B&W Images and Cloying Sentimentality

I was recently discussing the virtues of B&W photography (and the use of grain in the image). The question posed was how well the images shown below would work if they had been shot in fine grain Kodachrome 100 rather than the high speed B&W stock used.  

 'Shell Shocked Marine'; Don McCullen

'Shell Shocked Marine'; Don McCullen

I thought it an interesting question. My experience thus far is that in general if a picture works well in B&W, it is also likely to work well in colour even if the colour version doesn't work as well as the B&W version.

But I’m not sure that the reverse is not true; it's much harder to get an image to work well in B&W than colour and a good colour picture can lose all its value and impact converted to B&W. I think this is mostly because B&W is reductionist in its information and you therefore place much more emphasis on the balance between light and dark as being what makes the image work. You really have to be skilful with the light and that's probably the hardest part to get right, either because it's completely beyond your control or where it is in your control, it's actually really hard to do.

 Landscape; Don McCullen

Landscape; Don McCullen

I've also noticed (and been guilty of myself) a trend towards people converting otherwise dull or boring images into B&W and adding some effects and grain to try and give the image impact and grit. B&W tends to have the effect of sharpening the image but neither this nor the 'gritty' look are anything other than superficial.

The McCullen shot of the Marine with thousand yard stare would, I think, work extremely well on fine grain Kodachrome 100 (assuming there'd been enough light to shoot it). I think the muted camo green combined with the dirt and grime of war would have given a very powerful palette and conveyed a greater sense of being there. I'm not actually sure that it being B&W adds very much since the image's strength is not on the interplay between light and dark, it's on the impact of the moment of human experience and the vacancy in the soldier’s eyes (it was taken after the batter of Hue, aka the Citadel where I think McCullen was also wounded).

The landscape shot though is quite different and I think only works in B&W (where obviously there is no colour version to compare it to but one can imagine). It also works best with the course grain high speed film used. The image works on a number of levels but the interplay between light and dark; the shimmering of the wet road leading into the horizon, set against the dark ground and the light of late winter sky is perfect. It's just the kind of landscape I love. Interestingly I think the landscapes that McCullen's been doing in his later years are perhaps among his best work. I love how the sum of his experiences are being distilled into the images and reflected back. I've read interviews and watched the brilliant documentary about him and it's very apparent that he does not want to be remembered as a war photographer. Landscapes as a genre have developed into something of an over romanticised subject lately, a fact underscored by the dominance and popularity of colour landscapes and the cloying sentimentality of over processed HDR images or even just well balanced images made using graduated filters. Personally I much prefer there to be ‘too much’ shadow on the lands in order to preserve the clouds in the sky (where by too much I simply mean more than might otherwise be considered perfect).