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A Magical Monochrome Moment


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

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A Magical Monochrome Moment

15 Feb 2021 2:17AM   Views : 562 Unique : 385


Once again, over to Phil Taylor, who writes with passion about monochrome. And Hebden Bridge.

Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire is a magical (in more ways than one) place. Once famous for the manufacture of corduroy, it’s now more widely known as ‘The Glastonbury of the North); and according to many has more lesbian couples per square foot than anywhere else in Great Britain. Dating back to the arrival of hippies in the 1970s there’s a distinct new age vibe, and a commitment to sustainable living and eating. On one visit to the Crown Chip Shop, I remember seeing a card on the notice board offering ‘soul recovery’ along with Feng Shui female decorators. If there’s a knock at your door at teatime there, it’s probably someone calling to read your aura rather than the gas meter.


My magical Hebden moment came sometime in the mid-1980s, walking down the hill from Heptonstall, in a gap in the trees an amazing vista opened up of the multi storey honey coloured stone houses climbing the hillside, framing the primary school. Somehow the image rang a bell, and the Tourist Information Centre were selling prints of the view in snow by the Guardian’s photographer Denis Thorpe at a bargain price. It turns out that the original was an Ilford Award winner. A few years later, I returned to take my own effort, which became the classic demonstration negative on a course that I taught for 5 years, Then, the negative went missing.


I’ve been wanting to capture that scene again for years, but with climate change, and deep enough snow only happening when I couldn’t travel there it’s been a 30 year wait. Determined to see if I could get press agency sales I set off before daybreak to get something worthwhile that could be wired early enough in the day from location. In colour, the pictures all had a heavy blue cast, but I shot a few mono ones for myself. There was a lot of haze due to falling snow (and probably the organic log burners), which created a very flat image. It was so bad that it seemed a failure, and I returned at daybreak a few days later, finding the town quiet, the locals were all probably sat on their yoga mats post muesli. This time the colour version had a cosy warmth, but still needed a lot of tweaking in Lightroom.


Lightroom has a black and white pre-set that I call the ‘Don McCullin Button’, a stark lack of shadow detail, slightly gloomy highlights and a hint of grain. I imagine upcoming versions will have sliders for economic deprivation, misery and a geographical one that ranges from ‘Southern Softy’ to ‘Grim Up North’. This got me thinking, why do we perceive certain images looking better with the colour removed?
Both Denis Thorpe’s work in the Guardian was monochrome, as was Martin Parr’s study of a Baptist church in the area ‘The Non Conformists’. Is it nostalgia, and a perception that ‘proper’ documentary photography is black and white? My mind springs to Don McCullin, Bert Hardy, Bill Brandt and the ‘Worktown’ reportage of Bolton in the 30s by Humphrey Spender. Surely this is wrong, think of the famous East Asia war photography of Larry Burrows and Tim Page with vibrant colour matching the later work of Martin Parr.

Maybe, if you are of a certain age (I’m 60), there’s the thought that the serious photographer in the family worked in black and white, you know, the Uncle Joe, who had a spare bedroom darkroom. Certainly, until the digital era, a lot of club photography was in black and white. Colour slide processing required tight temperature controls over a long period of time, and colour printing at home bordered on the totally impractical. Black and white was much easier to get to grips with, dodging and burning being a literally hands-on process.


It’s very unusual to print a photo of a news event in black and white nowadays, but sometimes black and white can give a feel to an image that colour lacks, and vice versa. Back in March 2020 I went into my home town of Bolton capture images of the town centre the night before lockdown, then following up the next night showing abandoned dystopian scenes. I asked if these could be reproduced in black and white, but colour ones were submitted too. In the end, the Monday edition of the local paper went with a colour compare and contrast. Then the paper sent all the journalists to home work, and in a rush, someone needed an empty town centre stock shot. I was away from the computer, and the only one I could point them to was the black and white version from my Ephotozine page, which they screen grabbed, and used small. From then on, this image with its feeling of bleakness and emptiness became their default lockdown photo until we entered what seemed like an eternal Spring glimpsed from our homes.


Then Black Lives Matter erupted on the scene, and I was there to record the ugly scenes in Bolton as ‘statue protectors’ goaded the small group of BLM protesters with hours of racist abuse, before it turned violent. Again. After the event it was time to sit down with the original files after the news work was away and look at those images that hadn’t been sent, a bit like finding that amazing negative you hadn’t noticed because it was under/overexposed on the contact sheet in film days. A young man was in the face of a police officer, who was trying to calmly persuade the demonstrators to go home. In colour it just didn’t have that ‘something’, but a quick click of the McCullin Button, a vignette, and a quick bit of dodging I had something with a much more powerful effect. I kept looking at the monitor, thinking it looked like 1970s American protest photographs from an earlier age. Compare this with the sunny colourful feel of the colour work on the day.

So, to conclude why do we have these feelings about black and white images being more valid, real, artistic, emotive or whatever.


Footnote – my colour effort ended up as a half page in the Daily Express, despite being asked the agency left the colour cast in, and just added a bit of contrast going with the files sent from location: in news, speed usually wins.

Anyone fancying a bit of Oop North nostalgia really should get a copy of Denis Thorpe’s On Home Ground.


To know what Martin Parr did before he went high colour, try THIS.

You can buy an inkjet copy of the original Thorpe HERE for £100.


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
15 Feb 2021 2:20AM
Where do you stand? For me, there can be both beauty and seriousness in a black and white picture: and colour often adds little to reportage. There are exceptions, perhaps, like Phil's image of protestors against violence in Ethiopia, below. Blood and chains, graphically portrayed.

philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
15 Feb 2021 6:09AM
Hope this doesn't start a stampede to Heptonstall Road.

Post lockdown, it:s well worth a visit. Plenty of coffee shops and eateries. The bakery in the main square and the cafe in the old town hall are favourites. Parking can be tricky on sunny weekends and Bank Holidays.

If you fancy emulating the classic composition, an 85 to 105 lens on full frame will do it.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
15 Feb 2021 9:12AM
Fingers crossed, Phil!

It's years since I've been in Hebden Bridge - friends moved there from the North East, many moons ago, but i lost touch with the place after the husband, Richard, died. He was a Minolta rep, and had spent all of his sadly-short career in the photograohic business.
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
15 Feb 2021 12:40PM
Funny you should mention Minolta. Denis Thorpe used Minolta back in his days at the Stockport Express. Probably SRT 101. Latterly, Guardian kit, I understand was Nikon FM/FE stuff, not as you might imagine F3 etc.

Minolta always seemed an odd brand, they did well with the advent of autofocus, and the 9 was an amazing piece of kit. Sadly, like Pentax, with the LX they never lured the professional user in bulk. Odd really, as they made good stuff.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
15 Feb 2021 4:48PM
Vic Blackman rated the SRT 101, I seem to recall. And I heard of one national paper that used Spotmatics, and replaced them every 18 months.

Then there was Topcon, whose heavyweight SLR outlasted everything in US military tests.
JuBarney Avatar
JuBarney Plus
12 36 7 United Kingdom
15 Feb 2021 6:12PM
Terrific set of images and really interesting dialogue
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
15 Feb 2021 6:15PM
Indeed he did, he mentions it in one of his books (I have a signed copy). I recall adverts from Minolta in the 70s that had stories of war photographers dropping 101s in muddy water, soaking the bodies in fresh water and drying them out.

Then, Olympus came on the scene, and Minolta seemed to be on a sloppy slope to be joined in the 80s by Olympus..

Thinking back, there was little between the Canon FTb, Spotmatics, Olympus OM1, Nikkormat and Minolta SRT101.

Manual TTL metering, shutter from 1-1000th, and that was it.
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.1k 2048 England
15 Feb 2021 8:46PM
All much of a muchness - though I like the unpretentiousness of the Spotmatic, with a screw mount instead of a bayonet...
philtaylorphoto Avatar
philtaylorphoto 22 334 2
15 Feb 2021 9:09PM
Having been a Pentax user for 30 years I love this book [link=]https://www.onbuy.com/gb/asahi-pentax-and-pentax-slr-35mm-cameras-1952-89-hove-collectors-books~c2642~p4800819/?exta=gshp&stat=eyJpcCI6IjE0LjE3IiwiZHAiOjAsImxpZCI6IjcyNDcyNTAiLCJzIjoiNCIsInQiOjE2MTI2Mjc4NjgsImJtYyI6IjEuMCJ9&lid=7247250&gclid=Cj0KCQiA1KiBBhCcARIsAPWqoSptHhJbQ5sA5J29l63iB1rMaAucODTeYxyjwZsx-C6D1QRJVzg9MY4aAtoTEALw_wcB&gclsrc=aw.ds[/link]

Interesting to note that long before the K series, Pentax had made bayonet mount experimental products with bayonet mounts. To my way of thinking the only drawback to the screw mount stuff was well, the screw mount.

My 1990s effort was done on a Pentax MX with a 100mm f2.8 Pentax. Still a brilliant lens. I had moved to Canon at the time, but the M series was great due to portability.

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