Saturday, October 18, 2008

Edward Weston on Color Photography

I continue to feel the need to come to grips with those photographers of that great generation 100 years ago: the photographers who made it into an artform. Photography began its existence as a scientific and experimental tool, became used for journalism and reportage, and as a hobby for amateur snapshot takers, and only then did it become accepted an artform. it was of course also used as a reference for painters, and it influenced their work; but it was still considered to be of the nature of a sketch rather than a finished artwork. Remarkably, photography is still controversial, as to whether or not some people will admit it's art or not; still set up as a "lesser" art in contrast to painting; still controversial a century after that great generation of photographers made it into art: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Minor White, and their many peers and friends. They fought the battles I find myself still fighting, for recognition of photography as something other than a hobby or photojournalism.

The work these early photographers did is a legacy that I must now deal with, and that I have been delving into more and more deeply of late.

This is largely because I find myself continuing to turn towards more purely "art photography," what Ansel Adams called creative photography as opposed to commercial photography. Purely art photography is about the image, but also about what the artist feels when making the image, and hopefully this is conveyed to the viewer. Black & white photography allows for more manipulation. It is more inherently artificial an artform. Those early photographers all believed that making a print was itself an artistic process, that the negative was the place where the art started, not where it ended. They used various techniques and crafts to emphasize elements of the print to bring out the spirit of the image, to be more expressive of a personal vision.

I am confronting all this, some of it for the first time with intent rather than by accident, as I find myself more and more drawn towards black & white photography as, to me, a new medium for personal artistic expression. of course it's not at all a new medium. I have in the family archives one or two B&W photos I took as early as age 5, with my father's camera, while we were still in India. But my turning towards it now, after many years of being a photographer, is something new. I feel at last as those I have something to contribute.

i've never actually been interested in photojournalism. I've done it, and fairly well, during those years I was a music journalist who both wrote reviews and took concert photos. I respect the accomplishments of the many great photographers who worked for Life Magazine, or for the WPA during the Depression, documenting life as it happened in those times. I admire some of these photographers as human beings and as artists.

Nonetheless I find it irritating that non-photographers always assume, when they discover what I do, ask me if I do weddings. The truth is: I would do wedding photos for a close friend, if asked. But I have no interest in it as a business. It would frankly be a time-eating distraction. The general public still has rather non-creative ideas about what photography is, and what it can express. Reading Weston, Adams, White and others on the topic of creativity is revealing. Their arguments for photography's expressive potentials are still not general public knowledge, understood or accepted. Most people still think of photography as snapshots of vacations, important moments in one's life, and mementoes of moments with family and friends. It is all of those things, of course.

i've worked as a commercial artist, primarily as a digital artist, desktop publishing expert, and designer. I've worked in advertising, marketing, and book and magazine publishing. I never disliked working in the commercial sector, and I would do it again, if the right situation appeared. I would definitely return to the field of illustration. But that work never fed my soul. I could go back to it, but my heart would never be in it again.

What feeds my soul, in photography, is going out into the wilds, traveling, being outdoors, and working in the natural, available light, to discover and make photos from whatever I happen to see, wherever I happen to be. It's a process of discovery, whereas commercial work is a process of pre-planning and intent, with very little room in it for chance and spontaneity. On recent photo and video road trips, some of the places I felt most alive and connected to were places I'd never been to before: new discoveries, new locations.

Let's look more deeply into black & white photography by getting into backwards, by dealing with what a great photographer had to say about it.

Edward Weston had been an influential, successful, and renowned photographer for many decades before he ever took a color photograph. Edward Weston: Color Photography is a museum catalog of an exhibition of his color work, which he did at the end of his career, and a valuable document in book form of this aspect of Weston's career that remains largely unknown. Weston, ever the thoughtful writer about photography, wrote an essay in 1953, Color as Form, which is reprinted in this book. In the essay, Weston said some very valuable things about the differences between B&W and color photography. I've quoted them before, but let's hear them again:

So many photographs—and paintings too, for that matter—are just tinted black-and-whites. 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.

I never expected to take up color photography, though unconsciously I had been thinking about it. You don't stop thinking about a thing because you don't do it.

. . .

As in black-and-white one learns to forget color, so in color one must learn to forget the black-and-white forms.

. . .

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.

At just the moment I began to get somewhere, I had unfortunately, for several reasons, to quit. I feel I only scratched the surface. But 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, from Color as Form

B&W and color do not compete: they are different realms. Different subjects require different applications. It can become the project of choosing the right container, the right form, to match the content. As in poetry, when the form enhances the subject matter by being the right container. In 1930 Weston wrote a statement for an exhibition in Houston:

Clouds, torsos, shells, peppers, trees, rocks, smokestacks are but interdependent, interrelated parts of a whole, which is life.

Like rhythms felt in no matter what, become symbols of the whole.

The creative force in man recognizes and records these rhythms with the medium most suitable to him, to the object, or the moment, feeling the cause, the life within the outer form. Recording unfelt facts by acquired rule, results in sterile inventory.

To see the Thing Itself is essential: the Quintessence revealed direct without the fog of impressionism—the casual noting of a superficial phase, or transitory mood.

This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock—Significant presentation—not interpretation.

—quoted in Edward Weston: the Flame of Recognition, edited by Nancy Newhall

Presentation rather than interpretation. Finding the right container in which to reveal truth. We absorb more than what is seen, when the creative force is present in the work. We see more deeply than we do when we merely look. Seeing and looking are not synonymous. Seeing is deeper than looking.

Color photography will never supplant or subsume B&W. B&W continues to be considered by many, rightly or wrongly, superior as an artform to color. This is because it is reduced. It is presentation, rather than interpretation of representation. (These are Weston's words, which require some contemplation.)

But photography is not all seeing in the sense that the eyes see. Our vision, a binocular one, is in a continuous state of flux, while the camera captures and fixes forever (unless the damn prints fade!) a single, isolated, condition of the moment. Besides, we use lenses of various focal lengths to purposely exaggerate actual seeing, and we often "overcorrect" color for the same reason. In printing we carry on our willful distortion of fact by using contrasty papers which give results quite different from the scene or object as it was in nature.
—Edward Weston, from the Daybooks, 1932; quoted in Newhall, ed.

This very artificiality of B&W photography—the exact sense of the root word artifice—is essential to understanding why B&W photography is more "artistic" than color photography. Or rather, is still thought to be. Weston was working out in his Daybooks the theology of photographic presentation: that it is indeed an act of Making. This is what artists do: they make art. To be a maker is to participate in the co-creation of the world, working in collaboration via presentation with the Creator. We distort to show the truth: as poetry is lies that get us to the truth.

Photography has never been "pure." There has always been necessity for the photographer to make decisions. And we are not cameras: we are not objective eyes. We make choices. We photograph what attracts us, what catches our attention. A photograph is in some ways always an homage to what we have seen in the world. It is an attempt to step into the continuous flow of time and preserve a distinct moment, under distinct light, never to be repeated exactly.

We edit wildly. We make willful distortions of what nature presents us, in order to see deeper into it. We redact what we see by focusing in closely on a single object or moment, and ignoring everything else. Accurate photojournalistic photography is all zoomed out, to catch the bigger picture, and put the moment in its context. You don't find many close-ups in journalistic photography. The truth of that kind of photo is different than the truth of the close-up of a pepper that looks abstract and alien, not at all like what we think of when we think of a pepper.

A B&W photograph is more like a painting in than is a color photo, precisely because it is quite different from the scene or object as it was in nature. This is key point: artifice is the central truth of art-making: the artist pulls things together into something new, to bring out a vision from the materials. The artist uses artificiality to highlight the truth of the natural. This is as true in portraiture as it is in landscape. Both great writers and great artists have defined art as a process of selective editing: you put in only the most important details, and leave out all the rest. You're finished when you can't take away any more.

Both color and B&W have unique things to say. Some subjects do not cross over the line so easily. Flowers, autumn leaves, the banded colors of eroding mountains in the Southwest: as WEston wrote, the separation of forms is possible only because of the juxtaposition of colors.

One thing that separates color from B&W is that B&W is all about tone. Very different colors will look the same on the B&W print, if they have the same level of color saturation: saturation and light-level matters more than hue. In color, hue is as important as saturation: when the colors are off, our eyes know it, and we are uncomfortable.

True color photography is more than just tinted B&W images. It shows the quality and tone of light, which you can't read just from the grayscale information. The same tone of pale yellow and pale pink are both the same tone in B&W. This is another reason choice of paper—high contrast, medium or low; glossy or matte—when printing is part of the artistic process. It is part of the artifice.

Let us be clear: artifice is not a pejorative term, in the arts, in this context. Craft supports vision, and all art is in some way made by the artist. It is the creative force, even when the artistic process is one of discovery rather than imposed pre-planned ideas, that sustains the art itself. Many great photographers have marveled that the world seemed to conspire to present them with perfect moments—as though the Universe itself chooses to pose, at just the right moment, in order to be recorded. I have experienced this myself numerous times. Some of my best photographs were "given" to me in just this manner. Like Weston, I often don't set out with a set plan, but I photograph what I discover as I move about the face of the earth. The process of chance and discovery is a gift. Some call it serendipity, others call it synchronicity. The point is: the artist must be ready at all times for those moments when discovery happens. Your job is to maintain readiness, and get it down as it happens.

Many great photographers have talked about great images being given to them; about their reliance on discovery. But they also had the eyes with which to see what was being presented. They didn't ignore it, or dismiss it, or just look at it and move along. They stopped, and really saw. it is not the camera that makes the photo, it is the photographer. If it were the camera, every amateur vacation snapshot would rival a Weston or Adams print in quality. Since they do not, we need to have thought about why they'd don't.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

No, I get it. When I first got a camera (an old Fed as I recall, quickly followed by a Zorki) I was desperately interested in photography as art. I had a friend whose father let him use his darkroom equipment so for a short time we were able to experiment. After that cost was the major consideration and I couldn't afford to throw away images and so I took too long over every picture. It was like when I started learning the keyboard – the obvious thing to my mind was to write music. Why would you want to simply play other people's stuff?

Yes, I've done weddings too, several actually, and they were fun, a challenge, but I wouldn't do another.

My wife has just bought me my first decent digital camera, a Canon no less. I have to say it is a strange beast and I'm not sure how I'll get on with it. It really has all the bells and whistles I could ask for but it doesn't feel like a real camera. (Christ, I'm a Philistine!) Anyway, don't expect me to be posting any of my efforts any day soon. I used to learn by osmosis but not so much these days I'm afraid.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

For me the social and ritual aspects of wedding photography are what's daunting. There is tremendous pressure towards perfectionism, as this is (supposed to be) a once-in-a-lifetime ritual, an important life-passage for all those involved, and you'd better not miss any details, and you'd better get it all right. I find that kind of pressure inimical to my process of photography, and also it lesses the chances that I'm going to have any fun.

The great thing about digital cameras, especially now that we're no longer in that first ugly generation of them, is that the expense of film purchasing, processing, and printing has been reduced or eliminated. Editing a photo is easier. You only print the ones you want to print. When I converted over to digital, my expenses suddenly went way down.

The flip side is of course that it's also easier to just keep shooting and shooting, and not be thoughtful about it. In my last few years of film photography, which who knows but that I might turn back to some day, I became very careful of what I was shooting. I took a fair bit of time over every image, too. I developed a lot of patience. I'm starting to get that back, a bit at a time, after a period of shooting probably too many frames nowadays.

On the other hand, I usually know when I've got a good shot, and if I repeat the shot it's as a safety.

12:28 PM  

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