I’m not an Ansel Adams fan.
I know. I can hear a gasp from the photographic front lines. What, a landscape photographer who doesn’t like Ansel Adams? How can such a thing come to pass?
To be fair, I have nothing against the guy. I’ve just never been that big a fan of black-and-white landscapes. I like vibrant colour and saturation and strong sunsets and all the rest. It’s always been my thing, my MO, and there’s been very little variation from that over the last five years I’ve been taking photographs.
However I’ve recently started to see the attraction in black-and-white photography. I first discovered its application when I visited Siam Reap last year in May, and we had lousy monsoonal weather which turned all my shots into contrasty flat images with no real interest. Until I took one of them, upped the contrast, converted it to b/w and found myself with a half-decent image.
My recent trip to Cambodia was the first time I really took photographs with the intention of converting them to black-and-white. I looked at the light, framed them and exposed them with a monochromatic image in mind. This is important for two reasons, firstly because when you expose for light instead of colour, your composition and your over- or under-exposure will vary. Secondly- and even more pressing- if you’re only looking at colour, you may very well disregard a shot because it looks dull in colour, without realising that in black-and-white you can really do something special.
My first real shoot that I put down in black-and-white was during my visit to the genocide museum in Phnom Penh- I’ve already posted some of those shots, and I’ll post more down the line. I walked into the first cell, saw that I’d never get a really strong colour image out of it, but when I looked at the way the light fell, I knew I had to take the images anyway, and see what I could do with them once they were converted. I was really thrilled with the result, and today they’re some of my very favourite images.
Already knowing the lay of the land helped in returning to Angkor Wat. I went early in the morning to capture the (colourful) sunrise, then went on to do some photography around the temple complex itself. In the early morning, the slanting light was strong and full of contrat, painting interesting shadows and good relief on stonework textures. Shooting in colour would to a great extent have robbed the images of any impact- they come back flat, and the eye is tricked into focussing on the colour (dull as it may be) rather than the way the light falls. Displaying in black-and-white limits the eye to looking at how the tones of light and dark interreact, giving you a much punchier image. I had a great time framing up shots which didn’t look too special when I played them back on the camera, but which later on promised to capture some real mood and story.
I recently attended the wedding of two good friends and played some more with black-and-white (photos to come). Here I enjoyed using black and white where the light was a bit ordinary. Again by removing the distraction of colour, the photograph emphasises form, expression and emotion, a far more powerful and interesting image than one where the strength of the colour is compromised (in my ever-so-humble opinion).
Of course, each to their own. I’ve started to appreciate Mr. Adams a little bit more since my own forays into black-and-white, and having a broader approach to colour has now encouraged me to try new things with my camera, and to frame and attempt shots I would have dismissed before. With a bit of luck, you can expect to see a lot more black-and-white photography on my sites over the coming months.
1. Fallen: Ancient temple structure at Angkor Wat, Siam Reap, Cambodia.
2. Lost City: The temple structure of Bayon, at the heart of the old Khmer city of Angkor Thom, Siam Reap.
3. Ruins: Debris at Bayon, in the city of Angkor Thom.
4. Resting Place: Metal-frame bed in an interrogation cell at the S-21 detention centre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
5. Shadows: Barred windows leave patterns of light on chequered flooring in the S-21 detention centre.
6. Corridor at Dawn: Pillars cast shadows against fierce sunlight around the back of Angkor Wat.
7. Reclaim: Tendrils of an ancient tree wrap around the ruins of Ta Phrom, a Khmer temple complex outside Siam Reap.
8. Pillars: Intricate carvings framed between decorated pillars among the ruins of Bayon.
9. Riverside Shanties: Homes along the Ton Le Sap River north of Phnom Penh.
10. Cotton Webbing: Spiderweb wrapped around the stonework at Angkor Wat, caught in morning sunlight.