Friday, August 29, 2008

The Joys of Monochrome Photography

Mono Lake, CA

Let's expand the palette a bit, from purely Black & White.

A significant amount of my own photographic body of work is monochromatic, but not black & white. Just as I work with my photos in B&W, I work with them as sepiatones and cyanotypes. These are "looks" that I create digitally that emulate antique printing technologies. (More about some of my sepia work here.)

Those old sepiatone photos in your parents' attic, or in the antiques shop. Those 19th-century officially-printed cyanotypes. I love the look of the antiqued photo, and I love the tonal qualities of cyanotype and sepia prints. I was in an antiques store in Paso Robles, CA, in yesterday, and there was, as there are in such stores, flip boxes of antique prints from several eras, going back to anonymous formal posed ancestors on tintypes. Sepia is in part just aged black & white, as the old chemicals fade in the sunlight after many years. Cyan prints were often sun-prints, using a very forgiving chemistry (invented in the 1840s) that allows one to make contact prints in direct sunlight rather than in the darkroom.

Changing the color values of an image, without changing its overall monochrome palette, can change the mood of the image. Sepiatone is associated in my mind, as in others', with age, antiquity, the gracefulness of the anonymous fabric of receding time. Cyan is something I associate with coolness, and serenity. I have made large cyanotype prints of forest and ocean scenes, and they have a timeless quality to them, as though representing eternity.

(One contemporary photographer whose work evokes older technologies, and who largely prints in cyanotypes, as sun-prints, is John Dugdale. Dugdale makes sun-prints using old camera technology, contact prints, and old chemistry. I highly recommend Dugdale's books illustrating Walt Whitman's poems and Henry David Thoreau's journals.)

Here's a cyanotype version of the same photo I placed at the beginning of this column:

Mono Lake, CA

For me, this version is an improvement, because it emphasizes the tones of the water, and the dark volcanic ashes of the bluff across the water, also reflected in the lake's mirror surface. The blue tones bring out the serenity of the image, for me, and are entirely appropriate to use with scenes that are mostly water and/or sky. I have been experimenting with cyan prints a long time, both digitally, and as actual sun-prints.

Taos Plateau, fall 2004, Taos, NM

When I lived outside Taos, NM, I made several small sun-prints that I later assembled into a book as a gift for my mother's late-fall birthday. The hand-sewn chapbook contained poems written there on the Plateau, and several color photos, bound in a sunprint made outside my trailer on the Plateau. I rediscovered this little book when I was cleaning out my parents' home earlier this year; I set it aside to keep, a gift returned.

Arroyo Hondo, NM

freight train, Grants, NM

I find the mood of sepia to be at times equally quietist, but also warmer. It is a good photographic style to depict melancholy, a sense of aloneness, duende, soledad.

Grand Marais, MN

There is a stillness that appears in monochrome prints that color photography doesn't contain, because colors are life. Colors are lively, colors are life.

The presupposition that monochrome photography is more artistic than color is in part based on the fact that monochrome prints are manipulated, always processed as art, and are self-consciously aware of their non-reproductive status. That is, they don't pretend to be picture windows into real life. (Whatever that is.)

Colors reproduce life. Color photography is an emulation. It is only apparently reproduction, of course, since the photographer still chooses the moment. Photojournalism, paradoxically, is still a largely B&W medium; that was true in part because newspapers and magazines found it cheaper to process and print B&W film than color film. (Sometimes assumptions of normality are based purely on habituation and tradition. It's absurd to presume correctness merely from habituation, but that is the normal practice.)

So, for me as an artist/photographer, I find color and monochrome to be different and occasionally complementary media, not in opposition, and not in competition. I intend to keep practicing both.

Mono Lake, CA

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Anonymous tins said...

You take beautiful photos. It's funny though, you see the sepia tones as a sense of aloneness and to me it's the opposite. When I see a cyanotype I sense coldness and aloneness. But with your beautiful photograph at the shore, and most older albumen prints, I feel nostalgic and almost uplifted. Regardless, great photographs!

Oh, one other thing. When I first saw your last photo I could swear it was moving on the shoreline. I don't know if it's my computer screen, my eyes adjusting to the center of interest, or it's just my imagination (or maybe I'm just staying up way too late and my eyes are going buggy ha ha). Whatever it is, it's a cool effect.

1:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Not much I don't like here, Art. The blue lake is beautiful, so much more alive that the original. The freight train is nice but the sepia seascape is just fantastic – very well constructed.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

tins, thanks. I do realize there is some subjectivity to the monochrome color style. I'm okay with that, of course, because it's always good when someone sees something in a piece that they like, regardless of of whether or not it's the same feeling at my own.

It's funny. I've had a few people sense that same movement you mention, in some photos of mine, before. I find it intriguing, and rather cool. Another layer of energy in the piece, perhaps.

Jim, thanks, I'm glad you like the cyan version. You see what I mean about blueness being wonderful for water imagery.

The sepia seascape is actually Lake Superior, the northernmost of the Great Lakes. It does look a lot like parts of the Pacific Ocean shore.

10:05 PM  

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