Sometimes IT appears right away… as soon as I see the person or the scene or both. Boom … there IT is! I know what I’m going to do. It’s feels like magic.
Other times IT morphs into existence during a photography session & takes on a life of its own. Oddly, IT blooms more often in the studio than outside… but outside isn’t out of the question. IT is a little skittish so it usually only shows up when there are one or two people in front of the camera, at the most. In fact, the more people involved, the less likely IT is that this bit of magic will show itself. IT really is a sort of a wall-flower.
When IT manifests it can be seemingly unaware of the camera or the fact that an image will ever be seen or captured, let alone admired. In a world all its own, caught up in the moment & loving it. A loner. Pensive & deep. At one with its thoughts.
Other times, with a lone subject, eyes can pierce the camera’s lens & strike the heart. The soul speaks to the world through the eyes, emotes, and engages with the camera in the most intimate of ways, telling its story in volumes.
What is IT?!
IT is a Fine Art Black & White Portrait
The strength and beauty of a Fine Art Black & White Portrait lies in its unique ability to capture emotions so that they can be cherished for generations to come. A lot of people think that black & white portraits are the new, contemporary IT thing to have. Actually, fine art black & white portraits have always been the “gold standard” of artistic photography, mostly because good black & white art photography is so difficult to achieve.
Yousuf Karsh, 1908 – 2002, was one of the greatest photographers of the past century. He made famous black & white fine art portraits of equally famous people. His portraits are sometimes in traveling exhibitions at major museums. I was lucky enough to attend one of his exhibitions at a museum in Ohio, and it was unforgettable. From Muhammed Ali and Kennedy to Churchill, Bogart and Hephurn, Carol and I were so thrilled to be able to stand mere feet away from these enormous masterpieces and gaze almost reverently at each one. These already famous people were even further iconized in front of Karsh’ camera. Many of his photographs are familiar to many people even though they often do not know the photographic artist behind it. The image of Einstein that comes into most people’s heads when he is mentioned, is the portrait taken by Karsh.
“When one sees the residuum of greatness before one’s camera, one must recognize it in a flash. There is a brief moment when all that there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit may be reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. This is the elusive moment of truth.”
A lifetime isn’t nearly long enough
Ask any genuine old-school photographer… not just any person with a camera in their hand that calls themselves a photographer… and they will confirm that achieving excellent black & white photography can keep you up at night your entire life. Today, folks think that “black & white” is just another setting to choose from on their cameras. My personal mentor pointed out to me in the 70’s that most photographers can only achieve “gray and gray”, not “black and white”, at least not even close to the B/W achieved by the likes of Karsh. I remember when, in the 70’s, photographers of his caliber went into mourning when Kodak, “The Great Yellow Mother”, retired certain fine black & white photographic paper and darkroom chemicals because of the lowered demand for it. I joined in and understood their mourning because of my good fortune to have mentors considerably older than me, and worried about the future of fine black & white art photography along with them.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to do!!! It’s hard enough to really SEE in color. To SEE in B/W is a much tougher game. Besides being able to “see” instead of just “look”, VISION is essential to achieving fine art B/W.
Maybe, just maybe, there might be a few photographers alive today that achieve something close to the B/W portrait quality of Yousuf Karsh. I try very hard, but I’m not even sure that I am one of that group. In fact, I’ll bet that if there actually are any photographers out there that are as good as Karsh was, that they themselves would never presume to put themselves into that group. He was THAT good .
Back to IT
So what the heck was I talking about in my beginning paragraphs about IT being elusive, skittish and magical? Go back and read the very beginning again, please, then this will make sense.
I must develop an intimate relationship with my subject in order to capture the mind, soul, and spirit through their eyes, hands and attitude, as Karsh suggests. Such a relationship is elusive, and is like dealing with that wall-flower at the dance that very shy and you must convince them to dance with you. To gain enough trust from that lone subject, to have them bare their souls to me through their eyes, hands and attitudes, is a true honor. When they do, it’s MY job to immortalize that look, that feeling. If I am photographing two or three people in a relationship, the task is often almost the opposite. Instead of courting them, my job is to allow them to be deeply engaged with each other, to the point where they can actually forget, however briefly, that I am even present with my camera. I am entering their space to immortalize their private moment. I can feel like a voyeur.
Sit back and really think about it one more time, so that you might be able to grasp just how difficult it is to capture true art, especially in black & white. Your task is to have the person totally open up to you and speak volumes, eye to eye, directly with the lens of your camera. In the other direction, if you are capturing a relationship, your task is to ease the skittish feelings the couple is normal to have, and to lull them, romance them, and allow them to mentally leave the scene so that I can allow them and totally enter their own world, their own reverie.
CLICK … GOT IT!!
Click on the link below, sit back and feast your eyes on many of Karsh’ most famous portraits! Then imagine them as tall as you are! You will recognize so many of them. What a marvel he was! What an honor to have seen these iconic B & W Fine Art Portraits in person. If you’d like to see some more of what he’s accomplished here is a link to Karsh’s Greatest Work.