We live in an age of endless retro, forever glancing back over our shoulder to the past and in many cases breathing life back into items long since made redundant by the progress of technology and science. The exception to this is Black & White photography, simple put because it has never really gone out of fashion and our love affair with mono has never been more passionate. Modern cameras can now produce better than life vividness in colour rendition that would have been an impossible dream using films like Kodachrome, yet more and more people both armature and professional choose to display their photographs in monochrome.I can understand back in the day the intimacy of watching the photograph you had lovingly taken, appear as if by magic in the development tray before you’re eyes. But that experience has long been confined to history, although there is a growing band reviving it now. But for the digital camera user who has never developed a film and has never wanted to, what is the attraction of mono.
In one respect it could be the simplicity of the image, by reducing it to two tones leaving only the basic information for the eye to assimilate, which im sure is an option for many bad photographers who choose it out of laziness rather than effect and at the very worst end of that spectrum the composition (which is the only thing that needs to be focus on) is itself poor. That’s of course is not the case of many photographers who care very much for the image quality, for them it’s the pure drama that can only be achieved in the stark cold world of Black and White. My first experience of this was the discovery of Bill Brandt hidden on a dusty shelf in a public library and soon it was an addiction that was to spread to the likes of Man Ray,Henri Cartier-Bresson and many others whose pictures made no excuse for their stark exposure of the world that we only ever see in our monochrome dreams or nightmares, but there was an honesty about these pictures that left the viewer no choice but to use imagination to ponder the narrative.
But there is also a beauty about monochrome that harks back to the black and white Hollywood images of film stars as far back as 1920s, transporting them from the status of mere humans to superhumans of the silver screen, living in a celluloid heaven and as far away from the reality of the adoring fans boring lives as possible. The fans back then wanted a blemish free reality and the same is true today and this is achievable in monochromatic world but not always possible in the lush reality of colour. The same could be said for news photographs, who for the best part of the first 60 years of the 20th century, every major event was reported to the public in somber monochromatic drama evoking the same melancholia of overcast rainy days for the readers of the grim news story.
Perhaps the history of monochrome has been passed down to us in our photographic DNA and the popularity will continue for many years to come, for each time we create a black and white image we create our own work of of art, to quote Dominic Rouse “Colour is everything, black and white is more”.
Words Pictures David Coomber TheFitz