Some art lays everything out for you. What you see is what you get. Some art, though, seems to bring mystery to the image. You, the viewer, must become involved with it and imagine what you cannot see. I find I am being drawn more to the mystery side.
Note: this article was inspired by an article "The Imaginary Shadows" in Better Photography Magazine #112.
I used to think full tonal range realism was the ideal for most art and photography in particular. I loved hyper realism. Honestly, I still do. Super detail throughout, Textures so crisp you think you can feel them. That is one reason I use a camera with good lenses and lot of pixels.
You know the drill, especially if you are were in a camera club. Expose to the right, but no blown out highlights. Full histogram down to a few spots of rich blacks. The subject must be in the sharpest possible focus. Well sharpened overall, but with no halos. Printed using the best available paper and techniques so another photographer can come right up to the print as close as he can see and it all looks smooth and sharp to his critical eye.
All these things are good ideas, but not a formula for making great art. I spent years honing my craft to be able to capture all those pixels in the best way. And more learning how to process the files to bring out all that detail. The technician in me loves the technical challenge. And the purist in me loves to see all that gorgeous detail and texture.
There is a problem I am starting to see, though. When you clearly show the viewer everything there is to see, it gets boring quickly. There is little holding power in the image. It is like a movie preview that gives away the whole plot. There is no mystery left. Viewers pass on fairly quickly.
It is starting to sink in to me that in art and life, a lot is about contrasts. Contrasts put things in opposition. We are drawn to regions of sharp contrast. It is in our hard wiring.
Contrasts are a way of comparing things by showing opposing qualities. The contrasts can be light vs dark, in focus vs out of focus, warm colors vs cool colors, moving vs still, hard vs soft, textured vs smooth – there are too many to enumerate.
But we instinctively know that contrasts define a comparison that is important to the image. So we are drawn to the contrasted areas. We spend time looking and trying to figure out the meaning or importance of the contrast.
It helps guide our understanding of the image and we become more involved in figuring out the artist’s intent.
So, perhaps, viewers actually appreciate some need to think about and spend some time with an image. I call this introducing mystery. The viewer wants to get engaged and invest some energy in it. Contrasts are one primary way to do this.
Unlike just a flat field of pixels, contrasts help the viewer understand the artist’s intent. It shows what relationships the artist wants to point out. What comparisons he wants to make. Contrasts help point out what the artist wanted us to notice.
The mystery of black
There is a special type of contrast often used in black & white images: areas of black. An article by Len Metcalf in a recent issue of Better Photography magazine brought this to my attention. It was kind of an “Aha” moment. You know how when you know something subconsciously, but then you see it written down and it is like a flash of insight?
Len is an excellent photographer and teacher in Australia. He was describing a realization that came to him while teaching one of his master classes. They were surrounded by prints from great photographers, from Ansel Adams to contemporary artists. He says
As I looked around the room, I became acutely aware of the intense blackness in each of the prints. As I stared, I realized that these were not little black speckles as we are cautioned about by judges in camera club competitions. … These were humongous areas of beautiful, deep rich velvety, black black, blacker than black blacks.
He goes on to observe that some artists, like Ansel Adams and Bill Brandt for example, tended to make their prints darker and darker as they got older.
Why? What were they seeing?
One of his conclusions was that they realized that, in some cases, the less said, the better. That is, areas of blacks added a new quality to the images.
He speculates that areas of highlight show all their information clearly. You see everything there is to see. The whole story is laid out clearly for us, so we do not have to work or use our imagination. But the dark areas, the spaces where we can’t see what is going on, hold interest for us. We wonder what is there. We make up our own story. it engages our imagination.
Maybe this is why artists like Ansel Adams printed larger and larger areas of deep black as they evolved in their art. By holding back some information from the viewer the image actually becomes more interesting.
Crush the blacks
So I seem to be on a campaign to crush the blacks. What this means is intentionally pushing some of the darkest grays down to pure black. Yes, it eliminates information from the image. That is something we were always taught not to do.
But it is an artistic choice. It brings the benefits I mentioned about introducing mystery and drama into an image.
It is not for all images in all situations. But when you decide to use it, go for it. Be heavy handed. Overdo it to see how far you want to take it. When I overdo it and back off some, I find that I do not back off as far as I would have if I didn’t overdo it. In other words, after seeing the result, I often want to retain more of the effect that I would have thought
It is surprising. Sometimes less is more. Experiment with making your blacks darker to see how it feels to you. I like what I am seeing so far. I used to consider dark images as somber and melancholy. Now I would more likely refer to them as mysterious. Try it and see if it feels better to you.
For fun and an experiment, I went back to an old image and re-processed it to crush the blacks even more. The result is more dark and mysterious than the original. I like it much better. Maybe it is approaching the “humongous areas of beautiful, deep rich velvety, black black, blacker than black blacks” that Len was talking about.
One other reason for doing this is to investigate a point Len made that an advantage previous generations of photographers had was that, to re-print an image, they had to go through the whole darkroom process. This gave them a chance to think about the image anew and re-interpret it according to their current sensibility. We tend to just hit print to make a new print. No thought involved.
I found, indeed, that I changed the image when I took a new fresh at it.