A Case For Black & White

“Don’t shoot what it looks like.. Shoot what it feels like”

David Alan Harvey

Hierarchy

Years ago, when I used to teach Photography and some associated courses at Virginia-Western’s Daleville, Virginia campus, four out of the five courses I designed for the curriculum were of technical nature. Going in, that was the part of photography that most newcomers to the Craft (the students) felt it was that they needed the most help with.

About half way into the very first semester, I learned a valuable lesson as a Photography Instructor.

Technical expertise was what they all needed, to be sure. But more importantly, the technical aspects soon became far outweighed by what it was they actually wanted out of the courses.

So quietly, I adjusted the curriculum to give them what they truly wanted and as a result, became a much better photographer myself in the process.

Like most new photographers, my first few years in photography were spent going around snapping pictures of anything and everything that interested me. I was always “looking” and trying to improve my technical skills. This is admittedly, the “geeky” side of photography and what attracts many “Left Brain” thinkers to The Art.

By technically obtaining better skills in Exposure, Focusing and Composition, I felt it was important for me to shoot everything I saw. This was a real challenge back then as everyone (at least the Professionals and those who wanted to be) were shooting Transparencies (slide film, which were called “Positives”), and using Manual Focus and Exposure cameras and lenses.

Technical skills were especially important to me, because at the time, I managed to secure some side work (another story) shooting College and High School Sports, Landscapes and of course, Sailing.

Because of work, I was also shooting a lot of Black & White. I was as happy as a clam because it was cheaper and I could develop and print my own film at the newspaper that I worked at which kept my processing costs lower.

Even though it was over 35 years ago, I still remember a photograph that stirred up a new awakening in me that I had not experienced before..

Let’s take the instance of trying to capture a high school football player in action for example.

First of all, it’s Friday night. And it’s Dark. Transparency film, in other words, “Slides”, which is what we liked to shoot, had to be properly exposed. And to be properly exposed, you were only allowed 1/3 of a stop either plus or minus either side of absolutely perfect exposure. More latitude than those small fractions could ruin an otherwise great shot. You had to know your camera and more important, you had to know light. (Remember, we were only using manually adjusted cameras).

Transparencies did not have the 5 stop exposure latitude that print film possessed at the time. But Wow! were they ever oh-so-sharp! And the film possessed very little “grain”. (What we now call “digital noise”)

They were so cool! They even seemed to have a 3D effect when viewing them with a lightbox and loupe. Remember looking into the Viewmaster? Those devices used miniature slides on a cardboard wheel.

Next, when shooting any sport played with a ball, you have to make sure the ball gets in the shot. If not, your Sports Editor would just drop all your hard earned work for the night into the waste basket by the side of his desk. Believe me, I know this. Accomplishing this task can only be done by never taking your eyes off that ball, especially when you are looking through the viewfinder. We didn’t have electronic focus-tracking back then either. We only had very fast hands and fingers. (this is why I still keep both eyes open when shooting)

This next part is when it gets really exciting.

Ok. It’s the 4th quarter of a brutal game and “the play” starts. As the quarterback rolls back and hands off the football to someone in the backfield, you realize with glee, that the play is actually coming your way! The closer, the better, Right?

As a matter of fact, in a few hundredth’s of a second later, your glee quickly turns into an “Oh Shit!” moment as you realize that the fast and huge 250 lb. kid with the ball is coming straight at you with an entire team on his heels. All the while, you are manually changing focus, keeping the ball in the frame and being mindful of the stadium lights and their sincere desire to ruin your must-be-perfect exposure.

You’re still looking through the viewfinder and adjusting focus as adrenaline kicks in and you suddenly spring 4 feet straight up into the air. The violent tackle on the sideline passes just beneath you amid a maelstrom of grunts, dirt, screams, sweat and curses. During the ensuing seconds, all you can think about is protecting the only equipment you’re wearing which is your camera. And keeping yourself from winding up inside the rescue vehicle that’s waiting in the Endzone.

After returning safely to Earth and your heart rate finally eases, You hope and pray that everything you did was right. Later that night, time in the darkroom and under the enlarger would bring welcome relief and a great satisfaction for your effort.

This time I got lucky.

A perfectly exposed and focused image.

A frame filled with the “all hallowed” ball, a look of determination in the face of a defensive linebacker and sheer terror in the eyes behind the face mask of the offensive Back.

The Sports Editor was happy that night.

The next edition, which would sit alongside the Sunday morning coffee and breakfast of a few thousand High School sports crazy townspeople, features your photo, in a top dead center, five-column spread in all it’s Black & White glory.

To master all of the technical issues in the above story took a lot of practice. (about 37 thousand prints, to be more accurate) and thousands more Positives (slides) that have never seen the light of day.

To really capture the holy grail of what turned out to be the most important thing to me in that photograph, took much longer for me to actually realize. And it follows me by my being very thankful to this day, many years later, for all that time I had the pleasure to spend in the Black & White world of photography.

Even though that print and slide and the companion article are buried somewhere in a storage shed somewhere with 40 thousand others, I can still remember what it was about that shot that thrilled me the most.

It was not the perfect exposure nor even the perfect focus. I can’t even remember the two schools that were on the field that night. Nor can I remember the color of the jerseys. But I can remember the moment and what struck me the hardest.

It was the look of that football player’s face and eyes behind that face guard.

It was, for lack of a better term, the emotion on his face that told that story best. I have always believed that the best photographs tell a story. And Black & White photographs do much better (for me) to get the emotion I feel into a photograph. More than color does. What I feel when I press the shutter is much more important to me now than in those days when I was simply documenting things that I looked at.

Look at the following images and try to imagine the story they tell. I have placed them individually inline so that each can be examined separately.

“Think it Through”
“Wing on Water”
“American Truckers”
“Salutations”
“Howard”

If you notice, the use of color doesn’t support these photographs in any way. Probably, it might instead be the feeling you get in making up your own story or an understanding of the story the photos are trying to tell.

Many of you know the quote from Henry David Thoreau that has long been the credited byline on much of my published work.

“It is not What you look at that Matters, It’s What you see..”

Henry David Thoreau

This quote was expanded upon in 2013 in an article in the Huffington Post by Dennis Merritt Jones, Contributor Award Winning Author, Keynote Speaker, Mentor – Thought Leader

“The gift of conscious perception can be an astounding event that happens whenever we realize that it is we, and we alone, who assign meaning to whatever our eyes fall upon every moment of every day”.

David Alan Harvey who is an American photojournalist based in North Carolina and New York City, says it very well. He’s been a full member of Magnum Photos since 1997 and he said it the best. In pure and simple tone that is easy for me to understand, and I quote:

“Don’t Shoot what it looks like, Shoot what it feels like.”

In closing, it is my wish that if photography is your “thing” or maybe you just need a way to express yourself in an alternative way than with just words, Black & White Photography can allow that. Shooting what you see rather than what you’re looking at will enlighten and help you grow in so many ways that I haven’t covered here or even have the time or space to do so.

Like many of those students in Virginia, It might turn out to be what you wanted all along.

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