Gone full circle now with my photography. Started in a darkroom with B&W film way too many years ago, went back and forth with slides until moving to digital. Then turned back to film for a look I missed. Now I’m back in the darkroom.
Loading digital image files from the camera to a computer and seeing them pop up on your screen really isn’t the magical moment that accompanies looking at film out of a developer tank and seeing something emerge from nothing. There’s a moment of joy and anxiety in processing film (“did I get that development time right? was the fixer still good? did I have the lens cap on?”) where you suddenly land on one emotion. You pull the film out of the tank, look at a bit of it, and realize immediately a sense of pleasure or frustration.
Don’t get that emotional roller coaster with digital.
It is amazing how tolerant some film is of poor handling. I’m starting out with rolls of B&W I was given, age uncertain but at least 10 years old, most likely kept in a drawer somewhere. The first roll I processed turned out like I remember higher speed films looking – grainy, moderate contrast, nice tones.
Not that I’m planning to abandon digital. Not really interested in the printing part of film, wrestling with enlargers, densitometers, paper types, developing trays, etc. No, I simply scan the negatives and drop them into my workflow like any other digital image.
Here are a few examples from the first roll. I’m still looking for intimate landscapes.
What I’m looking for, strolling through my image catalog in search of intimate landscapes, is that small vignette of a space filled with interesting characters. The interest may be texture, shape, contrasts, personality, whatever seems to come together in a composition to want you to take a second look. Stripping the color away means I have to pay attention to form, placement, tonal quality, dynamic range – all those technical aspects that when used correctly contribute to a well crafted image.
Here the flowers are bright against a darker background. They are lacy in a field of flat. Behind them is a gradually darkening space leading to whatever your imagination conjures. The ferns break up the space into ordered pieces with their planar, sectioned leaves. They generally point to the flowers, emphasizing and reinforcing your eye to return there.
Where does this miniature jungle lead? What’s behind the dark ferns? Are the flowers struggling against the encroaching ancient ferns or is there a symbiotic relationship between them? What creatures might inhabit such a world?
You stop to look and gradually you are imagining all sorts of things. About a picture of ferns and flowers.
A place all to yourself. It looks jumbled, rough, harsh. But there is a pattern to the texture as the rocks tumble toward the water to be smoothed out by the never ending waves. A composition just the way nature left it, intending to come back periodically to create a new arrangement.
What makes a landscape intimate? Does the viewer feel deeply close to the tiny details of a small patch of ground? Does the image invoke a sense of enclosure, bringing the viewer into a miniature world of usually unseen subjects? Is it an image of a place that is present only to the few who pay attention or take the time to seek it out from the jumble of reality?
Part of it for me is a scene that invokes a quiet emphasis, that somehow forces you to stop, look, embrace. And in return offers a new sense of place at that moment. With that in mind an intimate landscape can be as small as a thistle seed or as large as a mountain. It’s all in the composition used to portray that moment.
This scene caught my attention because the edge of the wheat field showed the perfectly formed seeds marching up their individual stalks, and behind them was a repeated sea of more and more of the same, all the way to the sky. The individual stalks in front, representing acres and acres of growth, stood out from the crowd, demanding my attention at that moment. Down at their level it felt like a huge population pressing forward to see me and to be seen. An intimacy that could only be realized down at their level, not while towering above them.
I thought spring would bring a blaze of color, demanding my attention as much as the fall glory does. And yes, there have been flowers everywhere. But my attention hasn’t been there. Now the greens of summer are ascendant, bringing their lush, monochrome to the landscape. Still, I’m not compelled to seek out the grand scene.
Then I was flipping through a book of Eliot Porter images, reading the history of his different approaches to photography. And it struck me – intimate landscapes. Porter’s Museum of Modern Art show in 1979 was ground breaking not only for it being color photography, but also from the closeness of the subjects. Porter’s choice of subjects was intimate rather than grand, following the adage that a photographer should show the viewer something common in a new way. Grass, leaves, rocks, trees – these all took on a new perspective with the compositions shown.
Much of Porter’s early work revealed this sense of the intimate in his B&W compositions as well. It was these images that caught my attention. With only the textures and tones he was able to bring the viewer into the image, presenting a realm worthy of exploration as the eye discovered patterns, forms, even stories.
This I get excited about. Now I want to look at the world and find these quiet compositions. And what better time than summer when everything is on display. And what better way than B&W, keeping color from distracting. Gradually I’m learning the virtue of monochrome!
Looking through my catalog I realize much of my attention has been spent on the grand landscape, with a passing interest in the macro world as documentary exercises. There are a few instances where I’ve tried to record something of the sort I’m now looking for. Hopefully I’ll have more to come as this interest plays out.