I’ve talked about the distinctive qualities of black and white photography before on these pages, and how it has an uncanny ability to capture the spirit and mood of a subject far more intensely than colour. It’s something the greats of the genre understood and exploited brilliantly; from the epic landscapes of Adams, and the deeply personal portraiture of Karsh to the lyrical life observations of Bresson; they all utilised the cleansing distillation of grey-scale-monochrome to the ultimate dramatic effect.
However, while the great masters took black and white photography to the level of high-art, equally nostalgic monochrome images were being snapped countless millions of times by less gifted photographers across the globe. And while their results might not classify as works of art, they nevertheless rarely fail to evoke and to entertain.
The images presented here are intended as a case in point and offer a small glimpse into my childhood, growing up in suburban London, which for all its fatherless challenges was almost as idyllic as it looks…
It’s always intrigued me that the greatest photographs of landscape ever taken, by the incomparable Ansell Adams, were all in black and white. To this day, when scenes of Yosemite or the Grand Tetons enter my my mind’s eye I invariably see them in Adams’ deeply contrasted, brooding monochrome. For me, as for so many others no doubt, American Sublime is at its most sublime in Adams’ black and white.
Hence, it might surprise some to know that with the advent of Kodachrome film in the late 1930’s, Adams also took thousands of pictures in colour. His main reason for not publishing most of them seems to have had something to do with the lack of control he felt had over the finished image. Whereas with his black and white work he had total mastery over the entire process, he found colour film (especially early colour film) unreliable as a medium of his vision.
Bearing this in mind, it would be fascinating to know what Adams would have made of the digital photographic world of today? While I suspect, in common with many current “film-purists”, he would have been inherently suspicious of film-less images, I also think it’s possible at least, that he would have been equally intrigued by the almost limitless control offered by tools like Photoshop. Whether or not he would have been sufficiently titillated to swap the darkroom for the desktop I somehow doubt, but it’s fun to ponder.
Apart from the fact I share the singular form of Adams’ surname as my forename, my own photographic offerings have little in common with the great late master, either as to quality or as to ambition. However, the hypothetical conundrum I pose for Adams above, is something that I, and thousands of my contemporaries – professional and amateur – have actually had to confront. In my own case, I at first resisted the transition from film to digital, until one day, during the early 90’s, a retired professional photographer friend scanned an old film of mine, for me to “play with” using the hitherto unemployed Corel software on my Gateway computer. I was hooked within moments and traded in my old Nikon film camera for a Nikon digital camera the next day. And, over the subsequent years, as I’ve gradually upgraded both my camera and my computer software, I’ve never once regretted the decision.
The photos here were taken on that first, crude Nikon digital camera, and remain to this day the closest I’ve ever got to emulating Ansell Adams himself – at least with subject matter (the scenery around Banff in the Canadian Rockies) if not in quality. They are presented in their original colour form, side-by-side with Photo-shopped monochrome twins. I upped the contrast to deepen the shadows and dramatise the tones in an attempt to give them a more “Adams feel”, and to see whether I would prefer them, or the original colour images. In the end, for me at least, there is no contest, and thus much to consider for my future landscape photography…