Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Art of Architectural Photography: The Ephermeral Permanence of Sepia Photography

Sepia photography has an ephemeral permanence much like watercolor but different.  All in all, that is two oxymorons in one thought; however, there is a fleeting quality about sepia photography just as there is about watercolor.  And though the mediums are quite different, works executed in both watercolor and sepia photography have endured for years.  The sometimes "dreamy," for lack of a better word, quality of sepia connotes a more subtle aspect of time than, let's say black and white photography, whose tonalities appear more definite, more demanding on the eye. Black and white photographs often chronicle time and space, while sepia seems to spread out in more amorphous ways. Whether crisp or soft, black and white has a definite approach to a subject, while sepia appears to be considering the options.  By that I mean a black and white photograph reveals its intentions and sepia requires more examination of its subtly layered tonalities.  That is not to imply that a black and white photograph deserves but a "quick" study.  Not true by any means.  Man Ray's photographs, for example, are ever fascinating and inspiring for me.  I uncover his thoughts through his black and whites and go deeper into the imagination of an artist's creativity that is extraordinary.  And yet, the image is there: fixed.  Even the slightly earlier black and white photography of, let's say Steichen has a "this is it" quality, whether it be foggy NYC or a heavily shadowed portrait.

On the other hand, Atget's sepia street scenes of Paris seem fleeting.  The umber/ochre and sometimes madder colored pigments of sepia photography appear less permanent or tangible than would black/gray/white tones.  The soft, often yellowish lights of sepia are hazier, more downy than even the most luminescent of diffused whites. Many of the very early photographs are sepia-toned.  These seem vintage.  Their "yellowed" coloration from a distinctly different age, while the very early black and whites might be current.  A little more "noise," different clothes and hair styles, antiquated vehicles, but I have an ability to picture myself in the black and whites of C. R. Savage, which feel more substantial in their concreteness than his sepia images.  In all, sepia is also timeless, but its seemingly malleability to accommodate an enormous spectrum of yellow-brown tones is far lass discernible than the equally or even greater abundance of grays between the darkest blacks and most radiant whites.  Sepia is a monochrome like black and white, but its ephemeral qualities create an added component of pigmentation that gives sepia photography its distinctive uniqueness.  

Here are three examples of monochromatic photography, taken in India and remastered in my studio.  The first is a black and white photograph.  The second a type of "negative" effect of the first black and white architectural photograph.  The third is the same image translated into sepia.  The place is Mumbai, India and through the waves of heat, rising out of tropical vegetation are the spires and arches of Mumbai's architecturally elegant University.

Black and White Photography: Mumbai University, India

Black and White "Negative" Photography : Mumbai University, India

Sepia Photography: Mumbai University, India


  1. Very insightful article. As I mentioned elsewhere, the sepia version is perfectly beautiful. Makes me want to experiment with sepia myself.

    1. Thank you so much, Tom. Deeply appreciated! I began to experiment with sepia some years ago and found the juxtaposition of the softer tones of sepia with the architecture I photograph gave me interesting opportunities to develop my images. I do love black and white, but that medium can effectively point up the solid rigidity of architecture. On the other hand, sepia allows me to give some of the hard lines of architecture a more "painterly" look. Thanks again!