Art Sets.

The absence of colour

By Tamara Tobing

The history of colour photography can be traced back to the late 19th century with the earliest coloured daguerreotypes, followed by a number of experiments and developments including the Lumiére Brothers' film colour in 1932. However, monochrome processes are still looked upon with favour by many photographers. What makes black-and-white photography timeless? What are the strategies and features applied by black-and-white photographers? How does the absence of colour in photography affect our way of seeing?

Tamara recently completed her master's degree in Art Administration at the UNSW Art & Design. Since her study, she has done some internship and volunteering work at several art galleries and events in Sydney, including the Biennale of Sydney, Carriageworks and Firstdraft. She is currently an intern at the Art Gallery of NSW with the Digital Engagement Department, where her main tasks include Art Sets and Art Tours.

After World War II, colour photography became popular among the public, in particular with the use of Kodachrome film. Although the sale of monochrome films declined in the 1970s, predictions that black-and-white photography would cease to exist turned out to be unfounded.

American photographer Edward Weston said that colour and black-and-white photography were two different means to different ends that shared nothing in common. Furthermore, author of How to look at photographs: reflections on the art of seeing David Finn states: "In some respects black-and-white photographs are more 'real' than color photographs because they represent the subject without embellishment. They speak more simply and directly to the viewer, and their images somehow appear to be more authentic. In other respects color photographs are more 'real' because they are closer to what we actually see."

In most cases colour photography reveals the actuality and has the ability to communicate the subject more straightforwardly. It can appear to be more accurate, descriptive and informative with regard to how the subject matter is conveyed, especially when the colour used in the photograph matches the colour in reality. It is an undeniable fact that colour (or the absence of colour) plays a significant role in how we see and perceive things. Since we have to use our own imagination, experience and knowledge to see colour in black-and-white, we interpret things differently. According to Elliott Erwitt, “Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.”

Human eyesight responds to brightness and differences in colours and is extremely sensitive to green, yellow and red. Without the use of colour, viewers are likely to focus more on the subject matter and its emotional state, making them pause to look closer and longer. Emotion may be conveyed by the weight of masses and the outlines, the vague composition of which might be unclear yet make their impact deeply felt; and this emotion is no intangible vagary but a strong objectivisation of reality.

One of the most intricate problems photographers face is representing colours in shades of monochrome and tone that will suggest the original. While it certainly depends on the photographer whether or not he or she wants to imply the original colours or to obscure them, the shade of every colour is transformed and limited to black, white and gradations of grey. The density of light and shade and the reproduction of textures are among the most significant challenges in monochrome processes. Various strategies have been employed by a great number of photographers throughout decades to produce superb black-and-white images.

"I don’t keep color pictures for my ‘personal exposures.’ Color is for work. My life is already too complicated, so I stick to black-and-white. It’s enough. Black-and-white is what you boil down to get the essentials; it’s much more difficult to get right. Color works best for information."
Elliott Erwitt

Apart from the subject matter, black-and-white photographs put an emphasis on light, shade and outlines. Real-life colour is replaced with different intensities of shades, overlaying one thing and highlighting the other. This vagueness offers an openness to interpretation. When you see this photograph, what do you focus on? What do you think Erwitt was trying to portray? Imagine the photograph was bright and colourful. Would you stare at it longer? Would you interpret it differently? Would it be less emotional?

In text accompanying this photograph by Wynn Bullock, the Gallery has noted:
"The richly toned photograph ‘Half an apple’ is indicative of Bullock’s desire to surpass the surface and reveal, through a kind of unconscious, the inner world of the object. He developed a space/time principle that sought to juxtapose opposites such as life and death, youth and age that in their opposition formed a whole, making visible to the eye what was invisible. Capturing the sensual flesh and swirling form of the apple, Bullock’s technique of increasing the exposure over several minutes creates great depth of detail. In the short time between being cut and starting to rot, the apple’s juiciness and dark core are revealed in an abstraction that removes the fruit from its primary function as food and makes it an ephemeral object."

We might have recognised the apple quicker had the photograph was colour. But do you think you would look at the image longer or more closely? We might or might not have seen the shade and texture of the apple as intensely if the apple was red. The absence of colour in this photograph certainly impacts our way of seeing. Would Bullock's idea to capture the flesh of the apple and the juxtaposition of life and death or youth and age be more or less profound with the use of colour?

Hiroshi Sugimoto prefers black-and-white films to colour, as black-and-white exposes gradations and tonalities that would otherwise be lost. In his Seascapes series, Sugimoto uses the horizon to separate the upper and lower halves of the image equally, between the sky and the ocean. This technique results in serenity and eternality, yet it emanates a profound spirituality towards the viewer. Sugimoto translates this idea into the sublime photograph he creates by using muted grays and withholding an easy-to-construe theme from the image.

Art historian Kerry Brougher writes, "To look at one seascape is to appreciate the precise composition, the tonal gradations, the clarity of detail." Seascapes encourage viewers to study the horizon line, search the water for waves or the sky for a trace of mist. The numinous simplicity of Sugimoto's composition engages viewers in a way that is similar to how we feel when mesmerised by a Rothko painting. Do you feel any kind of resemblance between the two in regard to your viewing experience? How does black-and-white impact on viewing this photograph or the overall series? Do you think it accentuates the composition, tonality and texture? How much different would it be if the series consisted of various images of seascapes from different locations at different times, all produced in different colours?

Anderson, Arthur James. The artistic side of photography. London. Stanley Paul & Co. 1910.
Finn, David. How to look at photographs: reflections on the art of seeing. Harry N. Abrams. 1994.
Gernsheim, Helmut and Alison Gernsheim. A concise history of photograph. London. Thames and Hudson. 1971.
Lemagny, Jean-Claude and Andre Rouille, eds. A history of photography: social and cultural perspectives. Cambridge University Press. 1987.
Tesner, Linda Brady. Gallery of Contemporary Art - Lewis & Clark College. Hiroshi Sugimoto - Seascapes, Nightscapes, Hall of thirty-three bays. Portland. 2000.
Yoshii Gallery. Hiroshi Sugimoto. New York.