Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Joys of Black & White Photography

Firehole, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Wyoming

Photography to the amateur is recreation, to the professional it is work, and hard work too, no matter how pleasurable it may be. —Edward Weston

I’ve been working hard these past few days, making photos and video. I've retraced some of my route from my last road trip, eighteen months ago, visiting the Badlands, Bear Butte, and Devil’s Tower, although I stopped in different places, with different light than last time—which was winter, this time it’s summer, and hotter than blazes all day long, usually in the 90s, well over 100 degrees according to one readout, and I’m a bit sunburned—and took different kinds of photos. I am reviewing them now, and liking several so far. I am also experimenting with converting the best of them to black and white from the color originals.

I was reading Edward Weston: Color Photography before leaving on this trip, and it both inspired me and stimulated my thinking.

The prejudice many photographers have against color photography comes from not thinking of color as form. You can say things with color that can’t be said in black and white. . . . Those who say that color will eventually replace black and white are talking nonsense. The two do not compete with each other. They are different means to different ends. —Edward Weston

Firehole, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Wyoming

Black and white is more artificial than color, in the original sense of the word artifice: rather, B&W allows for more of the photographer’s control and decision. A color photo can be apparently pure reportage; or rather, it is unquestioned in a way that B&W is not. One is reduced to pure tone and form. Some subjects are better suited to color, because there is critical information in the color values. But one reason B&W is still considered—rightly or wrongly—the more artistic medium is because it is more akin to artifice than is the quick color snapshot. The aesthetic prejudice for B&W over color is debatable at this point in time; Weston is correct that neither supplants the other, but at the same time each is valid as an artform. It's no longer accurate to say that B&W is "more artistic" than color. Yet I am drawn to it, as a change from color. I've often worked in monochrome; indeed I have a whole body of work that's monochrome, which I return to from time to time.

You find a few subjects that can be expressed in either color or black-and-white. But you find more that can be said only through one of them. Many I photographed would be meaningless in black-and-white; the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors. —Edward Weston

In the desert Southwest, scene after scene can be monochrome, pure shape and form. But then there are also many wherein color is the whole point. The colors of mountain strata turned on their side make a display as brilliant as it is unforgettable. Painters have achieved this; although one remembers that east coast art critics didn't believe at first that the colors in the canvases Georgia O'Keeffe painted in New Mexico were real. They were accurate in every detail.

Dinosaur National Monument, Utah/Colorado

The artist can adjust tonal gradations in editing and printing black and white. Weston’s exquisite and influential prints were all 8x10 contact prints from the negative. Ansel Adams developed the zone system for B&W printing, and was equally influential in establishing photography as a valid artform. Both of them were masters in the darkroom, which is where the print really came to life, reflecting the artist’s input and intuition. Printing is more like painting than making a negative, perhaps.

When I work with a B&W digital image, the process feels like the darkroom process. Everything I ever learned about tone and shading, dodging and burning, all the technical aspects of producing a good print: these all apply. You look to bring out the tonal areas that need enhancement, and leave those alone that do not. It can be very engrossing. The end result is a B&W image that is as carefully mastered as in the darkroom. What matters is the end result: the finished image.

But anyone who thinks that any photograph, color or B&W, is somehow pure and untouched, has fallen for the myth of photojournalism's honesty. In fact, all photos being with a decision: when to open the camera's shutter. After that, the artist makes many other decisions. A photo is not pure: it is always as worked through as an art object.

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Blogger Dave King said...

One of my greatest joys in my youth was to go for a longish walk, preferably in woods, taking photographs with my exceedingly basic camera and then to take the film along to the local "camera shop" and tell the guy there what colour (there were only monotones available, of course) and what texture paper I wanted. I still have some of those prints. I guess you can still do that, but somehow it's not that easy these days!

3:31 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

All valid points but of the two photos in your post I have to say I prefer to black and white. I get all the arguments for colour but when I was taking photos - this is as far back at the seventies - it was the black and white stuff that always excited me. My colour photographs always felt like snaps, considered snaps, but still snaps. That said I've never been able to get that excited over Ansell Adams and I've always felt a bit guilty for that.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Another reason the desktop publishing revolution works, pro and con, when one can carefully edit and print one's own photos.

Actually, for master prints, I use a service bureau in another city and have them shipped to me. I used to live there, and had an account with them, so I still have them do it, because no one in my small town home now really gets what I want.

The truth is, MOST photos that anyone takes, and that any store receives to print, ARE snaps, and nothing more. Most people think they'[re photographers just because they have a camera, just as most people think they're writers just because they have a blog. The first Weston quote in this piece speaks to that.

It's a matter of working to achieve results of some kind beyond the ordinary and simple and easily-achieved. Weston's right: you have to work hard to make a great photo, one way or another.

You can "practice making photos" for years before something "lucky" happens and you capture a photo "serendipitously." It's like those jazz musicians who become an "overnight success" after having only worked at their musicianship for thirty years. Chance favors the prepared.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

One other personal artistic thought:

I think the continued prejudice that B&W is somehow more artistic than color photography is pretty darn silly at this point, and has been amply shown to be a prejudice and nothing more. In exactly the same way that some galleries are still prejudiced against photography, period, and will show bad paintings rather than good photos by choice. (personal experience speaking here.)

But as an artist I am perfectly capable of playing to the audience's expectations, and perfectly willing to do so—to a point. I'm perfectly happy to give a gallery my monochrome work, and not show them my color work, and shrug about it to myself silently. In fact, I have done so, not that it led to anything. Color OR B&W, other aspects of the art seep through, and I appear to challenge the expectations no matter what I do.

Is this pandering? Perhaps. Is it willingness to prostitute one's art in order achieve making a living at it? Absolutely. It's something artists do all the damn time. Personal preferences aside, it happens to most artists. And I can still do what I want to do, for myself, and sneak it in. Ask any potter about their distinction between their production pieces, and their personal pieces. In fact, there's a terrific book about just this, called "The Mud-Pie Dilemma," by John Nance.

9:45 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, there's some breathtaking B&W photography in this post and the last one. I swear I can't tell the difference between this stuff and Ansel Adams. Marvelous. I can feel your awe for the landscape in these shots. Thanks for sharing it with us.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, John—

Thanks for the kind words. They mean a lot to me. I have always felt that awe for the landscape of the West, ever since I first spent time there my first year in college. I never tire of it.

I've been feeling the spirit of Ansel Adams peering over my shoulder a lot on this trip, especially when I've been in his beloved Sierras. There will be much more of this kind of photo work here soon. Wait till you see the Yosemite photos!

11:47 PM  
Blogger Carmen Forsman said...

Hello Art -
I grew up in Southern Montana and know this country well. Your photographs are beautiful and realy capture the feel and the mystery of the country.

My 86 year old mother grew up in Northern Wyoming (Badger Basin) and wrote a novel based on her childhod there. I am having a small run published (20 copies) for her for Christmas and would love to use one of your photographs for the cover. Would you allow me to use one? What would you charge? The one I am interested in is Firehole, Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area...
Thank you,
Carmen Forsman

12:03 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for your comments, and your interest in my work.

I'm replying in an email, rather than here.

12:13 PM  

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