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Where Facial Aspect Tends to Form: David English’s B&W Images

September 16th, 2013 No Comments

If ever there was a Photographic category for which colour is not only wholly superfluous, but, unwelcome, and for which black-and-white is ideal, it’s sculpture, particularly of the human form.  (And this from someone who is a proponent of the merits of colour and its general superiority over black-and-white!)

That’s the first impression one gets and the last conclusion one draws from David English’s gallery, Ethereal Shadows, on the Leica Blog.  It contains images of statutary in The Melaten-Friedhof (Melaten Cemetery) in Cologne.

These images are – obviously – studies in form.  But they also have to do with lighting, expression, and – even – emotion.  That emotion is where the ‘expression’ comes in, both intrinsic to the sculptural subject – the sculptor’s expression – as well as that assumed and projected by the photographer.  (Indeed, the photographer says, “For me, the familiar aspect of Melaten relates to my background in classic films. . . . They are often highly stylized with sharp contrasts between brightly and darkly lit areas. Echoing the public’s fascination with psychoanalysis, they tend to project a highly subjective point of view onto the outside world.”)

An image that (quite evidently) combines all these elements to the maximum is ‘L2030606.’  Compare that with ‘L2030340’, another image that also combines the same elements.   But what an immense difference in the emotion and also the expression thereof: the second sculpture’s facial aspect is sorrowful and grief-stricken whereas that of the first one reveals a state of blessed peace, and so the direct, frontal shot and the harsh, dramatic lighting dovetail with, and accentuate, the emotion and expression of the sculptor that are intrinsic to the sculpture itself.  Would switched treatments (in composition, angle and lighting) not have detracted (significantly detracted) from the expression intrinsic to each sculpture?

These inanimate subjects provide a situation where faces lend themselves to black-and-white treatment.  In many or most of these sculptures the facial aspect is a non-complex expression of a particular emotion or state of being, and there is no issue of eye/hair colouration, skin tones, or complexion; therefore, in this case, the facial aspect tends to form.  It is because of the, in this case, face-tends-to-form factor that black-and-white is the right choice for photographing faces.

A careful examination of these photographs will actually yield two lessons.  The first is to recognize when and where to use black-and-white.  This would be (among others) in situations where, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, “Form isn’t everything, form is the only thing.”  From which we can draw the second lesson as a corollary: depending on what your artistic objectives and intentions are, black-and-white may actually be the better choice when photographing a human subject.

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