24 Sep 2020
Photography in Monochrome
We at UNFRAME have decided to explore the history of black and white photography, from Modernism, Surrealism and Abstract to the modern day.
Although invented in the 1830’s, black and white photography became far more prominent as a recognised medium in the 1920s. Primarily, its potential to capture the social, political and aesthetic state at the time made it an invaluable way to document and record. Initially, we see the photographic process was black and white before its transition to colour, the first colour photo being taken in 1861. With this intention, through experimenting with composition, perspective and light in a time of great artistic progression, modernist photography was formed.
Many of the Unframe photographers work in the monochrome. So we thought it would be a good moment to look at black and white photography in more detail. These articles give an interesting context to this specific choice of medium, looking back at its history.
In this first article, we discuss the history of Black and White Photography, moving through important key moments that established photography’s prominent and thriving identity. In addition, we will look at the Modernist and Surrealist art movements through the work of artists such as Alfred Stieglitz, Hebert Bayer, Unframe artist Judith Stenneken and Dora Maar. As well as, the conceptual and performance work of contemporary artists such as, Pieter Hugo and visionary artist Sophie Calle. Finally, we look at the work of Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman.
History of Black and White Photography
In a general sense, ‘photography’ refers to the process or practice of creating a photograph; an image produced by the action of light falling on light sensitive material. First of all, the word ‘photograph’ was coined in 1839, based on the Greek word ‘phos’, meaning ‘light’, and ‘graphê’, meaning ‘drawing’ – ‘drawing with light’.
Key black and white photographers
Initially, in it’s earliest form, photography acted as a scientific tool, crucial in aiding botanical and archeological studies. As the use of photography grew and became far more accessible, there was now room for experimentation. There were a number of key figures in this movement such as László Moholy-Nagy, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, but we will discuss and hone in on the work of early photographers Eadweard Muybridge and Alfred Stieglitz.
Despite innovations elsewhere in the use of photography artistically, black and white photography remained important to photographers such as Eadweard Muybridge. Specifically, the Anglo-American photographer is renowned for his studies of movement in the 1870s, primarily using photography through scientific application.
Famously, through meticulous experimentation, Muybridge became the man who effectively proved ‘a horse can fly’. In this case, his proven theory that a galloping horse would trigger camera shutters, revealed that a horse lifts all four hooves off the ground at one point whilst running. Accordingly, the use of photography was imperative in his groundbreaking work. Undeniably, he became renowned for his black and white images series. First and foremost, Muybridge’s work often portrays purposeful ‘action shots’ due to the nature of the scientific workings involved.
“Only photography has been able to divide human life into a series of moments, each of them has the value of a complete existence.” – Eadweard Muybridge.
Alfred Stieglitz’s Black and White Photography
In contrast, as many photographers began to do, Alfred Stieglitz strived to achieve a visually pleasing pictorial whole in his work. Decisively, he broke away from photography’s original use. Subsequently, he departed from the scientific studies of photographers before him. In turn, he focused on the use of natural elements; rain, snow and clouds. Specifically, early experimentation can be seen in Steiglitz’s cloud series ‘Equivalents’, which depict un-manipulated portraits of the sky which acted as analogues of the emotional experience attached as he took the photo.
Stieglitz explains “to hold a moment, how to record something so completely, that all who see [the picture of it] will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.”
Important to realize, Steiglitz is also well known for his tender and muse-like portrayals of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, who he married in 1924. Given that, his dedication to encapsulating her through his photo series of affectionate depictions was consistent with modernist ideas. Firstly, the idea of the fragmented sense of self due to the pace of modern life, secondly, ideas of ever-changing personality. Finally, modernist ideals show truth being relative in the modern world. Here we see, photographs becoming just as much of an expression of the photographer’s feelings for the subject.
Incidently, the experimental photographic work by Steiglitz and his associates began an attempt to reveal the medium’s natural strengths in contrast to popularly executed, manipulated photography. Black and white photography was suited to illustrating the ever-changing, fast pace of modern life. As we can see, Stieglitz called for the medium’s acceptance as an art form.
Modernism in Black & White Photography
The introduction of Modernism represented a rejection of Realism, which expressed conservative and historical value. In comparison, past realistic depictions of objects evolved into modernist photographs promoted experimentation with provocative form, colours and line. For the most part, often driven by social and political agendas, the movement within photography was generally associated with a belief in progress in society and human life. In turn, Modernist photography began to focus on evoking emotion through composition and pose.
Initially, the leading modernist artist Herbert Bayer began to practice photography from 1928-38, whilst working as a commercial artist in Berlin. Ahead of his time, Bayer’s workings with crafted montages were highly skilled and meticulously made, and existed long before the invention of Photoshop. His inhibited photographic works illustrate his individual approach to art making, through distortions and double exposures he creates seemingly otherworldly images.
As Modernist art-making developed, soon the element of abstraction that was initially there evolved into a movement in itself. Here, we see artists adopting modernist and abstract ideals in their photographic work, yet retaining personal style and approach. Importantly, László Moholy-Nagy, the artist and art theorist, declared that photography could radically change how we see, naming this the ‘new vision’. The work of the modernist photographers seemed to pave the way for a new realm of freedom in image making and a modern perspective on the world.
The Radical Eye
More recently, ‘The Radical Eye’ exhibition shown at the Tate Modern in 2016 was a foundational body of modernist work, as collected by the renowned singer-songwriter Elton John. From Bauhaus abstraction and 1930s social documentary, to surrealism and street photography, this collection epitomises the Modernist period. Crucially, this collection highlights Modernist photography’s place in the sequence of the movements at the time. In particular, the modernist photographer Edward Steichen’s ‘A Bee on a Sunflower’ (1920) is a prime example in the collection. Conclusively, Steichen’s work depicts early experimentation and the modernist redefining of the appeal of photography.
Comparatively, this rethinking of photography linked with a whole period of upheaval and unrest due to war, revolution and depression. The world was changing socially, from this the Avant-garde dominated and Dada and Surrealism emerged from the shadows. As a parallel, the German Bauhaus art school challenged the divisions between art and design.
Untitled #36 (Staircase)
Archival pigment print, 2016
91 x 61 cm
In addition, the work of contemporary Unframe artist Judith Stenneken shows parallels with modernist ideals and the focus on form and line. Specifically, her black and white photographic pieces Untitled #36 (Staircase), 2016 and Untitled #20 (Open Road), 2017. Influenced by modernist black and white photography, Stenneken’s work directly refers to the freedom portrayed in Steiglitz and Bayer’s preliminary works. Her conscious decision to shoot in black and white harks to the innovative ideas formed from the modernist period, yet still have a place in the art world today.
Untitled #40 (Dancer in Cell/Main Hall/Duty Free/Waiting)
Archival pigment print on Hahnmuehle paper, 2016
73 x 91cm
Importantly, modernist photographers sought to both challenge and question the misconception that photography could not rival the medium of painting. This inquisitive and questioning nature led photography into a realm of abstract expressionistic black and white photography.
Surrealist Modernism & Dora Maar
In terms of Surrealist Modernist photography, Dora Maar championed the movement’s ethos and understanding in her eclectic work. Maar’s shifts in style were often dramatic, but seem to retain a constant Surrealist quality. During the 1930s, Maar’s challenging and provocative photo montage work became celebrated icons of the Surrealist movement. Importantly, the unusual quality and vision worked well for the rapidly adapting fashion and advertising world at the time. Simultaneously, her political beliefs brought her close to the surrealist movement.
Additionally, Maar’s passion for distortion and warped images allow her to deceive viewers in her illusive black and white photography. Through this, in many ways, she provokes visionary ‘new ways of seeing’.
Consequently, the Surrealist exploration into the unconscious and dream-like realms marked important progression. In turn, portraying photographic beginnings as a primary tool to document reality. Primarily, Surrealist photography challenged perceptions, working with it’s basis in conceptualism.
Expression of modern life
First and foremost, Surrealism was driven to fruition by the devastating effects of World War I. Consecutively, the Surrealist and Dada movements sought to build from the medium of photography, a reflection of the chaos and irrationality of modern life. Conceptually, Surrealism broke down barriers of tradition and utilised black and white photography as a means of expression. Surrealist photography offered new perspectives on social and political issues as well as being reactionary.
After all, there were many prolific photographers of the Surrealist movement, such as Hans Bellmer, Salvador Dali and the renowned black and white photographer Man Ray. Under those circumstances, Man Ray experimented with a range of techniques which included ‘solarization’ and ‘photograms’, primarily this was experimentation with light sensitive paper. This exploration into manipulating photography was also pioneered by artists such as Brassaï, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Raoul Ubac and Claude Cahun.
Conceptual Black and White Photography
Similarly, the work of the French photographer Sophie Calle depicts human vulnerability through exploring subjects of identity, privacy and public. Particularly, Calle’s photography reveals intimate portrayals of people’s private lives, never intended to be seen by her, let alone captured through photography. In a way, her work is documentary, yet this is for her own conceptual drive. Usually, her detective-like photographs are delicate portrayals of the secret lives of others. Consciously, her photographic work remains in black and white, evoking a sense of nostalgia befitting of her conceptually lead work.
In particular, South African photographer Pieter Hugo explores themes of private and public through his often voyeuristic and contemporary photography. Markedly, Hugo primarily works in portraiture photography, considering the role between documentary and art tradition. Specifically, his 2014 series ‘The Journey’ depicts infrared portraits of sleeping plane passengers. At first glance, these surreal and inquisitive portraits are reminiscent of the surrealist and modernist photographic experimentation. Hugo’s photography plays with ideas of ‘the voyeur’, interplaying with the use of the concept to drive the work to its understanding.
In addition, ‘The Journey’ (2014) and similarly to Calle’s work, Hugo includes an accompanying text with his photographs; “I once read that a Londoner was caught on CCTV an average of 300 times a day. We are constantly being photographed without being aware of it. May the fact that I have photographed you in this way be forgiven and serve as a warning of a time when we are almost never private and almost always under surveillance.”
On the other hand, we see black and white photography used to evoke nostalgia in many ways. Subsequently, this is the way American contemporary artist Cindy Sherman uses the adaptable medium of photography, revered by all movements discussed so far. Interestingly, Sherman’s series ‘Untitled Film Stills’ depicts 70 black and white photographs in which the artist poses as ‘generic’ female characters from hypothetical films. Importantly, these ambiguous photographs are performative in their cinematic quality.
In short, Sherman’s staged ‘Untitled Film Stills’‘ mark her prolific rise to recognition as an artist. In this case, Sherman takes performative photographs in monochrome, in turn, heightening the emotion and suspense attached to the striking photographic stills. Above all, in the 1980’s, Sherman transitioned to using colour photography in her work, as a result, her original use of black and white photography appears purposeful and narrative based. Additionally, many artists at the time used black and white photography as a means of documenting their performance art. These include, for example, the performative artists Bruce McLean, Mona Hatoum and Rudolf Schwarzkogler.
In a similar way, iconic American artist Francesca Woodman also decidedly uses black and white photography to the medium’s aesthetic potential. Importantly, Woodman’s ethereal self portraits inquisitively draw the viewer into the artist’s eery and private world. Interestingly, her distorted self portraits often depict herself. Often, the ghostly figure hides behind blurry marks captured through her use of slow exposures. Notably ghost-like and obscured, the photographs are beautifully unsettling. In particular, the use of black and white photography contributes to a feeling of timelessness. As part of the work, the viewer grapples with the backstory of the ghostly figure.
Without a doubt, Woodman’s evocative photographs made during her short career evoke a strong sense of ‘self’. As we have explored, through exploring modernism and surrealism, Woodman shares their lust for experimentation.
To summarise, black and white photography has been re-associated, whilst the documenting style of the first ever photography has transitioned. In turn, the photographic medium is a plethora of experimentation and abstraction, giving it a new place in the art world. It offers us, the viewer, a myriad of interpretations, and connects the contemporary to the modern.
We leave you with these wise words –
“The enemy of photography is convention, the fixed rules ‘how to do’. The salvation of photography comes from the experiment.” – László Moholy-Nagy.