I’ve described myself as a ‘progressive obsoletist,’—an unfamiliar term that I may have invented. Invariably, someone will try to pigeon-hole me, demanding, “what is that?!”—as if the term wasn’t completely self-explanatory. Without a long-winded, half-cynical satirical diatribe, I doubt I could convey my definition of this obscure set of beliefs, however, in photographic terms I’ll offer a contemporary corollary based on recent experiments.
I’ve been dabbling with black & white photography for decades. I nearly perfected my technique when I was in college, only to virtually abandon black & white professionally in favor of color media. However, from time to time, I return to black & white, and with each visit try to further hone my process.
What does that mean? Well, first off, I always process my own film. Secondly, I’m very conscious of the processing method and formulas I hope to use while I’m making photographs. Thirdly, I’m always making small adjustments in my process in efforts to making more pleasing images.
The caveats to this process adjustment are that: 1) I’m never really satisfied with my results; 2) I never will be; and, 3) despite constant tinkering with formulas, my actual process is based on empirical analysis, rather than a strict, calculated scientific approach. I’m sure photo-chemists, when analyzing what I do, would decide that about half my process is unnecessary, and while on the whole it’s too complicated and could be better achieved in some alternative manner. But for me that’s not really the point. Making and developing the images are all part of the process, and this process involves converting what I see in three dimensions and full living color into a static, two dimensional, mono-chromatic set of images.
In January, 1998, TRAINS Magazine, I had a portfolio of photos published, and in that series, I described the spread with three monochromatic images as ‘One Thousand Shades of Gray’. Well, in light of some recent popular literature (not involving monochromatic images, so I am told), a similar title with fewer numbers of shades has stolen my thunder. Fair enough, but not really my point. With One Thousand Shades of Gray I was only trying to be clever, since proper black & white photography is more than just black and white but more about all the gray in between. And that’s largely what I’m after in my process refinement and adjustment — tonality and contrast. The machinery and landscape of the railroad are subjects ideally suited to this medium, while slight adjustments can make the difference between a fairly interesting railroad image and a truly memorable one.
Why not just convert modern digitally produced color files into monochromatic images? Good question. First of all, I’ve done that, both with my Lumix LX3 and my Canon 7D, and I’ve been happy with my results. Secondly, I don’t have any qualms about producing monochromatic images digitally. There are different tools for different type of images. There are times when a digital monochromatic image feels like the best choice, and there are times when color works better. (Generally, however, if I’m going to make a monochromatic image, I work with that medium on-site, rather than produce after the fact.)
So, why use film? The short answer is pretty selfish; because I want to! I like B&W photography, I like film, I’ve always worked with film, and continuing to work with film (at least part of the time) lends a certain continuity to my photography.
I have other reasons as well. I’ve found that using film, processed in accordance with my customized formula, and then scanned with a flatbed scanner, produces an image file that looks really pleasing to my eye. The combination of tonality (technically, “dynamic range”), acutance, and granularity when viewed on an iPad or computer screen looks great. This is the visual embodiment of progressive obsoletism!
Another reason is archival quality. And here I’ll dare tread on some sensitive toes. From my experience and understanding of the digital mediums, there are no sure-fire means of insuring long term digital storage without regular intervals of human intervention. In other words, if you don’t make multiple copies of your digital images, and continue to copy them, basic flaws in digital storage will probably result in the complete loss of your images within years or decades. My father, Richard J. Solomon, has illustrated this in the Center for Railroad Photography and Art’s annual Talks on Photography held at Lake Forest, Illinois, and in various articles. Simply, the very nature of the digital age tends toward the ephemeral use of data. While in the near term you can preserve your digital photos; long term, if a conscious effort isn’t made at continuing your storage, in all likelihood your images will completely vanish. (As anyone who has ever dropped a hard disk will sympathize.)
By contrast, my black & white process uses techniques that are known to produce negatives that should last for hundreds or thousands of years without regular intervention. So, barring disaster, long after all the hard drives have been wiped clean, the DVDs have faded into uselessness, and the software used to decipher today’s data has become more arcane than odd-dialects of ancient Sumerian, my black & white negatives should still be identifiable and usable as photographs.
Whether or not anyone cares in a hundred-plus years is another story. In my research for books and other photographic endeavors, I’ve often thought it ironic that 19th century glass plates will likely outlive virtually all the images being made today. I hope that I’m wrong. And, since I won’t be around in 100+ years, I’ll never know, but just in case I keep at black & white film photography, at least some of the time. And since I scan my negatives at high resolution, I’ll have most of the benefits of digital storage as well as that offered by traditional film. At least there’ll be some images of modern trains alongside the plates of Baldwin 2-8-0s.
Putting Theory into Practice
In the last few months, I plunged into our collection of antique cameras and gone back to my roots. In my youth, I was always seen carrying a prewar Leica IIIa. With that I exposed countless railway photos, from Central Vermont GP9s and RS-11s crossing the diamond at Palmer, Massachusetts, to GG1s grinding into South Amboy, New Jersey, as well as views from Amtrak’s Coast Starlight negotiating SP’s Cuesta grade near San Luis Obispo, California. Remarkably, I still have this camera, or its near cousin (in truth, I think we had three different IIIa bodies in our house plus a postwar IIIc, and several later model Leica M’s). In my recent IIIa efforts, I employed my father’s Leica-screw-mount 21mm Super-Angulon (actually a Schneider lens design), and wandered around my old territory in New England exposing a few rolls of Fuji Acros 100. (I also recorded thousands of digital images as well)
Having earlier this year made modifications to my process (for a future post), I then souped the film, scanned it, and analyzed my results.
Pulling the film out of the tanks, I was immediately disappointed, but then, after scanning, I gradually came to accept and finally embraced my results. I’ve displayed a few here. Choice of subject matter was key to my choice of equipment and media. I largely photographed former Boston & Albany, Central Vermont, and Boston & Maine lines; the same railway lines I photographed as a kid—thus keeping with my theme of continuity. Earlier this year, I’d embarked on a similar project, photographing in Dublin, but using a different set of retro-equipment (another the topic for a future post).
Not only do these images offer an element of consistency working with photos from my archive, but I feel they also work well as stand-alone photographs. I have plenty of color digital images to satisfy commercial illustration requirements and my personal needs for instant image analysis (did I catch it? Was the light right? Did that cloud get in my way? Are my exposures tight?). But, I also have these satisfying monochromes, that may, so it seems, last for a virtual eternity. Coming soon, I’ll post the details of my exposures, technique, and chemical process. Stay tuned!
For the next post in this series see: Black & White revisited part 2, Secrets Revealed!