Black and White, Again

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
    Ansel Adams

In June, 2012, I wrote about making black and white photos, how I love looking at them, making them, and why I don't do much of it. While the majority of my work is still color, I've found myself thinking of black and white more often when looking things and composing pictures, and playing around a bit with different papers when printing black and white. This is hardly a sea-change for me, but my volume of B&W work, including prints, is increasing.

In the earlier article I mentioned photographing derelict buildings, the remains of old fences, and other wooden artifacts not uncommon in the rural landscape in which I live and typically work. Often I think these kinds of subjects just need to be printed in B&W, which so beautifully brings out the grain, texture, tonal range, and detail, all things that make such subjects interesting to me in the first place. Most of my B&W in recent years has been of these kinds of subjects.

There's no shortage of B&W inspiration. I've a number of books of B&W photos of these kinds of subjects, and of course the Web is chock-full of photographers' sites, many of whom work almost exclusively in monochrome. There's a lot to look at, and then flatter by imitation, which one hopes will advance into capturing something unique now and then. There are worse ways to grow in new directions.

A Different “Me, Too”

Salsify seed-head

Salsify seed-head in strong morning side-light, rendered in black-and-white. I used a square frame and mat, cropping the print on the sides similar to the cropping at top and bottom.

I recently bought a copy of “William Neill, Photographer - A Retrospective.” Of the 150 or so photos in the book, eighteen, in a section titled “Meditations in Monochrome,” are black and white. All, including those of subjects we've seen elsewhere, are beautifully executed. There are wonderful pictures of grand landscapes, sand dunes, clouds, and foggy forests. But those that stuck with me are close-ups of what seemed to me less common subjects. Not necessarily “macro” photos, but close, intimate pictures of leaves, seed-heads, even silky-soft waterfalls and the sinuous rock of a slot canyon.

These close-ups inspired me to try something similar. I opened the book and returned over and over to Neill's photo of a salsify seed-head. Around here, yellow salsify is an introduced (from Eurasia) weed, prolific and problematic for ranchers, and a nuisance for us small-lot owners trying to keep the weeds to a minimum. In other words, there's no shortage of these things around to photograph, and it's easy to find perfect specimens (after all, if you're going to get in close you don't want your subject damaged, broken, or insect-chewed). My favorite result, from my many attempts, is similar in concept but different in execution than Neill's, but all the credit goes to him for providing the inspiration. Although my picture is rectangular like Neill's, when printed I framed it square, cropping tightly into the seed-head on all four sides. (Neill's is here and so much better.)

Since then I've given the same treatment to similar subjects, capturing them in strong morning side-light, and then processing them as black and white, often with high contrast. One has to make such pictures in windless conditions or find some way to shelter these almost ephemeral subjects, which seem to move at a glance. But that's all part of the fun. As with color photography, the light is the most important thing.

Bright sun lights Canada wild-rye

Canada wild rye grass in warm morning light.

My favorite subjects for monochrome have long been the old buildings. While those are obvious targets for B&W work for the previously stated reasons, I'll be watching for other, perhaps less common things to photograph in black and white. I've got a few subjects in mind for which I'll need pure white backgrounds. Winter is coming!

August, 2018

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