My Monochrome World

This Lot To Answer For

This has a lot to answer for.

My preference for black and white over colour for my personal photography is deep rooted.

Being born in 1950 and brought up during the 1950s and 60s, the everyday images shaping my view of the world into my teens, with the exception of story books and the Beano, Lion and Eagle comics, principally were monochrome. Both the newspaper and television images that entered my home were black and white, and certainly all of our family photos of this period were black and white.

The earliest colour photo I have is one taken by our next-door neighbour in 1964 of my sister in the summer sunshine sitting on her new bright red bicycle on their green lawn. To me, this small snap has the shrill vividness of a picture postcard and it just does not look right in colour. Compared to all of the other black and white photos taken at the time, it jars still.

However, inevitable change was on its way: colour. By the late 1970s and into the 80s our family photos are without exception, in colour. A testament to the universal popularity of Kodak’s low-cost Instamatic range of cameras introduced in 1963, and the availability and affordability of high street colour processing.

First broadcast in 1969, colour television did not enter our household until the early 1970s when we acquired a colour set from Radio Rentals. Suddenly in our midst was this otherworldly device which, until the novelty wore off, we had fun abusing till the picture resembled looking through Roses coloured sweet wrappers, and everyone viewing had blinding headaches.

When I left school and began my working life in a darkroom and studio in 1965, all of the imaging and processing was black and white, though a few years later we dabbled with Kodak’s E6 colour 35mm slide processing for company presentations etc. To watch a black and white print image emerge in the developing tray under soft red darkroom light is something magical, and it never failed to thrill. Colour slide processing was a tedious, time-consuming distraction. Thank heavens for post-paid Kodachrome II even if it was only ASA 25!

London in the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ was a colourful, vibrant time (although mostly closed down on Sundays!). But despite the flowered shirts, exotically embroidered ex-military jackets, psychedelic posters and the general ‘buzz’ of flower power, events and celebrities were imaged in black and white by Rolling Stone magazine, David Bailey, Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan etc. Many of their black and white images since have become icons that define the period.

My early influences were Eugene Atget, Henri Lartigue and Henri Cartier-Bresson. All of the creditable and renowned photographers worked in black and white, and ‘fine art’ photography at the time was broadly accepted to have to be in black and white not colour for ‘serious’ exhibitions.

Pretty much, then, my early world was a monochrome world, and I have no doubt that this ‘monochrome immersion’ has much to do with my ingrained predilection to image in black and white, be it film or digital.

Of course, I do see in colour… a favourite artist is David Hockney, so colour is not something I am averse to. However, when out, using a camera loaded with black and white film, somehow my view and focus shifts automatically to visualising in monochrome. In my mind grass or a tarmacadam street surface becomes a reference point of about 18 per cent grey and other tonal values in the scene adjust themselves to it. Patterns or geometry obscured or adulterated by everyday colour, become clear and sharply imaged: there is a harmony and balance with monochrome that I just don’t see in the same way as with colour.

For me, black and white pares a picture down to its essence and bare minimum to become timeless. It is this way of rendering that I love and feel most comfortable with to capture the world around me.

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