Why Monochrome?

At a time when the world is saturated with easily-produced and -circulated colour imagery, when the image (often moving, enormous, flashing, demanding, insistent) has become part of the wallpaper of everyday life, is there an argument for continuing to work in silver-based monochrome beyond the patina and prestige of its heritage?

As someone who also works and teaches in film, it is the qualities of abstraction, stillness (silence), and material presence that have made monochrome photography a pregnant medium for me.

The moving image is always based on trickery of our optical apparatus (the celluloid image never moves, the video image is never more than a single electron dementedly chasing across a field). Perhaps it is this precisely conjured process of delusion that accounts for its dreamlike power. Similar charges may be levelled at the monochrome photograph; reductive, symbolic, inherently suggestive, it is equally illusory. The things it records are no more “actually there” than those that appear on our screens.

But in contrast to the screen-based image, the photograph is crudely located in the domain of presence inhabited by the body not only as a seeing mechanism, but as a sensual and active complex. It may be held in the hand, turned over, squinted or peered at, plumbed for its strangeness as a real thing that refers to that which is not there.

In its making as well as outcome, the monochrome photograph has as much in common with sculpture as with any other medium. It speaks through an arrangement of form and tone, in ways which defy our customary verbalised categories. So despite (perhaps because of?) its wholesale eclipse within the worlds of fashionable image-making, I still believe that the monochrome photograph invites us to contemplate the world of appearances in resonant and enriching ways. The photograph itself becomes part of the continuum of shape and tone which is an attribute of the deeper and wider being-space that we inhabit.

Then there is the process; from light to dark, positive to negative, through oblivion and back to light…. To work in monochrome, using a traditional darkroom, is a precise and ritualised journey requiring the spending of time, physical engagement, and a continual venture into the realm of trust, in which it is uncertain where “control” lies

But where it certainly does not lie, is with the money-men, the distributors, the studios, the rest of the crew, and all those commercial/industrial bureaucracies who contribute to the making of most contemporary media. It is an amateur medium, in which the visible and invisible, the unspoken and in the inchoate, are simultaneously present.

But can monochrome work be anything more than an exercise in nostalgia? Is the grab from the cellphone at a disaster, or the emailed grotesquery sent from the frontline, not infinitely more important that the marginal dabblings of a time-rich few? Certainly so, if we measure importance by the barometers of immediate social consequence.

But as vehicles for insight, for enabling a contemplative relationship with the rapid flux of what we glibly call “reality”, pictures can be much more than reports. And the monochrome photograph, perhaps paradoxically because in our times it is no longer primarily underwritten by its denotative value, announces itself to us first and foremost as a picture, a contrivance. But it is a picture of a peculiar kind. Its power comes from simultaneous release from, and anchorage to, the physical world “out there” on which it ineluctably depends.

Fenton, Hine, Atget, Strand, Sander, Evans, Frank, Arbus, Brandt…. the list of those who used monochrome in the first place because it was what was available, but discovered within it a way of seeing, is a massive one.

Perhaps it is enough to say that for them and for others it was an eloquent medium. And the struggle for eloquence is after all no more nor less than the struggle to connect – to connect with what is “out there” and “in here” and with what lies between and binds us into our fragile being. For some of us, shuffling as our steps may be, monochrome has been a good and chosen path.