When we look at photographs or any images do we really need the colour aspect of the information to "see" the message the image is trying to convey? The monochrome image has been around for well over 100 years and even considering the advancements in image making and print production there remains a desire for people to see monochrome images to this day. It could be said that when we look at a monochrome image the very fact that the colour information is missing seems not to have a detrimental effect in many images.
If we consider the image of the gorge, when looking at the monochrome version we can imagine the green leaves of the trees bathed in a subdued sunlight with clear waters running to the foot of the frame and the dark granite boulders that are covered in moss. In this situation we quickly make an assumption of what these colours looked like in reality and we "understand" what the colour scene would present to us. This is done by us drawing from memory and associations of what we have experienced in the past. This is one of the powers of monochrome images that we as the viewers of the images are left to overlay our own thoughts into the image. We may of course try to "imagine" what the colours may have been in a particular image at the moment it was captured but maybe this is part of what people describe to be the "dream like" state of some monochrome photographs. By this I think what people are describing is by the very fact that there is no colour in an image it is in a sense further removed from reality, a departure from the original moment. Removing reality to reveal form.
It would be simple to say that the only discernable difference between monochrome photographs and colour photographs is the absence of colour but I believe this to be not true at all. If we are to pursue the making of fine monochrome photographs then we must understand a world with no means of chromatic expression and accept we enter a different discipline. I have seen several "colour" photographers attempt the passage into monochrome and stumble and fall without being able to fully verbalize why. The reason is that a photographer must fully understand how a particular subject will be expressed in a range of tones with the removal of colour. If monochrome is to become an expressive tool in your armoury of image making then you must eradicate the thought process "it looks good in colour so it might look good in black and white" frame of mind. If only it was that simple!
The second factor of understanding tonal transitions and relationships of tones is simply borne of experience and regular practise. As anybody else who has a love and appreciation of the landscape I too love, witness and experience the full vibrancy of colour that is offered but I hold a greater reverence for the wonderful simplicity of tones of grey. After the process of visualization is complete, I am only too eager to see and control further to tonal rendition in the final print which will complete the process of making the monochrome image. One of the attractions of the simplicity of monochrome photography (although the statement sounds ridiculous) is the simplicity of no colour.
When making a monochrome image I am not concerned with the saturation of greens and blue or their relationship and positioning in the composition, but what I am considering is the transitions of tones in greys and the relationships of these tones in the image. At the printing or manipulation stage these tones can be tamed or made more acute depending upon the requirements of the photographer and how they visualised the image. If we raise the overall contrast in the image during printing or manipulation we compress the tonal range of a given area or globally throughout the image therefore effecting the transitions of tones and their relationship. Conversely, if we choose to use very little filtration or print the image "softer" then the transitions in tones is less acute and often regarded as smoother. In short the lack of colour enables us to interpret what we see both during visualisation and manipulation in an almost infinite way.
If the application of visualisation and tonal consideration are applied astutely to the monochrome process then the results can be rather outstanding and often difficult to verbalize. I was recently studying the series of "peppers and shells" by Edward Weston which could be regarded as some of the most celebrated monochrome works of all time. Having firstly seen these works at the age of sixteen, I am still left in awe of the wonderful tonality and relationship of tones, particularly when these images are seen in original print form. The impact is not just the result of camera, film and composition but the presentation and relationship of tones within the image. These images almost glow with vibrancy and life and the impact is almost indelible on the monochrome photographers mind and yet they are a simple study of peppers and shells.
© Paul Gallagher