Black and White, and The Decay of Lying

A while ago I was looking around for something to read and came across two books by Oscar Wilde. Obviously one of them was ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘, and that was the one I decided to read first having never actually done so before. The story is referenced so frequently in popular culture that I hadn’t really felt the need before, but «better late than never», and so it was.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the novel I moved onto the second – a collection of essays under the title of ‘The Decay of Lying‘, which intrigued me. The collection begins with the work which lends its title: ‘The Decay of Lying: A Dialogue‘ in which Wilde, an aestheticist outlines his arguments for beauty over realism in works of artistic creation. Like much of the dialogue in Dorian Gray, this is beautifully and elegantly written, and as a defence of aestheticism, Wilde’s own flowing, rhythmic wording is persuasive based purely on its own merits. Through the two participants in his dialogue, Wilde laments the demise of the lost Art of Lying, displaced from the contemporary art of his time by the fashion for realism and all its gory details. Realism had robbed art of the fanciful lie which revealed more truth about the important things in life than uninspiring accuracy.

As someone who is principally a photographer rather than a lover of literature (as evidenced by making it into my 30s without reading ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray‘) my natural inclination was to relate what I was reading to my own medium. Incidentally, Wilde was writing shortly after the invention of Photography, an event which had its own ramifications on Art at the time. Photography was long considered the ultimate form of realism, leading to the assertion that «the camera never lies», an idea which has since been thoroughly debunked.

In ‘The Photographer’s Eye‘, John Szarkowski outlined how framing (and the inclusion or exclusion of certain objects or elements) or composition, perspective, timing and other elements of photographic practice, a photograph may depict real things before a lens, but that picture is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Nonetheless, the nature of a photograph as a trace of reflected light on a sensitive medium does lend it a high degree of fidelity in its rendering of real life.

It’s entirely possible that Oscar Wilde wrote about his feelings on Photography and I’m simply yet to read them, but certainly at the time, I can’t imagine him being a fan of ‘the bastard child of Science left on the doorstep of Art’. Following painting’s shift towards realism, Photography might well have been the final straw. (All of this could be … Wilde-ly inaccurate conjecture.)

And yet, early Photography, however faithful in its tracing of the lines of life, was fundamentally unlike most human observations of the real world in that it was only possible in Black and White. For all its realism in terms of form and shape, photography showed no colour. Greens, blues and reds all became shades of grey. The skilled Black & White photographer carefully distills the visible information in front of the lens to create the most pleasing image possible solely in terms of black and white tones. This resultant image is much more a reflection of that photographer’s vision and intention than it is a trace of objective reality. The photographer is telling a story, at least, if not an outright lie.

Technology advanced and eventually colour photography became both possible and (later still) the established norm. Indeed, Colour was not immediately accepted in the realm of artistic photography where Colour was considered garish and (how ghastly!) realistic, while Black & White continued to be regarded as the medium of the true artist. To my mind at least (and possibly at most on the basis that nobody else is interested), the parallels with Wilde’s defense of the beautiful over the real, the fantastic lie over the forensic truth.

Elsewhere, in ‘The Critic as Artist‘, Wilde asserts the need for great art, the kind that really means anything, to successfully marry Truth and Beauty. Art must contain, or if not contain then allude to things true and therefore relatable to its audience, but do so in a manner which is elegant, beautiful and delights the senses. To my mind, good photography balances Truth and Beauty – with Black & White containing a little less Truth and, if done well, just as much Beauty.

After reading Wilde’s (far more eloquent) thoughts on Art and ‘The Decay of Lying‘, these were my own as that might apply to Photography. I suppose Black & White came to mind because I had recently finished a series of rolls of Black & White film, and had been trying to attune my eye and my mind to seeing the world as it might look in black and white – not as it really does appear.

Without further ado (about nothing … or at least not a great amount of any substance) here are some of the photographs from those rolls of film. I’ve been sat on these photographs for a couple of months now, along with several rolls of colour film, and I’m still not really sure what to say about them … although apparently I have plenty to say on 19th Century literary criticism by way of preamble so … maybe it balances out? I did choose to use Black & White film, and for the first time in a while, precisely for the challenge of seeing in black and white, and doing something different.

Roll One – Kodak Tri-X

I started and finished this roll in Segorbe but on consecutive weekends, with the intervening weekdays in Valencia evidenced on one or two frames. The first couple of frames I’ll share here are as I tried to focus more on textures in the old town than the faded colours I’ve often photographed before. I finished off the roll wandering around vacant lots, a subject that continues to intrigue me. I’m not convinced that Black & White is the best medium for this subject, but you never know until you try.

Roll Two – Ilford HP5+

I had bought two rolls of Tri-X and two rolls of HP5 to do another test for myself to see which film I prefer. I had shot both films around Christmas/New Year and generally preferred the results I got from Tri-X when working with the flat, overcast light of British winters, but I wanted to give them both a go in the very different conditions of the Spanish summer.

I started this roll the following morning on the drive from Segorbe to Eslida, where I spent the day and went on a couple of walks into the surrounding countryside, and finished the roll off the next evening back in Segorbe as some storm clouds rolled in.

Roll Three – Kodak Tri-X

Switching back to Tri-X to carry on photographing the low sunlight catching the underside of the storm clouds, I ended up with an almost perfect direct comparison of the two films. I duplicated the final frame of the HP5 roll while burning the first frames of the fresh Tri-X. It ended up an imperfect comparison as I still caught a small light leak on the final frame I made of that composition. The Tri-X frame has more contrast and more noticeable grain … big surprise there.

I continued walking around for as long as I had light, and was already heading home when the first drops of rain started to fall. I might have covered more ground, but I spent quite a while waiting for some birds to come and sit on a telephone wire.

The next morning I wandered around again photographing the remnants of the storm clouds, a sign that I find amusing because of an in-joke, and a Pueblo Van.

RollS Four and Five – Ilford HP5+

It was back to HP5 again, and I ended up using another two rolls after the initial two roll shootout with Tri-X because … either I got it from a shop which didn’t have any Tri-X, or I decided to save a couple of euro, I can’t remember … and not that it matters or that anyone cares but I think it’s coming back to me now, and it was the shop because I grabbed a couple of rolls while picking up a new lens. Deciding to save a couple of euro on HP5 over Tri-X makes little sense when I was dropping more than a couple of euro on a lens. In conclusion, more HP5, and as it happens, I think I prefer it to Tri-X for the more naturally contrasty light of Spanish summer, so all’s well that ends well.

I’d started the first of these rolls in and around Altura (whose town slogan is the excellent «conóceme y volverás» or «once you get to know me, you’ll be back») and its historic (but ransacked) monastery. The final two frames in this first set are from Valencia and mark a mid-roll, mid-week pause in proceedings.

During that mid-week pause I treated myself to a new lens. I had been using 50mm almost exclusively for about two years, and while I had been really pleased with a lot of the work I’ve made in that time, I also didn’t want to get too stuck in my ways. A little change of perspective was another new challenge I wanted to give myself, learning to compose and fill a slightly wider frame. I’ll probably write more about this when I have a bit more visual material from further rolls. For now, it’s on to the first roll and a half which were taken in and around Los Cerezos in rural Teruel. Los Cerezos itself has around a hundred registered residents, and the nearby hamlets of Paraíso Bajo and Paraíso Alto are now officially deserted. Paraíso Bajo still attracts a few returning families in summer, but Paraíso Alto has been abandoned since the 1970s. Electricity never reached the settlement, in fact the road that now takes you there was only constructed for forestry purposes after the last residents had packed up and left after a succession of hard winters. They would have left the village as they always had, following the path of the river on foot.

The final roll of HP5 won’t be featured here as I used it to photograph a weekend with friends who are like family, and I’ve shared the photographs with them but don’t need to do so with the world at large … not that the world at large will have sat through all this and made it to this point. If you’re among those who has then what are you doing with your li… I mean, thanks a lot and I hope you enjoyed either the photographs, or the words, or even both.

I have another large batch of photographs I’ve been sat on for months like an expectant bird, and really do intend (though that doesn’t mean it will actually happen) to share them in some way some time soon. Until that happens, thanks again for reading.

4 Comentarios

  1. An interesting essay on O.Wilde Owain. I had fun reading your analysis of his work. I would add this phrase that works well with photography; “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. However, I think documentary photographers might disagree… 🙂
    Lovely series of images. My favourites are the ones of the empty or unfinished buildings and light going through them and the last one is great! Take care Owain, stay safe and sane 🙂

    1. Hello Yuri,

      Thanks, as ever, for commenting. Certainly does work well for Photography, as with any Art, really. I think it even applies to Documentary photography in that there are people who perhaps don’t enjoy looking at documentary work, or some documentary work, whereas there are others of us who find it fascinating. Salgado, for example, is a photographer who many (myself very much included) admire as a documentarian and as an artist. Some people really don’t like his work. For me, many of his photographs are beautiful – even if the subject is difficult, he has made a beautiful photograph. So, I would say your quote still applies there too.

      Look after yourself. I’m still allowed out so my sanity is safe for now!

  2. I really love how you captured these places with the camera. How you connect wilde thoughts and your own experiences had made me think a lot. Thanks for it.

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