I was recently interviewed by Digital Photographer Magazine for an article on Fine Art Black and White Photography. I am not yet sure how much of the interview they will publish, but the following is a full transcript of my answers along with images I sent.
What would you say ‘defines’ fine art black and white photography, as opposed to just black and white photography in general? What are the specific ingredients and characteristics?
We naturally see the world around us in its myriad of colors and although black and white photography is a departure from reality, simply removing color does not necessarily elevate the image to a work of art. There has to be a reason for choosing to render a scene absent of its color. While black and white photography is traditionally all about using shape, line, form and texture to emphasize the subject, in every image I create I attempt to transcend the visual and create images that evoke emotion. I want my images to take the viewer on an emotional road trip, where senses other than vision are stimulated. Like the author of a good book connects his or her readers with the characters and the plot, I want to place my viewers into the scene. For example, I want them to feel the sharp edges of a rock weathered by the elements, or the cold of the snow surrounding a stand of trees. I want them to hear the sound of water trickling over rocks in a slow moving stream, or the torrent of water gushing over a waterfall. Therefore, to me, fine art black and white photographs are those that transcend the visual and stimulate senses and evoke emotions that arouse imagination.
What do you think are the hallmarks of a truly successful fine art black and white photograph? What works the best examples succeed?
Truly successful fine art black and white photographs are those that fill me with wonder and imagination. Technical and emotional content are balanced and compliment one another. Although the photographs tell you a little about the photographer, room is left to project yourself, the viewer, into the story that is being told.
What do you think is the relationship between fine art and black and white (as opposed to colour)?
Black and white images use tonal relationships and contrast to create tension. A narrow range of tones typically evokes feelings of power, such as anger and rage whereas a broader range of tones evokes much calmer feelings. To me, color often creates distractions that stand in the way of engaging with the image on an emotional level.
What practical advice would you give to someone who would like to start taking (or improve their) fine art black and white photography?
Get in touch with your inner feelings and analyze your reactions and responses to situations or scenes that interest you. Understanding emotional response is very important when creating images that not only reproduce what you saw, but also what you felt or what you want your viewer to feel. It is important to understand what it is that makes us stop and point our lens at something, which is often something other than what we simply see. In addition to building our own technical toolkit it is also important to build an emotional one too and combine each to create images that tell a story.
How would you describe your own style of fine art black and white photography? What do you try to achieve and what do you look for? What are the defining features of your approach to this genre?
Not only do we live in a colorful world, we live in one where the scene in front of us is often complex. Whether driving down a country lane or walking in a city, somewhere within that complexity lies the reason why we decided to stop at a particular moment in time, aim our lens and press the shutter release. For me, I look for the simple in the complex. I look for that singular element that captures the visual and emotional essence of the scene.
What shooting techniques do you use, in terms of aperture, choice of lens, shutter speed etc and how do these contribute to the type of fine art black and white photography you produce?
I use whatever lens is going to allow me to focus attention on that singular element that defines the emotional response I have to a scene. I carry a number of lenses with me, ranging from wide angle to telephoto.
I generally strive for sharp focus and a deep depth of field, so most of my images are shot at f16. Since many of my images require long shutter speeds to slow down fast moving water or to create motion in clouds, I nearly always carry a tripod with me.
What processing techniques do you use? How do you convert your images into black and white?
Although I sometimes venture into film – I still have a sizable stock of Polaroid PN 55 4×5 film that I use in my view camera, the majority of my work is digital. I use Photoshop with the Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin, which I use to convert my images to black and white.
I try to keep my post processing workflow simple. I try to capture the best image possible when I take the photograph and minimize the amount of time I have to spend in front of the computer working on the final image. Although I enjoy looking at images on the computer, I do not consider the image complete until it has been printed. I use an Epson Stylus Pro 4800 printer and since I believe intimacy helps create a connection with a photograph, I rarely print large images. I want the viewer to be able to hold the image close to them and explore its various nuances, rather than having to stand back a distance.
What are the mistakes that are commonly made with black and white fine art photography and how can these be avoided?
Photography is about our own personal journey in life and each image we create says as much about ourselves as it does the scene we are photographing. Photography is a vehicle for self-expression. Often, however, we are drawn to a location because we have seen amazing photographs taken by other people and our game plan becomes one of recreating those same photographs. Frequently, we end up wondering why the images we create do not stack up against those taken by our heroes. The simple reason is that we each see the world around us in very different ways and we all have different emotional responses to a scene. It is impossible to recreate the vision and feeling of another person.
Additionally, it is vitally important to form some kind of a connection with the subject you are photographing. This “connection” requires that you pay respect to the subject, which often means that you sit with it for a period of time before even setting up your camera to shoot. Study the scene in front of you. Develop connections, including emotional ones. Look at how a change in light or a change in vantage point may render an entirely different look or feel of a scene. In today’s digital age it is all too easy (and cheap) to walk up to a scene and start snapping away in an attempt to “guarantee” you have the shot.
What are the emotions you think that fine art black and white photography should provoke and why?
A successful fine art black and white photograph is one that stimulates the senses. You are transported into the scene and in addition to seeing the subject, you begin to touch, feel, or smell. Your imagination is placed on overdrive and the longing you feel to be there introduces the story you begin to tell yourself.
Why do you think certain topics and subjects, e.g. nudity and a sense of the unusual, have come to be associated with fine art black and white photography?
As with any great photograph, our emotional response forms a connection that arouses the imagination. When I see images of the nude, I see the human landscape. I see how light has been used to emphasize shape, line and texture in much the same way they are used to emphasize a subject within the natural landscape. Photographs of the unusual evoke the same response – they arouse the imagination and we begin to wonder.
How important is chiaroscuro for this type of photography?
The relationship between dark and light (contrast) in fine art black and white photography is vital. The eye is naturally drawn to areas of high contrast within a photograph. In my work I use contrast to focus attention on a particular part of the image and tonal range to emphasize mood.
How important is it to make artistic use of depth of field?
I tend to use a deep depth of field in my images to allow my viewer’s eyes to wander around the entire scene. Generally, this “rule” works for me since I work hard to keep the scene simple, clean and free of distractions. However, every once in a while narrowing the depth of field will help remove distractions that I cannot remove when taking the photograph. In doing so, I can use a shallow depth of field to help focus my viewer’s attention on the subject.