When we set out to find modern masters of the b&w landscape, we were astonished at the quality and variety of monochrome scenics being made today. Three artists tell us why digital tools have both transformed b&w and kept it thriving.
One started as an audio design engineer, another as a photojournalist, and another as a commercial shooter. All of them were drawn to creating landscapes in black and white, and while all three can be said to work in a “classical” style, each has a distinct character to their images.
ENTER THIS MONTH'S PHOTO CHALLENGE: MONOCHROME LANDSCAPES
Staying with Film
The sole film shooter of our trio of monochromists, David Fokos might be considered a traditionalist’s traditionalist, particularly given his camera gear: a vintage Korona 8x10 view camera, plus one—and only one—lens, a 210mm f/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S. (On 8x10, the lens is the equivalent of about 28mm in 35mm full-frame terms.) He uses Kodak Tri-X Pan sheet film.
But after developing the film, Fokos goes digital. If a negative looks promising, he scans it at very high resolution (the grayscale image file is—hold your breath—800MB) and sets to work on it in Adobe Photoshop. He often spends more than 100 hours on an image—and sometimes ends up discarding it anyway. Why not capture digitally? A major reason is that Fokos prints big—sometimes up to 7½ feet wide. “And 8x10 film gives me the resolution they require,” he says. “It’s only been within the last couple of years that digital capture has been able to rival this.” Fokos also notes that the reciprocity failure (the tendency of film to be underexposed at long exposure times) of Tri-X helps keep highlights from blowing out during such long exposures—sometimes as long as an hour.
Which brings us to the David Fokos look. “For scenes that contain a lot of motion, my exposures range from 20 seconds to 60 minutes,” he says. “This process eliminates what I have termed visual noise—all the short-term temporal events, things that are moving, that can distract us from focusing on the underlying fundamental forms. In a way, it is like peeling back a page to reveal a world that, while very real, is not experienced visually.”
The first image in the accompanying gallery, of Shark Tooth Cliff on Martha’s Vineyard, MA, was taken at about 90 seconds. At that duration, Fokos realized that the moon would show motion blur. So he took a fast exposure, too, and composited. He also adjusted local contrast and burned in the top and bottom.
Fokos' other image in the gallery, “Eight Rocks and a Stone,” was made on Lucy Vincent Beach on Martha’s Vineyard. Captured at less than a second at f/45 or f/64, it is one of Fokos’ few images that stops motion. He says he wanted “to make an archetypical image that represents my summer spent walking on that beach.”
Digital at Step One
While Chuck Kimmerle’s compositions evoke the last century’s landscape masters (he cites Edward Weston and Fay Godwin) he believes that digital is a different aesthetic from film. “Digital capture has a different look and feel than does film—not better, not worse—and I feel those differences should be celebrated and used to advantage,” he says. “I would never try to make one look like the other. If I really wanted or needed a Tri-X look, I would shoot Tri-X film.”
Kimmerle shoots with a Nikon D3x, and his lenses include the Nikon 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm PC-E for their tilt and shift controls. For the photo “Sage Fence, Dead Horse Road, WY,” in our gallery, he used a 24–70mm f/2.8 AF-S Nikkor to make the exposure at 1/4 sec at f/8, ISO 100. “This image is a good example of right place at the right time,” he says. “The sagebrush is located along a fence line I had driven past half a dozen times, never noticing anything special. Then, after a day of looking for photographs, I was heading towards home and, shortly after sundown, literally saw it in a new light. The soft, directional, post-sunset light directly at my back made the branches glow, as if lit from within.”
As do most serious digital B&W shooters, he captures in RAW and converts later. In terms of "Sage Fence, Dead Horse Road, WY," Kimmerle felt that the image looked too sharp and harsh. So he added a blurred layer in Photoshop, a technique sometimes called the Orton Effect (after Michael Orton, who pioneered the technique using slide sandwiches).