“There are no rules for Technique, only solutions. Today’s Darkrooms may soon be replaced with electronic consoles. Yet after thirty years, Steiglitz’s advice to me remains constant: ‘The only thing that matters is the finished photograph.’ “
Arnold Newman, 1965.
As a teacher of photography, I often quote Arnold Newman because he is speaking about the essence of creating a meaningful photograph.
My background is in the traditional, large-format, black and white school of photography of Edward Weston in the 1920s, and later of Ansel Adams. I worked with a camera similar to that used by Weston and Adams, an 8” x 10” view camera, so called so because the film was 8 x 10 inches. My camera, ten film holders, and tripod together weighed 40 pounds. Cumbersome equipment, but that was just the way it was if you wanted to make high quality images. Back in the 60s and 70s it was called fine art photography.
Many years have passed but the basic principals are the same. In the dark room we could crop the image, increase or decrease exposure, increase or decrease contrast, burn and dodge areas to lighten or darken those areas selectively. We can do all this and more now with more ease than ever before.
The terminology has changed slightly. Some of the same words have taken on a different meaning, and we also have brand-new words. Structure, clarity, and definition, referring to increasing local contrast in specific areas of the image, all mean the same thing, but are used by different software companies. Vignette now means edge burning. Which in film days meant the unintentional cutting off of the corners that resulted when using too small a lens shade or when using too many filters at the same time.
Despite the new words, phrases, and technical approaches, we photographers have the same, and more controls that we had when working in the dark room. With film the only way of removing a power line would have been by air-brushing the negative. Now we can use Content Aware if we have PhotoShop, or just clone it out with any other software.
Yet, despite the efficiency of the digital darkroom, there are few images made today that reach the emotional height of an Edward Weston or Ansel Adams print. As photographers we must have a mission, a purpose. Knowing the tools required to improve a photograph isn’t a guarantee of making a great photograph. A great photograph is the marriage of vision and craftsmanship.
Below is an example of a work print and the finished image. Monks’ Robes, Abbey of Sant’ Antimo Italy. The original image only hinted at my original experience. Cropping, burning and dodging resulted in an image that conveys the feeling I had at the time of exposure. Ansel Adams once said, “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed.”