Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Zen of Monochrome


A scene from time, it could be any time, a cafe and band are not just of today neither are friends and companions enjoying each others society on a sunny afternoon, yet there remains an air of memory about it, an aura which will summon further recollections from the past as the years progress. What is it, that special quality that induces a reaction that is more than just a record of an arrangement of objects or notification of a past occurrence ?

It is the colour, or the lack of it. Here we have the essentials laid bare and because it is incomplete it demands the mind work to fill in the void. But instead of projecting suspected hues on to the monochrome features as we might think it should it takes a different path and starts to construct a context around the image. It expands what is visible and engages our imagination in doing so. We seek a story to fit the circumstances of this moment and that is what renders it aloof from the passage of time. We empathise because we are engaged, we share the experience of being present because our minds are attempting to make sense of what we see, if the colour were there the process wouldn’t start and we would be just looking at a straight and unswerving account.

Now I happen to feel that to make the magic work then we need to catch the view on film, as we see here, rather than digital, not everyone shares that view but that can wait for another day. What is important is that by stripping away the cloak of colour we are left with an essential skeleton that we need to put flesh on ourselves and by forcing ourselves to do so we share more fully in the moment of capture.

We have then the briefest explanation of our appreciation of black and white photography, can the same be applied to the written word? I do believe it can and it was looking again at Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that prompted these musings. There is within it a great deal of complexity as he expounds upon his theory of quality yet there are also passages that are crystal clear and simple as he takes a journey though a small patch of America on his motorbike.

Ostensibly he has is son on the back yet we might as well be in that seat for the prose puts us right there next to him, no thanks to long and colourful descriptions but due to the brevity of his words, the absence of his interpretation, the monochromatic method of delivery in fact. Here’s an example –

We enter a low-rimmed canyon,. Before long, a roadside stop I’ve been waiting for appears. A few benches. a little building and some tiny green trees with hoses running to their bases….

Yes, he mentions green but otherwise it is colourless, but that doesn’t matter, we know the place in our minds and if we each imagine the details differently then so what, the essentials are there and the image created and isn’t that how we see a black and white photo? The shapes are present, the form delineated but the story it tells we each construct in our own particular way, and that is the magic of black and white stills photography as well as good writing such as this. The lesson we can take from photography is that less is often more, a cliche I know, but there is no loss in reminding ourselves of its worth.

The photo, by the way, features the Ulster Youth Jazz Orchestra at Redon in Brittany this summer, I came across them while on my own bike trip and more can be seen here –

Ulster Jazz Youth Orchestra.

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