It’s still cold, and being stuck inside for the long hours of darkness makes one consider the creative potential of places to inhospitable to inhabit. On warmer days I enjoy strapping my camera around my neck and exploring a wilderness trail or urban stomping route. But when it’s this cold out…
Neon Hawk is casually flipping through a small collection of images I had gathered while out walking recently. He is propped on one arm beside the monitor, advancing the photos one-by-one with sharp clicks of the mouse.
“See anything you like?” I ask.
“You’ve really delved into the whole black-and-white photo thing here, eh?” He says without looking away from the LCD.
“The style fascinates me.” I say. “And if you’ll notice, those pics are not just black-and-white as you might expect.”
“Yeah.” He scowls. “I’m trying to figure out what you’ve done here. It’s almost as if… as if there is an extra sharpness or something added. Post-processing?”
“No.” I smirk. “All unedited, as captured.”
He’s stumbled on a small sampling of work I’d shot with a thought towards the single-minded effort of replicating a particularly stark-style of black-and-white photography I’d let hang idealized in my memory. I couldn’t have said for certain what that style was formally called, or what it represented, but when I’d turned the settings on my camera to move away from the factory-defaulted monochrome — desaturated — image style supplied by Canon, I was looking for something that was less about the ‘lack of color,’ per se, and more about the style of black-and-white photography.
“You’ve done something more than just desaturate these images, though?” It was a question, and I could tell he was really puzzled.
“Look at the histogram.” I offered.
He fumbled with the mouse, and calling up the menu from within the current picture — a scene of dark evergreens set against a lit sky — he loaded the small bell-curved graph representing the breadth of colors — or in this case contrasts — to the screen. He studied it for only a moment and said. “You’ve covered a lot of ground here. The graph goes from left to right, a full breadth of grays.”
“I set the camera to maximum contrast.” I said.
“Maximum?” He closed the histogram and turned back to the image. “Interesting.” A pause, then: “Why?”
“I was thinking,” I said, “and wondering why I could only rarely capture a black-and-white photo on my digital camera that really, truly reminded me of the old-style of black-and-white imagery that I’d seen so often. Then it occured to me one day while I was poking around in photoshop: contrast and the nature of how — or at least I’m assuming because I’ve never had the chance to play with chemicals — pictures were developed.”
“You’re making a lot of assumptions, here.” Neon quirked an eye at me.
“I’m a creative amateur.” I admitted. “I prefer to think of it as though I’m discovering techniques from first principles.” I shrugged. “Anyhow, it occurred to me that what my digital camera was doing when I set it to capture “monochrome” pictures using the factory settings was simply desaturating the image. I mean, the camera wasn’t looking at the image and considering the artistic merit. It was capturing it as though it were in color and then just removing the color.”
Neon seemed to consider this. “And black-and-white photography — true black-and-white photography — is not about colorless film, but a whole separate chemistry for capturing images.”
“Exactly.” I smiled. “Contrast was not a matter of a so-called, lightness or gray-value derived from a color, but a quantitative exposure of a — for lack of a better term — binary option: black OR white. Gray was what you got when there was a mix. But in reality, every pixel — if you want to think of film grain like that — was either one or the other. And in other words…”
“…maximum contrast.” Neon finished my thought.
“But that’s just what I’m thinking.”