WARNING: Stream of consciousness coming up (that’s code for a rambling, meandering post)!
We humans are obsessed with categorising things. This is no less the case when it comes to ourselves. You are either a something (tick one of the available boxes), or a ‘nothing’, when none of the boxes apply.
This is even the case within art and especially so within ‘art photography’. In fact it seems to be one of the ‘rules’ with photography. If you are shooting commercially, you can describe yourself as a commercial photographer without having to specify in absolute terms what kind you are. Now think about art photographers: how many are just photographers exhibiting and selling their work? It seems that additional information is expected, resulting in a landscape photographer, or portrait photographer and so on. Perhaps the only catchall is fine art photographer, but this term is so loose as to be meaningless. The words ‘fine art’ are in no way a stamp of quality either. In fact, I’d argue that many of the better photographers are fleeing from the phrase like an advancing zombie apocalypse.
The apparent need to categorise and narrow is one aspect of photography I find a little irritating. A while back, I also believed it to be a paradox: at a time when photography continues to grow in status as an artistic medium, it remains subject to a rigidity of categorisation that is not applied to the art world in general. Were he a photographer, Damien Hirst’s medium hopping would not go down at all well: ‘who is this photographer who shoots still life one minute, conceptual pieces the next and oscillates from one colour treatment to another and then leaps into B&W geometrical arrangements?’. I’ve been wondering why ‘regular’ artists are ‘allowed’ to work with whichever mediums they wish (including shooting photography of any kind alongside sculpture or paintings), while photographers who slightly mix up their photography are met with furrowed brows and sighs of exasperation.
This brings me to the tension between B&W and colour work for a given photographer. I use the word tension deliberately, because I think it describes the process and relationship nicely. More casual photographers probably think I am talking rubbish at this point, but those of you who are working towards cohesive bodies of work and accumulating series or projects in your archives, I bet you know where this is coming from.
Myself? At one time I considered myself a B&W photographer. However, when I decided I wanted to shoot work in colour, that was no longer possible. The problem now is that photographer alone feels rather naked within the world of photography, but there is little one can do if one wishes to retain flexibility and enjoy creative freedom. When discussing this topic with Roman Loranc (I interviewed him here and also wrote about his book, Two-hearted Oak), he declined to categorise himself as a landscape photographer. I found this interesting. I could not find any photograph of his that would not fit within this description (including his church/city shots). It is interesting, because it is his engagement with as yet unpublished portraits and people photographs that meant his personal relationship with photography is not restricted to landscape work. The fact that the world has not seen these photographs is immaterial, because it is his relationship that matters. If there has to be a label, he chooses. We all do.
I’d now like to move onto the thought processes and and ‘creative flow’ and how that relates to photographers who’d consider themselves ‘B&W’ or ‘colour’. I want to do this because I think there may be other factors that tend to limit us in terms of the scope of our work. So what comes to mind when I think of the separation between B&W and colour photographers?
Perhaps 20+ years ago, when serious B&W landscape photography was mostly about large format cameras, it wasn’t uncommon for people to purchase viewing monocles that showed an almost B&W view of the world. The aim was to aid visualisation of the sort of tones that might be present in a B&W shot of the scene being viewed. It always struck me as a little unnecessary, but the idea does bring a degree of formality to the process of separating colour from B&W. It does at least make it a deliberate act, with a clear choice made prior to exposure. This was film remember. There were no LCD screens and no in camera B&W profiles. Either black and white film or colour film was used and there was no way of seeing results in B&W without ‘previewing’ them with B&W Polaroids! In the digital era everything changed. Decisions could easily be made after exposure.
Perhaps a decade ago, I’d often read or hear comments like ‘if a shot does not work well in colour, convert it to B&W and see if it has more potential‘ or ‘when the light is poor, or overcast, switch to B&W and work on texture and form‘. As someone who shoots very much more B&W than colour, this always made me wince. Both comments are suggestive of a certain lack of awareness and laziness, but I struggle to articulate why. Perhaps it is because both colour and B&W work are being limited and categorised by the nature of the light available, rather than recognising that stunning examples of both can be produced in the same light? Maybe it is because they seem to suggest that if realising a cohesive vision starts to become difficult, just switch to something easier. As I write this, I am growing in confidence that this is indeed my discomfort: they are suggestive of a lazy desire to flip flop between B&W and colour in search of the path of least resistance. This seems to be the antithesis of insightful and rich creative engagement to me. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a whole lot of fun, of course….
As we’ve discussed before, quality B&W work takes real effort and skill. It is not something that will just fall out of converting the colour files that did not work, or collecting together a bunch of images you shot because you wanted to photograph something, ‘but the light wasn’t good enough for colour’. The best way I can describe the dedication is as a form of immersion. I believe it’s important to immerse your mind in every aspect of the creation of B&W photographs; however, there is a downside to this: you start to lose your ability to see colour photographs at least some of the time. I am sure the converse is true for primarily colour photographers too, but cannot speak from experience. If this is true, how can it be possible for an artist to incorporate photographs, sculpture and paintings? Are photographers a narrow, limited and less creative subspecies of artist?
There is another possibility: perhaps the nature and quality of photography produced by dedicated photographers is different to the photography generally produced by generalist artists? Perhaps it is the pursuit of much higher standards that takes a photographer far beyond the point at which individual genres (and colour and B&W) first diverged? What are these standards and what do they mean? I believe it naturally raises a key issue that has been used against photography since its beginning: the significance of ‘the craft of photography’ as distinct from the art of photography.
With inevitable exceptions, there is an expectation of a certain ‘quality’ that is distinct from the other creative aspects of the photograph. It is related to the management of tones and the end result, whether it is a file or a print. Thirty years ago, there were no badly produced landscape photographs of any kind at the top of photography. It didn’t matter whether you were appreciating a Robert Adams, a Brett Weston, or an Ansel Adams; all were beautifully presented and the tones were exquisite. No matter the way in which the photographer went about seeing the world, there was next to zero wiggle room with respect to the technical perfection expected of the final print. So important was (is) the final print that very few B&W ‘fine art’ photographers allowed anyone else to print their work. The final print was the performance of the score, to use Ansel Adams’ analogies for the print and negative. Perhaps it is a testament to just how skilled B&W printing and tone management is, not to mention the broad range of possible interpretations. Colour photographers are often far less obsessive about printing their own work and I think this is because there tends to be a narrower range of possible final interpretations. The fine art B&W photographer has to be able to excel at delivering superb physical output that aligns perfectly with their creative vision. This is a seriously tall order and it is almost impossible unless the photographer is also skilled in the craft aspects of print making. I would therefore argue that it might be easier for a seasoned B&W photographer to also produce a little high-quality colour work than the other way around.
OK, so if you are still with me (and in agreement) we seem to have established that photography very possibly requires 1) the delivery of better produced photographs than is expected of mixed-media artists and 2) that B&W and colour work often required slightly different thought processes at inception i.e. before exposure. So why can’t a photographer truly excel at both?
Well, some do, but few can. The creative journey associated with a given photographic series starts out with very little craft involved, but the closer you get to the print (or final presentation) the more technical it becomes. Where is gets complicated is in how the initial vision and final print feed each other. How you go about taking a photograph, or how you visualise it within a larger body of work, is clearly influenced by what is possible (for you) in terms of output. In this sense, what is possible depends on the abilities of the person making the print (in the relationship between the photographer and the person printing). For this reason, it is very common for B&W photographers to go back over old negatives and see images that were ignored. The ‘capture vision’ was ahead of the ability to output the result to a high enough standard to achieve a creative ‘output vision’. I believe it’s the length, narrowness and connectedness of this chain that makes it very difficult for photographers to excel at colour and B&W work, or perhaps even successfully span genres/disciplines. If you don’t have this extended chain from vision, through shooting (and the technical demands involved) to print production (i.e. in the sort of photography undertaken by artists) it is much easier to leap about like a leprechaun. Sadly for photographers, it’s a difficult one to escape. Maybe the medium itself is simply far more demanding than people realise, including photographers?
In order to test this theory for a moment… is it not true that mixed media artists tend to produce photography that is in itself, in a way, rather narrow? In my experience, it is invariably not of a kind that requires sophisticated capture techniques, technical qualities, or a high level of craft skill. Think polaroids, the snapshot aesthetic etc. Maybe this is my own prejudices at work here, but its the impression I have. I would also suggest that there are few photographers who could produce produce that very same kind of photography as their sole medium and succeed, because as photography it just isn’t up to the standard demanded when it is called… photography. That said, I do see photography as a whole continuing to distance itself from the craft side of things and seeking the more subjective rule-free playground of mainstream art. The rewards are potentially greater (probably) and its easier to get past the man on the door and gain entry, so to speak (saying a conceptual photograph is not art is much harder than saying it is badly printed, for example). However, it also increases the risk of being left with a pile photographs nobody has any interest in looking at, alongside almost as many profoundly over-egged artist statements. Art as a whole is moving in the same direction and perhaps photography is just being pulled along by the same tide.
Regardless of what is going on in the larger art world, there is no doubt whatsoever that photography is difficult. Whenever you think of the frustrations you encounter when trying to move between genres, or between B&W and colour, remind yourself of how limited mixed media artists’ forays into photography tend to be. At the same time, it can feel saddening that there the wider art world has claimed ownership (and influence) over vast swathes of photography (that IMHO now resembles a nuclear wasteland). At the other extreme, the proliferation of photography as a whole has created a tidal wave of dross that sometimes feels overwhelming. So what is left in the middle? Well, if you have been working hard and with great passion at your photography and you are struggling to branch away from your established specialisms, it may just mean you’re sitting right in bulls eye (to use a darts analogy). The ‘bull’ is small, surrounded, and scores less than a triple 20, but it is without question the most demanding score of them all.
P.S. I just had a thought: one of the few photographers whose work I can imagine translating very well into B&W (from colour) while retaining a sense of singular vision, is that of Harry Gruyaert, whose book review you can find here.
I will write soon about how I personally deal with this tension between B&W and colour photography. It is very much on my mind.