and range of tone combine to form an alternative language to colour, something that equally delights the eye and satisfies the mind's craving for variety and harmony.

It's the difference between a piano sonata and a symphony, or a solo acoustic guitar and a full-on rock band.  Neither is superior to the other, but the quieter solo alternative requires absolute mastery.


Rob Fuke said...

Never really got to grips with printing either. The murky grey porridge syndrome was something which I never overcame. I could never produce a contrasty, punchy image as I always worried that somehow I was being too obvious.
I eventually started using a guy, Adrian someone, who worked near the Post Office Tower, a true troglodite who had won the Ilford printer of the year award several times. He would emerge from his basement darkroom, look at your work disparagingly and charge you £30 odd quid, back in the late eighties, to produce something of which I was incapable. He was also permanently drunk, but he sure could print.
It's an innate ability, either you can or you can't. We have a friend here who, as well as being a fine travel photographer, printed for years for Cartier Bresson. To him too, it all seems blindingly obvious.

Mike C. said...

Most photographers who can afford it (inc. digital-based ones) seem to use a printer -- it's a different skill set altogether. The exceptions tend to be those with a commitment to "alternative processes", stuff like platinum printing and even daguerrotype, most of which involve the use of deadly poisons. Some kind of death wish involved (or a deep need to avoid human company)...