Sunday, February 9, 2014

 "Starship Saguaro"

 I was photographing the Superstition Mountains at sunrise in early January of this year.  The sunrise was absolutely clear.  As I say "with no clouds in the sky for 300 miles in any direction".  A straight up bald sky.  I really enjoyed the backlit Saguaro and the light streaks coming across the desert floor.  What I didn't like was that the sky was completely boring.  As I was looking at the image on my computer monitor I began to wonder,"what would happen if I could show a starfield in the sky above the cactus.

Back in the late fall I had been camped in Northern Arizona.  While there I made some photographs of the night sky, which is amazing when you get out away from the light pollution that afflicts any urban area or even the area around small rural towns.

From that it was a relatively simple process to add the starfield.  The trick is, of course, to hide the fingerprints of the work that was done.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Black and White Advantage

I’m Bullish on Black and White Photography

It’s three a.m. Something by Bach or Mozart is playing softly in the background. An image of “Morning Light on the Towers, Needles District” is slowly appearing on the piece of paper I am gently massaging in a tray of chemicals under the soft amber glow of a safelight. The fan of my enlarger hums softly in the background. In my mind, this is what photography is all about.

Months earlier I had carried my backpack of over fifty pounds into the early morning darkness in search of this and other images. After locating a promising composition I set up my camera, field edited the composition, determined the exposure I thought would yield the best results and exposed the film. From there the piece of film was transported to my darkroom, processed and proofed and now I am in the process of extracting the image I know is hiding inside the negative.

The reward of all this effort is an image on the wall whose highlights softly reflect image detail and whose shadows glow in subtlety. They almost always evoke an emotional response. You can’t simply “take them or leave them”.

Creating and printing great, even good, black and white photography demands a commitment. It is not for the weak of heart or knee or the uncommitted!

Black and White photography is, by nature, a more abstract medium than color. By that I mean that with the element of color removed from the equation, objects and images are reduced to their most basic elements. In order to be successful an image must “work” based on its own merits; the fall and flow of light and the relationship of objects within the scene. By it’s very nature, black and white photography doesn’t, indeed can’t, tell the whole story but often adds a very crucial element absent in many color photographs; emotion.

A primary task in black and white photography is to remove unneeded and unnecessary elements. Black and white photography is a medium unto itself. It should not, as often happens, be an afterthought or a by product of a color photograph that doesn’t quite “get there”. A black and white image shouldn’t be the result of a grayscale conversion of a color image, no matter how sophisticated the technique! It should not be treated as the end result of a second rate color image. If it doesn’t work well in color, it probably won’t work well in black and white either.

True black and white has a much greater capability for self expression than a simple color conversion. The black and white photographic artist must make the commitment to take the time to develop not only the camera skills needed but also the darkroom skills necessary to bring the image to life.

There is a much greater opportunity in black and white for an object to “morph” into a “what is it”, losing all sense of scale proportion. Being reduced to pure form and elements of design enables the art and artist to produce images that are emotionally evocative.

Am I saying that classically produced black and white photographs are superior to color images? Emphatically yes! When a photographic artist goes into the field to produce traditionally processed black and white images, especially when using large format cameras they are, of necessity, more technically oriented and observant than the typical photographer who works in color, especially if the color images are produced in a digital environment. When was the last time you saw an automatic focus, automatic exposure 4x5 camera? Never!

That is not to say that there haven’t been great color photographs and aren't great photographers who work and have worked in color. Eliot Porter and Christopher Burkett come to mind. But honestly, as cameras become more and more sophisticated, and are able to solve more and more complex problems, with no input from the photographer, the art and craft of producing great photographic works is being lost. More and more the pictures being produced are the product of a computer in the camera; not the computer between the ears.

When the Whole World is Digital, Why Still Analog?

I am not anti-technology. Indeed, in my commercial work I do work in a digital environment; and it serves me well. What I also know is that increasingly few of the “photographers” who sell their work are technically and artistically trained. As a result the caliber of photographic work being foisted on the public as photographic art is in decline even while advances in the caliber of our equipment make the tools used better than ever. Paul Strand once remarked, and this is a paraphrase… “Isn’t it interesting that the quality of our tools has increased and the quality of our work has not”?

A good photographer, working very hard, may be able to produce 12 significant works in a year’s time. Quite a departure from current thinking that all I have to do to produce better photographs is to get the latest and the greatest camera body and lens and I’ll automatically get better photographs. Not when the weakest link in the equation is you! I believe that until you really, really know your material, camera and film, and what it will do under varying conditions, any really good photographs you produce are more a product of chance than they are of your creative eye and developed technique.

Each successive iteration of a photograph, that I process in my chemicals, is the result of decisions made about the previous version. An initial print is made, based on my best judgment about that negative. When it is pulled from the fixer it is placed on a sheet of Plexiglas and moved to an area for evaluation. It is examined to determine whether it’s too light, too dark or just right; the initial print seldom is, “just right”. What about the level of contrast? Is there too much or too little? Are there areas of the print that need to have the level of contrast increased or lowered? All of these factors have to be evaluated before a final print is arrived at. Then, once these questions have been answered, and a solution arrived at it is time to produce the final print. Provided I have recorded all the steps correctly, and executed all of them perfectly, perhaps ten or more tries later, the image is arrived at. However, no matter how hard I try to make the perfect photograph it is probably an elusive objective. Mistakes are an unavoidable part of the process. The foibles, and errors and emotions become part of the end photograph. They are an inextricable part of the equation. That is one of the things that separates a hand printed black and white photograph from one that is produced digitally. When you see a photograph hanging on a wall and you see the small errors, maybe a black speck caused by a piece of dust that was inside a film holder, or a small scratch on the image caused by film damage, you can know, at that time, that this is a hand printed photograph. As much as we work to eliminate these things, they will always be there because this photograph was produced at the hands of the artist, not inside a computer and then printed out on a sterile and unfeeling printer.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Nathan McCreery, Landscape Photographer

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Nathan McCreery, a professional landscape photographer based in Clovis, New Mexico. He is well known for creating exquisite photographs of the American West. He is often one of the most popular members on the photography network.

How would you describe your photographic style?

I would describe my photographic style as the “classic landscape”. I have been influenced, very heavily, by the work of Edward Weston, Morley Baer, Philip Hyde, Eliot Porter, Ernst Haas, and of course Ansel Adams. One of my goals, in the photographic realm is to be a master printer.

At one time I wanted to be a master printer both in black and white and color, since I really admire the work of Eliot Porter. Eliot was one of the absolute masters of the dye transfer process, just as Adams was a master of the black and white print. Digital changed all that.

With the advent of digital media, the materials needed to print my own Cibachromes (later changed to Ilfochrome) have become very difficult to obtain. With that change I have completely changed direction in my photographic work and I work very little in color. Almost all of my work is in black and white now, although occasionally I do expose a piece of color film.

How did you first get into photography?

When I was in art school, to be a graphic designer, I was required to take a course in photography. When I saw the first photograph appear, as if by magic, I was instantly hooked. Shortly after that friends learned I had a camera, and sort of knew how to use it, they began asking me to make photographs for them. By the time I graduated from art school I had an established clientele.

Where do you get your creative inspiration from?

The way I usually work is to park my truck at a likely location, strap on my backpack, gather my tripod and go for a walk. I look for patterns and materials that are visually interesting to me. When I find something that catches my attention I then begin the process of seeing how it will fit into a composition. If I find something that will be the main subject of my photograph and then find supporting elements that will reinforce the main material, and they can be built into a composition I will set my tripod, and then get out my camera, attach a lens and begin the process of refining my visual ideas until I arrive at a final solution.

Needless to say this is not a “run and gun” proposition. Everything is very deliberate and disciplined. I have a hard time that Michelangelo got up the day before the work on the Cistine chapel began and said, …”ummmm, I think I’ll paint on the ceiling tomorrow, maybe I ought to figure out some compositions”. While it is true that in photography we must be able to respond spontaneously I also believe that photographic master works are the result of careful planning. It has been said that genius is what happens when careful preparation meets opportunity.

What is typically in your camera bag?

I typically carry a Toyo 45A, a Schneider 47XL, 65mm Grandagon, 90mm Sinaron-S, 150mm Sinaron-S, 210mm Sironar-S and 300mm Rodagon lens. If you will note, all of the lenses, except the 47XL, are made by Rodenstock. I believe them to be the very finest lenses ever made. They are all much sharper than the film I put behind them. There will also be an assortment of filters, such as a yellow, dark orange, red and green, as well as a UV15 and polarizer, several cable releases, lens cleaning tissue and fluid, a flashlight and level as well as some protein bars. My tripod is either a Velbon 530 or 630 with a Linhoff quick release device.

What are you looking forward to purchasing next?

My ideal would be a square digital back for my Hasselblads, but those are at least $10,000.00 so the chances are that won’t happen. Other than that I have hardly any equipment lusts.

Did you have any formal training in photography?

Yes! After my art school teaching I have been fortunate to have been trained by several master photographers. Several were either assistants to Adams or worked in his workshop programs. I have always sought out people that were at the very top in their fields in photography, to train me. It is an amazing thing to me that many times the very finest people in their fields are very accessible to interested beginners who are willing to ask questions and incorporate the principles the masters are teaching. I have been in several workshop settings with some of the worlds most accomplished photographers when an opinionated workshop attendee actually tried to “correct” the master. It is very annoying.

Do you post-process your photos?

Post processing is an interesting term. We used to call it darkroom work, and yes! I do gobs of darkroom work, and computer work. I use the computer to do my color processing now, and the conventional darkroom for my black and white film processing and printing. The only software I use is gray matter, in the darkroom, and Photoshop in the computer.

How do you approach printing? What is your process?

In black and white, the first thing I do after the film has been processed is to make a contact proof of each negative. Typically I then scan each neg. and create a file for that image. Often I will do some preliminary work with the negative on the computer to get a “feel” for the information the negative wants to give me, then go to the darkroom and begin printing. I am very old school. By that I mean that I have a number of techniques I have developed in the darkroom that allow me to arrive at a print that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying to me. Some of these are contrast masking, dodge masking, Potassium ferracyanide reduction and others. I find that most often the negative almost tells me what I should do in printing as long as I follow a very careful regimen. My wife tells me that my personality type changes completely when I am in the darkroom

What has been your favorite photo location?

That’s a difficult question to pin down. Usually it’s wherever it is that I happened to work last. The location I return to most often is the area around Page, Arizona and the mountains above Pagosa Springs and Estes Park, Colorado. My last location to work in is a place I hadn’t been to for 30 years and it’s amazing; Valle Vidal, New Mexico.

There is no substitute for knowledge and good technique. Instead of buying a new lens the photographer would be more well served going to a workshop with an established pro whose work they admire. Be yourself! Don’t look for Ansel’s tripod holes. The only one who can be you is you, and that’s the only thing you’ll ever be really good at. People ask me why I use film and hand print when digital is so much faster. For me, creating art isn’t about speed or convenience. It’s about making in image that is self expressive, which is the essence of art. For me it’s important that my art pieces be personally produced by me. They should have my DNA on them, and as long as the materials are available I’ll keep it that way.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Classic Black and White in the Digital Age

If you are interested in creating classic black and white photographic art with your digital camera you might be interested in this.

Classic Black and White Photography in the
Digital Age

My primary means of artistic expression is black and white photography. Over the years I have worked equal parts black and white as well as color. However with the advent of the digital age I have migrated more and more the direction of black and white as a means of personal expression, since black and white is more often assumed to be hand printed than color. All of my black and white photographs are hand printed. Lately I have been contemplating the state of black and white photography, since I teach workshops and many of the participants now use digital cameras, and wondering what the best method of producing black and white is when the original exposure is digitally produced rather than the more conventional black and white original; film.

There are several ways to produce black and white images from digital files. In my experience all of them have strengths and weaknesses. Without question, the easiest to do is to make a color photograph and then, with the magic of Photoshop turn the file to gray scale, click “save as”, and voila! a black and white photograph has been made. Another methodology that has come to pass in the last few years came to pass with the introduction, by Adobe in their Photoshop program, of the ability to convert to black and white with filters that are built into the program. Before the introduction of CS3 I would separate each of the channels and make my adjustment in them then put them back together and flatten the image if I needed to make a black and white image from a digital file and the output quality was more critical than normal usage such a black and white of an executive portrait for publication. (Bear in mind that my usual practice was to use an additional role of black and white film, as well as the normal color, if the agency told be ahead of time that they would need both black and white and color.) Undoubtedly there are other methodologies that involve using “levels”, “curves” and other Photoshop tools to produce what may be very respectable images. Also, there are several “plug-ins” that purport to do a good job as well. All of these methods work, and are acceptable under certain circumstances. However, my experience with digital files that were converted from color to black and white is that as the image size increased the image quality fell off, sometimes at an alarming rate. While I could easily produce a 30x40 from an original digital file, I began seeing “static” at 16x20 in B&W, especially when the red filter in Photoshop is used. If I have a file, or a negative, and it won’t produce at least a 16x20 that is virtually grain free, that image is pretty much useless to me. I am aware that some folks say they have solved that problem however my strong suspicion is that while the image does look good on the monitor it won’t produce a 16x20, or larger print with an acceptable grain pattern. I only can report what my results have been.

I began wondering if there might be a better method of producing gallery quality black and whites using a digital camera. My next thought was, if I were using black and white film, in a 35 mm camera how would I tonal range contrast? The obvious answer was to use normal filters designed for use in black and white photography. Accordingly I gathered up my black and white filters, a #25 red, #21 Dark orange, #58 green and a #8 light yellow. These are my most commonly used filters when I am using black and white film. The natural question in my mind was, “would the digital sensor respond to the use of these filters approximately the same way as black and white film does? How would the camera’s sensor respond to the very strong color balance of the filters? To my knowledge no one had done this experiment before. In the test, all of the photographs were exposed at an ASA of 100 at 12 mega-pixels in camera RAW. The photographs were imported into Light Room and adjustments were made on each image to bring the mid tone values as close to each other as possible. The images were then opened in Photoshop where the photographs were converted to grayscale and final adjustments made to bring crisp detail in the highlights and have open, luminous shadows.

What I was interested in seeing was how the tones of the image, which are in color, would respond to the introduction of strong color filtration. The photographs are of a locust tree that I drive past everyday. Bear in mind that my concern here wasn’t to produce a salon quality black and white photograph of the tree but to gather information on the effectiveness of black and white filters in digital photography.

As you will note there are differences between the results that were produced using the different filters. Some are very subtle, some are more apparent. As you look at the images pay careful attention to the leaves that are yellow in the color image, and their relationship to the green leaves that haven’t yet changed.

Now to the big advantage. As I looked at the images produced using filters, on my monitor, there was no apparent increase in granularity as the photographs increased in size from any of the filters. When I used Photoshop to convert the color image in the test there was a huge increase in granularity as the size of the photograph increased, particularly when using the red Photoshop filter. Additionally, when using the red Photoshop filter, I saw a noticeable break down in the gradation of tones in areas of smooth tonality such as the sky.

My conclusion is this. If your intent is to make gallery quality black and white photographs in black and white, using a digital camera, the best method for you may be to get out the old black and white filters and use them just as we did before there was digital.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Spruce Trees and Albion Basin

Albion Basin is a beautiful little area in the mountains just above Snowbird, Utah! I was just in Utah! for a few days. This area is exquisite.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Twin Peaks Cornice and Pipline Bowl, Wasatch Mountains

This is an amazing area, but then I'm always blown away with the magnificence of nature. We were on the top of this saddle that sits between two ridges, Sugarloaf (aka Mt. Baldy, every mountain range has a Mt. Baldy)on the east and Twin Peaks on the west. Elevation was 11,000 ft. My flatland and desert heart was at 105 resting, but you gotta love the altitude!

Spring Runoff, Little Cottonwood Creek

The area had just had huge rains. That along with spring runoff from the heavy winter snow made all of the streams into booming tumults.