Friday, 6 February 2015

Black & White in Colour

Sometimes, despite the bitter cold, a February afternoon can be all about the warmth of the sunshine, and the blue of the sky.  Then the clouds come over again, the colours fade, and you find yourself wondering whether some of your photographs might be truer to the experience in monochrome.  It always reminds me of when people say, "the pictures are better on the radio".

I first heard the expression "black & white in colour" coined many years ago by a friend, who was trying to get at the essential difference between colour and monochrome film.  A black and white object photographed (or filmed) in colour is a far more vivid and immediate experience for the eye, he maintained:  it is truly black and white, with no hint of grey.  But then the same object photographed in monochrome can have subtle tonal qualities that have greater visual longevity.  It's as if one's eye is refreshed by pure tonality, but exhausted by colour.

Assuming, of course, it has been well printed.  Sometime, I must scan a print given to me by another friend, probably the best printer of monochrome I have ever known.  His prints -- selenium-toned on "old stock" Agfa Record Rapid, with its high silver content and an unhealthy dose of cadmium -- are astonishing, with a symphonic range of tones, including shadows split-toned between a deep plum-colour and a rich plain-chocolate black, and luminous off-white highlights.  Add to that the inimitable flat sheen of air-dried fibre-based gloss paper, and you have an object of beauty, underpinning and setting off the strengths of the pictorial content.  Especially compared with the ugly plastic glossiness of a colour paper like Cibachrome.  Until the advent of inkjet printers (or, of course, high-resolution colour computer screens), colour photography was a depressingly unaesthetic experience.  If you've never read it, and have feelings one way or the other about the heaven or hell of the darkroom, my ancient post from 2009 Tears in the Stop Bath may be worth a look.

As it happens, my walk across Southampton Common this afternoon took me past the site of the bric-a-brac shop where I bought my first enlarger, a Meopta, in 1984.  It was just along from an old-fashioned barbershop, and a corner shop that still sold loose sweets in paper bags.  I sold my enlarger and darkroom kit over a decade ago, when you still could -- I don't suppose you could give that stuff away, now -- and all the shops in that little row have now closed, and their windows have been bricked up. There's a metaphor in there somewhere.

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