Picasso’s painting, Guernica, is confronting. In addition to the subject matter there’s also its size, energy and passion to come to terms with. When standing in front of this 3.49-metre x 7.77-metre apocalyptic vision in grey, black and white the viewer can’t help but feel the pain and suffering the people of Guernica must have felt in the face of their annihilation by bomb dropping Nazi German and Fascist Italian warplanes.
Picasso’s masterpiece is often referred to as the greatest anti-war painting in history. There is no colour: no saturated reds, yellows or blues; no pulsating pinks or eye watering orange. Just subtle shades of grey, black and white. The painting’s power is in the content; the violence and chaos encapsulated in the gored horse, bull and other symbols of destruction.
Like Picasso, the Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado creates powerful images of humanity with his awareness of light, shadows and the subtle use of shades of grey. In a London Sunday Times interview about his book Genesis he said, “Of course, black and white is an abstraction, but from the brightest white to the darkest black what you have is greys, and these greys are what I had in my mind when I took the pictures.” Reiterating why he shoots only in black and white Salgado declared, “I have a big excitement for the greys. I luuuurve the greys!”
Like Salgado, most of my work is done in black and white so I have all my camera screens set to monochrome. Again like Salgado, I rarely look at the screen while working but if I do I’m able to see my image in black and white with grey tones.
Recently I spent a number of weeks working on a project in Portugal and Spain. In Portugal I was concentrating on agriculture and people connected to the land. Because of my preference for working in black and white, I tend to see things in shades of grey, mentally tossing out the greens and blues of the fields and sky.
In Spain, as well as photographing daily life in a small village in the citrus growing region of Murcia, I spent a solid week working day and night photographing the Semana Santa (Easter Week) celebrations. The traditional ceremonies and parades with giant floats and exotic costumes were loud, energetic and colourful. But what I saw and photographed were the shapes and shades of grey that, if photographed in colour, would distract the viewer from the content and actions of the participants.
For me shooting black and white is about connecting with the moment, creating a structure and harnessing the light to form an image that reflects what I have seen.
Over the last few years I have been working on a project which has taken me across the world to see and document floods, droughts and conflicts along with all the associated heartbreak and suffering. All of this endeavour has been produced in black and white. I felt that it was necessary to step through the looking glass and show these tragic events without the distraction of colour.
The Disasters of War series of etchings by the Spanish painter Goya, are viewed as a visual protest against violence. The black and white prints from the series give a first-hand account of the brutality of war. In his biography about Goya, Robert Hughes wrote, “His genius for telling the truths of suffering without false heroics has made him the patron saint of every war photographer. The English war photographer Don McCullin acknowledges that debt: “When I took pictures in war, I couldn’t help thinking of Goya”.
Art historians say that no other artist in black-and-white has ever exhibited such tremendous vitality, such seething indignation, as Goya in his anti-war images. Goya abandons colour in the series, believing that light, shade and shadow provide for a more direct expression of the truth. He wrote, “In art there is no need for colour”.
David Dare Parker an Australian photojournalist who has covered situations of conflict and works mainly in black and white said, “In some ways colour, as real as it is, beautifies and distracts. Black and white photography, much like a charcoal drawing, gets to the point. I love the stripped-back nature of a black and white image. It delivers.” Parker went onto say, “I honestly believe I see in black and white.” In his image Cry Havoc, taken during the East Timor conflict, Parker has not only captured the moment but his use of different shades of grey directs the viewer’s eye to the point of action, the man’s face and hand. The use of colour in this image would have distracted from and destroyed the moment.
World Press winner Jack Picone is another Australian photojournalist whose preferred medium is black and white. According to Picone, “Black and white is like taking an out of control fast train to the centre of what is being photographed. It tears down the walls of misunderstanding situating the viewer on the side of – clarity.” Indeed, when looking at his powerful black and white images from Bosnia and Africa I feel like I am drawn into the centre of what he is photographing and there is certainly no misunderstanding. Picone’s series on the Nubian people in the Sudan is confronting.
His use of black and white photography combined with harsh lighting and his technique of concentrating at the extreme ends of the grey scale give the images an extra level of intensity.
Working with black and white photography leaves you nowhere to hide or escape to. You need to concentrate solely on the image, to focus on the content, shape, form, lighting and be able to capture with clarity the event or moment that’s taking place in front of you. There are no colours to hide behind, create with or to exploit.
In the words of famous Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt, “Colour is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.”
All you have to work with is your camera, your heart and eyes, and fifty shades of grey.