Shades of Gray

“Life isn't black and white. It's a million gray areas, don't you find?”
   Ridley Scott

Early in June I wrote a post for my blog about printing black and white photos. That posting was largely about the mechanics of printing (it's a printer blog, after all), especially processing and printing B&W images. Since I wrote that posting I've thought about B&W a lot. I've made a number of new B&W prints, which I'll probably have in my inventory for a long time.

Crumbling old shack in Bynum, Montana, U.S.

“Disconnected”, an old derelict shack in Bynum, Montana.

I love B&W as an art form; many of the photos displayed on my walls are black and white work by other photographers. There's a great deal of stunning B&W photography on the Web, making it easy to study the work of others. In the field I like to practice “seeing” my subjects, which are more often landscapes than any other, in shades of gray. There's been much written about this, about reducing a subject to its graphic essentials, about seeing the tonal values in a scene, and even about how shooting for B&W can push the “magic hour” into magic hours that extend well into the harsh light of afternoon. The Zone System is often mentioned, and it's a rare article that doesn't mention by name one or two reknowned photographers who pushed the medium to atmospheric heights, as if naming them adds authority to the articles. It may, or not; regardless, if you're interested in the how-to's of great black and white photography, you'll have no trouble finding plenty to read.

Doing What I Love, But Not Much Of It

When I had my first SLR, in the early 1970s, I shot only B&W for several years, consuming roll after roll of Pan-X and Tri-X and looking at 4x6 inch glossy prints processed by a Kodak lab in my home state (Kodak did indeed process its black and white films once-upon-a-time!). I loved doing it then, and I love it still. The first large-format printer I owned, a Canon iPF 5000, did a so-so job printing black and white. On mat (matte) papers it was quite good, but suffered from gloss differential and bronzing on gloss papers. My Epson Stylus Pro 7900 does an excellent job; gloss diff is an issue with most ink-jet printers, but the 7900 exhibits very little of this on my favorite gloss papers. Bronzing is simply not an issue. But as I said in the above-mentioned blog posting, I haven't printed a lot of black and white.

Sunrise reflections in Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Glacier's Stanton Mountain, Mt. Vaught, the Highline, Mount Cannon, and Mount Brown (left to right) a few minutes after sunrise on the 2011 vernal equinox.

I don't print much B&W for the simple reason that it doesn't sell well where I live (I do print black and white work for my own satisfaction—I'm not entirely mercenary about it!). Perhaps there's no market for B&W work in the galleries in which I'm represented. I live in a small town, surrounded by a few smaller towns, with the larger cities of Kalispell to the north and Missoula to the south. It's not a bad local market; most sales happen during the summer “tourist season”. The bulk of my photo sales are to people who come here to visit Flathead Lake, Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks, and all the natural wonders Montana has to offer. People come here from all over the world. Some of them buy fine-art photos of the places they visit. But they don't buy B&W work. I think the reason is simple enough: when you're standing on the shore of Glacier's Lake McDonald, or with your fly rod in a beautiful trout stream, or looking across a valley from the top of a mountain, you see glorious color (most of the time). Understandably, you want to take home colorful pictures that will remind you of that experience.

On the Other Hand…

Snow on Snyder Creek, Glacier National Park, Montana, U.S.

Snyder Creek nestled into a blanket of snow, Glacier National Park.

Maybe the message is that I'm a lousy black and white photographer. I hope that's not true, but I'll make no assumptions; I'll leave it to you to judge. As always, I will continue working to improve my craft, both the capture and the printing of black and white photographs. I may not print much of it for galleries or other public display, but I'll shoot black and white for my own satisfaction, and print the best work for display on my own walls. Some of that will also be posted to this site.

For some time I've been accumulating a body of work that includes decaying old buildings from farms and ranches, crumbling fences, and other structures that appear unlikely to stand much longer. I wrote about this in my December, 2011 article, “Gravity”, and have a gallery on this site of the work so far. As stated in the article, I suspect most of the pictures I make of this subject will be black and white.

For the most part, the photos on this site are organized by subject or location. But perhaps I'll create a gallery on the site for all of my B&W work, regardless of subject, so the black and white pictures can be more conveniently browsed. When I do that I'll update this article (and the site map and galleries pages) to include the link.

June, 2012

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