In black and white


Shadows, by Nick Verron
Shadows, by Nick Verron

I held out my foot, and pointed the camera… the reflection of black shoe and white skin in the black gloss desk was interesting. Thought provoking… just a reflection… perfect symmetry but as a negative colour. “Our lives are just a collection of images, aren’t they?” said my son. “Just reflections of the images our minds perceive.”

We had been talking about photography again and looking at some of the images he had taken and discussing why they work… or not, as the case may be. One in particular caught my attention… a black and white rendition of ducks on what looks like the edge of the Rimfall of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It is surprising how much difference the black and white rendering makes to a shot. Uninteresting, everyday objects seem transformed and we look at them in a new way. They evoke a different response.

When I was a very young woman, my grandfather gave me a camera. I had always enjoyed taking pictures, but knew nothing of ‘proper’ photography. This new camera was a pretty basic SLR and I had no idea how to use it and determined to find out. I recall the moment it all changed and I began to see the creative possibilities of photography. I saw something from the top of the bus on my way to work and, that evening, grabbed the new camera, donned the boots, hat and scarf, and tramped through the village in search of a picture. I had never done that before… until that point I had done no more than take snapshots of places, people and events. But the long row of telegraph poles, high on the hilltop stood starkly black against the snowdrifts and I found that I really wanted to take that shot.


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I never became a ‘proper’ photographer, amateur or otherwise; I still just take pictures. Grandad’s old  SLR died fairly soon afterwards on a Spanish beach and life had other plans for me than letting me play with cameras. But that brief interlude, learning to see through the restriction of a lens, left its mark. The observation that comes with wielding a camera doesn’t fade, and the world took on a visual richness and a depth of interest that remains.

Processing photos is an interesting thing to observe too. The addition of deeper shadows can make colours sing and light dance and sparkle, changing a picture from mediocre to arresting in seconds. Sometimes a detail may drawn the eye and, with a little judicious cropping, the image of something familiar becomes an abstract work. Or perhaps you capture a moment in glorious colour, but change it to monochrome instead. Such changes can be startling, altering what we percieve and how. They change the mood, make us think; lifting us out of the ordinary and dropping us into unfamiliar territory. Our points of reference are altered, or taken away altogether, and it can be difficult to decipher an image at first glance.

Playing with the settings on the camera and idly snapping away at my son’s home as we talked, perceprion, recognition and memory were all called into question. Our lives, as my son had said, really can be compared to a collection of images, string together as memories. Moments perceived quite often in black and white, then coloured by memory and emotion. Sometimes those inner images are altered by abstraction from their place in time, or we turn up the contrast so high that we can’t really make out what we are seeing. The filters we apply to experience make things feel unfamiliar when we look back at them in memory.

When the shadows are very dark it may seem as if they are all we can see… yet we are not really seeing shadows, or an absence of light, just its interuption. Light and shade go hand in hand. You cannot see one without the other. On a photograph, it is the shadows that throw the light into relief and allow it to illuminate what we are seeing. In our lives, the dark times are the backdrop against which we can see what we have lived and who we are.

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27 thoughts on “In black and white

  1. I’m not a proper photographer either. Never taken a course. Never studied Photoshop. I got what you got: a basic, manual SLR — it didn’t even have a proper light meter in it. Completely manual. Wind the film yourself. But I had a friend who knew a fair bit and was encouraging — and when my first husband and I went to the Vineyard for our honeymoon (1967!), we stayed in the same house as Alfred Eisenstadt. His books of photography were all over the house. I didn’t meet him for many years after that, but I took his book of pictures of the Vineyard and I followed his tracks and literally copied his pictures. I even found where he crouched behind a rock or a clump of grass and took the shots from the same locations. It was all done in black & white because color was too expensive to process, but I had a friend who would process the black & white for me.

    And I learned. Like you did. By looking, seeing, then trying again. I think most photographers are self-taught. if you’ve got a good eye, you’ll take good pictures — eventually. If you’ve also got a decent camera, it’ll happen faster.

    I always shoot for the brightest part of the photograph because the shadows will take care of themselves. You can always bring up the content of a shadow, but if it’s burned white, there’s nothing to bring up. Shadows make the pictures work. Shadows give a picture form and shape.

    The darkness are not just the backdrop. They are as often as not, the real content.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My camera was a sixties model and manual too. It wasn’t a bad place to start…though I’d have loved that masterclass you gave yourself at the Vineyard!

      And I love the way you expressed that last thought…and agree. And not just in photography.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If there are books of photographs by some photographer you really admire and they are pictures of places you go, study the book and see if you can figure out HOW they got the shot. Where they were standing. Where the sun was located — morning, afternoon, early evening. Where the shadows were falling. Then copy them. Blatantly copy them. Maybe it’s not dignified, but you learn a LOT by copying something you admire. I was lucky because the Vineyard is pretty small, so there wasn’t a lot of distance to cover. I could get a lot of pictures taken in one afternoon.

        Also, I think those old manual cameras were great learning tools. Manual, yes, but also simple. There weren’t huge menus with all those ridiculous complicated choices. All you needed was light (which I got from the piece of paper that came in the film box — those little pieces of paper — we called them ‘paper light meters’ — were surprisingly accurate –shutter speed, and f-stop. If you got those three things basically right — and they didn’t need to be perfect, either — you got the shot.

        I think all our little electronic gadgets have made us feel we have to get it perfect. I do think I do things any better with all the gadgetry than I did when all I had was a piece of paper and a manual camera. I think we make our lives excessively complicated too. Instead of sticking with the basics, we try to add in every idea we’ve ever had. It gets SO complicated, I just give up trying to make sense of things.


  2. I have tried to move on to a more complicated camera, but my brain just can’t cooperate, so point and shoot is all I can do. But I have learned how to play around with the images I produce. For some reason my brain can cope with this…


  3. Great photos and a wonderful story to accompany them, Sue. Like you, I’m not a proper photographer, but I do love capturing snips of my world on camera. Thanks for sharing… 🙂


  4. This is so odd that paths of things I am and have been thinking about come up just before I was about to write about them. Mine is about an image of a different kind, but the black and white makes sense in its context. This is such an odd coincidence. Thank you so much. Wonderful article.


  5. Much as I dislike the dark times in life, I agree they are necessary to give life meaning. Without them, life is uninteresting and you can’t really measure the good times. You definitely can’t write.


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