Monochromatic Photography: Contrast in Seeing?

26 August 2011


A section of green cabbage, August 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011

Small Perfume Bottles, August 2011; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011

Textures, 2010, © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011


It’s not easy being human these days. We have a web of visual cacophony that distracts, excites, intrigues, motivates, pervades, and stuns. But, more importantly, this image-laden landscape sets our brains abuzz with choices. Where exactly do we focus our sights? How do we allow this constancy of the visual to affect our minutes, hours, days? Are we able to absorb this powerful influence or does it wash over us with a sort of ubiquity? Are we loosing our ability to decipher the nuances of the imagery present in our daily sightings?

So I began to think about monochromes, which renders its artwork in one color. Well, nothing is really in one color, because gradations, subtleties and tonal values (light vs. dark) spread themselves across the image. Mostly, we think of monochromatic color as black and white, but many works pay tribute to one color–a solo act of coloration.

This artistic choice seems akin to the macro lens, which emphasizes details, nuances and the unexpected. Magnification turns much of the unseen into the seen, giving us a shock or boost to our senses. So the combination of enlargement and the monochrome seem simpatico. They complement and give each other a pedestal to climb–together.

When you peer into the soul of a monochromatic work, you view the art with a new sense of seeing. One’s sensibilities are nudged and asked to respond. The spectrum of color is replaced by variants of grayscale in a black-and-white image and a range of hues in a single-color image.

By the middle of the twentieth century color photography became the rage. Photographers could choose film type based on their artistic and photographic intention. But the true diehard photographer stuck to black-and-white.

Examples of photographers using single-color artwork are: Ansel Adams, Bob Kolbrener ( Philip Trager (, Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Aaron Siskind, Bill Brandt, Lotte Jacobi, and Dorothea Lange. Written by art critic and historian of modern American art Barbara Rose, Monochromes (2006) gives attention to painters, photographers, sculptors, video and installation artists who use this aesthetic. The book is a tour de force on the history of this form of artistic expression.

Some people find the absence of color unappealing. But contrast and yin/yang qualities lure my attention. A single-color image can be a surmountable challenge, but it’s still a challenge. So I decided to experiment. I lined up small perfume bottles, sliced some green cabbage, arranged some colored straws, searched for a pluckable green zinnia and other examples of the monochrome. And I took lots and lots of photographs to get two to post. Some of the images worked, while others were not worthy of a second glance.

In my own photography nature is where I am drawn into action. But I also am attentive to architecture and everyday objects as a way to observe the monochrome. The completed image can be seductive or bland, enticing or distancing, notable or nondescript, alluring or distracting. In my case a slice of green cabbage had the most unusual results. See the first photograph in the Lens section of this post (as well as two others). I was surprised to see the soft tones and ethereal-like design.

Most of our external world is a spectrum of colors that give brilliance to our “viewed” life. The multitude of visual symbols can be expressed through our own lens or someone else’s. What we see or perceive that we see, fastens an internal view of the external culture–a culture very much dependent on our constantly expanding visual field that taxes our perceptions. It’s increasingly harder and harder to dodge the inundation and to concentrate on the nuances.

I’ve often longed to be able to get into the inner eye of such luminaries as Henri Matisse or Claude Monet or Alfred Stieglitz or Tina Modotti or Doris Ulmann. To see what they saw would be an extraordinary lesson in aesthetics and technical prowess. We might view the same landscape, but our artistic interpretation can be rendered in infinitely convergent and divergent ways. And that’s the joy of human expression and the individual seeing of it:  Be it executed in technicolor, black and white, or contrasting viewpoints. Still, in the current cultural climate it takes maximum concentration and effort to distill what’s in front of us.

This entry was posted in Photography and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Monochromatic Photography: Contrast in Seeing?

  1. mrsuave428 says:

    The flood of choices is indeed overwhelming. You’ve opened a new lens in my spectrum of perspective. Thank you. The textures photo stands out to me the most.

  2. Nancy Gray says:

    Perhaps in monochrome it is easier to follow what stands out. When I paint with color, I try, as my teacher said, to have many different intensities. The only way not to be fooled is to take a B&W, more accurately a grayscale, photo. Then, I can see right away if I had only a few lights, darks and in betweens. As he would say when I thought I was done, “Good, now work on it some more.”

  3. andybeel says:

    In the beginning was black & white – and God saw that it was good. A mono addict like me – thanks

  4. awarewriter says:

    Your section of green cabbage image is delightful. The play of light and shadows transcends mere color. You might enjoy a wonderful little book of photographs taken by Andre Kertesz over a period of 55 years from 1915 to 1970. “On Reading”

    I photograph exclusively using 35mm B&W film. Stay with your vision.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s