No Clear-Cut Blacks and Whites

P1020847.jpg
Wayne Levin w/Akule

For those who think that monochrome != contemporary, stop reading here.

After a long break we finally got a chance to head up for a lecture at PhotoAlliance during the weekend -- a special session featuring not one or two but four different photographer speakers, as part of the launch of the PhotoAlliance Our World Portfolio Review.

Of the four photographers showing work that night, all of them showed black and white imagery -- and all for different reasons:

Mark Klett showed both his own b&w photos as well as those he culled from history, embedded and impacted with modern color shots of the same places. One could see his work as using b&w for nostalgic reasons here; instead, he seems to be grasping at the idea of imaging practice that evolves and changes with humanity even as the western landscape's rocks and chasms remain.

Wayne Levin's Hawaiian undersea work is b&w, so he says, largely because the color available from underwater equipment, even digital, is just plain poor. As a diver I have to agree -- without flash, working close, there are no colors but shades of blue, even at moderate depths. Underwater work is a classic case of how color's "realism" can vary widely from the subjective experience -- while diving your eye becomes accustomed quickly to the low light and limited palette, while the camera -- even a digital camera -- does not. By styling in monochrome and controlling the contrast, Levin's photos are both more dramatic and true to their situation.

Camille Solyagua's photos do pursue a decided nostalgic bent, with works made in 19th-century museum archives and more modern ones with much the same feel, not unlike a natural history collection by Blossfeldt but with a very different intent, less focused on scientific cataloging and more on the objects -- not as scientific specimens but as cultural ones. She also has created numerous photograms using refracted light through liquids (less successful imo). Her comments about ending the use of film and silver-based paper indicate to me that she may have abandoned that direction for a while.

Arno Rafael Minkinnen chose black and white early in his career, around the time he first chose to work exclusively with the nude figure and for a similar reason: to make the work more permanent, to avoid making the photographs' intent be overwhelmed by fashion. 1985, 2004, 1978, 1848...? All the same tones, and all of them, in their various moments of capture, "as alive as anything."

Four artists, four different rationales -- it's tough to imagine how any of the B&W work that any of them showed could be remotely improved by the addition of color. Klett's ancestral saguaros or time series? Akule-school vortices? Dead rats? Some guy hiding behind a tree? In every case a "realistic" color application would have simply stamped-out both the mystery and meaning in these works.

Can color work engage us in similar ways? Perhaps. Is color needed? Obvious not. But I do wince every time I hear comments about photographs by reviewers, editors, and dealers who opine "sadly it's not in color" -- it pains me to think that their viewing eyes have developed such narrow mannerisms.

Comments on "No Clear-Cut Blacks and Whites"

Chris Hargens
April 2, 2009 08:59 AM

I agree with you. I think that BW work in photography in many ways parallels BW work in the other graphic arts -- and you don't hear art critics bemoaning the fact the a Redon noir was not done in color. Black and white is a choice, not an absence.

Chris

 

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