Portraits Revisited

Influenced by looking at Bill Brandt, August Sander, and Frank Meadow Sutcliffe I completed the exercises either side of assignment one in black and white; this has been interesting and there is no doubt that monochrome continues to play an important role in contemporary portraiture but after pursuing colour photography for decades I continue to find it an alien environment in which to work. It is both a production and post-production issue, from learning to see in black and white through to understanding the inter-relationships between the variables in post production. It may appear that moving from colour to monochrome would be analogous to moving from the piano to the electric organ but it feels more like moving from percussion to wind.

There are many reasons to persevere with, what for me, is an experiment but these reasons have nothing to do with the myth that to be taken seriously a photographer needs to work in black and white; John Szarkowski began the process of dispelling this myth forty years ago (i). The reasons that make more sense are firstly that, in the context of a genre that Graham Clarke describes as already being “fraught with ambiguity” (1), colour can be an unnecessary distraction. And, secondly, perhaps because one layer of complexity has been removed, black and white photographs can often convey emotion more effectively. Lastly, a black and white photograph is by its very nature an abstraction; Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote that “black and white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction. In it, all the values are transposed; and this leaves the possibility of choice” (2) and this, as shown by Bill Brandt or Edward Weston, facilities the surreal or abstract interpretation of the subject. However, these factor are intertwined so the ability to abstract the subject allows the exaggeration of dark or light tones to communicate emotion.

It is hard to imagine Don McCullin’s images of war, famine or even British poverty in colour and questionable whether the raw emotions he reveals would have been so sharply defined; it would be wrong to argue that colour is necessarily uplifting or black and white always depressing; Ferdinando Scianna’s colour coverage of the Ethiopian famine in the 80s (here) and David Bailey’s early fashion work would be just two examples to disprove that idea. However, it is interesting to make direct comparisons where photographers have worked on similar projects at about the same time. Josef Koudelka and Stephen Shore were part of  This Place (3) a project where twelve photographs were invited to document Israel. Koudelka’s Wall (4) (reviewed here) offers a dark, brooding and politicised perspective of the country focusing in on the so called “separation barrier” whereas in From Galilee to the Nagrev (5) (reviewed here) Shore intentionally avoids commenting on what he sees and presents an altogether brighter view of this ancient land and its modern inhabitants. Clearly there are differences in the choice of specific subject but Shore’s rather washed out colours create a completely different mood to his series than Koudelka’s dark prints. I have never met McCullin, Koudelka or Shore but their choice of medium raises the question of whether this is a purely aesthetic choice or reflects their view of the world as a dark or light place.

Having reflected on these ideas I decided to return to my earlier black and white series and reprocess the previously selected pictures in colour. This reprocessing hasn’t revealed anything new about the subjects, nor do the colour pictures shed more or less light on their identity but I feel slightly more comfortable that they reflect my view of the subjects.

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Notes on Text

(i) John Szarkowski was the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) from 1962 to 1991 and the author of several books on interpreting and reading photographs. During his time at the MoMA he curated several landmark exhibitions introducing the world to Friedlander, Winogrand, Arbus and most relevant to this discussion William Eggelston. The 1976 exhibition William Eggelston’s Guide marked the first exhibition of colour photography held at the MoMA and brought, what would become known as the Banal or Topographical Movement, to the attention of the art and photography worlds. (here)



(1) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.

(2) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture.

(4) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

(5) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to Negev. New York: Phaidon.


(3) This Place – http://this-place.org/

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