Two ideas came together to help me decide to process the shadow self portraits project in black and white.
Pliny the elder, who died at Pompeii during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 documented how both painting and sculpture were discovered. In Natural History he states that the geographical “origin of painting is uncertain,” yet “all agree that it began with tracing an outline around a man’s shadow” but “the second stage when a more elaborate method had been invented was done in a single colour and called monochrome”. (3) Art’s creation myth is the engaging story of a young girl who immortalises her lover by tracing his shadow on a wall (here), an act that eternally connects the shadow to art, a relationship that evolves from stylised shades or silhouettes (i) on Greek vases through to Renoir, Picasso, Warhol and Kertész. For this reason alone a study of shadows would need to be monochrome.
Black and white photography and the shadow are both abstract. In 1952 Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote that “black and white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction. In it, all the values are transposed; and this leaves the possibility of choice.” (1) Michael Freeman, writing much more recently in 2013, presents a similar idea: “It is not the way we see the world, and it does not pretend to represent reality. It is a translation of a view into a special medium.” (2) The shadow is mysterious thing, the singular two-dimensional object (ii) which, whilst real, is always an abstraction, never the perfect image, always distorted to some degree.
I rarely process black and white images so having made the decision that shadow self portraits had to be a monochrome series I was confronted with the challenge of how to process the images. There is always the option with colour processing to generally target your memory of the scene, this might only be a starting point but I normally make decisions relative to that starting point so each adjustment is comparative, more or less contrast, brightness, saturation, etc. However, with black and white the original scene does not provide that reference point. The processing adjustments are made from the starting point of neutrality, a desaturated colour image; the process is therefore not one of matching the image to a scene but of visualising a final image and working towards that goal.
Over the last few weeks, as I began to work on the assignment 3 images, I have been practicing black and white processing in general. Early on I made two decisions that were to some degree mutually exclusive; firstly I didn’t want to restrict the final series to one type of shadow self portrait and secondly I wanted to adopt a processing style that worked across the whole series to provide consistency in the final presentation. If I had picked a single theme, say for example to texturise my shadow with the landscape similar to the work of Giacomo Brunelli (4), I could have processed all my images as film noir, allowed the highlights to burn out and have drawn every last piece of texture from the interior of the shadow but this would not have worked for the “transitional” images where I wanted to explore how reflections and shadows work together.
Figure 2 shows how this particular shot, in which I have cast my shadow across a line of large flints, can be processed to emphasise the texture inside or outside of the shadow. It would have been possible to create a series using a film noir style that always emphasised the internal texture but it was more consistent with my overall theme to keep the shadows dark and to promote the texture of the surrounding landscape.
Before finalising my edits I decided to review the work of three great monochrome photographers. I restricted this exploration to books that I own as I wanted to review the final prints rather than how they were presented on-line; I am making the assumption that the photographers I have chosen all directly decided how their work was presented. I chose the three, Koudelka, Weston and Salgado, because when I think of their prints I think of contrast and darkness which are the style of black and white prints I enjoy the most.
Josef Koudelka – Exiles (3) and Wall (4) – Koudelka’s work is inspirational in terms of subject matter, composition and final presentation. There is an overall impression that his work is dark and melancholy with an underlying sadness which probably arises because he consistently uses dark tones in his prints. In Exiles he is not afraid to incorporate large areas of black but will often compose white detail against black backgrounds to create focal points in what are usually dark grey landscapes. In Exiles there are several prints where the textures of cloth or parts the landscape are essential components and in Wall there are a number of studies of olive trees; these texture shots are especially helpful. Overall Wall is quite different from Exiles in that most of the photographs were taken in strong sunlight and whilst there are still often black areas most of the plates appear to be combinations of mid-tones without pure blacks and whites. This makes the prints more subdued than the strong contrasts often seen in Exiles.
Edward Weston – Edward Weston (5) – Weston was interested in form and texture and is therefore well known for his still lifes and nudes but there are a number of outdoor landscape textures that he took in the 30s that are instructive. It is quite hard to describe Weston’s printing style as represented by these texture photos because there is a sense that the printing varies depending upon the subject with the intent to emphasise form and texture rather than to achieve consistency. As a result the sun-bleached trunk of a cypress tree (Point Lobos 1929) is generally mid-tones to white but oak branches (Monterey County 1930) are black to mid-tones. Both in his still lifes and some of his found objects he uses pure whites against dark backgrounds. (Pelican’s Wing 1931, Eggs and Slicer 1930, Shell and Rock Arrangement 1931). There are a number of landscapes taken in California in the early 30s where the texture of found objects are surrounded by the textures of nature that I found particularly helpful. (Wheels and Hill San Juan 1934, Barn Castroville 1934)
Sebastião Salgado – Genesis (6) – Genesis is too huge a volume to be summarised in a paragraph or two but overall his prints are dark, not the moody darkness of Koudelka’s Exiles but the dark textures of the earth and its most threatened human inhabitants. His whites often contain texture and his contrasts are typically subtle so his subjects often merge into the wider landscape which is a place of patterns and textures. Salgado’s printing is generally rather than specifically helpful at this stage other than his closeups of animal skin and other natural textures which tend to be high contrast and sharp pictures and will help me processing the root and tree bark images in my series.
I am not sure that I finished this little piece of research with any new ideas, it has been more of confirmation that the style of image I had in mind, which was probably already heavily influenced by, at least, Koudelka, was the right approach for this series.
Notes on Text
(i) The word silhouette is comparatively modern, derived from Étienne de Silhouette a notorious French finance minister in the 1750s and 60s. Originally referring to the black paper, cutout profiles of human heads that were a popular craze in the 18th and 19th centuries, its meaning has since been extended to describe the solid black profile of a person as seen against the light or a cast profile shadow. Prior to the 1760s it is likely that this would have been descried as a “shade”, which is, in itself a complex word with several meanings ranging from the shade provided by a tree to the souls of the departed.
(ii) We tend to use the description “two dimensional” as a metaphor, for example a two dimensional character in a story would lack complexity but in science a two dimensional object has only length and breadth and no depth.
(1) Cartier-Bresson, Henri (1999) The Mind’s Eye: Writings on Photography and Photographers. New York: Aperture.
(2) Freeman, Michael (2013) Black and White Photography Field Guide: The Art of Creating Digital Monochrome. Lewes: Ilex.
(3) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Exiles. London: Thames and Hudson.
(4) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.
(5) Weston, Edward. (1999) Edward Weston. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH
(6) Salgado, Sebastiã0 (2013) Genesis. Cologne: Taschen
(3) Kenaan, Hagi (?) Tracing Shadows: Reflections on the Origin of Painting (accessed at Tel Aviv University 25.5.15) – http://www.tau.ac.il/~kenaan/tracing.pdf
(4) Brunelli, Giacomo (2011) The Self and the Shadow: Photographic Self-Portraits (accessed at Lens Culture 10.5.15) – https://www.lensculture.com/articles/giacomo-brunelli-the-self-and-the-shadow-photographic-self-portraits#slide-1