23 Jan 2011

Upstairs at the Gatehouse(means opera as well)

When photographers talk about black-and-white reducing a picture to its essentials, I'm never convinced. Black-and-white seems to me to make pictures more stylized, more formalist, more detached, perhaps more aesthetically pleasing, but not more true.

I had this discussion with one of the twentieth century's most famous black-and-white photographers, Henri Cartier-Bresson, when I interviewed him just before his ninetieth birthday. He explained why he never used colour film. It wasn't, as was often believed, because he disapproved of it on some kind of moral grounds, but because chemically manufactured colour was so very limited in its range. He was, at heart, a painter, and the natural world contained so many more shades than photographic chemicals could even begin to formulate. He gave me an example. One of his friends, a pastelliste, has told him that at the shop where he bought his artists' materials in Paris-the shop Degas used-which was owned by three old ladies, they stocked 300 shades of green. Three hundred. Could I imagine it? The old ladies, he said, were going to die with their secret and the implication was that some of those colours would disappear forever. But his point was that some of those colours in nature are relative to each other, and there are hundreds of them. Colour photography, he said, was an insult to nature. Chemically produced colour was the visual equivalent to junk food: harsh, reductive, untrue.

Liz Jobey, Snaps in GRANTA 80.

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