Thinking Black & White

Example black & white image

It seems to me I have been seeing and thinking in black & white more lately. Not seeing the world as black & white. Things are not that simple and clear cut. No, seeing the world as black and white images. That is the interpretation of reality I am leaning more to these days.

Contribution of photography

I believe black and white is one of the great contributions of photography to the art world. Yes, at the time it was a technical limitation rather than an artistic choice. The processes and chemistry of the late 19th century through mid 20th century could only create monochrome images.

But the look stuck. It became associated with photography, with “reality” in image making. It helped establish photography as a distinct art form from painting.

Because that is the medium they had, the practitioners of it became extremely proficient at creating beautiful, artistic images. A good artist learns how to use his tools. Some people say their achievements of the old masters of black & white photography have never been equaled. I’m not so sure. We can do a pretty good job today.

Not obsolete

Most people view black & white images as obsolete today. Why do that when we have a wonderful world of color imaging? Why throw away all that rich color information?

The reality is that black & white is still a unique and vibrant art form. It can create very captivating images. Well done and well printed I believe we can still rival the best of the “old masters” like Ansel Adams.

There are magazines that only showcase black & white. There are galleries that only accept black & white works. Some artists only do black and white. Why? Because many art lovers look to it as a wonderful medium for conveying emotion and feeling. It is still quite popular.

Advantage of black & white

But why? What advantage does black & white have? These days, since we have an equal choice between black & white and color, there must be a reason to chose black & white at times.

Black & white is an abstract medium. Eliminating color brings a new and different view of the world. Without color the image becomes shades of tone and forms. It creates a whole new way of looking at things. It is clear that it is not just a representation of reality, it is an interpretation, a new view. The photographer could have worked in full color. So black & white was a conscious choice to show something different.

Being so different, it is immediately set apart as something to be looked at in a new way. That helps with the reinterpretation of the scene. Plus, many viewers appreciate the pure tonal variations without the distraction of color. It becomes a new type of art.

So creating black & white prints is no longer a technical limitation of the medium, it is an artistic choice. We use it because it can better express our view of the scene.

Why now?

As I said, it is an artistic choice. Some subjects seem to work better in black & white. There is a lot to be said for removing color distractions and focusing attention on tonal variations. Shapes and form and relationships take on a new prominence. It is a different interpretation of a scene.

And the technology now shifts the work from the darkroom – in the dark and where you are breathing all sorts of chemicals – to the computer – in the light, maybe with a glass of wine nearby. Sounds more pleasant and creative to me. The masters, like Ansel Adams needed to make a number of test prints to work out the “map” of the dodging and burning and sharpening and spotting required to create the final print they like. Then they, or more likely their assistant, would spend many hours in the darkroom hand creating each print. Each print required hours of work.

Now technology lets us push the time consuming work up front. I may spend hours on the computer working with an image to get it exactly the way I want. Then in a matter of minutes I can print it. If my systems are set up correctly, the print is a very good match of what I created on the computer. And I can push the button again and produce perfect duplicates every few minutes. The computer and printer technology completely changes the game. No more colored filters on black & white film, no more long sessions in the darkroom in possibly harmful chemicals, no more having each print be a performance piece that may of may not match the artist’s template.

Technology-wise, this is the best time in history to be creating black & white prints. Artistically it is a great time, too. The world is saturated with color prints and black & white seems fresh and unique – a different point of view. It is time for a resurgence of black & white. At least for me.

Reality is Overrated

Realistic, but not real

Is this controversial for a photographer to say? I hope so. 🙂 Photography used to be the land of total realism. Not so any more. Photography for me is purely artistic expression, with little concern for reality. That’s because reality is overrated.

Reality – the good

There is a long and honored tradition of highly realistic landscape and street photography. When you think of landscapes, you might think of John Fielder or Art Wolf or Ansel Adams. For street photography maybe it is Henri Cartier-Bresson or Jay Maisel or Elliott Erwitt.

All of these artists were true to the reality of the scenes they found. Of course they looked for the best composition or the right light or the dramatic expression – that is why they are recognized artists. But the photographs they took were not modified at all, other than routine spotting or color corrections.

Is their work good because they only shot reality? No, their work is good because they are great artists. I could walk outside and shoot a picture looking down my suburban street and publish it. It would be absolutely real and unmodified. Would it be good art because of that? Not to me.

Reality – the bad

Following up on the point about shooting down the street, a picture isn’t good just because it is reality. Reality can be boring. It can be depressing. It can be dreary and banal. While there may be a time and place for these things, they are not where I want to spend much time.

I am not a critic or authority. I would never say such subjects do not constitute art. But don’t get caught up in the post-modernism depression where you don’t view art as worthwhile unless it is depressing or banal. That is just one passing movement led by some people with a very dark world view.

Be yourself. Express your own values. Like, and buy, what you like.

Assume no reality

Photography has become much wider and more diverse than it was a few decades ago. It used to indeed be true that “a photograph didn’t lie”. You could believe what you saw. Not anymore. Photojournalism may be an exception, but in today’s climate, I wouldn’t rush to ascribe too much credence to any particular image you see on the news unless you know the circumstances. News has become just a business, not a guardian of truth.

A lot of artists, including myself, no longer consider it necessary to represent reality. Now, some of my work is extremely detailed, with sharp, crunchy texture and edges. I actually like doing these sometimes. It is almost reveling in the detail that can be captured by my sensor and lenses. Quite the opposite of some of my blurred, low texture images.

But if you see one of my images with super sharp detail, don’t necessarily assume it is reality. Even when I am going for crisp and detailed, I am not at the same time representing to you that it is reality. It could be manufactured. Even if I know that it is real, it could look so abstract to you that you could not describe exactly what it is.

It is art, not a documentary

My point being that I am making art. I think most “artists” are making art. Enjoy it as art. Don’t be disappointed if you find out it is not reality. I’m not sure there is much overlap between art and reality.

Art may speak to universal truths and bring deep insights into our lives, but it does it through its metaphors and imagery. It does it by touching something within us. In the same way that Shakespear gives us a lot of insights about life, even though his stories are fiction.

So don’t assume photography has to depict reality while painting does not. Both are art.

It is art, not reality

I will go out on a limb and state that art is not reality and it cannot be. Art might show a representation of reality. Even a very realistic representation. But the art is not the reality. Art is a 2 or 3 dimensional object you look at.

To take an example that may be easier to comprehend, it is like a book. An excellent work of fiction may create a reality in our mind, but that reality is what we interpret from what the book describes. The places may seem real. The characters may seem real and alive to us. But they are feelings the author has communicated to us through the words. Not reality itself.

I am drawn to joy

On a personal note, I am drawn to joy and things that are uplifting. Even when my images are dark or showing bleak mid winter scenes, they are not depressing. At least, not to me. I try to find a hopeful angle on my art.

For instance, I love finding certain types of old rusty trucks and cars. After surviving for 50 to 90 years, it seems these relics have something to tell me. They have resisted the elements far longer than most things. They may be beat up and rusty and out of service, but they are still there defiantly. That is the joy to me in old things like this. They are still standing and making a statement; they are not junk. There seems to be something significant about that generation. Some quality that makes people want to keep them. A 1952 truck is often still around in 60 years. I don’t expect that many 2022 trucks will still be in as good a shape after 60 years.

The picture with this article is composited from shots of some old vehicles. It is detailed and sharp, but it is not “real”. No object I know of in the world actually looks exactly like this. That doesn’t keep me from creating it. I could even represent it as something that could be, even if it does not currently exist. But realism or potential realism is not an important consideration for me. I only care about if I like it. I do.

What do you think?

Evolution of an Image

Very abstract created image. Representa the evolution of an image.

Not all images follow the same life cycle. Sometimes it is pretty straightforward. See a scene; click; some post processing; done. Other times the path is winding, even circular. It is impossible for an image to be ready for a final print right out of the camera. Sometimes that shows an evolution of the artists perception of an image.

Of something

A lot of very good pictures are simply images of something. We find a lovely or interesting scene and we take a picture. Yes, we work the scene, find a good position to make a good composition. Wait for great light. Then make the shot.

It represents something real and concrete. It is what it is. There is nothing abstract or surreal about it. No hidden meaning. As I write this I am on a trip going through a part of the country that has lots of beautiful trees. I am shooting a lot of pictures of trees. Just because I like them. And they’re all around.

Most of these images, though, are ending up being just pictures of trees or fields. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, but they are straight forward record shots of a scene I saw. It is the rare one that seems to actually have something deeper to offer.

About something

A goal is to bring something more than just a “here is what I saw”. I hope to occasionally make a statement or observation that will be helpful or insightful. Hopefully, I can bring you something more than just a pretty picture. I can only reveal to you what I emotionally reacted to at the time. It is up to me to react to the scene and be able to bring some of that to you.

This is a wide grey area. One person’s “depth” may be another person’s “duh”. My perception of the significance of something may be different from yours. All I can do is to say what I think. I cannot control how you receive it.

And the degree of depth or insight will vary all over the place. An image may have insight on something of human nature, or it may be humorous, or it may be ironic, or it may make a statement about the march of time or environmental issues. Good images do not have to be deeply serious. Few of mine are heavy commentary on social issues. My reaction to the world is governed more by joy and gratitude.

So when you see my images, assume they probably have some insight I have perceived about the scene or subject. It may not be dark and depressing, but that does not take away from my intent to say something.

A life of its own

Sometimes, though, an image takes on another direction, a new life. I occasionally recognize that the original image is not complete or fully formed. It may need to be combined with other images or heavily worked to change it into something different.

Take the image with this article for example. It started out a fairly interesting shot out of a favorite restaurant window. This particular window had 100+ year old glass that was wavy and distorted. Blurred in the background were some downtown buildings, trees, awnings, etc. I liked the scene and shot it repeatedly until I captured the impression I wanted (many lunches there!).

But I was not happy with it as it was. It was an abstract view of downtown, but it was too abstract to be an effective representation of a downtown street, but not abstract enough to become something completely different and interesting in it’s own right. So I decided to go much further.

Ah, the joys of Photoshop. It is fun to play sometimes. I added textures and played with colors and saturation and hues. Some overlay patterns gave it more definition and shape. Pretty soon it had nothing to do with the downtown scene I originally liked. If you sat where I shot the picture and looked out the same window, you would not recognize it.

The image now has a life of its own, completely independent of the original scene. I like it. It is a fun creative exercise. But I have to find the right base images to work with. And I have to form a vision of where I want to go. Only a few images are good subjects for such a treatment.

It means what it means

Coming to this point requires me to address the question of what does an image “mean”? Can a picture have a meaning? Does it have to?

There seems to be at least 2 opposing groups. Some say a picture is worthless unless it means something. The other says very few pictures can have an actual meaning, except for some photojournalism. As in most things in life, I range somewhere in the middle. Generally I say don’t take yourself so serious. A good picture can just be a nice, pleasing picture. If I have the opportunity to make images with meaning I usually will, but I don’t want the meaning to get in the way of the quality of the image.

I get frustrated with people who are so sincere and focused on something that is important to them that they feel everyone must share their angst. Lighten up. First make art.

I do make images with meaning, especially if I am shooting a project that is fairly serious. When I have the filter of a project in mind my focus tends to narrow to the subject. But unless it is a particularly dark and depressing subject, I want to concentrate first on making art. I tend to avoid the really dark and depressing projects. That is just not me and I don’t think they would make your life better.

Summary

The vast majority of the billions of photographs shot each year are record shots of something. They serve to capture a memory or mark an occasion. This was their intent and the work for that.

A small percentage of photos and paintings go further and reveal something interesting. Maybe it is a new insight on a subject. Maybe it is just the artist’s emotional reaction at the time. But we look at them and often agree that they bring something deeper than just a snapshot.

Or sometimes a picture becomes a thing in itself. Not a representation or even an interpretation. It just exists as a new creation. A lot of abstract and surreal art is like this.

In my case, I am a lens-based artist. That means I start from something concrete – an image – rather than a blank canvas. Sometimes as I live with an image and think about what it could be, I morph it into something new. That is the case for the image with this article.

I’m not saying this is a desired evolutionary path for an artist or that some steps are better than others. But artists tend to evolve their skills and viewpoints as they mature. I have observed myself moving through a progression. More and more of the images I like are abstract.

I Don’t Know

Man and airplane blanaced in windows

How did it get to where we think we are supposed to know everything? Why is it wrong to say “I don’t know“? I think it would be horrible to believe I knew everything. Where would be the opportunity for discovery? To be able to let my curiosity run free? I am quick to tell anyone I don’t know, if I don’t.

Fallacy of certainty

Believing we have to know everything is a trap. It will doom us to failure and disappointment. I would say there are 3 general classes of knowledge:

  1. Our values.
  2. The things we interact with on a regular basis.
  3. Everything else “out there”.

As a person you have to know your values. Those things you will not bend. At what point will you fight for what you believe? These are the bedrock principles we build our lives on.

In the next circle, we all do our jobs and use a lot of technology every the day. We probably drive a car or use a computer for various tasks or bank or shop online. It is important to being able to function in society that we understand enough about these things to be able to use them. That doesn’t mean we have to have a deep understanding. I was an engineer in the technology/computer industry for a career, and I absolutely know I do not fully understand all aspects of everything I use. In most cases it is OK to just understand enough to efficiently get the task done and minimize surprises. Maybe just to know enough to know how to not be stupid.

Then there is everything else. The world is so big and interconnected and complex that no one knows how or why most of it works. I don’t understand micro or macro economics, and I’m not sure anyone else does, either. NFTs still seems like a Ponzi scheme to me. I don’t understand why people become zombies when they enter politics. Why do bad things happen to good people? I don’t know and I will never figure it all out. Nor do I have to.

No one knows even most of everything

We listen to the talking heads on the news spouting meaningless information with full confidence. We know they are probably wrong, but they speak with authority. Therefore, we distrust ourselves. And after a while we realize they don’t know anything, either. When neither side of the debate or the “experts” can be trusted, we tend to check out, become cynical and angry. Don’t forget, though, that they have an off button.

There is a saying called Sturgeon’s Law that says “90% of everything is crap”. I have my own corollary to that: Sturgeon was an optimist.

If most of the information you get is bad, what do you do? Hopefully you start to trust yourself. Learn to research things that are important to you. Research means even listening to people whose opinions you don’t like. You can’t just listen to your favorite guru who says things you like to hear. Make your own decisions. Build enough knowledge to trust your instincts and decisions. Don’t believe anything you hear until you check it out.

Curiosity

Too much ranting about heavy stuff. Let’s talk about art!

After a long time of working up to being an artist, I have concluded that I have to follow my curiosity and trust my instincts. Sounds simple, but it is sometimes hard.

I have spent time at times doing things in a way that they would be accepted by other people. It wasn’t entirely wasted, but is seemed kind of phony, and it was. I realized I was making someone else’s art. I don’t do that now.

But do we follow the fashion of the day? Do whatever we have to do to be accepted by the ones who style themselves as the opinion leaders? Who anointed them with this divine authority? They are just people with opinions.

I find that most of my best work happens when my inspiration is to ask “what if?” or when I say “I have never seen this like this before”. And do something with it.

Adventure

Do you lead a boring, monotonous life? Or is every day a new adventure? Much of the choice is ours. It depends on our attitude.

I believe that artists have the opportunity to lead lives of adventure and excitement and personal growth all the time. Even if we never leave our town.

Adventure is exploring and finding new things that excite us. We don’t have to go to exotic locations to find that. Our point of view determines our adventure.

Nearly every day I go walking in the areas around my studio. I always take my camera. It is covering the same ground. Occasionally I create a new route, but there are only so many variations. Sometimes I get bored with it. But I am coming to realize that when I am bored I am not letting my curiosity roam free. If my attitude is better I am likely to discover new things or appreciate something for the first time. The same with driving through Kansas. It can be a nice adventure.

Artists are on a journey of discovery

As artists, we should be explorers. Not discovering unknown lands, but finding new things about ourselves and the world we live in. These discoveries could be as close as our back yard.

To do that, we need to be always asking questions: What is this? What else is it? Can I see it different? What if this was combined with that? What if …?

At the root, all of these questions are based on the assumption that I don’t know – but I will explore it to see where I can take it. Not knowing is fundamental to being creative. When we don’t know, it should excite and inspire us.

Forget about the rest of the world that is pressing in and telling us what we should see and believe. We are capable of deciding for our self. Being an artist means being comfortable with high levels of ambiguity. And the accompanying joy of finding new answers or showing the world something they have never seen.

Be yourself. Trust yourself.

Changing the World

Living on the edge

Is your work important if it’s not changing the world? I know many earnest artists believe this must be their goal. They are focused on their particular cause and it seems the center of the universe. Their work must be serious and significant and world changing.

And sometimes it happens. A couple of Nick Ut’s and Eddie Adams’s photograph of the Vietnam war or some of Robert Capa’s images of the Spanish Civil War, among others, probably effected a lot of opinion. But these events happen once or a small number of times in a photographer’s lifetime. And they happened because the photographer was there in harm’s way and snapped a quick image of a poignant scene that materialized in front of him.

Maybe setting this as our standard is an unrealistic goal for most of us, unless we are going to spend our lives in danger zones. It might even be self-defeating.

Serious art

You may have a cause that is very important to you. Seems like everyone does these days. It may be climate change or pollution or human trafficking or animal rescue or any of many other things. It is healthy to be trying to make positive change.

But how does this affect your art? Should it?

Here is a huge generalization I freely admit I cannot prove: when the cause becomes the center of focus, the art is secondary. This is just logic. If your primary goal is to promote your cause, the art will probably become photojournalism or even propaganda. I have seen things that grab me, but I have seldom also said, “and what great art”.

Exceptions

Every “rule” has exceptions. One that comes to mind is the great Paul Simon song Kodachrome. Did you know this was kind of a protest song done to try to stop Kodak from obsoleting Kodachrome film? It didn’t work, but it was an excellent song all on it’s own. It is still well known, long after Kodachrome is fading from memory.

A famous painting that was intentionally done as a protest was Picasso’s Guernica. While it is almost unapproachable by me, it was influential and generated a lot of support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But, it was done by Picasso. He already had credibility and a huge following. If Bob Smith (sorry Bob) did it, would it have been so widely received?

Another whole class of art was done to promote conservation. Great activists such as Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, often working with organizations such as the Sierra Club, promoted conservation by showing beautiful pictures of wilderness areas. They were making art and serving a cause. It was and continues to be an excellent strategy: beautiful and uplifting art to show the benefits of advancing the cause. First, it was great art. Secondly, it furthered their cause.

Create art that resonates

I suggest, for those of us who haven’t reached the stature of a Picasso, that we first create great art. If we can capture beauty or reveal deep insights into the human condition or the world around us, that will attract attention. If we earn a forum to speak from, then we can tie our art in to a cause and try to persuade people. Produce things that attract people so they will listen to you.

There is an old saying that “you can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Leaving aside the question of why you would want to attract flies, you will build an audience by giving people things they are drawn to.

Alexandra Klimas paints portraits of animals that are part of our food chain. They are warm and touching portraits and they make us think fresh about the animals. She says, “I am not an activist, I am an artist and I make art. Art should touch people and make them think. I don’t want to shock people. I am satisfied when people feel more connected to this group of ‘forgotten’ animals.” I think she has a great approach.

Even if you are not promoting a cause, don’t you want people to resonate with your art? Not to say we should take a coldly commercial view and only produce what is popular at the moment. That is a sell-out. Shouldn’t we use our creativity to engage people, to draw them in, to make them ask questions?

After all, it is supposed to be art. Go and make great art. It might help promote your cause. Or it might just make the world better. We need that more and more these days.