Archive for Alan Schaller

Further Adventures In Black and White

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 29, 2019 by johnbuckley100

A few weeks ago I wrote about my revelation — honestly, it was an epiphany — that the way to think about “black and white photography” was to ignore the description of it as “monochrome,” and instead to press down really hard on the blacks and the whites. Simple stuff, obvious to many, an eye opener for me.

My rediscovery of taking black and white pictures, as I have mentioned before, came when Leica introduced, in 2012, the Monochrom, a digital camera that records images without adding an array of reds, greens and blues to the initial capture of blacks, whites and grey. Prior to the introduction of the Monochrom, seven years ago this coming September, I had not understood that digital photography is based on an initial imprint of black and white on the sensor, and that a gazillionth of a second later, what is typically known as a Bayer array of color is pressed down upon it. (Engineers and sensor experts may have a more exact description, but that’s the way most people should think of this process that takes place in tiny fractions of a second. Color is, typically, added to the black and white picture first pressed upon the sensor.) And yet the Monochrom, with its reference to monochromatic photography, really is a misnomer, given everything we’ve learned.

If you follow street photographers on Instagram, surely you’ve noticed images like the ones above and below, where there is almost a chiaroscuro effect, deep blacks next to bright light. It’s a thing. This approach bears a relationship to all of the black and white images we’ve looked at over the years. Yet the actual strategy of capturing contrapuntal blacks and whites — with entire regions of the image blacked out — is, I think, something that has at least been emphasized in the digital era, and championed by a new cohort of amazing street photographers.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had gone to a photo workshop taught by the estimable Alan Schaller who is, in my opinion, the strongest exemplar of this approach. Instagram seems to agree, given his hundreds of thousands of followers. In the previous post, I alluded to his technique of dialing down exposure compensation so that images are radically underexposed, thus enabling darks to get darker, with what remains in the light intensified. It is, to my eyes, an attractive approach. Practical, if you shoot a Monochrom, which is brutally punishing if you overexpose what’s in the light. But as attested by all these pictures you’ve been seeing taken in subways and tunnels, where the light/dark juxtaposition can be, and often is, stunning, this is not a trick, a gimmick, a fad. It’s not even a trick like emphasizing bokeh with fast lenses (or a clever iPhone), which can get tiresome if overdone. This technique is simply an intensification of timeless black and white photography — itself a timeless art form — and in many ways its apogee.

There is drama in black and white photography if what is dark and what is light are each dialed up in opposition. Polarization is terrible for society, but man, does it work in photography. In the film and darkroom era, much of this manipulation of darks and lights took place when the enlarger was burning the image onto a piece of treated paper prior to its chemical bath. In the digital age, we’re given more leeway to capture it this way inside the camera, in these malleable, deeply forgiving files, with the picture’s actualization coming in post-processing in Lightroom. (Gary Winogrand once casually talked about how photography lets you make mistakes, and things could still look good, but digital photography offers an entirely wider permission structure.)

Penumbral photography, as Nabokov would probably call it, is when the counterpoint between light and dark falls in shadow. And so we go out into the street searching for shadows, for the drama of light falling in grids and patterns. We don’t really know why this is harder to achieve in color, given that one reason we all so love Caravaggio is because of the color that emerges from the gloom, not just the light. But the answer is, I guess, that in photography, it is just easier to make this work within the limitations of black and white.

When photographers typically are complimented by civilians, the nice, easy thing they hear is, “You have a good eye.” In recent weeks, I’ve been going out into the city seeking places where there is the clearest possible delineation between light and dark. That’s what I’ve been looking for. It’s not just a function of seeking out content and subjects that matter, though of course they do. The desire is to find light, and dark, in a formation where a human emerges from that meeting place.

Along the way, we’ve made pictures that would, six weeks ago, still have been fun. But by newly emphasizing what is black, things have, to our eyes, simply gotten more interesting. The picture above is something I would have enjoyed taking anytime over the last few years. I probably would have been pleased with the composition. But because it is now not taken as a “monochrome” image, but as black and white, I think it moves higher up in my own list of favorite images.

I would have been happy to have taken the above image because of the way it simply captures the baby looking at the camera, the little fella with the beret standing to the right, the reflection to the left. Yet because I went into the process thinking anew, because each of the 10 zones of black, white and grey have at least some representation, the picture comes out, to my eye, more interesting.

One of my favorite photographers, Rene Burri, is perhaps most famous for his pictures of people taken from above, freezing them in time. I love the idea of standing unseen and capturing the drama within the diorama before my eyes. Emphasizing the light and dark, though, opens up new possibilities. And of course, the little girl in white going down the steps makes the picture.

“Good things happen when light meets dark” is an aphorism for photographers, whether they shoot in color or black and white. Thinking of this in a wholly new way, thinking in the binary of BLACK and WHITE with shades of grey the connective tissue, the emollient; understanding that, as Schaller put it, there is no bad light, if you just think in terms of the contrast between shades of it, is liberating. We are seeing the world in a new way, and we find that thrilling.

If you wish to come along the journey with me, my Instagram is @tulip_frenzy. And if you’d like to see more work, my photography site is entitled John Buckley: In Black and White and Color.

Understanding Black and White Photography In a New Way

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 5, 2019 by johnbuckley100

All photographs taken with the Leica Monochrom

When I was a young photography enthusiast and learning to take pictures with an SLR camera, I loved black and white photography principally because I could develop and print photos in my school’s crude darkroom. I had no real appreciation of black and white per se, no consciousness of tones of grey, or to “thinking in black and white.” Black and white was the medium of journalism, and we all saw pictures every day in newspapers and magazines. I didn’t trouble to think about monochrome photography in the great tradition of an art form I barely understood. I was aware that if photography was “art,” surely its greatest artists all shot in black and white, and the classic pictures I saw — Paul Strand lived one town away from me — looked better than what was on the front page each day of the New York Daily News. Naturally, as soon as I was in a position to take pictures and pay to have them developed, I began shooting Kodachrome. And when many years later I got serious again about photography, I exulted in Fuji Velvia film, with its deep blues and reds.

It was only relatively late in the process of rediscovering photography that I recaptured my early love of black and white images, only this time for a completely different reason. I had begun studying in earnest many great photographers, ranging from Cartier-Bresson to Ansel Adams. For the first time, I became conscious of tones, of the minute differences in what Adams divined as a 10-point scale between white and black.

If there was one thunderclap moment, an epiphany when my life as a photographer changed, it was when Leica did the craziest thing, producing, in 2012, a camera called the Monochrom. The Leica Monochrom is digital, but it does not record photos with color. Walking out the door with it is like leaving home with only black and white film in your camera. Once I began using a Monochrom, more and more, I began visualizing images in black and white, began to focus on luminance values, not chromatic information. About half of all the pictures I took were now in black and white — street photography, landscapes. It didn’t matter. I began instinctively to understand the concept of tonal values.

Although there is a wide range of color photographers whose work I love in part because of their color palate — Alex Webb, William Eggleston, Steve McCurry, and in particular, Saul Leiter — the photographers I wanted to study were the ones who shot in black and white. SebastiĆ£o Salgado was an inspiration not only for his humanism, but because the pictures he took, even scenes of jungles and flora and fauna, looked so much cooler in black and white than they ever would have in color. I became a huge fan of a local D.C. photographer named Astrid Riecken whose use of chiaroscuro on streets I knew filled me with inspiration and awe — how did she do that? Through Black+White Photography magazine I learned about a young photographer from London named Alan Schaller whose work is simply extraordinary. When the Leica Store DC hosted a two-day photo workshop with him in February, I went.

It would be unfair to Alan, from whom 12 of us learned an enormous amount, to relate what he taught us here. Study his photos. Attend one of his workshops. I’ll say only this. He got me to understand in a way I never had before that black and white photography is just that. Black and white. Blacks. Whites. Shades in between. Accentuating any of those elements is one key to making a memorable photograph.

I know this sounds obvious. And it’s not precisely what he taught us. He had very specific advice for us on both how to take pictures and how to process them in Lightroom. I don’t think I’d ever previously understood how using exposure compensation to amp up the darkness in an image puts emphasis on what is in the light. And of course, once I thought that through, I went back to photographs I’d collected, to work I’d worshipped, and I began to get it, began to understand “black and white photography” specifically not as monochrome photography. B+W as the combination of intense blacks, intense whites, and shades of grey in between.

Since that workshop, the weekends have been rainy. I haven’t been able to test the techniques I learned at that workshop at the magic intersection of bright afternoon sunshine and the shadows caused by buildings. Nonetheless, I’ve been out there, exploring. Taking some bad photographs. But also photographs that astonish me because I can see things in a way I never did before.

I’ve had to take a number of photos indoors. In so doing, though, I’ve gotten a much better understanding of the magic you can create accentuating the blacks and the whites in an image. And new ways of exploring tonality: the range of shades that Ansel Adams would think of as Zones 3-7 are all the more satisfying if you anchor them with Zones 1 & 2, and Zones 8-10.

I’m just getting started. Learning how to see in black and white, which is what I thought I’d begun to do when I purchased a Monochrom six and a half years ago, is just the beginning. Learning to see in BLACK and WHITE is an incredible discovery, and I’m grateful to Shaller for having gotten me to think this way.

John Buckley is a photographer and writer in Washington, D.C. whose images can be seen at John Buckley: In Black and White and Color.

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