LEVELS OF LUMINANCE
“The black and white is an arresting, powerful image”, states Don McCullin, who was named Master of Photography at Photo London 2016, best known for his harrowing images taken during the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. His iconic photographs are not simply to be observed, but to be felt; unrelenting scenes of trespass, tragedy and remorse, emotions engulfed in black and white. We explore the anatomy of his monochromic world to interpret how these quintessentially emotive photographs can be perceived in the depths of luminance.
Don McCullin’s photographs fervently articulate amidst the depth of their blacks and greys, precision of their white, adequate amount of light, their chiaroscuro and their focus. His insistence on monochrome exudes the density of his photographs by creating veracity and a sense of truthfulness, whether it is the mounting fear of the warzone or the details of a landscape; we believe it is the differences in luminance value that creates the aesthetic appeal. The camera translates the conscience of this eminent photographer as he accommodates light in the process of accentuating the piercing sense and sensibility of photojournalism.
He witnessed the streets of Limassol during the Cyprus civil war, the manner in which the Berlin Wall went up and the shell-shocked US marine from the Vietnam War. Gazing at the haunting combat up close as a photojournalist, McCullin captures empathy, moral outrage, mortal fear and terror through his photographs of the Vietnam war. Rather than the instantaneous morbidity associated with the colour black, McCullin conceptualized how war should be recalled; a silent contemplation of the echoes of remembrance. Human eyesight responds to brightness and differences in colours. Without the use of colour, viewers are likely to focus more on the subject matter and its emotional state, making them pause to look closer and longer. Empathy is a hallmark in Don McCullin’s photography where he shares the emotions of others, as his experiences are instilled in compassion. He presents how surroundings change in the blink of an eye while time turns to fray knowing the frankness of the aftermath. ‘Hue, Vietnam, February’ (1968), is of a US Marine who hurls a grenade seconds before being shot through the left hand. In the photograph, white light is predominant. Significantly, this light functions as a pardox to the darkness amidst the chaos. By moving away from objective reality through the removal of colours, McCullin sheds light to a reality that is more real and closer to what we experience.
Black and white photography also lends itself very well to what is aptly a minimalist view that relies on shape, deep blacks or stark whites, and strong lines determined by light. However, when creating a world that lacks colour, it is essential to emphasize on the variations of luminance. “I shoot pictures in England, in the early morning mist and there are a lot of pictures in that book, of the early morning mist in my village” asserts McCullin expanding his expertise in black and white photography where his recent publication consists of a mesmerizing collection of iconic landscape photographs. A landscape picture, drained of colour, as McCullin insists on absolutely avoiding the nature of a picture postcard, reveals a lyrical stillness in monochrome.
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