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.

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