Bianco Nero – Italy in a Vintage Light
As an artist who loves colour, who believes dulling down the vibrancy of paint straight from the tube is a kind of sacrilege, I am incredibly drawn to the power and atmosphere of black and white. It’s always surprised me that in the process of draining all of the colour out of an image leaving only tone and light and shadow behind, all of the emotional charge of the image is somehow more focused, almost as though the absence of colour leaves room for passion to breathe.
And it’s not just photos either. Black and white films hold an endless fascination for me, and once you’ve watched a few, you become so charmed by their subtle nuanced light that the next colour film you watch seems all too jarring and unauthentic. It’s like a calendar I recently saw in Rome of Audrey Hepburn’s famous debut Roman Holiday. On one page were beautiful black and white stills from the film we all know and love so well; on the next coloured up versions, which looked so Disney and brash by comparison. And then of course there’s Picasso’s Guernica – one of the most powerful paintings in all of the history of art – despite being painted exclusively in tones of grey.
While it’s tempting to think that the appeal of black and white photography harps back to a vintage age, when life was elegant and free from the trappings of modern life, a theory easily justified by photography heroes such as Doisneau and Brassai who so perfectly captured Paris in black and white in the inter-war years, in fact, as this post attempts to show, black and white can be just as atmospheric even when adapted to the modern age.
After weeks recollecting my recent trip to Italy, my final hurrah is a post which explores the medium of black and white photography (along with a few sepia examples thrown in to boot) with Italy and its people as a willing model. Of course it’s easy in the digital age to convert a standard colour photograph to black and white and back again, but as these shots hopefully demonstrate, the transformation is far from just the colour.
Moody, evocative, almost caught in a time vacuum, these shots have taken on a character all of their own just for being distilled in monochrome. Without the blue of the Venetian water, a ripple takes on an abstract, mysterious form; with the colour gone from their faces, random passers by in Roman squares look like actors from a golden age film; and in Naples, the shadow of an old woman in the sunlight is, in black and white, like a menacing character straight out of Victorian fiction. Now that truly is the power of black and white.
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