Exhibition Review: 'Monochromatic'

Wenjie (Demi) Zhao, Musée Magazine, April 24, 2023

When color takes flight, what remains eternal is black-and-white photography. Black, white, and grey shed light on shape, form, and tone. The essential ingredients of an image are on full display because the distractions fade away. The mood conveyed is unparalleled by any other photography mode. From nostalgia to sadness to yearning, black-and-white photography tells stories that color images cannot. With every shutter click, the photographer sculpts images from the play of light and shadow, crafting visual poetry from an orchestra of grays.

On view from April 29 to June 10, the latest exhibition, Monochromatic, at The Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam, is dedicated to a group show of black-and-white works by 15 international photographers. It casts its monochromatic spell over a world drenched in color and invites us to see beyond the vibrant hues and appreciate the subtleties and nuances that often go unnoticed.


Part 5, 2014 © Eva Stenram / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery


One of the striking images is Christopher Smith’s “Untitled (Cocteau Ceiling).” Smith captures the intricacies of the ceiling design, using the interplay of light and shadow to emphasize the textures and patterns while paying homage to the influential French artist Jean Cocteau. Shot from a low angle, the male figure appears dominant in the central position, casting a shadow that forms a duplicate of himself, echoing with the ceiling drawings and emphasizing the sinuous contours of his body. The photograph, along with Smith’s “Untitled (Hercules)” and “Untitled (Mercury),” serves as a fitting introduction to the exhibition, exemplifying the artistry and mythic touch that can be achieved when color is stripped away.


Merkelbach; Parapluie Hoofd, 2013 © Blommers & Schumm / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery


With the artistic palette reduced to grayscale, we must focus on the fundamentals of photography: form, texture, contrast, and composition. It is in this monochromatic realm that we discover the beauty of simplicity, the power of storytelling, and the allure of mystery. The works exhibited in Monochromatic span a diverse range of themes, from quirky collages to disembodied limbs, from geometric composition to mesmerizing portraits, each piece is a bold statement of black-and-white photography’s reinvigorating force in the twenty-first century.


GHOSTED | Resurrection of a Disappeared Image, 2023 © Boris Eldagsen / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery


Another noteworthy work exhibited is the German artist Boris Eldagsen’s AI-generated photograph, GHOSTED | Resurrection of a Disappeared Image. His artificial co-creation has won the 2023 Sony World Photography Awards, leading to an in-depth discussion based on the controversial topic of AI artworks in the present day. As the artist himself prompts the question: “We, the photo world, need an open discussion about what we want to consider photography and what not. Is the photography umbrella large enough to invite AI images to enter – or would this be a mistake?” The tension achieved by the duplicity of female figures and the tentative hands and gazes elicits an ongoing conversation in photography and artificial intelligence.


The Mesentery, 2018 © Nico Krijno / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery


In this world of Monochromatic, time seems to slow. By presenting a diverse and thoughtfully curated collection of black-and-white photographs, The Ravestijn Gallery highlights the power of this timeless medium and invites viewers to see the world through a different lens. We become time travelers, stepping into a realm where the past, present, and future collide, guided by the photographers’ vision, who whisper secrets and stories through the language of light and shadow.


Figure with Leather Chair and Pearls, 2022 © KYoung / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery


White Chair (Cabin Fever), 2020 © Katie Burnett / courtesy The Ravestijn Gallery