The Fallow Field

Vineyard & Garden at Monticello, VA

These days, more so than ever, you have to choose to go monochrome with an image. It’s not—as it once was, of course—the default.

I kept returning to this image of the vineyard and garden at Monticello, and for some time I wasn’t clear why. As you can see here, the original version faithfully shows the intense green of the trees and fields, the classic blue tinge of the distant hills, and gives a good representation of the sun-blasted summer sky. It’s a perfectly acceptable rendering of what I saw at the time.

Monticello Landscape

To my eye, though, the most important things in this image are the negative or empty elements, like the curve of the sky and—most of all—the uncultivated field that slices diagonally up through the image from the lower left. That open expanse speaks to me of the slaves that went unrecorded except in a property ledger. It evokes the distance of history and the limits of our ability to understand and recreate a bygone time. The open gate at the bottom of the field brings to mind all the actors of Jefferson’s time who are now long-since off stage, their roles fulfilled and mostly forgotten. They have escaped into the past, and despite our best intellectual and imaginative efforts they are beyond our reach. The absence of people in this picture is as essential as its contained geometry (railing, fence, stone wall, grapevines).

I don’t think any of those features is as well-delineated in color as in black-and-white.

I want the viewer to feel that absence and distance. I don’t want you to have the sense you are standing there, seeing what I saw in the present day. That there are no obvious signs of modernity, other perhaps than the closely mown grass,makes it even easier to move into the less immediate black-and-white.

I’ve written before that monochrome images give a misleading picture of the past (The Past Was Not in Black & White). Nor am I hoping to create an aura of nostalgia or false historicity. But I do want that separation from the present, a degree of abstraction, an element of estrangement. I ask only for a millisecond of aesthetic dislocation so that the question can arise: “What am I (not) seeing here?”

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