Classic Beauty of Black and White Nature Photography
The stinging smell of stop bath solution. Mixing chemicals in brown plastic jugs and using all of my lawn cutting money for Kodak paper at Malone's Camera Store. Loading exposed Tri-X film in the film processing tank by hand and in total darkness. Hanging 8"x10" prints to dry. Red light bulbs. Worrying that my brother would come down stairs and turn on the lights while I was in the middle of making a print. Seeing the magic of the image appear on paper after careful timing with the enlarger.
Those are the memories that come to mind when I think back to my first explorations in the field of photography. This was WAY before the arrival of digital photography. I'm talking 1977.
Developing my own black and white prints in a home-made darkroom when I was only 12 formed the perfect foundation for a life-long love affair with photography. There was a fundamental discipline involved that demanded respect for the craft of image and print making. Granted it was not nearly as extensive or methodical as the incredible lengths that the masters of the early 20th century went through with their huge and cumbersome, 60 lb. 8"x10" view cameras and obsession with perfect tonal range (think Adams, Weston and Strand), I still felt as if I were "paying my dues" - getting my fingers wet in the holy water of the print trays and being baptized into the company of those who have transcended the boundary of mere hobbyist and entered the realm of the serious amateur.
Even before converting the corner of my childhood home basement to my own darkroom, I had been introduced to the wonders of the black and white darkroom at the Dayton Museum of Natural History. It was there that my astronomy instructor helped me develop and make prints of some my very first astro-photographs; time exposures on high speed Tri-X film of Comet West - a brilliant display in the early morning sky and comet so bright it has yet to be reviled since. I still kick myself for losing track of this negatives and prints.
Yes, there was such as a thing as color slide and print film at that time (although no "one-hour" processing) and I took more than my fair share of color photographs, but the allure of actually hand-making my own photographs - from exposing the negative to holding the finished print - overshadowed my desire to capture the colors of a nature scene, landscape or even informal portraits of family and pets. Although I probably did not realize it then, I was much more focused (no pun intended) on the character, form and texture of my subject. In some ways color just simply got in the way, not to mention the bills for color print processing that would add up each month at People's Drug Store.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many of the early masters are still to this day held in such high regard. I'm not saying I've come anywhere near their level of skill and accomplishment, but just try to imagine Ansel Adams' "Monolith, The Face of Half Dome" or "Moonrise" as color prints. Gone would be the haunting tones in greyscale and the drama of shape and form. It's a safe bet that technically the image would still be superb, given Adams' dedication to detail and the craft, but would the image still carry what Ansel Adams envisioned internally meshed with his expertise of his chosen camera, lens, filter, film and printmaking process at the time the photograph was taken ?
Or would have Edward Weston's "Shell" still have generated so much response and personal reaction from lovers of art had it been a color Kodachrome transparency (which he did begin to use during his later years) had shades of color overshadowed the sheer beauty of natural form depicted in his prints ?
And the possibilities of what the "old" masters would have done are now more complicated due to the advent of digital photography.
Which is better, color or black and white, digital or film ? These questions are mostly irrelevant due to the subjective nature of both artist and subject. The photographer as artist is somewhat beholden to the tools at his or her disposal at the time the work is being created. The artist's approach toward the subject is also determined by how the photographer foresees the finished print, as well as the fact that the artistic vision of the individual can be quite fluid, moved by personal experiences and moods.
With that said I can't help but wonder if some of the growth as an artist, confidence of knowledge and patience from experience by crafting prints by hand in the traditional darkroom has been sacrificed to the gods of modern convenience, specifically the instant gratification and virtual non-expense of digital capture. Granted I love the capabilities afforded through digital photography, but I also value my early learning experiences when making a quality black and white print involved more than just clicking "print" in the file menu on the computer screen.
What I yearned for was a photographic technique that combined the best of both old and new and one which would serve as a natural extension of my artistic vision.
I've recently started revisiting black and white photography, but along a different path than the one that first brought me there some 30+ years ago. Instead I have embarked on a new approach that represents the advantages of the "digital darkroom" as well as the classic qualities of the fine art black and white print.
A kind of "coming home" so to say - a going of full circle within my artistic endeavor in the field of photography. In an odd coincidence this may be a delayed parallel to my personal Odysseus-type journey that took me from Dayton, to South Carolina, to Utah and then back to Dayton during the time period of 1996 to 2002, following a tumultuous downfall in December of 1994.
The birthplace of my devotion to the art of photography is the black and white darkroom, and though I can't even remember what became of all of my old equipment, the magic of the print-making process has now been re-discovered by way of digital technology that has at last surpassed the quality of film (when handled correctly and with discipline), along with Macintosh computers with Adobe Photoshop and Apple Aperture software.
Yes, it has always been fairly simple to do a straightforward monochrome (black and white) conversion from a color digital image. In fact there are three or four different techniques that are easy to do. The problem for me is that many of these conversions lack the depth, tonal range and emphasis on form that is so important with fine art black and white photography.
A little over a year ago I began experimenting with High Dynamic Range Photography - the digital technique that combines several exposures of the same scene, each at differing levels of shutter speed. A tonal adjustment is completed on the merged exposures resulting in an image that in some ways looks more like a painting due to the detail and color ranges that result. This technique has become quite popular with photographs of architectural interiors. What I began to do was apply it to my images of nature and landscapes, but in subdued, low-light situations.
Now I started to ask myself what would happen if I were to do a black and white conversion from a High Dynamic Range photograph, but in a way where I could simulate the use of red, green, yellow or blue filters ? Using colored filters over the lens was one of the techniques used by photographers like Ansel Adams to deepen the shadows, darken the sky and reduce the effect of haze in black and white nature photographs.
By taking a High Dynamic Range color image and converting to black and white, with the effect of the appropriate colored filter, I was able to create monochrome images that come closest to my artistic vision of how I wanted to present a natural scene or landscape through black and white photography. Now I was using the right digital darkroom techniques to reveal the deep tones and textures that compliment the subject and reflect accurately the light of the hour and place from which the image was captured. I had escaped the trap of creating digital black and white landscape photographs that were merely "flat," and succeeded in finding a way to visually communicate the drama of the light of the scene.
In 'Virgin River in Zion National Park' (above) I've retained detail from the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights - an extremely wide range of light given the dynamics of a bright, winter sky and dark canyon walls. This image was one of my favorite landscapes in the original color of the HDR photograph. The black and white conversion takes it to another level due to the richness of shape, form and texture.
'Wesley Chapel' is reminiscent of many of the haunting black and white landscapes with older man-made structures that Ansel Adams captured in the high desert of New Mexico. The texture of decay sings a lonely serenade of distant memories while sweeping strands of clouds grace an expansive sky.
Ironically my point of emphasis in the original HDR photograph of Wesley Chapel was the reflection of the orange-red, sunset sky in the glass doors, which contrasted with the subdued hues of the rest of the image and the soft glow of the sunlit clouds to the east - all of which would not have been possible to protray in a photograph had it not been for high dynamic range.
Although the resulting photograph was very pleasing to the eye, it was not until I converted the image to black and white and applied a red filter that the image's true potential was realized. Rather than focusing the eye on the contrasting colors of the sunset reflection in the glass doors the black and white version of the HDR photograph emphasizes the character of the entire structure - peeling paint, broken boards, tilted cross and all. The stark simplicity of timeless faith along the rural route is the story told in this image.
Union Terminal in Indianapolis is an incredibly beautiful interior that has been superbly restored to show-off the attention to detail and style so evident in early 20th architecture throughout the industrial Midwest. Unfortunately so many other similar structures have been simply left to fall into decay, such as in Detroit, Dayton and Cincinnati.
The rich tones captured in the woodwork, especially in the ceiling which in these low-light situations is practically made for HDR photography, provided a very appealing light-to-dark effect within the black and white conversion. The emphasis on this image are the visually striking lines, all supporting and leading the eye to the central focal point of both the photograph and the building - the large circular window above the upper floor.
For me, photographing interiors that have been artistically designed beyond the typical cookie-cutter plans found in most modern commercial buildings of today is just as rewarding and pleasurable as capturing natural landscapes. The same basic principles of composition apply. Unfortunately interiors such as Union Terminal are becoming more and more scarce as modern architecture becomes homogenized, along with most everything else in the world of the 21st century. Thankfully nature is always there to refresh the artistic eye with its inherent originality of spontaneous light and ever-changing nuances within shape and form.
The use of black and white photography in capturing natural landscapes is perhaps most effective than when it is applied to abstract patterns. The randomness of line, form and texture in "Lower Antelope Canyon" is what captured my eye in this scene. The color HDR version of this image showed a wide range of color tonal variations due to the subdued light of winter deep in this canyon as well the range of stratification of the layers of wind-carved sandstone - from deep orange to soft yellow. Once again the black and white conversion re-emphasized shape and form, especially within the subtle shadow areas of the image.
Lower Antelope Canyon is located on Navajo land surrounding Page, Arizona. Upper Antelope Canyon is more popular with the casual tourist due to the fact that it is fairly simple to "walk through" without any climbing or tight squeezes. The problem with Upper Antelope is that there are so many visitors that photographers are required to go through with an assigned group that is given only so much time to spend within the canyon. Kind of a forced tour.
Tour groups do not go through Lower Antelope Canyon due to the fact that it is a steep climb in and out as well as a number of VERY narrow passageways, so much so that I was forced to remove my camera backpack as I made my way through. However, the results were well worth the effort. I consider 'Lower Antelope Canyon' to be one of my favorite black and white landscape photographs.
The simplistic beauty of black and white photography is quite evident in 'Old Pilings,' taken at the Fayette Historic Village in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The site of one the original "company towns" where people lived and worked smelting and shipping huge quantities of iron ore. I went there to photograph the old stone structures but walked away with this image, taken along the Lake Michigan shoreline of the village. It is my favorite photo from the day's shoot.
The black and white conversion, with a green filter applied, revealed even more detail than what was apparent in the original HDR version of the photograph, including the faint shapes of stones beneath the water.
The stillness of shape and shadow compliments the natural gradient of light to dark, from background to foreground - a classic visual element that naturally draws-in the imagination and attention of the viewer.
Is black and white photography in the age of digital for everyone ?
In no way is this technique of black and white photography the destination of the pursuit of my artistic vision. To be honest I hope to never truly reach such a destination because it is in the journey of exploration where the excitement and energy is visually communicated in my photographs.
For now - at this particular time period of my photographic career - the revisiting of the beauty of black and white by of High Dynamic Range digital photography serves well my artistic desire to create visual interpretations of how I view nature, landscapes and even man-made architecture and structures. In other words, I'm coming ever more closer to capturing light and creating images that speak of my true spirit and soul as well as feeding the constant hunger to create, grow and develop as an artist. This is the way I love to share, encourage and teach as a fellow human being on our common journey through life.
It's funny as we grow older we tend to return to those initial discoveries of childhood, but with the experience and wisdom of adulthood, to renew and rejuvenate a vision - a deeply held feeling toward life - that moves us throughout all of our journeys, be they artistic or something else.
Developing those black and white prints in the homemade darkroom of my childhood home was like finding a key that unlocked a door to a world of artistic expression and discovery that I would stay within to this very day. Although there were a few times that I wandered away, it is the world of artistic photography that have come to feel most at home. Fine art black and white imaging is just one part of that world, but in creating these black and white nature and landscape images today, with digital camera, computer and software, I still feel that same sense of excitement felt in 1977 when that first image came forth in the shifting of the chemical tray and was hung to dry on the clothesline strung across the ceiling.
The maturation of the photographic artist through constant self-exploration, revisiting of foundations of learning, development of artistic vision and refinement of technique is what I hope to communicate in the simple and classic beauty of the fine art black and white photograph.
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