Pictures from an exhibition

Why deny yourself the latest kit when striving to take photographs that will impress the public? Stephen McClarence meets a group with black and white answers.

So, I ask the men round the table, what sort of photographs do they like to take? Still-life studies of flowers in various stages of decay, says Bob Mawer. Portraits of “gentlemen of the road” says Barry Oddie. Pictures with a pinhole camera, says Ken Bradbury, with exposures of up to four hours. Never let it be said that the Yorkshire Monochrome Group go for the easy options of pretty countryside and cute pets.

The YMG is a group of 50 or so photographers from all over Yorkshire and the North who meet once a month to discuss their work and listen to guest speakers. It could sound like any photographic club, but the clue is in the word “monochrome”.

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Most of the time, they work in black-and-white, an endangered, mildly Luddite, medium now confined mostly to posh adverts and Sunday supplement features on how grim and gritty life in the North can be. So why black-and-white?

“Black-and-white is a step away from reality,” says Andrew Rothery from Halifax. “It stops colour getting in the way. And if you think of the most famous photographs, most will probably be in black-and-white.”

Tony Elliott, from Wombwell near Barnsley, mentions the celebrated shot by the great Picture Post photographer Bert Hardy of two young women perched on the railings along Blackpool prom, skirts billowing in the wind.

Funny you should mention that, I say. Years ago, I was looking at it at an exhibition at the National Museum of Photography (as was) in Bradford, when this Cockney geezer ambled up. “Know how that was taken, son?” he said. “I was in Blackpool and walking on the prom...”

I said: “You’re not Bert Hardy, are you?” He said he was, and as I tell the story to the five Monochrome men, their eyes open wide with awe. They are talking to a man who once talked to Bert Hardy. It’s a semi-religious moment.

We’re in Ken Bradbury’s dining room, wutheringly high and windy at Outlane, near Huddersfield. In front of us on the table are four-dozen or so mounted prints which will go on show today at the Smith Art Gallery in Brighouse in the YMG’s latest exhibition.

Under the title Here in the North, they cover a wide range of Northern life, with plenty of atmospheric landscapes and architectural studies – Brimham Rocks, Scarborough beach, Saltaire, The Deep at Hull – and a fascination for the Goths’ weekends at Whitby (more black than white).

The exhibition’s selection process is pretty no-nonsense – “If it’s rubbish, it won’t get in,” says Bob, from Halifax – and the overall impression is of more interesting tones and textures than colour photography often achieves. “When I first started in photography, I went to a night class and got hooked on black-and-white because you had total control,” he says. “Whereas with colour photography, you haven’t got that control. It’s a process.”

Almost all the YMG’s members have gone digital, the photo-revolution that has caused a huge decline in the demand for roll films, prompting Kodak to file for bankruptcy earlier this year. Camera clubs, on the other hand, have seen a huge increase in membership, says Ken, because younger people find digital photography accessible. More by accident than design, however, four of the five photographers here still prefer the pre-digital world of films and printing paper.

It’s the world of darkrooms, your own little world, a romantic world glowing with yellow or orange safety lights, stinking of chemicals, stacked with boxes of printing paper labelled “White Fine Lustre Double Weight”. It can entrap you for hours – I know this myself – in the quest for the perfect print, instinctively dodging (holding back light over particular areas) and burning in, watching the image gradually, magically, emerge as you rock the developing tray and the tide of chemical washes over the paper. And before that, there’s the thrill of unspooling a newly-developed film and holding it up to the light for the first time to see what you’ve got.

The five of them get very lyrical about all this. Barry, from Thurnscoe, near Doncaster, talks of “working with your hands, crafting a print”, creating an image in a way that digital photography doesn’t allow. “You’re doing something from start to finish,” says Andrew. “It’s like building a cupboard instead of just going to MFI for one.”

Digital, most agree, means photography is no longer about waiting for the perfect moment to take a picture, a useful discipline. “Now it’s a machine-like approach,” says Andrew. “People bang away and hope there’ll be something that will be good.”

Oh, the drawbacks of digital. What excitement is there in sifting through dozens of images on the camera screen and deleting the dross? What satisfaction is there in digitally “improving” pictures, reducing models’ waists and smoothing out their wrinkles?

And there’s danger in digital’s abstractness. Usually, there are no prints. Once people would keep their family snaps in a box and bring them out to hand round. “Now a lot don’t even take them out of the camera,” says Bob. What a potential loss to family and social history, the Monochromers say. And, in any case, no-one really knows whether digital images will survive indefinitely.

The most extreme, most unrepentant, Luddite here is Ken Bradbury with his pinhole camera. It’s basically a box with a small hole (no lens) and a sheet of light-sensitive paper. Minimum exposure is six seconds, with a massive depth of field (range of focus) from inches to miles. “It’s incredibly low-tech and enormous fun,” he says.

We talk about the group’s preference for viewfinders rather than viewing panels, and about their regular exhibitions at half a dozen venues around South and West Yorkshire. And we all shake hands and get ready to go home.

But first we stop off in Ken’s darkroom, with its lines of prints hanging up to dry like washing and its unemptied measuring jugs of chemicals. “What a darkroom!” says one. “Look at that enlarger!” says another. They’re in their element, lads as happy as Larry. A final thought. With their preference for the old ways, are they post-digital dinosaurs? There’s a triumphant shout: “Yes!”

Exhibition at Smith Art Gallery, Halifax Road, Brighouse (01422 288065) until April 14. Open daily except Wednesday and Sunday. Admission free.

Yorkshire Monochrome Group: