I think there comes a time when every photographer shoots for a while in black & white. Whether it’s a short series or an entire photobook, in digital or on film, almost all of us have dabbled in greyscale experimentation. I truly believe that there are very few photographers who can say that they haven’t done this, but what always astonishes me is that the reasons why people do it are as varied as the images themselves.
“Conor at the Piano”
A few hours before getting into costume, actor Conor Mainwaring took an impromptu break from run-throughs to show us yet more of his talent on the ivories.
Firstly, the history of black & white photography extends back to the creation of the first images made with cameras. We often think of the past as being devoid of colour, even to the people who were there at the time. As such, society immediately imbues black & white photographs with a sense of nostalgia. When was this photo taken? Was this day or night? How old is the subject in it?
Time is such a vital factor in photography. From shutter speeds that determine exposures to the fact that a still image freezes a single moment, one could argue that all photography is inherently a comment on time – but the implied action and vitality that comes from a colour photograph suggests to me a dynamic and changing scene with less stillness than a black & white photo. The shot above was a candid moment I captured backstage before a theatrical performance, where one of the performers caught my attention as he started to play the piano. Fortunately, the piano was already accessorised with a stack of old books, a small wooden trinket box on top of them, and an antique transistor radio. The costume coats on the stand to the right, paired with Conor’s own simple clothing of jeans and a sweater, give this image a sense of timelessness. Of course, it doesn’t take a detective to work out that it is definitely after the invention of the piano and the radio, but there are no immediate clues to just how contemporary the shot is.
“Gracechurch Street, London”
In a busy city that constantly changes, the simple street shots like this carry even more stillness in black & white. Instead of movement of the subject, the emphasis is on light.
All photography is the capturing of light – as simple as that. Light is literally what makes a photograph. Too much of it and everything is white, too little and everything is black. That’s the same for colour photography too. The skill of perfect exposures comes from the understanding of how much or how little light is available to the camera in that moment and adjusting the settings accordingly. But as well as capturing light, we also capture darkness too. The extremity between the two is what produces contrast, and a greater use of constrast to create distict areas of light and dark in scenes is called chiaroscuro.
Photographers, cinematographers and other visual artists use the light and dark to draw attention to specific areas while hiding other details. Often entire objects or people may be shrouded in black shadow in order to focus attention on subjects that are bathed in light. In this shot of Gracechurch Street in London, I was shooting directly toward the sun as it fell directly along the line of the road. The people walking along either side of the street are silhouetted, making them anonymous figures in the scene. Meanwhile the light falls onto the road, buildings and vehicles – the non-human elements of the city – with the shaded building of the right even reflecting the sun-lit building opposite it in its window. The leading lines of the buildings, road and traffic guides the eye down the street towards the sunlight, below which is the main solitary silhouette of a man walking, reminding us of the humans that call this place home.
“Cellar Barrels – Umbria 2015”
Great casks of fine wine from the Lungarotti Estate in Umbria, Italy.
Without colour to distract, greater emphasis is put onto the form, layout and structure of a black & white image. Much like the leading lines in the Gracechurch Street photo earlier, the image above of the barrels in the cellar makes use of leading lines. Instead of guiding toward light, these guide to the darkness of the cool cellar. The symmetrical composition and repetition of identical forms creates a simple balance to the shot, with the focal point being beneth the foremost spotlight (which is actually on the upper third of the frame). The darkness of the foreground closest to the viewer makes them feel present in the dark space and looking toward the light. This image in colour doesn’t quite have the same feel to it, as the colour variations in the wood and differing hues of the shadow areas distract from the balance and structure of the shot.
“Wallshadow – 25/02/21”
A walk with my daughter, as the sun began to set and she was far from settling.
Another aspect of form that becomes more apparent in greyscale is the texture of materials in the shot. In this image above, the golden hour light falls almost horizontally onto the wall, yet there is still immense detail in the rough surface of the blocks and bricks. The lichen crust on the concrete blocks glows bright white in the light, and its natural rough form breaks up the ordered regularity of the rectagular shapes. Cast onto these blocks is the shadow of my infant daughter, wearing a backpack, casually strolling along the street. The darkness of her shadow constrasts against the white lichen on the wall, but the smooth outline of her clothes, bag and head get distorted by the rough texture of the wall. So while the lines of bricks and blocks and cement are ordered and straight, the roughness of the textured surfaces is brought out by the lack of colour in the image.
“Soot & Ink”
My own hand after I left my studio to tend to the log burner, returning to the open journal at my desk. Black soot on white hand, black inkpen on white page.
Similar to how texture shows more depth to surfaces, black & white photographs tend to draw our attention more to the detail in the subject. Whereas texture implies the tangibility of objects, details make the subject matter feel more real, particularly when looking at everyday subjects that we typically associate with colour as their main identifying feature. Trees, especially in winter, take on a much different mood in black & white, as we ignore their lack of green and instead focus on the details of the branches and bark. When we look at skin, as in the “Soot & Ink” image above, we see the details of the creases, wrinkles and fingerprints. The organic lines of the hand are haphazardly interrupted by the soot, offering a structural contrast against the clean lines of the paper, pen, and even the ring on the finger. In colour, this image is dominated by the warm mottled tones of the skin and the cream notes of the paper, but when it is desaturated the composition is simplified and clearer.
So why all this insight into Black & White Photography?
All of the photographs above have been taken at various points throughout the past ten years, some as part of assignments or PR trips, others as part of documenting life. None of these were purposefully taken as black & white images, but instead became them once I got into the editing studio and really studied the story within each of them.
But now, I am working on a new long-term project that is intended as a full black & white study. The project looks at aspects of humankind and nature through a specific environment, with each of the images making reference to the points mentioned above. In essence, the entire project looks at time throughout, but the environment poses technical challenges for lighting conditions, opportunities for varied compositions, and a vast array of textures and details to explore.
The project will be released later in 2021, and will be added to my portfolio when published.