in black & white
“The [gap] between photographs is filled by the beholder,
first of all from himself, then from what he can read in the
implications of design, the suggestions springing from
treatment, and any symbolism that might grow
from within the work itself.”
- Minor White, Fourth Sequence (1950)
As explained elsewhere on this site, one way to reawaken the viewer's fresh engagement with kinds of beauty that he or she has experienced many times before is to consciously alter certain aspects of the image's presentation in ways that prompt the mind to stop for an instant and ponder what makes the beauty in this image striking, unexpected, or somehow alien to its subject matter. When effectively executed, artistic alterations of this sort lead to an arresting viewer experience that I have termed alienated beauty.
The possible modes of beauty alienation are innumerable, but two in particular dominated photographic art during the medium's first 150 years:
. first, the printing of images in monochrome - chiefly black-and-white or sepia
. second, the careful sequencing of images in their presentation to viewers, which can redirect meanings and suggest new narratives within and among images.
Monochromatic handling and the sequencing of images are the two principle modes of alienation at play in the four galleries here.
of another order. As for artful sequencing, the technique has had countless gifted practitioners, this craft being elemental to the assembly of prints in books and periodicals since the late-19th century.
The photobook advanced as a contemporary artform in its own right during the early Sixties (generally dated from Ed Ruscha's Twentysix Gasoline Stations) and gained tremendous narrative sophistication through masters of the form, such as Duane Michels.
As much as any other photographer then or since, Minor White (d.1976) explored, deepened, and celebrated the act of creation that unfolds in the conceptual space between photographs presented serially. "In putting images together I become active," explained White, "and the excitement is of another order—synthesis overshadows analysis. The poet says, ‘The line is given, the rest is up to me.’ Adapting this to photography, it reads, ‘When the images are given, sequencing is up to me.'”
As it happens, I share White's passion for evoking connections among images that build to something larger than just the sum of parts.
While I am principally a colorist by inclination, I also delight in the creative strengths of monochrome. The history of great photographic art has been overwhelmingly the history of great black-and-white images, although this is less true for recent decades. Even in the digital age, the classic B/W format still matters, is powerful, and is preferred by many collectors.
first, do no harm
For reasons both technical and aesthetic, color photography has been, and remains, devilishly difficult to handle well as an artistic medium, to reproduce and preserve on paper, and to project with any colour-consistency on screen. While brilliant use of colour can have seismic impact, poorly chosen or preserved colour interferes perversely with image success.
Moreover, too much experimentation with outlandishly unconventional colouring of objects - as it happens, one of my metiers - risks triggering viewer resistance ("the color's off!") that would not usually be the case for modern viewers if the image were, say, an expressionist oil painting. In photography, color tends to make viewers even more predisposed to interpret content as literal and perceive space within the image has having conventional dimensions.
any colour you like
By contrast, monochrome treatment prompts the viewer to worry less about literal exactitudes and to be more open to interpretive liberties. For these and other reasons, when it comes to pleasing many art-goers, even today, what was true for Ford's Model A still applies: photographers may choose to work in any color they like so long as it's black and white.
The field has encouraged this bias: many fine art photographers have insisted, as Walker Evans did, that natural colour is vulgar, whereas black-and-white is elevated. Robert Frank pronounced with finality that “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
Such classicists might be surprised to realize that, when they choose to work in monochrome, they are deploying one of the camera's most shopworn and predictably conventional modes of distorting visual content for aesthetic impact. As Mary Warner Marien noted in her survey of 100 Ideas That Changed Photography, "Today it is difficult to imagine the extent to which people engaged black-and-white media, and thought of them as both modern and realistic."
Ihre Schuld (2016)
To make sense of them, B&W subjects generally take a bit more attention and effort for the mind to interpret, which can draw the eye in and make such images seem more engaging. Rendering in shades of grey is an abstracting device, and serves to place the subject at a certain alien, objectified distance from the viewer.
At the same time, monochrome tends to set a somber tone, and, in our times, helps to signal that this image is intended for delectation as "fine art," rather than as something less elevated.
In my work, I turn to black-and-white toning, much as anyone else would, when I want to draw attention to how light molds form, and when I want to add drama, a certain gravitas, and presentational continuity or consistency within photo sets.
four threads to pull
The galleries here gather images around four broad themes:
You will find further discussion of my methods in ideas.
Except where otherwise indicated, all text and images on HunterMadsen.com are copyrighted by Hunter Madsen (2023). All rights reserved.