London is many things, light and dark. Perhaps nowhere else in England embodies the intersection between chaotic creation and destruction like this monolithic metropolis, that 8.6 million people call home.
There is something foreboding about London; to feel a little intimidated by ‘The Big Smoke’ is a sign of wisdom. The idea of London as the epicentre of historic dominion and oppression remains. You can very much feel the ghost of the terror and darkness that once inhabited the streets; lasting darkness of the kind immortalised in the poetry of William Blake. And everywhere little reminders lay, like the hopeless inequality which hangs heavy and leaden over this place. I have resisted London, although I cannot deny the cultural weight which is here.
In a city of such enormous contrast and energy, it felt right to take photos in black and white. My close friend William and I packed our bags, and set off into the mass.
The title is not exactly true. This series was shot all through November, December and January. I worked in black and white because I think that, whereas a colour photograph is often real and immersive, a monochrome frame brings out a distinct otherness. It’s still real, but it is more honest that it is a representation of the real. You can be drawn in, but never get too close, as though a sheen has been drawn across reality. December represents the end of the year, but also the end of a lot of other things that are important to me. I see it as perfect that I decided long before, unaware, to use this format. December was some kind of full stop, or maybe an ellipsis.
Sometimes its easy to overlook what’s around you. Maybe you’ve seen the same view, place, object a thousand times.
I find it important to find means to appreciate everything in new ways, and this often requires re-evaluation, a new perspective. Night time can be great for this, and although I have come to know my surroundings quite well, I wanted to do a short walk in town in the night, to search out something different.
Since settling in to my study city of Bath, a few things have changed with regard to my film shooting habits. I have had to adapt to some differences, the core of which is that there are no pro photo labs, and this means no black and white film development. I should mention that in the case of necessity, it is possible to send black and white film to a pro lab elsewhere, but this can take anywhere in the region of two weeks, and cost more, making it impractical. A potential solution is to shoot one of a new breed of C41 colour process black and white films. I tried the 400 speed offering from Kodak.
One of the reasons why I was particularly interested in the way in which the results came out, is because the C41 process is very well established, and has very little variation, particularly in commercial development outlets. So where, with black and white film it is possible to get varying results dependant on how the film was developed, how much it was agitated and so forth, I had a sense that I would get very consistent results with the C41 film.
You can see here and here, that some of the native black and white film I have used before has produced rather contrasty, grainy results. That kind of shot undeniably has its own appeal, and can look great if that is what is desired. The contrast and grain of the images is also dependent, as mentioned before on the way in which the film is developed, but when you are relying on others to make that decision for you, what happens is that you end up taking what you get back. So the notion of a consistent black and white process has an undeniable draw.
In receiving the results back, I saw straight away that my hunch was based in reality. The images were remarkably smooth, and fine grained, particularly for a 400 asa film, and very much less contrasty than one might expect. One thing that I had also heard with regard to this particular Kodak emulsion, is that the images may in fact come out with a slight colouration. The images were still monochrome, and the effect was very subtle, but there nonetheless. I therefore converted them to a black and white colour palette, which eliminated the issue.
The next thing that I wanted to know about the film was what the dynamic range or in film terms, the exposure latitude was like. The exposure latitude of a film is the quantity of detail that can be picked up within the range of the highlights to shadows. At what point does the detail just fade to black in the shadows, or blow out in the highlights? In order to test this, I wanted to subject the film to one of the most high contrast situations possible; night photography. On an ice cold evening I went into the middle of the city, and shot a series of long exposures. I metered using the common idea that you have more leeway with film in over-exposure than under-exposure. I would therefore frequently add an extra 1/2 a second to whatever my meter gave me for the scene. I was pleased with the result, particularly as metering with an unfamiliar film in extremely high contrast situations is difficult to make exact.
Overall my experience of Kodak’s C41 black and white film has been an encouraging one, and I would have no trouble using it again, particularly due to the convenience of the C41 process which allows me to get it developed locally and relatively inexpensively. My feeling is that there can never be any substitute for real black and white films like Tri-X ,HP5 or Neopan, particularly in terms of printing, but I am glad that, even in my current circumstance, a quality black and white option is still available.