Munem Wasif, born in 1983, happens to be one of these individuals whose work is set strictly in stark black and white. Having grown up in the small town of Comilla, Munem Wasif's dream kept changing from becoming a pilot to a cricketer and then to a photographer. He obtained his diploma in photography from Pathshala, which was for him a life changing experience.
Wasif's photography investigates complex social and political issues with a traditional, humanistic language, by getting close to the people, physically and psychologically, dealing with multiple questions and contradictions. His photo - A man prepares fish for cooking at Beauty Boarding in Old Dhaka during 2011, was one of the top fourteen choices in 2014 in LenseCulture Magazine.
Star Lifestyle this time presents his take on black and white photography and its presence and impact in the modern context. The interview was taken by Sanumkia Siddiqui.
WHY IS B&W PHOTOGRAPHY SO APPEALING? IS IT ONLY THE FEEL- GOOD FACTOR OR IS THERE MORE TO IT?
There are different reasons. For me, living in Bangladesh, it is too colourful, so I think it creates chaos. A lot of colours are a distraction to the focus. We don't know what to look at when there is a chaos of colours. When we look at black and white photography, it automatically excludes all the shades of colour and we basically see a gradation of black to white. So, it automatically helps you concentrate.
Black and white photography also has a relationship with nostalgia and memory and history and we have grown up with black and white imagery whether it was old classic films or even family archives—forging relationships with our past and family. I think people have a psychological attachment to the past. It always feels like there is a connection with the past in a black and white photograph.
COLOUR IS REALITY AND B&W IS NOT, CAN YOU THROW SOME LIGHT ON IT?
It depends on the perspective. Just because you excuse the colors from black and white, it does not make a capture unrealistic. But it is true that we see the world in colour and black and white refers to the past. Within colour photography, there are many kinds of post-production that makes it unrealistic too. Natural colours can be boosted to make a landscape picture look unrealistic, so there are manipulative measures that can be made with both colour and black and white photography. The idea of reality is complicated because there are a lot of things we can and cannot capture in a picture. There are a lot of ideas and feelings that are immaterial, for example, you can't capture smells. There is a lot to do with the sense of memory that is irrespective to taking a picture in colour or black and white. It also depends on the author who is making or constructing the photograph. The viewer decides whether it is realistic, unrealistic or surrealistic. There is a saying that a photo speaks a thousand words, and a lot of times a picture can talk about silence rather than a thousand words. Whenever we frame a picture by excluding or including things, you wouldn't even know the hidden objects in the background and foreground – which is in the reality of the set, but not the frame. So black and white and colour photography has little to do with realistic and unrealistic, but it is true that we see in colour.
Black and white is a special version of looking at things, where you exclude the colour as an artist. Now that we are in the era of mobile photography, a lot of stories capture the most raw and candid moments that you can say that it is almost brutal. When you take a picture like that with the professional camera, a true event that should incite awareness or fear can turn out to be art, which may not be the intention. Black and white or colour-- it is all about perspective.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TONES OF B&W? THE 0 TO 9 ZONE? CAN IT BE EXPLAINED FOR LAYMAN TO UNDERSTAND?
Ansel Adams, was a landscape photographer in the 80s. He developed a very special method of printing. It is a particular way of explaining the shades between black and white where zone 0 is pure black and zone x is pure white. And in between there are 8 other zones that talk about the tonality of nature, so when you are printing a black and white photo, you have an idea that there are in between black and white zones and point out the details. It is not just that there is black white and grey, but there are sub zones in-between these basic and obvious colours in a black and white picture. Ansel Adams did something very specific, he explained each black and white zone with his reference to nature, as he specialized in landscapes. He basically put colour terms and comparisons to shades of black and white and grey. There are different tones and undertones in black and white photography, and Ansel Adams put a grid with names to it.
It's about all the subtle differences in between.
WHAT IS SEPIA AND WHY DO WE THINK IT TO BE B&W?
Sepia is just a tone in pure black and white. It is basically just a particular colour palette in a black and white picture. It is just one toned and usually when a print gets old, the color fades out and looks like sepia. Tones come in either warmish or bluish tone. Sepia is a warm tone filter. A black and white picture can also turn sepia if it isn't cared for properly. Many may mistake a gold toned photo enhanced in the printing methods of the older days for sepia. People think its sepia, but it's actually printed deliberately in a gold tone.
WITH B&W, PHOTOGRAPHERS CAN EASILY GRAB THE ATTENTION OF PEOPLE, THUS THEY FEEL SAFE TO WORK IN B&W ONLY- IS IT TRUE OR IS IT DIFFICULT TO WORK WITH COLOUR?
It varies. I think it takes a lot of time to create and to have an authority on anything in all forms of art, whether it is photography or music or even painting. Black and white can seem easy initially. Excluding colour looks immediately nice and artistic, but it takes ages to achieve maturity in the art form and to reach a special point where your art is valued as you know how to give life to black and white photography. When the natural set is filled with beautiful colours, but your job is to make it into a black and white picture that would elicit the same kind of excitement and not make it dull, you really need to know how to work with light and shade. In black and white photography, working with light and shades is a different game. That's how I create depth.
WHY DO YOU LIKE BLACK AND WHITE SO MUCH?
Black and white is engraved in our history. It came innate for me. There is some kind of magic in black and white photography that I didn't find in colour. When I look at anything in colour, I immediately imagine what shade of black, white and grey would red, green and blue, and yellow turn into. If possible, I would like to see the world in black and white and colour simultaneously. I was always drawn towards black and white photography in terms of capturing humanity, and capturing emotions and faces. In black and white, I found more voice for people as colours were distracting for me. For example, when you go to a place with beautiful colours and landscape or you are at a colourful festival, but you want to capture emotions in faces, then black and white is effective because it helps me focus on the psychological and emotional space in a photograph. And I achieve that by strictly focusing on the face in black and white.
Black and white leads you to a very different kind of psychological space all together. You'll find a sense of simplicity, honesty, purity and relief in even the most chaotic frames.
Photo: Munem Wasif