Once Black…

Posted on May 19, 2011


A few years ago, my friend Beth and  I stumbled on a Brett Weston exhibit at the Currier Gallery in Manchester, NH. This was seriously one of the coolest shows I’ve ever seen.

Brett was the son of the influential photographer Edward Weston, Brother of Cole Weston, and father of Kim Weston, also both photographers.  The exhibit was outstanding for many reasons. First, Brett mostly photographed with an 11×14″ large format camera and the prints were mostly contact prints (the negative is put directly on the photography paper and the exposure is made without an enlarger). But second, and more personally for me, his photos made intense use of large areas of black.

I’m always amazed that you can go to museums around the world and stand inches from a famous piece of art. I once stood a foot away from Van Gogh’s Cafe at Night for 45 minutes, and I was as close to Weston’s work as I ever have been to my own. These images were black. Zone O. We are not talking shadow detail, we are talking lacquer paint. I’m also always amazed that seeing another artist (I don’t like to apply that word to myself, but I also don’t like to write paragraphs to perfectly convey an idea that one word does albeit imperfectly) do something that I’m afraid to do somehow gives me “permission” to do it. Before that show, I was adamant about not having large black areas in my prints. Yes, I wanted every tone from black to white, but not too much of either.

In researching this post, I see that many of his images are similar in content (including the famous peppers) and style, which makes sense as he was his father’s assistant for years. I compared prints of similar content to Bruce Barnbaum who was the first person I emulated through his student and my teacher Jahnavi Barnes.  These latter artists work in the opulent mid tones to achieve luminosity, including pyro development and  platinum/palladium prints, although there is no denying the luminosity of the Westons’ work.  Part of me wonders if it was a technological limit that the earlier photographers had, Edward Weston was famous for not even using a meter, and part of me wonders if they would still be shooting the same today. Certainly aspects of digital dynamic range lend themselves to this more graphic style.

Earlier, I posted to images of a skunk cabbage leaf, saying the latter, darker one was the one I envisioned.  It was a lie. In truth neither was the image I would produce. The latter is darker and has some black in it, but if you blow up the first image there is some very cool stuff in the lower right corner. Sexy dark stuff. Even if I printed the leaf down, I would dodge that corner back for that black tar water. Maybe I just lack self-editing skills, but that stuff adds to the texture and complexity of the print in a way that a pure black corner just does not for me.

Anyway, let’s look at some masters’ takes on similar themes and their use of black in them (I admit some of this detail is hard to see online or in the sizes I’ve reproduced here):

Edward Weston dune

Edward Weston dune

Wynn Bullock Dune

Wynn Bullock Dune

Above are two classic Edward Weston Dune shots. (Aside, you can actually guess the shutter speed on the print by the movement of the moon. Moon shots over 1/4 s show blur. He basically got as much exposure as he could without making the moon blur over obvious.)  Followed by one from Brett. Look at all that black!

Brett Weston Dune

A classic Brett Weston dune shot

Even Ansel favored this theme, also with some intense blacks, although in the second and third shots I feel like there is something there. Some detail in the shadows. That might just be from the more gradual “fade to black” I don’t know. Compare the two night shots. Adams got his detail in under 1/4s! I’m guessing either pre-exposure of the film or a daylight shot printed down.

Ansel Adams dune at night

Even the night shot has rich shadow detail

Ansel Adams Dune

Even here I feel that between the 1st and 2nd dune is a tonality difference

Ansel Adams dune

Black or not?

I do not think I would’ve taken that last shot, it seems unbalanced at this size.

And then we have Bruce’s take on things. The first four have that super glowing luminosity I think of as part of his style. (And am I the only one seeing a little Georgia O’keefe in these shots, especially the fourth? Hubba, hubba.)

barnbaum painted desert

A platinum shot by Barnbaum that defines luminosity

Barnbaum dunes

Another nice shot with no true blacks

Barnbaum dunes

A sexy, glowing shot

Barnbaum dunes

Glowy, glowy, glowy

In this fifth shot the shadows do indeed appear to go black, but again there at least seems to be the illusion of shadow depth because of the gradient (?). (For my taste, I think this shot is one stop underexposed, both for shadow detail and for that spot in the bottom center, but that is taste, not accuracy.)

Barnbaum dunes

The full tonal scale

I found some other interesting prints to compare.  Aside from the dunes I remembered a lot of Brett’s foliage shots.

Brett Weston foliage

Using the black to “pop” the subject

Bruce had a similar dark shot, although I don’t remember this as being typical of work I’ve seen.

Bruce Barnbaum leaves

An atypical Barnbaum shot

A more typical shot, but what sets Barnbaum aside is that he has extended the Zone System and gets a lot of darkness and luminosity together.  For me, this is heart-wrenching photography. I want to touch it. I want to make it. I want to see it in my mind’s eye from beginning to end. I want to explain how to make a photo that encapsulates that much power.

Barnbaum's corn lily

A truly dark and luminous shot

Adams is not to be “leafed” out of this discussion as he walks the entire zonal spectrum with a nice arboreal bouquet.

Adams Maple Leaf

Metallic Maple

But, for me, the capper is this final shot from Ansel. What first looks black dissolves into a perfect mystery of shadow detail, will-o’the-wisps luring you into the print.  That is the kind of black that I find hard to turn away from in my work or anybody else’s.

Ansel Adams Aspens

Ansel Adams Aspens, shadow detail galore

There are no answers. No right shot, no wrong shot. But thanks to Brett, someday I really, really intend to get some black into my work. Right after I get sfumato and chiarioscuro into it.

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