Obsessions with Black & White

An interview with Max Dupain, Photographer by Mark Roeder for Graphics Magazine

It’s difficult for the generations brought up in the Internet age, with its kaleidoscopic landscape of colours and digital imagery, to appreciate the subtleties of black & white photography. Our eyes have become are ‘trained’ to believe that colour shots are more realistic, more interesting, more complete.  They mirror reality more accurately.  Whereas there is often ’a stigma attached to black & white – it’s old-fashioned, obsolete – like one of those shaky old films from the 1920s.  It doesn’t give you the whole picture.  Why else would those clever technicians in Hollywood be ‘colourising’ all the old black & white films.  Surely they’re going to improve them?  Well, aren’t they?

Unknown-4Max Dupain, septuagenarian photographer, sheds some welcome light on the debate – a debate which is only just hotting up.  He has very strong feelings about black & white, and doesn’t pull many punches when expressing his viewpoint.

When Max Dupain talks about his work, he doesn’t pull many punches.  He has definite views on what makes a good or bad photograph, especially when it concerns his two pet subjects – Black & White photography and architectural photography.

“You might say I have an obsession with Black & White,” he explains enthusiastically, “Only Black & White gives you the control to interpret your subject.  Interpretation is the key.  Colours just can’t give you that… for example, I would say that nine out of ten colour shots you see around could have been taken by just about any photographer.”

Although Dupain does not rule out colour completely, and stresses that it is “extremely important as an illustrative tool,” his strong preference for Black & White has evolved over a long lifetime of experience.  For Max Dupain has been around a lot longer than most photographers – ever since his uncle gave him his first camera, a ‘Box Brownie,’ in 1924.  So unlike the more recent arrivals on the scene, Dupain has snapped his way through wars and a great depression, a fast changing Australia, and the technological revolutions which have dramatically affected the technology of photography itself.

Witnessing all this, it could be said that Dupain has absorbed a sense of history about his craft.  He has had more time to think, to reflect and put his ideas about his art into words.  Add to this his wide knowledge and appreciation of other artforms including music, painting, sculpture, literature and in particular architecture, and it’s not hard to understand why Dupain qualifies as one of Australia’s leading photographic critics, and has been writing for the Sydney Morning Herald in that capacity for the last 6 years.

Back to the question of colour.

Dupain thinks the problem stems from the fact that even today, the technology for colour film is not up to scratch… not advanced enough to allow the all important ‘interpretative’ quality to come into the work.

“There’s simply too much ‘goo’ in most colour shots,” he says, “and there’s not much you can do about it.  But with your Black & Whites, you can keep changing the effect, keep interpreting, right through into the printing stage where you can control contrast, tone, light, shade and so on… with colour you just can’t do that, it goes through the chemical baths and that’s virtually it!  Mind you, as I mentioned earlier, colour is important for certain work, and I do lots of it because that’s what my clients want… and it is a business after all.”

These days, nearly 90% of Max Dupain’s clients are involved in the architectural field, which means Dupain spends much of his time photographing buildings.  Among his list of clients is world renowned architect Harry Seidler (also a long-time friend of Dupain’s), whose designs include the Australian Embassy in Paris, Australia Square and numerous others.

“Seidler is a very strong personality,” says Dupain, “When you work with him you have to go in there and see what he sees… then you interpret and give substance to that vision.”

Dupain presses the point that to work successfully in the highly specialised field of architectural photography, one must have both an understanding and appreciation of architecture, the materials it uses, and the structural requirements.

“Otherwise, the photographer who just goes out there and shoots a building is just wasting time.  You must be able to see all that the architect sees.  It’s partly an intuitive thing I suppose, but it’s the only way you can communicate the essential elements.”

What about people in his shots?

“I always use people wherever I can,” he says.  Not only do they give a sense of scale to a building shot, but they add the all important ingredient… humanity.  And humanity for me is what it’s all about…”

At this point, Dupain breaks off his discussion about architecture for a moment, and dwells on the subject of ‘humanity’ a little longer.

“Look… in photography there are basically two points of view, the ‘detached’ point of view, and the ‘involved’ point of view.  With ‘detached’ photography the technique is everything, there is no emotional response, and that’s not for me.  I’m into being involved with my subject, to express the emotion, the feeling and humanity – especially my humanity, through my photographs.  That’s all important.  Which brings me again back to Black & White.  It gives you much more freedom and flexibility to express humanity and the deeper responses…”

Dupain has often said that in photography, as in other arts, “the subject matter comes to you, you don’t go to it,” in a similar way that a theme comes to a composer… spontaneously.

“You may be walking through the bush, a street, a park or driving to work, and an inner voice will call out to you and behold, there it is.  Although I shoot extemporaneously a lot of the time, I prefer to have half a dozen shots in my mind.  Probably I have seen them many times under different conditions and have been thinking about them.  The moment will come when I shall go to them and make the photographs… then something goes bang inside and it’s all over.  I’m sorry I can’t give you a formula for this one; but I stress two things, simplicity and directness.”

Dupain further explains that the subject must be reduced to elementary or even symbolic terms, by a ‘devious’ selection of viewpoint, by lighting, by after-treatment and so on.

“I do not always print the negative.  This practice has become a bit of a fetish… but the result is all that matters!”

On a broader note, Dupain says that “working as a professional photographer in insular Australia has been my self chosen lot.  In such a ‘cultural backwater’, as Normal Lindsay expressed it, mental stimulation is anything by overplus, especially the further one moves into the rural regions.  So one is thrown up against one’s inner resources, and visual excitement comes from over there by proxy in picture books and printed text; music, poetry, painting and sculpture provide the vital ingredients for soul food in the local scene.  Direct influential impact is at half strength capacity.  I think this is a good thing if one has the courage and endurance to sustain and promote his individuality by sheer brute assertion of belief in himself.”

As for the future, at 75 years of age, Max Dupain shows little signs of slowing down.  From his largish studio in the Sydney suburb of Artarmon, Dupain and his two associates work a full week, and are in heavy demand.

Most recently, Dupain’s photographs for the new ‘Denison’ building in North Sydney featured in a series of huge double page spreads in major metropolitan newspapers.

“This was really a straight advertising job,” he explains, “quite a clever idea… certainly an unusual way to sell office space.  It will be interesting to see how effective they are.”

On top of all this, and despite the fact that Dupain complains there are “never enough hours in a day,” he still manages time to prepare for an upcoming retrospective of his work to be exhibited at the Australian Centre of Photography.

“This one I’ve titled ‘ALL PASSION SPENT BAR LOVE’,” he says smiling, “It means… no I won’t tell you what it means, you must interpret that one for yourself.”

Will they be all Black & White photographs?

“Of course!”

*Graphics Magazine was published by Max Fulcher and Hartland & Hyde (publisher of Vogue magazine), during the 1980s and 90s to showcase the world of design, arts and culture.