Monochrome epiphany

I had an epiphany last week, when I wandered into an exhibition of photographs by Sebastiao Salgado that was hosted by Qatar photographic club.

Salgado is a master of black and white photography, so much so that one American gallery director has described him as the most important photographer of the early 21st Century. No wonder, then, that I was completely blown away by his Africa exhibition.

This is one of the works that was on show – thought the impact of the big exhibition prints was quite beyond anything that an online image can show:

In the 60s and 70s, when I was young and photography was just a hobby, black and white was the norm. I still have the negatives of most of my snaps from that era and they show a naive confidence in the use of contrast that I somehow seemed to lose after becoming accustomed to colour and then digital.

Here is a photo I took in the late 70s (Pentax ME Super, 35mm Tri-X – probably the same kind of film that Salgado uses):

I don’t present this as art, just as an example of what amateur snappers routinely produced 30 years ago.

In black and white, the effect of a photo depends entirely on composition, shape and gradations of tone. There are no distracting blobs of colour to draw the eye away from the subject. It is a grittier, less voluptuous medium than colour and that is one reason it works so well in Salgado’s news images.

Harsh realities work best in the extreme, pointillist medium of black and white. Tones are not expressed in smooth gradations of grey, they are revealed by the changing density of the shards of black against a white background and in Salgado’s work intense contrasts accentuate the harshness.

There is no grey in a black and white photograph, its appearance is a trick of the eye that averages the two extremes. As you move closer to the image the greys resolve themselves into discrete particles of black against white. And by doing so they expose the illusion, declaring the distance between the image and the reality and telling you that you can’t quite see what is there – but that if you step backwards a little, the dots will dissolve and the picture reappear. Digital can mimic that today, but I’m not sure how successfully.

For some reason, I find this disintegration of the image as you try to approach it peculiarly satisfying.

Another trick of black and white is the ability, through careful control of contrast and tonal range, to lift the subjects out of a paler background as I did here, in this shot from January 2008 (Pentacon Six, Fomapan 400):

I consider this to be one of the few successful B&W shots I have taken since I started to dip my toe in the water again. Apart from my own errors, I have been dogged by problems with old equipment, poor processing and poor film storage (with which I severely damaged several rolls) but these are mistakes I have already learned from.

Salgado, of course, has the technical side sewn up and his greatest strength is his composition, which seems to me to have a strong echo of the Catholic art themes of Madonna and Child and, in the case of the well at Marsabit, of scenes at the foot of the Cross.

Incredibly, he has put some of his work on Flickr:

This work is photographic journalism of the highest order but it is also art and, for me, an inspiration to grab some rolls of Tri-X 400, load up a decent camera and see what I can do.

Now, if only I can find somewhere that will make traditional darkroom prints for me…

About ambientimages

Paul Cowan is a former journalist turned full-time photographer.
This entry was posted in Black and White film, Master photographers, Photographic art, Photography, Sebastiao Salgardo and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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