Archive for Astrid Riecken

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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