Shades of Gray

I signed up for a class on B & W photography and darkroom development at the local community college, starting in October. Ever since, I’ve become obsessed with B & W photography. Today I checked out several books from the library that contain photos, and have also spent a little time exploring photos online.

As I look at the photos, I’m finding that there are very few styles I would be comfortable trying. With color photos, I’ll try anything at least once, and be quite happy experimenting around with others’ techniques. But there’s a quality of B & W photography that is very personal. Something about stripping away the color and reducing your palette to shades of gray, the photography becomes a fingerprint, no two styles the same.

Among the books I checked out was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book that’s been making the rounds of webloggers lately. The copy I got from the library was old, battered, with the cover fallling off, pages barely in place; perfect ambiance for the photos and the writing contained within it.

I looked carefully through all the Walker Evans photos and have appreciated them, though for some reason they make me feel uncomfortable. I tried to determine why each photo was special–what I liked or disliked about each–but I have no skill with deconstructing a photo. My analysis is limited to “looks good”, “looks better”, “wow”, “not sure”, and “no, don’t like”. This is not an auspicious start.

To gain perspective, I looked at some of Noah Grey’s photos. If Evans was midday reality (Don’t you feel the heat? Can’t you taste the dust?) Noah is twilight dreamy–cool, soft, smooth. Lovely, but a bit safe? Is that right? They feel safe? Is this a step up from “looks good”, “looks better”?

I also explored Art Zone a web site dedicated to B & W photography. I particularly liked a photo of a sax player, but I’m not sure why. I thought at first it was because of the smoke, but I think it’s because of the shadow. And I was impacted by this photo by Andreas Andriopoulos, though I don’t necessarily ‘like it’. The subject feels alienated in the photo. Is that right? Alienated? Is this a step up from “looks good”, “looks better”?

Regardless of like or dislike, I realized as I explored the different works that trying to copy any of these artists styles is repugnant–it would be like wearing someone else’s skin. I am left with the lowering realization that I haven’t the foggiest idea of what kind of picture to take. And when I have B & W film in the camera, it suddenly feels awkward in my hands, and the scenes seem flat. Remarkably flat. Nothing looks like it would be a good photo.

I guess I’ll have to stumble about taking awful picture after awful picture until I find something that works.

It’s an unusually hot night tonight, even with the air conditioner, and I can’t sleep. So I’ll lay in bed and look at the photos until I fall asleep and maybe my style will come to me in the night in a dream. I don’t know though–I dreamed about King Kong last week so I’m not holding out hope.

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