Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Color of Black & White ~

Chalk it up to old age if you like, or just a trip down memory lane, but I've been thinking a lot about black & white photography recently. Most of my photography career was dominated by the practice, in the lab and behind the camera. In fact, both were necessary components of the magical black & white arts: you shot it, and you developed and printed it. Along the way were incredibly expressive tools and techniques. Sometimes I miss that, smells and all.

What amazes me to this day is the remarkable range of color and tone that were possible in the craft we simply think of as "black & white" photography. Some of it had to do with the variety of papers we had: silver bromide papers, some with a barita base that increased the "whiteness", and some smooth, very warm-tone chloro-bromide papers. The names may not mean much to you now, but I assure you they still resonate with me: Agfa Brovira, Oriental Seagull, Kodak Ektalure. Geez, I can't even remember what day it is half the time, but somehow I can conjure up clear memories of these, and a lot more.

And toners; we had tons of toners. Chemical toners were largely used as a means of increasing image permanence in the photographic print, but they also imparted a fine, subtle coloring of the image as well. Selenium was common; it produced a cooling, slightly purple-ish tone to high-silver papers which was lovely to behold. And everyone, of course, is familiar with the warm brown tones of sepia, often used to give prints an "old fashioned" look. I rarely liked it. But you get the point: a combination of paper and chemistry could result in a remarkable range of possibilities.

So let's cut right to the chase: can the modern digital photographer find love and happiness in black & white? Well, yes, maybe even more. There's some mind-blowing, incredibly beautiful photography going on out there. And onOne Software, for example, re-creates the look of actual black & white films, some of which disappeared from the market years ago. How cool is that? But for me, the great black & white experience can't ever be fully duplicated. I miss the cloister of the darkroom too much, but I'm not complaining. I think I'm finding more expression with my photography than I ever have, it's just...different.

It's more colorful.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Rule Of Thirds ~

Chalk it up to twelve years of Catholic education, but when I hear the word "rules",  I just kind of ... bristle. Yet I was hardly fazed when I was studying art and photography and "the rule of thirds" (along with many other theorems, constructs, proclamations, and paradigms) was displayed on the chalk board. It was the foundation of all the was beautiful, they said. It was passed down from our elders. It was dogma. And I ate it up with the passion of the true believer. (Remember, Catholic school, nuns, the works).  And the truth is, it still guides me and informs my work, but it just doesn't... rule me anymore.

I guess the trouble started a couple years after I began working in studios when, after a steady diet of large-format film and the occasional roll of 6x7 medium-format (and, not so commonly at the time, the ungodly 3:2 format of the 35mm camera) I was introduced to the lovely, simple, gorgeous square of the Hasselblad. Now truth be told, I was taught to compose loosely with it, so that a rectangular-formatted image could still easily be cropped and printed from it. But phooey on that. The perfect square I saw in the viewfinder was nature at its best, rules be damned. Granted, it's an occasional treat and not appropriate every time and every portrait. But when it is, it's sublime. My portrait of Whitney C would have no power or grace composed in any other manner. It's just how I see things sometimes.

The rule of thirds (and the corresponding principle of "power-points" in a composition) is of course a viable artistic standard that can lead us down many a beautiful path. We ignore it at our peril. Honestly, I'm not an anarchist; I can conform to convention and "rules" with the best of them (again, think nuns.....) and we need to be mindful of their usefulness as guides, lest our work dissolves into some sort of expressionistic garble. But we can turn it on its head from time to time. A slight bend of the rule, or an odd juxtaposition within it, can make a more compelling and powerful composition -- or a disaster. It's a thin line that divides them, but it's delightfully fun to live on that edge.

So I figure, it's ok to learn and follow the rules, as long as you make up a few of your own as you go along. After all, it's your vision, your statement, your story. And nobody can tell you how to do that.

Not even the nuns.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Trying To Get Back Home ~

Let me tell ya folks, nostalgia ain't what it used to be. We're reminded of this every time we think we have it figured out, or at least I am. This past week was a case in point. My big brother and little sister and I met up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for a week of photography up in the Tetons. Jim and I get together every year for a photographic excursion (and a little tequila) and the addition this year of my portrait photographer sister made a very special family event. And the Tetons hold a very special place in our family's heart and memories.

We spent a lot of time up there, going back to the 1960's and '70's. It was probably our dad's favorite place to hang out for a summer and paint; the barn you see here, out on Mormon Row, featured prominently in many of his watercolors. And for me, too: I spent many seasons there in the '80's as well, photographing landscapes for a studio I worked for, and conducting photography workshops. I recall it being more rustic then, not nearly as refined and developed as it is now. I looked for some of my favorite haunts and watering holes which, predictably, are long gone. That's progress for you, and tourists. But considering that this is without a doubt one of the most beautiful places on earth, you can hardly blame them.

Thomas Wolfe famously said you can't go home again, and I imagine he tried doing just that. But for my brother and I, home is an elusive concept. We moved a lot growing up, and so attachments and sentiments were more fleeting. You make do with what you have, where you are. Maybe this is why, for nearly our entire adult lives, we have been so passionate about photography. If photographs can be developed over time and made permanent, then maybe memories can, too. It's a comforting notion.

It reminds me of home.