Colour or Black and White – and the YMG

What follows was written as a gentle response to an article posted on the YMG website which gave me the stimulus to ponder a little (again!) on the difference between the two styles, and on just why I value black and white images ……


I’ve been to three sessions of the YMG thus far, so I’m a little diffident about expressing my opinions, but the colour / monochrome debate has been an increasing part of my photographic experience over the last year or so and I thought that I might just offer a tentative thought or two in response to Colin’s article. Certainly my interest in the group was sparked by its apparent specialism in monochrome (as well, I might add, as by its determined lack of interest in photographic “competition’, but that’s a different debate!). I came to and much enjoyed last year’s exhibition, followed that by looking at the website, and eventually found my way to a meeting in late Spring of this year. In direct response to Colin’s opening question, I’m not sure that I would stop coming if the group abandoned its committment to things monochrome; the conversation and fellowship are great, I enjoy the extended format, and the food is of course excellent! I do think though that I would find it less interesting!

I have some slight darkroom experience, and that was solely black and white. I now use a digital camera, and do my post-processing on my computer using Photoshop CS5. All my images I make in colour, using RAW format mostly, and somewhat fewer than half of them, maybe 40% at a guess, I then convert to black and white. As implied above, the decision to convert or not is something with which I struggle a little, and eventually make intuitively rather than according to any sort of rule. Images which are “records” – of events, holidays, family etc will on the whole remain in colour. Wildlife and landscape – I do take some of both although they don’t seem to be my favourite genres – usually stay in colour. I think that in the end (and this is going to sound horribly pretentious!) it’s the images that mean something to me artistically that I find I can relate to best in monochrome.

I have six photographs framed and hung on the wall of the room in which I’m working. Five of those are monochrome and one remains in colour because the reason for making it was the play of sunlight through the spring branches of an overhanging tunnel of trees, and that main point is lost in a B&W conversion. The other 5 all have a structure of some sort at their heart, and I think that taking the colour out of the equation releases that structure, its shape, lines and textures, from the camouflage that colour might lay upon it. So the main point of the image, which lies within the combination of line, shape and structure, becomes clearer. (Incidentally, I acknowledge an emerging predilection towards making images of structures, not necessarily but quite often buildings and increasingly in a city context, and that this predisposition influences the colour/b&w decision). I can’t remember who it was that said that “black and white takes away the problem of colour”, but it’s a notion with which I can readily identify!

Maybe there’s just a difference of emphasis between the 40% of my images (and the 95% of my favourite images) that are B&W and Colin’s suggestion that he finds that the occasional image works better in monochrome – certainly it’s a totally subjective judgement, and neither of is “right” in any objective sense. I do think though that an image that works well in B&W wouldn’t necessarily work better in colour and that there is a case for monochrome as an independent and respected genre within photography that makes it much more than a “niche” activity.

So I hope very much that the Yorkshire Monochrome Group will maintain at least a specialism in black and white photography! The photographic world has no shortage of brightly coloured landscapes, but would be much the poorer for the loss of the subtlety, elegance and even sophistication of well made black and white images – and I cling to the hope that one day I’ll manage to contribute one or two!

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