I seem to be following a couple of converging streams lately. Several times recently I have discussed whether art, specifically photography, should be “real” – e.g. faithful to the original. I have also been thinking a lot about black & white. Today I am merging these thoughts (don’t cross the streams!). I want to talk about making a black & white picture. That is explicitly chosen rather than saying “taking” a black & white picture.
A unique art
In my last post I mentioned some of the history of black & white imaging. This is important to keep in mind. This is not just general photography. It is a specific art form with a long tradition.
We are not talking about just taking the color out of a picture. How many times have you heard someone say “that did not work in color, let’s try it is black & white”? As if to say that black & white processing is a last ditch effort to save an image. What a very limited view.
When we step into the black & white world we are now following a different path. The way we look at the image, the way we work, the results we try to achieve are all very different from working a color image.
It is art
By its very nature, a black & white image is an abstraction. It is removed from reality. We use black & white to reinterpret scenes we see. This is art.
As art, the results do not have to recreate the reality we originally started with. Did VanGogh actually see what he painted as Starry Night? If he did, he was on some serious drugs. Are Monet’s water lilies a faithful representation of the original scene? No, they are an interpretation. This is a characteristic of art.
Likewise, black & white images are not meant to be a colorless picture of the original scene. It should capture a unique view or feeling about what it was.
This was brought home to me when watching a recent video by Serge Ramelli. The course was “Mastering Black and White Photography in Lightroom”, available on Kelby Training. (I get no compensation from Serge or Kelby One.)
What hit me was not that Lightroom is a pretty good tool for doing black & white – I knew that. I came away with a new view of how Serge approaches modifying a picture to become a good black & white image. Not just the techniques, but the boldness.
Serge has the ability to forget about the scene as shot and just look at the image on screen and ask what should be done to it to make it interesting. What it was originally is not even a consideration at this point.
Realization – I haven’t let go
The realization the hit me is that, despite all my talk about art not necessarily being representational, I have trouble making that transition in my black & white images. I get stuck too much in my memory of the scene as shot.
All that matters is the image I am working with on the screen and the final print. That is the art. What I started with doesn’t matter.
I have to get better at letting go and just working the image.
No sales pitch
I don’t want you going away thinking I am just promoting Serge. No, while he is unmistakably a very good artist, he is too commercialized for my taste. He has a neatly packaged set of products encompassing books and training videos and actions and tie-ins to other photographers and their training, etc. There is a strong a flavor of “follow my instructions and you can make pictures just like me”. Thank you, but I don’t want to copy you, Serge. I just want to improve my ability to realize my own vision.
I have learned good things from Serge’s videos, and I recommend you checking them out on Kelby One or Creative Live. He presents a lot of excellent information, but I do not want to be a Serge Ramelli clone.
Serge opened my eyes some. I realize that the boldness I thought I had is only a shadow of how I ought to be behaving. What I saw Serge doing was just working with the image until it was the artistic piece he wanted. I need to completely let go of my “knowledge” of what it is and where and how it was made. Those things are not important at this stage. All that is important is how can I make this set of pixels an interesting black & white image?
The image here is an attempt to follow this advice. This is where I live and this is a snapshot I took on a daily walk from my studio. This is basically the original image, no compositing or major editing. Creating this result was frustrating and a little painful until I really broke down my inhibitions and got in the spirit of the process. What you see here is very different in feeling and impression to the original. It works well in black & white, but it is not a faithful representation to the original. This picture was made, not just taken. I like the result.
How about you? What do you think? How much liberty should artists take?