Sunday, 16 March 2014

Lent in Black and White

My last blog was about hearing. This one is about seeing. 

What are you giving up for Lent? someone asks. Colour photography I reply, not wishing to be drawn further. An answer fit for Pseuds’ Corner. But I’m serious. Let me say why.

The point of Lent is to go back to first principles, try to live more simply, practise discipline (askesis, whence ‘asceticism’, meaning simply ‘training’). This isn’t an end in itself: it’s in order to prepare for Easter, the heart of the Christian year. So I asked myself: given my love of photography, could there be a way of keeping Lent through the way I use my camera?
One way would be to give it up altogether. That’s worth serious thought: photography takes time, and one of the gifts of Lent can be to create space for other things, especially God. Another would be to focus on a specific theme as a way into thought, meditation and prayer. That would require imagination, but I imagination is needed to keep Lent creatively.

What I decided to do was to turn off the camera’s colour function and work only in black and white. I do quite a lot of monochrome already, but this has always been by processing colour images. To set the camera to black and white exclusively, and not to photograph in colour at all has felt like a real shift in approach. And I have to say that with the advent of bright March days when landscapes are filling up with the fresh clean colours of spring, it has felt like quite a sacrifice.
However, there have been real rewards. As I often say about photography, it’s to do with seeing in new ways, not just looking at the surface of what is there but ‘seeing into the life of things’ as Wordsworth put it. The camera’s lens and viewfinder are already disciplining our way of seeing by making a choice of what to focus on and putting a frame round it. That involves renunciation – think of all the things we’re not photographing!  Using the medium of black and white is a further refinement of that discipline. And when you get used to ‘seeing’ reality as monochrome, it makes you compose images in new ways. So if Lent is about seeing life differently, photography can be a good metaphor of it.

I prefer the term greyscale to black-and-white because it recognises the infinite subtlety of the medium. Greyscale photography is different from colour because it simplifies the image. Colour is a gift, when it forms part of the photographer’s intention, but it can also be a distraction. Too much of it, or too much variety, or colour that draws too much attention to itself confuses the image and make it less clear what it is supposed to be for.
Greyscale, by concentrating on structure and form, texture, lighting and contrast can bring out patterns and meanings in an image. It can sometimes communicate more directly. Before the invention of the colour photograph, this was understood intuitively: it’s possible that mass photography in that era produced better results than nowadays because there were fewer choices to make And of course in the days of film, it wasn’t possible to take hundreds of snapshots ‘just in case’ as we tend to do in this digital age. Digital is powerful, but it does breed photographic promiscuity.

There may be an unspoken elitism about black and white photography because of its retro aspect: it fits directly into the classical tradition of the documentary image from its 19th century beginnings. I do not want to pander to elitism, because I believe photography is the most democratic of all art forms. I simply want to train my eyes and imagination to see differently, and to discover how the chiaroscuro world of greyscale is just as wonderful and haunting a place as the colourful cosmos we live in. The light and shadows of black and white can be particularly attuned to life’s beauty and tragedy. It is capable of interpreting them with startling clarity. It can cleanse and purify our vision by simplifying it. And because simplicity and Lent belong together, it could be a fertile way of entering into the richness of this season.
I’ve tweeted some early fruits of my mono Lent; and have also written more about photography on my other blog at deanstalks.blogspot.

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