Photography was once seen as something to be mastered in its purity very much the way pre-impressionist painting was to be mastered to present a perfect rendition of realism. Ansel Adams was revered as the master of photography and his zone system became a standard to measure the perfection of black and white prints. While in high school, I spent much of my time either behind a camera or in the darkroom. The end goal always seemed to center on getting the widest range of tones and learning how to see black and white while looking at colors. I learned to control both my film and print development chemistry to achieve a full dynamic range in my final prints. My early education in photography was all about technique and little about content. Content was whatever the camera saw and whatever the photographer decided to document. All of these rules were turned upside down when I went to college and fell under the influences of Jerry Uelsmann.
I brought my camera and darkroom equipment to college and worked in a closet which was only dark enough to develop prints at night. My course of study was business and economics but my passion was always photography. I took my electives in the school of photography. My professors expected me to produce technically strong prints as a prerequisite to being in a photography class and little need be said about print quality.
Our discussions focused on content, meaning, and expression. The surreal works of Jerry Uelsmann were on display everywhere and everyone tried to emulate his darkroom techniques using several images to compose something from the imagination. Dr. Uelsmann also brought in guest photographers from other “fringe” disciplines, like Robert Heinekken of UCLA, to speak at UF. The world of classic photographers was aghast at the “photographic heresy” that was coming out of the University of Florida school of Photography under the leadership of Jerry Uelsmann. These students were not learning photojournalism. They were not learning portraiture. They were not learning the zone system. They were lost in outer space seeking meaning to their hallucinations.
There I was starting to experiment with the camera, creating abstract images sometimes combining images both through multiple exposures and in the darkroom. In critique we would present our images and explain them to the class. Many times the images had no story, they merely combined pleasing images together. Many times the images conveyed sensual and erotic undertones. The interesting part of the feedback was that it was never judgemental. The feedback usually took the form of compositional critique. Suggestions on how a camera angle might be changed to create more powerful leading lines or how darker shadows might have added mystery. We were encouraged to break the rules, nothing was taboo. I always left class energized and excited about the next week’s assignment.
This is where the seeds of my internal battle with photography were sewn. A conflict between purity and anarchy. A raging battle sorting out the influences of Ansel Adams and Jerry Uelsmann. Then we add a new element to the cauldron – color! With the emergence of digital photography and Photoshop all constraints were removed. After a long and successful career in business and computer software, I went back to art school to take the core classes in photography. I already had a Bachelor and a Master degree in business so I didn’t need another Bachelor degree. What I wanted was the core education in photography. I wanted to master Photoshop and learn studio photography. And that’s what I did. I learned how to manage my workflow to assure color consistency from camera to computer to paper. Along the way I also picked up a healthy exposure to the work of many iconic photographers who shaped the world of photography. Interestingly enough there was no mention of Jerry Uelsmann who had been doing in the darkroom for decades what people were now learning to do with Photoshop.
Armed with a new set of tools, I began the traditional photography of people and places but in the back of my head the voices of anarchy were calling me. I began to experiment using color to create moods. I would push the technical limits of the printer’s color gamut just as I had pushed the limits of silver emulsions with chemistry and temperature decades ago. Soon my work began to evolve from “pure photography” to something more painterly and surreal. My excitement continued to grow and my creativity spawned new forms of art. I was using and “abusing” techniques of high dynamic range (HDR) photo processing. I wanted my images to pop with color and abstractions the way impressionist paintings did. I was out there on the fringe where most photographers dared not to go. But then the voice of tradition started hearkening from the shadows. There was something missing in these prints – something that only real film could provide. They were missing that grainy texture and smooth tonal quality of a fine black and white photograph. I had to do something about it.
A new technique, designed to marry the opposites of tradition and anarchy, provides a signature look to all my recent works of art. My art begins with a photograph. I work to find that angle, compose the frame with the right light, and freeze that fleeting moment of time with the camera. I develop the image in the digital darkroom using all the tools of my craft to create a stimulating perception of the moment with careful attention to colors, contrast, sharpness, and composition. Then I start to adjust the image to look like a classic photograph. I burn down the edges, add a black frame edge reminiscent of the film edge in medium format cameras, and convert to black and white using a set of filters designed to recreate the prints from my childhood darkroom.
The filters emulate Kodak Panatomic film, a very fine grain film with a smooth transitional tonal range and strong contrast. I simulate prints on Ilford papers processed with a cold, slow working developer with warm tones (like Selectol). Once the black and white print is mastered, I overlay it on top of the color print and set the layer as a luminosity mask. The result is a full color print with the luminosity of a classic black and white photograph. Perhaps this child of tradition and anarchy is the countermanding force to bring about a peaceful resolution to the war that has fought itself out in my quest for truth in photography. Jerry Uelsmann taught me that its OK to create things that you may not be able to assign meaning to. It’s OK to break the rules. My photographic art does both.