Where’s the Colour in Black and White?

This blog was commissioned by the Open College of the Arts and can be seen in context here

One Sunday afternoon around the time I was first getting into photography, I took set of black and white 10” x 8” black and white photographs, which I had laboriously printed in the darkroom at a community arts space, to show off to my grandparents. I was proud with what I had achieved, although I’m sure the tonal contrast was flat, they were covered with specks of dust, and by now I’m sure the prints are brown and stink of hypo because I didn’t wash them properly. So, when my grandpa looked at them and was clearly at a loss as to what an appropriate response should be, I was disappointed. “Don’t you like them?” I said. His response stumped me as abruptly as my pictures had appeared to disarm him: “Well…” he replied “…they’re ok; but there’s no colour in them!”

I don’t remember what exchanges took place after that; needless to say I had no idea whatsoever of how to make sense of this observation. It was an archetypical philistine remark, yet somehow it was kind of profound. Clearly the monochrome image was not enough for him; simply the bare bones of a picture, that needed some fleshy colour.

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre

 I wish I could say that my grandpa’s desire for colour imagery over black and white put him amongst the progressive documentary photographers like Shore, Eggleston, Reas, Graham, Parr, Fox, etc. etc. and reflected the shifting attitudes amongst art institutions which have resulted in the superiority (in terms of popularity) of colour photography as the aesthetic mode of choice for both contemporary fine art and documentary practitioners. But sadly not. However, I think his position reflects a vox populi (not that colour = arty, because monochrome still wins that contest); that colour = more understanding.  Production companies and broadcasters have delighted us with recently discovered and re-mastered historic colour moving image footage; marketing them in such a way that the material offers a re-imagining of a historical narrative. The Second World War, and the Nazis are old favourites. See Channel 4’s series Hitler’s Rise: The Colour Films and LIFE’s feature here. I have to admit I have fallen for this kind of mystification. Recently, looking through the US Library of Congress photo archive, I must say that I found exploring the collection of colour photos from the Farm Security Administration did somehow put a different light on my understanding of a chapter of history that I did not know had been documented with colour film.

Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. 1941
Jack Delano: Chopping cotton on rented land near White Plains, Greene County, Ga. 1941. Courtesy of the US Library of Congress

What colour adds – or perhaps detracts – from monochrome (and vice versa) has perhaps, thanks to a passing remark from a bumphled relative, been on my mind for the about 15 years. But having said that, I wasn’t particular excited with the theme of this year’s Rencontres – ‘Arles in Black’ [and white] – which addressed the significance or importance, or perhaps even the relevance, of black and white photography today. Aren’t there more pressing questions for such an important event? One of the concerns I had was that such a theme would lead to an extensive ‘dusting-off’ of older (but hardly newly discovered) bodies of work and shoehorning them uncomfortably into a contemporary context. Not all of my pre-conceptions materialised in my experience of the festival. I think one body of work that highlighted the subversive potential of monochrome was Paulo Nozolino’s photographs, which gave a sense of the industrialization of lavender cultivation in Provence, questioning the picturesque myth with which we are all so familiar.

Paulo Nozolino
Paulo Nozolino

Gallerists and publishers are keen to play upon the novelty of colour when announcing the discovery of unknown colour works, or the ‘first’ colour works by a photographer who previously has been know only for their black and white pictures. It’s as if they are trying to grasp at something like the moment when Bob Dylan emerged on stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 with a buzzing Stratocaster. (Sadly I’m plagiarising this analogy, but I can’t recall from whom. Any answers of the true author would be gratefully received.) Tony Ray Jones’s recent American Colour: 1962 – 1965 is a classic example of this. (In William Eggleston’s Before Colour we can see this process in reverse.) If I appear cynical, it’s not a problem I have with the actual photographs (far from it), but a desire for a greater understanding of kind of mythologizing.

There felt like such an effort with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s project Couleurs de L’Ombre [Colours of the Shade] that was installed at the Église Saint-Blaise. Similar to Dylan’s die hard folk fans, although I didn’t find myself chanting ‘Judas’, I did kind of mutter it; not because he had transgressed to the ‘dark side’ of colour photography, but because of the highly problematic and conflicting ideologies that this installation presented.

 

Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre
Hiroshi Sugimoto: Couleurs de L’Ombre

 

 

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