When we hear the word monochrome a black and white photograph is usually the image conjured up in our mind. We’ve come to equate the two but in reality monochrome simply means a single color (monokhromos, Greek, meaning of one color). For photographers it has come to be an image created with a range of tones of a single color and since silver nitrate based images are white with tones of grey until total black, the association with B&W photography. Any single color, though, can be considered monochromatic.
Wandering through the woods today, a nicely overcast and drizzling rain sort of day, I was overwhelmed with the monochromatic nature of the woods right now. Here green is the color, profuse in its spread across the ground, the sky, the air. Spring flowers are gone now – the seasonal change was overnight. Sun and warmth have encouraged the plants to wake up fast and push their chlorophyll instruments out into full spread, wrapping the whole forest in a wash of greens. Even the overcast light filtered in with a tinge of green, softening the darker areas of the deeper woods and offering an invitation to come in to explore.
At first I was not thrilled; I really was looking for some spring color, saturated in the even light. Confronted with waves of a single color I kept strolling along the path, more walking than looking, until I realized what a benefit this would be. B&W photographers teach us to look for forms, shapes, tones – escape the seduction of color and see what’s really there. Yet doing so is difficult as our vision system is immersed in a world of color. But what about when it’s all the same? Where it’s all green? Now the task becomes easier as the monochromatic environment lets the brain get beyond color seeking and into pattern and tone recognition.
The more I looked around with this realization filtering out the monochrome green the more I started to see the wonderful patterns that make up the forest. Trunks become limbs, which become branches, which become feathery extensions brushing the sky with their leafy bristles. The carpeted ground runs right up to the shrubs, who continue the theme into the canopy of trees. Even where the color is interrupted it remains as a backdrop to highlight the few remaining spring artifacts.
Beyond the forest the theme continues. The once spring-swollen river recedes, leaving the sand and mud bed wrinkled and textured. Green gives way to yellow and browns – even the water maintains the monochrome nature of the soil – as the constant attack of water drains away the colors of the forest from any residents unfortunate enough to leave one environ for another.
Early photography was B&W because of limited chemical knowledge and the lack of technology needed to apply it effectively. Now color springs from the touch of a cellphone to light up computer screens. Before the world was color, though, it was shape and form – the Bible talks of God giving the darkness shape but there’s no mention there about color. He must have gotten around to that later. If there is a priority to the visual elements then shape and form must come first, defining for us the meaning of light and shadows and enabling us to explore dimension in what we see around us. In the world of painting the Impressionists gave color primacy over drawing but still their goal was a new means to portray shape, not a denial of its importance. Modern photography continues returning to its roots in monochrome, always revisiting form and tone as a way to enhance the application and appreciation of color.