On Monochrome and Meaning

· 27.May.2018

I’ve swapped hemispheres. After 90 days in Denmark, this comes to you from the jolt of Singapore. It always feels like landing on another planet at first. The light is different at base latitude (we are 1° from the equator), as is what it falls on. Rural Jutland, with its ancient towns and broad swathes of farmland, is a departure from the glittering equatorial metropolis that is my home city.

And owing to this, my long run in monochrome is starting to feel shaky.

The monochrome thing

The shores of Nibe, Northern Jutland, Denmark.

I’ve spent the last 3 months making black and white images in Denmark. I started photography just over ten years ago with a desire to capture color, and this no-color business is relatively new, begun in earnest very few years ago.  It’s an attempt to pull something deeper from the compulsion to shoot, an exploration of stepping away from time-and-date stamp in the frame.

In the slanting sun of the northern latitudes, uncomplicated horizons and limited color palettes, it hasn’t been too hard. The environment almost begs to be respected in with a certain photographic nostalgia.

Singapore though, is all about color.

Bold, contemporary graphic forms in a riot of hues give public spaces much of their flavor. This city-state is irresistibly saturated.

Why monochrome?

Old Thieves Market, Singapore

I’ve been on a quest for several years to make black and white pictures here, with uneven success.

Much of this – the desire to shoot in black and white, and the difficulty I have doing so – has to do with my relationship to my country.

I haven’t really lived in here for almost 20 years. In the past half decade, I’ve spent lots of time in town – as it is home base for this nomad – but with most of my friends and family scattered elsewhere in the world, there’s very little to anchor me to its here and now. I still think of Singapore as the one I left in the 90s. The land of my birth is known for an astonishing pace of change, so a decades-long gap here is a very wide one.

National Museum, Singapore

It’s only photography that’s helping me understand – slowly, I’ll admit – how to move through present day Singapore.

This black and white project is my process of re-acclimation. Color is a powerful signifier, and by learning to look past it, I am hoping to find clarity of form, and by association, thought. Separating my old associations of landscape from their meaning is a hard process, and learning to look beyond the city’s vibrant facade is the first step.

Housing Development Block, Singapore

My biggest obstacle? Domestic blindness.

Most of us suffer an inability to see certain facets of our home spaces. Some of this is over-familiarity with the subject matter. Some of this is owed to emotional baggage. We form particular ways of seeing our homes depending on what life in it is like, and stepping back from that attachment is its own labour. It’s one of the lures of travel, experiences in places without prior attachment, and in some cases, coming home to appreciate our own environments anew. If you, like me, have been gone for a long while, coming back to a place you should be familiar with can be quite a shock.

Void deck. Tampines, Singapore

And in making photographs as in coming to a new home, there’s really no other way to adjust perspective than time and persistence.

The only technical aid I’ve used is shooting with the B&W film simulation in my X-Pro2 (and all the other X series cameras I’ve used in this time), as this strips the EVF of color. Aside from that, learning to see in black and white is mainly tuning my reflexes to react to the fall of light over surfaces. It’s in the everyday things – the way sun burbles over the kitchen tiles, its slippage on the brushed steel of the fridge door, and creep across the walls of my bedroom.

Fruit seller, Singapore

Consciously adjusting my focus is the key, with or without a camera. By the time I’ve lifted the camera to my eye, what I see in the EVF should be an affirmation of my intention. The monochrome EVF should be a helpful correction aid in the process, not where the creation starts.

It’s gotten a bit easier over the years, to make pictures that finally convey mood and meaning better in monochrome. That is my only measure of success with this project, one which I’m happy to be able to meet every once in a while.

Learning to see is always a rewarding exercise.

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