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.

Fall in Love

Organic flow. Creative expression. Fall in love.

I advocate it, but I’m not talking about a romantic meeting. Making art should be an act of love. We should fall in love with our works, or else, why do them?

Because it’s there

I mostly wander and explore without a lot of planning or result in mind. Sometimes I shoot pictures just because something is kind of interesting and I’m there to see it. That can be good, but usually not.

Being an explorer, I follow my curiosity. I tend to try a lot of experiments to see what happens. So if something tweaks my interest I often see what I can do with it. Occasionally I have a tingle and excitement when I press the shutter, knowing that I have captured something I love. Sometimes it doesn’t happen until I am reviewing the image large on my computer. Then I discover that it is far more interesting than I thought at the time I took it. Both are joyous occurrences.

More often than not, I find I have well composed, well exposed pictures of – nothing much. I look at them later and say “yeah, it was an interesting scene and it’s an OK picture, but it doesn’t grab me.” Usually I think it is because I did not feel strongly about the subject or scene. I didn’t fall in love with it.

If I don’t feel passion for the image, how can I expect you to when you view it? It is pretty obvious to me which ones really grab me. I think you can perceive it, too.

Over-planning

At the opposite end I see some photographers occasionally get trapped by over planning. Conventional wisdom from many renowned photographers is that any photo trip or outing should be planned out in great detail. They will research a location extensively, looking at pictures from other photographers to try to find the “best” places and positions and angles and times and seasons. In addition, they will use tools like The Photographer’s Ephemeris to select the exact time and day and location to get the exact sunrise/sunset/moonrise/ etc. shot they want. And they may book an outing with a workshop or guide to help with the logistics and transportation.

Is there anything wrong with doing it this way? Absolutely not, if that is the way you work. Different personality types need to approach things in different ways. Do what works for you, but don’t get into a mental trap.

One of the traps I see is that we tend to get so invested in the preparation for the shot that we have to take it. We spent a lot of time and money to get to that point. It becomes a quest. It has artificially become so important that we have to take the pictures to validate and justify the trip.

But what happens when you get there and the weather is “bad”? Bad being not what you planned for. Maybe you don’t like the workshop leader or structure. Worst, what do you do when you get there after all the planning and expense, look at the scene, and feel “meh”?

Of course you take the pictures. You have to. But if you’re honest, they may not make your portfolio set you are excited to show people. There was just no life there. You can check off that you got the iconic shot, but maybe it ends up not being very important.

Having our expectations too high can lead to disappointment.

Anti-planning?

You can guess from what I’ve written that detailed planning is not for me. I am almost an anti-planner. I tend to come at things the opposite way. Going to iconic locations and fighting for a tripod location and taking the exact same image 10,000 other photographers have taken just in the last month is not a motivation for me.

Yes, the scene is beautiful. Yes, it is probably salable because it is the type of image people like to have on their wall. Economically it is foolish to not get this image and pander to the crowd.

But for me, even though I think the scene is beautiful, I probably will not feel great passion for it. How can I distinguish myself from the thousands of other photographers shooting the same things? How can I tell my story or share my feelings?

In love

Back to the original statement of this article, I believe I have to fall in love with my images. If I am going to show you something I have made, it has to be much more than good. It has to have a passion you can sense. How can I bring you art you want unless I feel strongly about it?

Thoreau said “A man has not seen a thing who has not felt it.” The famous photographer John Sexton said “Too often we attempt to force a photograph out of a situation rather than allow the situation to speak to us.”

I am guilty at times of trying to force images to be there when I’m not actually listening and feeling. I recognize it. It is painfully obvious when I am reviewing them in Lightroom that I have a bunch of well executed pictures that mean nothing to me. Trashing them is the best thing to do. And use it as a reminder to follow the passion more than the light. If I don’t have a sense of wonder and passion for the image that is a good sign that it probably didn’t work.

“Follow your passion” is not always good advice in life – you have to do a lot of things you don’t like. But in art it is great advice. It may not be the clear path to fame and fortune, but you will feel good about what you create. And your viewers can tell. Love your work.

This example

I have used this image at the top before. It is a good illustration of my point here, though.

I love this image. I could stare at it for a long time. It speaks to me at a level I can’t even describe. The rich color, the organic flow, the streaks of movement over time, the standing wave shapes, the minimalist simplicity all move me.

This as shown here is almost straight out of the camera. It is what I shot. Yes, it has been cropped square and had some minor tone corrections, but this is what I discovered and jumped on. The color and the time effects of the flow are as shot. I liked it as seen through the viewfinder. I loved it after I saw it large on the computer.

It is one of the few pictures I have hanging on my wall at home.

Photoshopped

Impressionistic photography

It may be said as an insult. It may be used to shame the photographer as “not a purist”. But should it be? What is wrong with an image being Photoshopped?

History

Photography began as a medium of realism. It is said that Impressionist painting (Monet, vanGogh, etc) was a reaction to the realism of photography. They took their art is a direction photography could not challenge – at the time.

Have you ever thought of traditional painting changing its direction because of photography?

The development of Impressionism can be considered partly as a reaction by artists to the challenge presented by photography, which seemed to devalue the artist’s skill in reproducing reality. Both portrait and landscape paintings were deemed somewhat deficient and lacking in truth as photography “produced lifelike images much more efficiently and reliably”.[31]

Because of the history, and the fact that everything the lens sees is recorded in detail, people tend to have an expectation that a photograph is “real”. A picture can’t lie.

Not only is this wrong in so many ways, but it is no longer a realistic expectation of photography.

Common practice

All photographs are altered from what the sensor recorded. Even if you just take that picture you snapped on your phone and post it to social media, it was altered a lot before you ever saw it. All sorts of distortion corrections, color enhancements, gamma correction and noise reduction was done by the phone. Their algorithms are very good at making the picture look like what you expected to see. It is not the same as the phone recorded.

All images you see in prints or any media are altered – Photoshopped. Some massively. Some just minor color correction and tone enhancements. I would never insult you by showing you an unprocessed picture. Unless it was to make a point about the kind of processing I do.

Even to do black & white these days requires a lot of image processing.

Did you know that even movies are “Photoshopped”? An obvious example is CGI. That stands for computer generated imagery. It proudly states that a lot of what you are seeing is artificially created. And we love it in big action movies.

Nearly all movies are digitally recorded now . All are processed and retouched frame by frame in addition to CGI enhancements. The overall color you see is even completely controlled. They call it color grading. The entire look and shading of each scene is digitally processed to set the mood the director wants.

Bad Photoshopping

One thing I will join people in denouncing is bad Photoshopping. Photoshop is a very complex program to master. It can take years – and they are constantly changing it. But even so, we are artists. We have no excuse for not mastering our tools.

Not knowing how to use the tools to accomplish our vision is like a painter not knowing how to use a brush or a metal sculptor not knowing how to weld. Just using some simple sliders to make the color of an image wonky is not much of an artistic statement.

Yet I have heard well-known professionals almost brag about their limited knowledge of Photoshop. But the reality is that they know enough to do what they want. The exception is Jay Maisel. Jay is one of the greats who I admire. He brags that he does not even have Photoshop on his computer. That is probably true, but he has full time assistants who do have it and can make a picture look like what he tells them he wants. So, a slight exaggeration for dramatic effect.

For the others, though, who really do not know Photoshop well: spend time learning it. It will reward you by making you more efficient and it will open up new artistic possibilities for you.

Artistic expression

My work is called “fine art”. I don’t like the term, but we are stuck with it. Fine art, among other things, means it is not literal or representational. I feel free to bend and even break pixels to any degree I want to bring you the art I see.

I guarantee that any image of mine you see has been processed in Lightroom Classic and maybe Photoshop. Both great tools are well capable of altering the reality of the original frame. And I do alter them.

It can range from basic color and tone correction to removing distracting elements to compositing several images together to create something new. Anything is fair game. The more adapt at my tools I get, the more I am able to use them to help me change my vision. It is circular: what we find out we can do helps us to see new things to do.

Accept it

I accepted it a long time ago. My Photoshopping goes back to about version 5 or 6. In the beginning, I was mostly just doing minor corrections on my very realistic landscapes. I have fond memories of the controversy in the camera club I was in at the time when I won best of show with the first digitally manipulated image ever submitted to them.

Since then I keep widening my vision and perspective. Realism was so deeply ingrained in me that I have had to work at giving myself permission to let my imagination go free.

I’m not where I want to be yet, but I take a much more liberal view of what I can do in an image. Still, I am my own limitation.

If you are seeking “truth” in images, be careful. But if it is important to you, do some research to find out if the image has been manipulated materially. It has been manipulated. but that doesn’t mean content has been added or deleted.

Finding truth is rare in our world. When you look at an image, assume it is art, not truth. At least, that will be true for my work. I may bring truth, but that does not mean it is realism. My images are photoshopped.

The future

In the 19th century, painting was mostly about realism. Then photography came along and took over realism. So painting moved to Impressionism and modernism and abstraction. Now digital art is perfectly capable of creating any abstract or impressionist images we desire. Where will painting go next to separate themselves?

Competition

Starting fear in the eye

Why is it that we feel like we are in competition with other artists? Maybe, at its root, it is envy or insecurity. I don’t like to live in a competition. My desire is to make art and share my vision with other people. I believe that feeling we are in competition with other artists leads to problems for ourselves and can be a malignant stress eating away at us.

Not competing until…

Most people merrily go through their lives enjoying art without feeling any sense of competition. But for those of us who become artists, unfortunately, we tend to become critical and competitive.

Once we are in the game we tend to look at other artist’s work more critically. It is hard to not think we could do better. Or think that our image that was similar was better composed and executed. Maybe we are right. Often, though, it is our ego or fear talking.

Theodore Roosevelt (may have) once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Regardless of who said it, it is true that comparing ourselves to others is seldom beneficial and uplifting.

Fear

Why should we fear looking at someone else’s work? I think a lot of us are insecure. We aren’t secure in our conviction about the adequacy of our artistic skills. We have to boost our confidence by convincing our self that we are as good as them. Perhaps we fear failure and are unwilling to put our work out in the world publicly and face the potential criticism and rejection.

It is not really a zero sum game – one winner and everybody else looses. When we see someone’s work that is good and excites us, we should be happy. It was a great achievement by them and it can inspire us to rise to greater levels in our own work.

But doesn’t their achievement strike fear into us? Oh no, we aren’t any good, why am I calling myself an artist, how can I ever compete with them? This is our insecurity turned to fear. We try to compensate by criticizing the other artist’s work. Maybe it will make us feel better. If we believe our self.

Jealousy

Another negative feeling we may get is jealousy. We may not like to admit it, but think about it. Other people are getting praise and attention. They are selling well and making a lot of money. I should be in this gallery instead of them.

We wish we were them. So we resent them. We look for ways to tear them down and to prove, even just to ourselves, that they are not so great. To believe that we are just as good.

But don’t forget, you are jealous of them because you recognize their talent. That should be sobering.

Become a critic

Even if we don’t have full on, green-eyed jealousy, we may become a critic. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s famous quote: “Those who can, do. Those who can’t become critics.”

We can get to this point through festering fear or envy or jealousy. We try to put ourselves above the other artist. To give ourselves credentials to label them, to minimize their achievements, even to just nit-pick (the top left corner is not in perfect focus).

Let me be very controversial and say I don’t think there are many critics who are worth listening to. Unless a critic has demonstrated history of creativity and success in similar art forms, they should be just another voice of someone entitled to their personal opinion.

If George Lepp or John Paul Canponigro gave me a critique I would listen closely and thank them for their opinion. I would carefully consider it and may or may not act on it. If I decided to critique George Lepp, he probably wouldn’t listen to me at all. As he should. I have little experience in his genre and zero track record compared to him.

Competitive market

It is unavoidable a highly competitive market. We are always being compared to other artists. Fairly or unfairly, there will be winners and losers. The best don’t always win. “If you make it they will come” is ridiculous. There are biases and vested interests and politics at play everywhere.

When we compete – and we always compete – we need to avoid the attitude that we are competing against “all those other artists”. That is turning our view out to worry about forces we cannot control. Instead, do your best and make work you are proud of.

Sure, for a particular contest, we could research the judges and their styles and biases and research the audience and what usually sells and create work designed to score well here. It might work. But whose art are you creating? Is your work going to be dictated by other people’s attitudes?

Relax

Fear, jealousy, envy, and being critical are self-destructive attitudes. Look at other artist’s work and admire the ones you like. Go to them and sincerely congratulate them. It will have rewards for both of you. You will reclaim your self confidence and creativity. Getting over the competition and fear and jealousy will free up your emotional energy to create art.

The reality is that we have our own unique vision, our own style and viewpoint. We are best off when we try to be the best version of our self we can be and create our own art. Even is nobody appreciates it. (cue a vanGogh discussion here 🙂 ) Unless you are starving and view your art as a job to earn money, it is better to follow your own vision. It would feel good to win that contest, but wouldn’t it be more rewarding to feel very proud of what we created?

Art is an intensely personal internal journey. Hence the tag line for my blog: An artist’s journey.

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?