Monochrome photography and the dark aesthetic

While I’ve always admired the subtlety and skill of images produced by photographers like Robert Adams who are known for their beautifully subtle mid tones and delicate tonal range, I’ve always been attracted to punchy, high contrast, images with accentuated grain, and for want of a proper technical term what I call the ‘dark aesthetic’. These are images that live within a perpetual twilight, and the moody tones of Film Noir. The dark aesthetic turns everything into a shadow realm, alive with brooding mystery, and lit up with glowing highlights, with very little in-between.

For some photographers, there’s an almost philosophical connection between the ‘dark aesthetic’ and a desire to graphically simplify their images, to render them down into something that one might associate with a woodblock print. To some extent, this is a matter of taste — a stylistic device. This can become a cliché when the look and feel of moody black and white image, the high contrast and accentuated grain, becomes just another software filter. What might have taken years of experience and a master printmaking can be mimicked in Lightroom using a pre-set, or an Instagram filter.

The past masters of the moody back and white images, photographers like Joseph Koudelka’s Exiles created parallel worlds, transforming muted real-world colours into a stark artistic vision. But, black and white photography, especially photo journalism, went right out of fashion, because people wanted to see the world in glorious living colour. The strength and weakness of black and white is that it’s one step away from reality. This can be brilliantly exploited in the fine art print, but for general use on websites, or in journalism it communicates a quaintly retro feel or — worse — pretentiousness. Fashions come and go, and it’s no different with photography. When someone like Trent Parke comes along with a stunning collection of images like Minutes to Midnight the dark aesthetic fine art print takes on a new lease of life.

Music photography has a long history of black and white images, dating back to a time when newspapers and magazines were printed in black and white, and colour photography at live concerts was challenging with old film stocks. There’s always been a rebellious ‘anti-mainstream’ vibe to band photography that dates back to rock and Punk. The dark aesthetic comes and goes, from post-punk and Gothic to contemporary rap, and grime.

More recently, with the predominance of digital cameras, autofocus, auto exposure, and camera sensors that provide technically perfect photos almost every time, where saturated images with a huge dynamic range, especially in RAW, produce quality that would have been exceptionally hard or impossible to achieve twenty years ago. From the beautifully saturated colours of Cibachrome art prints in the 1990s, William Eggleston’s work, and Martin Parr, the saturated Superrealism seems less radical and more mundane. Suddenly, black and white photography seems fresh again. There’s even been a trend for monochrome movies with films like Mad Max: Fury Road (2016) being screened and released in special ‘Black and Chrome’ editions. The Mad Max: Fury Road ‘Black and Chrome’ feels like a science fiction fantasy film art directed by Trent Parke.

Although black and white was superseded by colour film stock like Kodachrome and Technicolour back in the 1950s, some directors continued to exploit monochrome as a device to create atmosphere, horror, to save money, for technical reasons, or just to be different: The Last Picture Show (1971) appropriated the black and white look of the Golden Age of Hollywood to reveal a failing backwater small town almost in the image of a Dorothea Lange or Robert Frank photo; Eraserhead (1977) used the dark aesthetic as a device to create a disturbingly surreal horror world; in Manhattan (1979) it was used to give the story a nostalgic tone; The Elephant Man (1980) used black and white as part of the films artistic vision; and Control (2007) referenced the visual look of Anton Corbijn’s photos of Joy Division.

Since colour images supplanted monochrome in the mainstream media, black and white is often regarded as ‘art’. Hengki Koentjoro’s brilliant landscapes are ‘purist’ photography in the sense that they’re all about light and dark. They’re magically atmospheric. And when Sarah Lee photographed the 2017 Baftas she took along with her a Leica and produced a series of moody black and white images for the Guardian. Black and white, and the snapshot aesthetic, is commonly used in street fashion magazines, because it has a rawness to it, which feels underground and edgy in a world of glossy colour.