Like most photographers my age, I have been influenced by many of the masters that have come before us.  In my case, it’s Brett and Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, Berenice Abbott, Aaron Siskind, Paul Outerbridge, George Tice, Richard Avedon, and many others.  What I see as common among that list is that they all made their own, distinct images with relatively simple, basic tools and materials.  The photography is very straight forward and deliberate.

I am particularly appreciative of a loose association that once existed called Group f.64, because of what they were trying to say as a “movement”.  A bit over 80 years ago, Group f.64 was a reaction against “Pictorialism”, a prevalent (at the time) style of photography in which the photographer would heavily manipulate a photograph, feeling that this was necessary to make photography an art form. Group f.64 believed that the art of photography must develop along the lines defined by the actualities and the limitations of the medium.  Rather than trying to imitate paintings, the members of the group made images that emphasized the look obtained with a camera.

Most photographers eventually feel confident in their tools, materials, and technical ability.  Fine.  Now, having reached that point, what can we do that is indicative of the medium, but not derivative of all the other photographers we admire?  This is very difficult, as we cannot help but be influenced by what we have seen.  What we can do, as artists in any medium, is pursue our own vision, and not just copy someone else’s.

Recently, a friend and photographer I really admire lamented that perhaps we were doing most of our work for other photographers.  If that is true, then it’s too bad.  However, it may well be true.  It’s no secret that the laity probably doesn’t get much of our work.  They definitely do not care what camera/lens/film/developer/paper we used!  They just want to see the pictures.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter.  Trust me, I know all too well how much it matters if someone else is paying you to make the pictures they want.  But that’s not (necessarily) art, that’s commerce.  When we have the luxury of making art for it’s own sake, we only have to please ourselves.

Like the folks in Group f.64, I continue to strive to make the camera work for me; to do what I can within the strengths and the limitations of the medium.  I want to make pictures so that people don’t say: “where is that?”, or even: “what is that?”  And certainly not: “that’s a good print”.

What I would prefer them to ask, if anything, is: “Why?”  Isn’t that one of the purposes of art?  To make people ask why?  Or, to think?  Or, just to wonder?  Wonder at the shapes, the light, the texture.  Just look at the print as they would a piece of nature.  Just accept it for what it is.  The answer to the question: “why?” is simply: This is the way the camera (and the photographer) saw this – regardless of what “this” was.



The mother tongue of photography

beach2 framed

First color, and now digital technology has essentially taken over commercial and amateur photography.  Although new possibilities have emerged in the making of fine prints in the digital age, the black and white darkroom remains the preferred route for many of us.

Black and white has been called the mother tongue of photography.  In the first century or so of the art form, black and white, or monochrome, was the only option, and it still remains favored by many photographic artists and social documentary photographers.  Contrary to some public perception, film photography, and in particular the black and white darkroom, has not disappeared.  Many photographers have chosen to remain with this method of working for all or part of their creative output, or have returned to it after embracing the evolution to digital.

For years, debate raged among photographers over the comparisons, merits, and faults of traditional silver-based photography against the new digital technologies.  While not totally extinguished among a few diehards (on both sides), the debate is over in the larger community as the realization has come that silver/chemical based photography and digital methods are really two different and very unique media in the same art form; not unlike oils, pastels, and watercolors are in painting.

Monochrome is really a better term than “black and white”.  Depending on materials and the skill of the photographer or printer there can be a large number of gray steps from white to black.  It is these subtleties in gray tones that make monochrome imagery appealing.  As is often the case, common usage trumps literal meaning.

Monochrome is said to be more abstract due to the lack of color.  With color not a factor, a photograph depends more on shapes, textures and light.  Light!  There it is!  To many photographers, light is what photography is all about.  This may be an oversimplification, of course, but a common teaching exercise is to “photograph the light”.

It all gets back to personal preference.  To me, monochrome is natural to the way a camera works.  Admittedly, that may be cultural conditioning.  But in many ways, I almost see through the camera in monochrome.  The way I see with a camera has been influenced by many that have come before.  But, that’s another post, another day.

Why black and white?

Wasn’t that was over years ago, even before digital?

Like many photographers, I have stayed with black and white because I never developed an interest in color as a means of expression; or, “art” if you will.  Simply put: monochrome remains my medium of choice.  As for film, I have chosen to remain with a medium in which I have developed a good deal of experience and skill over many years.  In this digital age, I’ve actually achieved some acclaim as a black and white film practitioner.  There have been exhibitions, lecture presentations, and even television.  I’ve had my 15 minutes.

I’ve used a lot of color film.  All of the weddings and most of my commercial work way back when was on color negative film.  My dad was a color slide shooter, and I did the same for personal photos – mostly vacation “snapshot” type pictures – for years until I finally did switch over to color negative film when that medium matured a little more and, well, the color got better.  I bought a “color” enlarger before variable contrast printing was common, and I still have all the tools to do color developing and printing.  (Tools, yes – materials, sadly, not so much …)

Why film?

Digital is pretty, but we old film guys know how to do something that was always a bit esoteric, and now was becoming even more so at an alarming (to us) rate.  We are the high priests of so-called “traditional” photography.  We are also dinosaurs, just not yet extinct.

I am hardly anti-digital. It is true that for much of digital’s early years, I did not take to it, as I viewed it as inferior to film in image quality.  I got over it.  “Image quality” is one of those terms that sound objective, but despite a lot of physical measurements is still fraught with subjectivity as to just what those numbers mean.

I bought my first digital camera years ago to take those color snapshots in place of the film.  I currently use two digital cameras, a micro 4/3 and a full frame dslr.  There is Photoshop on the computer, two scanners and large color printer in the house.

Photographers have been debating digital vs. film since the advent of digital.  This argument really has less and less merit as digital technology improves.  For most of us, the boat has sailed.  However, I recently read one photographer saying that (in his opinion) black and white was perfect in film, but color is only now becoming mature with digital capture.  He may be right.  I can’t say that I disagree.

The bottom line, though, is that film or digital, color or monochrome, are simply personal, subjective decisions.  It is no different than painters choosing oils over watercolors or acrylics.  It is simply a choice of media.

So, a blog and other activities to explore, celebrate, and promote the medium of black and white film.  I hope you’ll ride along.