Wednesday, October 21, 2015

NOTES ON THE ART OF BLACK & WHITE

As I mentioned in my previous post, I have been spending a great deal of my time studying a wide range of topics which now includes glaciers and the effects of climate change (which I will touch upon in the near future), the art of Impressionist painters, and the human condition of being an artist and creative person (also an upcoming post). 

My subject of primary interest has been the B&W photographers of the 1930's up to the early 1950's, and not just those working in the landscape genre. I have looked at many of the works of Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Edward Stiechen, Richard Avedon, Elliot Porter, Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and of course Ansel Adams just to name a few. 

In particular, I have been perusing the works of Lee Miller, a woman who began her career as a fashion model for Vogue magazine during the late 1920's, then moved behind the camera after moving to Paris in the early 1930's, and finally became a war correspondent/photographer during WWII. As a neophyte photographer, she studied under another significant photographer of the time, Man Ray. From him she learned not only composition, but unique techniques in lighting and the use of shadows. After becoming an accomplished photographer it was only natural that she work in fashion photography because of her contacts and previous associations. I have found this genre of her work, especially for both the French and British versions of Vogue magazine, to be some of the best I have seen, particularly her smooth highlight tones. In comparison with Edward Stiechen's work, who was considered the best in the world of fashion and portrait photography, her work seems to be much more elegant and creative than most of his work, and better than most of her contemporaries as well.

I mentioned in a previous post that I had also been studying the work of Ansel Adams. What I have been discovering in his work are his use of deep blacks and scintillating highlights in his prints. There is a distinct evolution in this aspect of his work after WWII, where it appears that he achieved a balance between the two that I find more eye catching than his earlier work, or for that matter, his later work. Of course all of this is due to burning and dodging in the darkroom, what we now do with masks, brushes, and grads in Lightroom and Photoshop. His technique in the field was to produce an even toned negative which would allow him more latitude with his printing techniques. Today, we follow his example by trying to create a RAW file that is somewhat over exposed, allowing us the same latitude with which to work with our available tools on screen.

As a direct result of this investigation of technique, I looked back at all of my work since I switched to digital and found that I had subconsciously been practicing these techniques all along. A subliminal message transmitted down through the last few years has become the norm in most of my conversions, and obviously is a direct influence from previous viewings of the work of the masters. This is not to say that I consider my work as good or better than Ansel's, but that I have found what I consider my own niche in the B&W genre. In today's world of photography, it is almost impossible to be unique without drawing some form of criticism, occasionally some praise, or comparisons to any number of artists who are considered masters of the art. And yet, finding one's place in B&W is easier in some respects than with color work.

As an example of what I am talking about, the image Ghost Trees below reveals deep blacks and luminous highlights while retaining some details in the shadows. The image conveys a dark mood of mystery and shadows in keeping with the nature of the scene, that being the trees were torched in an intense wildfire that burned for a week before being brought under control. I could have brightened the image to reveal more shadow detail, yet I wanted to evoke a mood of darkness and destruction to complete the mood I wished to achieve in the image.




This is a conscious effort on my part simply because I like the way these techniques make the image appear to have depth. When the tonal values are too close to each other, the image tends to look flat to my eye and lacks enough separation between tones to make the image interesting. This trend is quite evident in much of the B&W work today, especially in architectural works.

What I am driving at here with all of this is rhetoric is that we each see differently when it comes to our perceived aesthetics, a subject that I continually return to time and time again. It is what separates us from each other as photographers and reveals a sense of individuality in our work. Without these distinctions, our work becomes mundane, or worse yet, we all become copy cats and do a disservice to the art of photography.

Like any creative venture, it takes time to evolve a sense of personal aesthetics. Our evolution as artists is a long path, but in the end, we all begin to create work that is distinctive in all aspects, which makes each of us and our art unique.



 
You can learn more about Lee Miller here: Lee Miller

If you would like to receive notice of future posts of this Journal, send me an email at tgwholo@gmail.com and I will add you to the list.

Until next time ....

4 comments:

  1. Very interesting write Thomas. I especially enjoyed your conclusion with your perception of individual creativity. Thank you!

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  2. Muy interesante, Thomas ! Alguno de estos fotógrafos no los conocía, y otros están entre mis favoritos, junto con Susan Meyer, Robert Capa y su hermano Cornell, Cartier-Bresson,entre otros...

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  3. What is amazing is how one can be influenced by those who are well known in a field that is shared without copying or replicating in a way that is becomes a bore to look at. When images all begin to look alike it makes Photography look bad for those who truly have a unique style in how they capture what they see. Your images lean heavily towards ' what hasn't been done over and over again ' and that is what is most appealing about your work. A Thomas Welborn original is what we get with you. It's so refreshing. By the way... are they going to let you take a camera to Mars ? I think you need to apply for the official photographer position.

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  4. I've always been attracted to black and white photography, without asking me why. I did not do any kind of artistic studies and it is only a pure visual pleasure when I like a photo. I want that picture to be original, I'm sick of photos that look alike. And i see this originality in your pictures. All the best wishes from Romania my friend!

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