Death is solemn, mystical, and unknowable, which is why photographers who take on the subject often choose to photograph manifestations of this democratic finale in black and white (“monochrome”). While color in photography dates to the mid-1800s, it was not until 1930 that Kodak introduced color film (Kodachrome). Forty years would pass before the keepers of the gate would deem color photographs worthy of museums exhibitions and private collections. William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Ernst Haas, and Mary Ellen Mark each produced work that chipped away at preconceived notions.
Bias, however, dies hard, which is why museum curators and photo editors continue to treat monochrome and color as matter and anti-matter. Exhibitions and monographs feature monochrome or color, but mixing the two is not done unless the exhibit or book is a historical account of a photographer who worked in both formats. Only in the photographic world does this bias exist.
The Rijksmuseum is more than willing to mix and match visual works, as is quite apparent in Room 2.15, where Willem van de Velde (I)’s monocrhome ink engravings on 5-foot by 11-foot canvases happily co-exist with colorful oils painted by the Dutch Masters. Subject matter is the unifying theme—Dutch naval power. Modern art receives similar treatment throughout the world, with Robert Motherwell’s masterful black strokes displayed in close proximity to Philip Guston’s pink canvases and Cy Twombly’s colorful spatter and scribble musings.
Mixing color and monochrome photographs makes perfect sense to me. A photograph is a two-dimensional portrayal of a three-dimensional space. To overcome the limitations that flat surfaces pose, photographers must rely on separation—that is separating one object from another within the pictorial plane. Successful monochromatic images frequently achieve the desired separation when the scene presents itself with conflicting tonal values. Shadows naturally separate themselves from piercing white light. Of course there are exceptions. Examples include August Sander’s deadpan portraits of German workers and Lewis Baltz’s new topographics. Monotone was part of the message.
When the component parts in a scene share similar tonal values, photographers often achieve the necessary separation through color. To the uninitiated, blue sky, green grass, and red brick deceptively imply the presence of contrasting tonal values. But convert an image with sky, grass, and a brick building into a monochrome one. It collapses into itself because red brick, green grass, and blue sky fall within the middle grey portion of Ansel Adams’ zone system. The different colors provides the necessary separation to overcome the two-dimensional plane rather than tonal values.
When I walk through the three major Paris cemeteries, I see black and white images and I also see color ones. Bronze oxidizes and corrodes over time, creating beautiful patinas that mix Jasper Johns blues with mustard yellows and the darkness associated with dried blood and orange peels. Why would anyone want to depict those subtle drips, gradients, and abstractions in anything but color? With many doors, ornaments, and tombs, eliminating color would mean eliminating the color palette that not only caught my attention, but that also separates the bust or bas-relief from the surrounding limestone and marble. Yet, on occasion, monochrome does make sense. When the scene presents itself as high key, the patinas and drips may look best in mostly light tones, with some grey giving form to the figures and shapes.
Cemeteries, with their landscapes and natural growth can shape light, creating drama and tension as the sunlight slashes through openings in the foliage or creates beautiful backlighting. Then color is unnecessary for object separation. Strong shadows and dramatic light are more than sufficient.
It bears repeating: many, when photographing a cemetery, often are influenced by convention: Serious subjects require monochrome and often matte papers. Sepia toning adds a sense of agelessness. And what subject is more serious and ageless than death and our physical manifestations of it? But my aesthetics require a less conventional approach. I do not like the comfortable deception offered by rigid categories. Life is far more nuanced. Embrace fuzzy boundaries.
[Click on an Image to Enlarge It]
Alley of Mausoleums (Père Lachaise)
Bend in the Road (Père Lachaise)
The View From the Hill Overlooking Avenue Circulaire (Père Lachaise)
Pathway Still Protected by a Green Canopy in Mid-December (Père Lachaise)
Not Fade Away (Père Lachaise)
Drips, Small Growth, and a Match Head (Père Lachaise)
Orange Oxidation in the Afternoon Sun (Père Lachaise)
Soaked in Green Patina
Jasper Johns Blue and Orange Patina Abstraction Develops with the Passage of Time (Père Lachaise)
Wintertime Love (Père Lachaise)
Blue Skies as the Sun Sets on a December Saturday Afternoon (Père Lachaise)
Photographer’s Notes: Many of the photographs in this essay are from my December 2018 trip to Paris. Others are from earlier visits. Some were originally rejected by me. I don’t know why I rejected them, but when reviewing all my Paris image files in early January 2019, I rediscovered them. They looked pretty good, which is why when in doubt, save the file and then go back to it.