The Resurgence of Monotone Photography In The Digital Age

Joshua Wyborn

Besides articles on photography in general written by yours truly, you will also find a section on this site with articles written by guest writers. I have made a selection of guest-writers that I greatly admire for their vision or skills and who I think will broaden your vision on the world of photography. Most of them will be B&W photographers, some of them will be just great photographers who don’t necessarily perform their art in B&W but have such an enormous experience or interesting view on the world of photography that I want to share this with you.

The kick off for this series of articles will be done by someone who has just turned 18 but already has developed the skills of a seasoned veteran and more importantly has a vision on photography and B&W photography in particular that matches my vision on photography and art. He is a very talented young man and in the past year he has amazed me with his photos, his processing skills and with his vision on photography. His name is Joshua Wyborn and he explains in “The resurgence of monotone photography” why B&W photography is so different from colourphotography and why B&W forces you to see beyond the visible world. For more on his work check www.joshuawybornphotographic.com or his flickr page http://www.flickr.com/photos/25588704@N08/

Special thanks to mr. Cole Thompson for letting me use one of his photos for this article. Check the amazing work of this B&W master on http://www.colethompsonphotography.com

Joel Tjintjelaar

The Resurgence of Monotone Photography In The Digital Age

Introduction

Some of the greatest and most remembered photographs are made in black and white, when you see a picture of Martin Luther King giving a speech, The Beetles getting off a plane in New York, or a napalm burned girl, naked and running. Black and white is in the psyche of everyone that ever saw that photograph, it carries history, and with its power to send a message, that will never be dulled.

Why and how does monotone photography retain its importance in the digital age?

Technology has come so far and yet the most powerful images still seem to be made or produce in the same way as some of the very first photographs. In analogue photography black and white is much easier to use compared to colour. In colour photography there are three layers of light sensitive emulsion that get exposed. Then in the darkroom colour tones have to be altered to get the correct colours. Monotone is much more simplistic only using one layer of light sensitive emulsion developing the negatives and prints from monotone is much simpler, but that doesn’t mean its effect is simple too.

All that remains in monotone photographs are subject and form. It makes you focus on what the photograph is, not the colours surrounding the subject. I think because the world is in colour and it is a very colourful world so when we see a colour photograph it is just a repetition of what we see. However a monotone photograph isn’t what we see it’s what lies beneath all the colour in the world and leaves subject and form baring the soul. You see meaning in something that you would normally walk past on a daily basis. Monotone brings out tones and dynamics because that’s all there is physically as monotone means one-tone. Monotone brings everything down to its simplest form but in doing so it can bring everything to its most complex.

I am interested and asking these questions is because personally my photographs are 99% monotone. A colour photograph to me doesn’t convey any meaning. Most of them are beautiful but all I see is a representation of the world, I don’t see meaning or a message usually, there are exceptions to this of course! I’m drawn to monotone and I want to know why it has such an influence on me and how I use it in a personal style. I want to find out why it is almost a part of me.

In this essay there is only one question. Why is monotone photography so powerful? A simple question but one, I think may have a complex answer.

Chapter One: Brief history of photography

To understand a subject you need to understand its history in relation to where it is now…

Around the 16th century, J. B. Porta. Was able to get the image of well-lighted objects through a small hole in a dark chamber; with a convergent lens over the hole, he noticed that the images got even clearer and sharper. The dark chamber was created. The alchemist Fabricio, at basically the same time, saw that silver chloride was darkened by the action of light. It was two hundred years later that the physicist Charles made the first photographic impression, by projecting the outlines of one of his pupils on a white paper sheet covered with silver chloride. The outlines were white over a dark background, however it dissipated when exposed to light. In 1802, Wedgwood reproduced transparent drawings on a surface sensitised by silver nitrate and exposed to light. Joseph Nicephore Niepce had the idea of using a sensitive material called bitumen, which is altered and made insoluble by light, therefore keeping the images obtained unchanged. He communicated his findings to Daguerre who noticed that an iodide-covered silver plate, impressed by light, could be developed with the use of mercury fumes. It was then fixed with a solution of potassium cyanide, which dissolves the unaltered iodine.

The daguerreotype (1839) was the first practical solution for the problem of photography. In 1841, Claudet discovered quickening substances, thanks to which exposing times were shortened. More or less at the same time period, William Henry Talbot substituted the steel daguerreotype with paper photographs (named calotype). Niepce of Saint-Victor (1805-1870), Nicephore’s cousin, invented the photographic glass plate covered with a layer of albumin, sensitised by silver iodide. Maddox and Bennett, between 1871 and 1878, discovered the gelatine-bromide plate, as well as how to sensitise it. Vogel, in 1875, sensitising emulsions with small increments of organic composites, broadened the span of actinic radiation’s, that is, able to impress the photographic plate.

Improving the processes, George Eastman created the celluloid film roll that is still used today.

As you can see Analogue photography was created by many people and has been refined over the years to get better and better, there hasn’t been one inventor. What about digital photography?

Believe it or not, but the origin of digital photography start’s way back in the 1950’s. What is digital then? Well, digital is 0’s and 1’s, a code, binary code to be more precise. In 1952 the first video tape recorders were used to record TV programs. Before this, most television was either live. Videotape was recorded as a code not an image itself. This coded tape was then put through a decoding machine, basically a video player. The then machine converted the code back into pictures.

The next step to digital photography was the cold war and space race. As “sputnik” was launched into space it was realised that satellites could be very useful for spying on enemies or targets of interest; but the lack of darkroom onboard a satellite would seem to be a problem, and then sending them back to earth yet another. Something had to be done.

In 1973, an engineer, Steven Sasson, working for Kodak used a CCD to produce a digital image. The camera weighed 8 pounds and had 0.1 mega pixels; it recorded images onto a solid chip or CCD rather than tape. The digital camera was born.

On August 25, 1981 when Sony unveiled a prototype of the company’s first still video camera, the Mavica (Magnetic Video Camera). It recorded analogue images on two-inch floppy disks and played them back on a TV set or Video monitor. This wasn’t strictly a digital camera as it still used analogue technology but it stored them digitally, making a big step forward. Being stored on floppy disk effectively you could take as many photographs as you liked as long as you had the disks. Each disk was less than 1megabyte in size but you could store approximately 25 photos on it.

Sensor’s gradually improved, 1981 saw the release of the Sony Mavica with 0.3 mega pixels. This still wasn’t good enough for digital photography, you could view photographs on screen, just. Prints form a digital camera at that time where still impossible to view correctly. For a reasonable image you need at least 2 mega pixels. So technology was far off becoming good enough for use let alone consumers.

Next on the scene was Nikon in 1999 with two cameras both with 2 mega pixels. The coolpix 950 with a zoom lens, and the coolpix 700 with a fixed focal length. Kodak soon after released a 6 mega pixel camera but this wasn’t considered for the consumer as it weighed 3.75 pounds and seemed to be style on the common house brick. Mega pixels means nothing if you can’t use them properly.

In 2002 Foveon started producing a new image sensor. This is an advance because up until this point digital camera sensors have recorded only one type of light at a given sensor location. Individual ‘photosites’ (these are the pixels of the sensor) collect information about either red or green or blue light. The difference with the Foveon sensor is that it collects information about Red, green and blue light at every photosite. As the image below shows.

picture1 Josh

(Sourced from http://www.digital-photography-tips.net/history-of-digital-photography-consumer-digitals.html)

The next step of digital photography was SLR (single lens reflex camera). Digital SLR’s had been available but they were for professionals only because of their huge price tag and weight. In 2003 Canon changed all of this and released the EOS 300D the first consumer friendly SLR camera. Since then many digital SLR’s exist and are constantly improving. In 2005 canon released the 5D the first full sized sensor camera (digital sensor was the same size as a 35mm negative). With 12.8 mega pixels. Recently in November 2008 Canon released the 5D Mark II which is a full frame sensor with 21 mega pixels. By far now exceeding the quality of analogue 35mm film, the equivalent of digital to film is about 14 mega pixels on a full frame sensor.

Chapter two: Personal influences

Now that we have a grasp of the history of photography we can put it into context with the rest of the world. The 20th century has seen possibly the most change compared to any other century. With the evolution of flight, war, health, wealth and power. The world has changed and is changing still. New cities built as if over night. New wars to be won or lost. The explosion of media and colour into our daily lives. Propaganda and advertising thrown at us from every angle. Yet, with this explosion of colour and activity around us, the humble monotone image still stays around and arguably has more meaning than ever. I am going to look at my photographic influences and why I find them, powerful, interesting and their context within the ever-changing world. All to find out why these humble images stand out majestic.

I will look at photographers such as: Cole Thompson, Nigel Wyborn (father), Don McCullin and Ansel Adams. If I’m lucky see why they find monotone images powerful and why they use monotone. This clearly excludes Ansel Adams as he has been dead quite a while now.

One of the, if not the biggest names in monotone landscape photography is Ansel Adams. On February 20th 1902 Adams was born into a wealthy family. Son of a wealthy businessman and grandson of a wealthy timber baron. Adams grew up with the sand dunes at the golden gate in San Francisco. As a young child during the 1906 earthquake Adams broke his nose, shortly after his family’s financial status collapsed.

Adams disfigured nose, high intellect and an only child, left him with a rather low social status from a young age. He failed the requirements for most schools and eventually was home taught by his father and aunt he finally managed to achieve a “legitimising diploma” from the Mrs. Kate M. Wilkins Private School. The equivilant of completing 8th grade. Adams later believed that he suffered from hyperactivity and dyslexia. At the age of twelve he taught himself to play the piano and read music. The pursuit of music became his substitute for formal schooling. For the decade the piano was Adams’s primary occupation and, his intended profession. Although he gave up music for photography, the piano brought substance, discipline, and structure to his frustrating youth. Careful training and exacting craft required of a musician increased his visual artistic ability, as well as his influential writings and teachings on photography.

Adams had found peace in nature and his genius towards photography, he then combined them both.

picture2 Josh

The Tetons- Snake River showed above is one of my favourite images of Adams vast amount of work. The composition in this photograph is fantastic; the snaking river leads your eye all around this photograph not just to one point. Your eye sweeps in from the right around the meander and to the bank at the back, then you eye is dragged up to the mountains. Only then you see a dramatic sky. In this photo I believe that it is underexposed and then certain areas have been dodged in. The right bank for instance is very light grey, if you look you can see a line where it starts to get darker where it hasn’t been dodged so heavily.

Composition clearly is important in photography but monotone photography requires different composition to colour, colour is representation of what we see, therefore if it looks good in real life its likely to look good in colour. Monotone on the other hand is only capturing how light hits and reflects of certain objects, this means you compose for how and where light lays upon subjects. Adams as we have seen above was great at seeing the light and using it effectively in his photographs. Another ability monotone has over colour is the ability to reveal texture. Don McCullin, the next photographer I will be looking at, uses this ability extremely well in his portraits.

Don mcCullin served national service in the Royal Air Force and was posted to the Canal Zone during the Suez Crisis. He worked as a photographer but failed his written theory test. So his time and skills where spent in the darkrooms developing photographs of the people who passed.

In 1959 he took a photograph of a local London gang, the photograph soon to be published in The Observer newspaper. He worked as an overseas photographer for the Sunday Times during 1966 and 1984. He photographed manmade horrors like war and the victims of it. He is commonly known for his graphic images of the Vietnam War and Northern Ireland conflicts. His photographic work was and still is so powerful that in 1982 the British government refused to let him photograph the Falklands war. His photography takes him to the heart of battle fields not taking photos form a far distance, he preferred go get into the actual battle. This style nearly cost him his life thankfully his Nikon camera stopped a bullet that could have been fatal.

picture3 Josh

This image is the front cover of McCullins book “In England”, I personally own a copy of this book and it is one of my favourite images in the book. The expressions captured and textures I find fascinating. The old ladies facial expression of anger in front of a man who looks curious and next to him a lady who looks sad, almost as if she was about to cry. The best part of this photograph though is the little child at the bottom, lost amongst the chaos. Those big dark eyes, what are they witnessing? They look sad, shocked and yet, they seem to have a sense of grace within a sense of love in this troubled time. I just wish I knew what was happening outside the frame. I want to know what they are all witnessing. Do I want to witness it myself though? Probably not. No one should witness this sort of thing.

Cameras have always been around me from a very small age; with the influence of my father I have always been interested in photography, but it took a photograph by Cole Thompson, to make me want to become a photographer, when I saw this image I knew it was what I wanted to do.

picture4 Josh

When I saw this image for the first time in a magazine I wanted to know what he was holding, where he was, where he had been. Why are there “ghosts” in the image? Also the subject just had this power, I couldn’t explain it and I still can’t, how can this simple figure give out emotion like he does?

After a quick search I found Cole’s website and then within I found this image again, but this time it had a story.

This is the Angel Gabriel. I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. He was homeless and hungry. I asked him if he would help me with a photograph and in return, I would buy him lunch.

 

The pier was very crowded and I wanted to take a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to mess up his hair and hold his bible. The image worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those “ghosts” who lingered long enough for the camera.

 

Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions. When it came, he ate it with his hands. I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania. He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with.

 

I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him. He said

I should give the money to someone who could really use it; that he had everything that he needed.

Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.”

Reading this story made the photograph even more powerful and gave it meaning compared to just a portrait. The fact that it’s a monotone image seemed to separate it from the world and gave a sense of time stopping just for this figure of a human being. I ended up being drawn more into this image and focusing on him, in doing so I was only concentrating on him and his story, I wasn’t thinking of anything else in the world, people around were talking to me and I couldn’t hear them. I was immersed in this image.

I contacted him about this image and he sent me a small print of it for free. This was only the start of a photographic relationship; he has taught me a lot over a few months. I asked him why he chose black and white or monotone photography over colour he said.

“I was born into a world of Black and White images.

Television and movies were in Black and White. The evening news was in Black and White. The nation was segregated into Black and White. My childhood heroes were in Black and White and that image was an extension of the world, as I knew it.”

“So I created images in Black & White. For me color records the image, but Black & White captures the feelings that lie beneath the surface.

When I am asked about my work and what it means, I am reminded of a quote by Jean Cocteu: “An artist cannot speak about his/her art any more than a plant can discuss horticulture.”

Cole has kindly sent me a colour original and a monotone final image for me to use in this essay. Please take time to look at these in detail. The photograph is titled “Auschwitz No. 13.”

Cole Thompson picture

As you can see the colour original is rather dull and unexciting apart from the movement into the chamber. Personally I can’t find any meaning within the colour original. Now look at the final monotone image. All of the sudden it turns into a cold image. Texture in the floor walls and door is increased and made dramatic; you start to get a feel for this place. A feeling of a damp, unpleasant and a rough place with sharp objects and one of torture.

The door now has a heavy look. It looks like more than one man would have to open or shut it. It has a slimy feel and texture. The holes with running black lines look like they are oozing something unpleasant. The doorway it’s self pitch-black, making you feel that this is the end and there is no turning back. The most powerful part though are these ghostly figures entering the abyss. If you look hard, you can see a face of a man within all the chaos and he is looking straight at you. And all of this simply from cropping and turning the image into black and white.

My father (Nigel Wyborn) clearly has a big influence on my life and consequently my photographic work. From a young age I have always known him to have a camera and appreciate other photographic works. I asked him about the history of his photography and this is what he said.

“When I was a child of about 7, I was given a simple “instamatic” camera.

I proceeded to take as many photos as I would be allowed.

At around age 11 I saved up and bought the cheapest slr available £49.99 at the time (quite a bit) This was a Practica L2, which had a m42 screw mount for the lenses, took 35mm film, but had no internal meter. Using books such as MJ Langford’s Basic Photography, and magazines such as Amateur Photographer, I learnt, and progressed my technique. At age 14 or so, I started developing my own films, having enrolled in an O level exam in photography. Shortly after this my paternal grandfather bought me a Canon AE1 SLR, at a cost of £249 in the sales!

My love of the still image was total, and my abilities were expanding. I joined Folkstone Photographic club, and at age 15 was placing in competitions, but never getting the first prize, not bad I suppose for just a couple of years of real photography, and at such a young age. Now I am an engineer, but I still love Monochrome images.”

(Noted discussion on the 22/11/08)

Please take time to look at a colour and monotone versions of one of his photographs.

editduxford-2918

Josh1

As you can see, the photograph is architectural. In fact it is one of the hangers at Duxford Imperial War Museum. Inside this hanger is a collection of planes, mostly war planes.

In the colour original, you can see things inside the building like, people looking around and parts of planes. All you see in the colour is a building with interesting object inside and a nice arch. The clouds are there but they don’t stand out. It looks very muted and dull.

Now look at the monotone conversion of it. The building looks stronger and more prominent. The vertical uprights on the glass shine and give a sense of strength, security and force. The sky and clouds look more aggressive. The arch stands out more from the sky compared to the colour version and again makes the building look strong and secure. The reflections in the window of the dark aggressive sky, then a black abyss with only the window frames standing out make the building seems to tell a story. A story of turbulent times, pain and sorrow. This monotone conversion leaves you asking questions about this building and its contents. What it represents and why it exists. You could say that this building is a war memorial to dead planes and the ones that flew them. And I believe this photograph when in monotone truly conveys that message.

Chapter three: The conclusion.

In conclusion I can only speak from what I feel, everybody feels and sees differently, I can only convey my opinion and hope you feel the same. My theory for monotone photography to bring out more emotions and a deeper meaning to a photograph, because all that remains in monotone photographs is subject and form. It makes you focus on what the photograph is, not the colours surrounding the subject. I think because the world is in colour and it’s a very colourful world. When we see a colour photograph it is just a repetition of what we see in the world around. However a monotone photograph isn’t what we see it’s what lies beneath the colour and leaves subject and form baring the soul. You see meaning in something that you would normally walk past on a daily basis. Monotone brings out tones and dynamics because that’s all there is physically as monotone means one-tone. Monotone brings everything down to its simplest form but in doing so it can bring everything to its most complex.

Bibliography

Books

Don McCullin, In England,2007, published by Jonathan Cape, The Random House Group Limited.

Ansel Adams landscapes of the American west, 2008, lauris Morgan-Griffiths, Quercus book company.

Website’s

http://www.anseladams.com/content/ansel_info/anseladams_biography2.html

http://www.bobbrooke.com/DigitalStudio/digitalhistory.htm

http://www.digital-photography-tips.net/history-of-digital-photography-early-days.html

http://www.digital-photography-tips.net/history-of-digital-photography-consumer-digitals.html

http://www.photographia.com.br/fotogra1.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ansel_Adams

Personal contact and communication with photographer

Cole Thompson, personal communication (emails)

Nigel Wyborn (father)

13 replies
  1. mike peckett
    mike peckett says:

    hi joshua
    this is the Best site on b/w photgraphy i have ever come across and your thread is awesome. I now know why i have this passion, as i have often struggled to put it into words or the reasons why i persue it, nostalgia is one aspect that always comes to mind. I have deliberatly taken time out from work to capture street life around where i live here in Oxford uk or anywhere else i go. I am more inspired and have more confidence now to persue that!!Looking forward to speaking to you at some point in time
    thanks.
    mike

    Reply
    • admin
      admin says:

      If you give me a link to your site where you’ll put this quote then that’s fine with me. As long as you mention the source and author.
      Joel T.

  2. Carl Greenwood
    Carl Greenwood says:

    A fascinating essay; I’ve learnt a lot (believe me) about you and some of the history, for instance I didn’t know Ansel Adams thought he might be dyslexic and I wondered if Don McCullin might be having failed his written theory test. I have two dyslexic sons (and I believe I may also be dyslexic) and they have strong visual imaginations though they tend to draw or write stories (they dictate them to us). When asked why they like a particular picture they often use words that convey feelings and emotions, which leads me to wonder how many artists, photographers and other visually creative people are also dyslexic.

    Life isn’t all about structure and improvement; it’s also about feelings and emotions and people often hide these sometimes to the detriment to their health. Great images like the Angel Gabriel above allow the viewer to feel something in them and have an empathic relationship with the image and the creator of the image also. Though it’s often difficult to say why some images affect us more than others and is probably a reflection of our experiences and emotions.

    Great article Josh, as you can see you’ve made me think and I hope others too.

    Reply
  3. Joe Kennedy
    Joe Kennedy says:

    Joshua, I really enjoyed your contribution here, I am amazed at your maturity in photography at the tender age of 18, I only wish I had made the time for it 30 years ago. The type of images you look for and achieve is what I would love to do, but alas I think it needs a young mind for it, but I will always enjoy your progress up the photographic ladder, there will be and is a “Joshua Wyborn” picture.

    Best of Luck and thanks to Joel for choosing you. Joe Kennedy.

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/34297429@N02/

    Reply
  4. Jerry Ipsen
    Jerry Ipsen says:

    Thank you Joshua for the very informative piece. The history of B&W photography in addition to the fundamental differences between film and digital images and the subsequent study of monotone photography as an art form should be important to anyone seeking to master B&W photography.

    Reply
  5. Garth McKay
    Garth McKay says:

    Joshua and Joel,

    I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I particularity found your discussion about color vs. monotone resonant. It is nice to see this restated the way you have, as it is a good reminder why I find monotone so compelling, so engaging when done well. Thanks for also sharing your personal influences and for turning me onto Cole Thompson. Well done, thanks for taking the time to pen this.

    Best,
    .: garth :.

    Zenfolio: http://garthm34.zenfolio.com/
    Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/garthm34/

    Reply

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