Notes on Photography

Preferences and Approach

  

Although I use colour for certain subjects, I prefer black and white, particularly for portraits.


Why monochrome 

monochrome definition: 1. using only black, white, and grey, or using only one colour: 2. not interesting or exciting.

Cambridge English Dictionary


Most memorable photographic portraits of people have been shot in black and white. Despite the advent of colour technology, many prominent photographers realize that monochrome packs a punch that cannot be matched in colour. The term monochrome may have connotations of dull or uninspiring in everyday usage, but it represents a whole world of possibilities in a photographic context. Monochrome images bring subjects to life in unexpected ways. They have a timeless quality about them.


It is not only formal portraits that work well in this medium. Monochrome or grayscale images captured in other situations can be riveting, not least where all that you have to work with is available light. 


Using available light

I always rely on available light even in dimly lit settings such as music venues. 


Making portraits with available light and performing live are two processes that share common characteristics. Both involve uncertainty. Both are unpredictable. And both involve an element of risk. In each case, that is what generates the buzz. 


Any situation that is not primarily designed with photography in mind means that you have to work with variables that are not under your control. Rather than being in control of every aspect of the process as you are in a studio, you have to be ready to react as a performance unfolds. Over and above that, photographing live music is not just about observing what is happening before your eyes. Arguably, the best results come from identifying with the spirit and flow of the performance.


The surprise factor

Jazz always holds out the possibility of taking you to unexpected places. So too with making images of musicians, you hope that something special happens visually. You are looking for the photographic equivalent of Whitney Balliet’s Sound of Surprise, the title of his graphic pen portraits of jazz greats. 


Photographic influences 

Many of the most significant portraits in the history of photography have been captured by masters of monochrome. From a galaxy of talent, there are a few who have a special significance for me.


  • Yousuf Karsh. When I first walked into an exhibition of his works in Boston, USA many years ago, I was bowled over by the power of his portraits. His images of well-known contemporaries from Pablo Casals and Winston Churchill to Picasso and Audrey Hepburn represent a pinnacle of black and white portraiture.
  • Herman Leonard was a Karsh apprentice who more than any other photographer, elevated black and white portraits of jazz legends into a visual art form. You can understand what prompted Quincy to say that Leonard “wrote the vernacular of jazz photography”. 

Two other continuing sources of inspiration are Henri Cartier-Bresson and Vivien Maier who demonstrated how to capture those decisive moments in people’s lives. But these are just some of the many photographers who raised monochrome to a level of exceptional artistry.

On the road to Palo Alto, New Mexico

On the road to Palo Alto, New Mexico