Silver Screen

Text by John-Michael O’Sullivan

Photo - Man Ray 1930
Photo - Man Ray 1930

When I was little, my grandmother died, and my family spent the afternoon of the funeral in her bungalow sorting out drawers overflowing with a lifetime of personal effects.

Beneath the layers of housecoats and pill bottles were piles and piles of tiny grey photographs. Pictures of my Dad as a gangly teenager, slim and angular as a Dior model: fuzzy sepia images of a forgotten branch of the family who’d moved to America, and sent back pictures of a life spent lounging on wisteria-clad verandas and bathing in sun-sparkled water: and images that told the story of a very different Kathleen Driscoll from the one I knew - feisty, playful, and proud. Staring defiantly into the camera lens, this was the young wife who smuggled her teenage sisters-in-law out to dances, who defied the local priests when her 12-year old daughter was tempted to join the nuns, who wore flirty hats and flapper dresses, who had the latest bob and wore slender, sparkling teardrop earrings.

It was my first glimpse of the magic of monochrome: we grew up in a world of day-glo TV cartoons and radioactively-bright fizzy drinks, where my Dad’s bulky Kodak box camera recorded every freckle and 70’s fashion crime in glowing, saturated technicolor, and pictures always looked EXACTLY like real life. In greyscale, though, everything changed - light shimmered, shadows intensified, lines softened, skin glowed.

Throughout the 20th century our most iconic images have been recorded in black and white - from Dorothea Lange’s haunting images of Depression Era immigrants to the shocking reportage of 20th century warfare, where rivers of blood turned into a murky black oil-slick.

And it’s the medium through which some of the greatest fashion images of all time have been created - think Man Ray’s sensual Surrealist metallized prints, Richard Avedon’s 50’s shot of Dovima caressing tethered elephants, Helmut Newton’s glossy fetishism or Robert Mapplethorpe’s boldly sexual bodies and still-lives. By understanding the power of abandoning colour, artists like these forged an understanding of the power the black and white image has to transform reality, to make it something utterly unlike what the human eye sees in real life.

Though the Athena-poster years led to monochrome overkill, as a million bedroom walls sprouted moody shots of Parisian lovers and topless dads, the pendulum seems to be swinging back again. Hedi Slimane’s post-Dior years have seen him produce some incredible photography in intense greys, while webzine Mykromag - shot exclusively in black and white - feels like the standard-bearer for the return of a purer aesthetic.

But it’s a picture of my grandmother the day after her wedding that I’ll always remember most, striking a pose on a windswept beach in the fur cape and heels that would have no place in the daily life of an Irish farmer’s wife. A movie star for a moment: another time, another place . . .

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