Ray’s theory of fine-art, black & white wildlife photography:
My favorite photographers have names like Steichen, Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Lange and Adams . . . there are hundreds more. They photographed landscape, still life, and people in the abstract medium of black & white. They built a sturdy and varied tradition of fine-art that gives all photographers a foundation to build upon. They tackled every possible subject from every possible angle that they could see or imagine and through their art challenged us to continue the search for new perspectives , new technologies and new subjects. If it can be seen on, above or below this planet . . . chances are it has been photographed.
How does this relate to fine-art, black & white wildlife photographs? Research it . . . look for it . . . let me know if you find enough of it to make it important . . . I’ve looked and have found very, VERY little. So, why, if so many people for the almost two hundred years of photography have made images of everyone and everything, isn’t there a huge body of work of wildlife in the black & white medium?
The answer, I believe, is partially in the technology . . . to take wildlife photographs in the volume necessary to make the right images a camera was needed that could take many successive images. That problem was solved in 1925 camera developed by the German company E. Leitz, it was called the Leica, and shot a 36-exposure roll of 35mm film. However, the 35mm camera did not become readily available and popular until the late 1940s and early 1950s.
The next problem to be solved was that of the need for a telephoto lens to bring a wild and elusive animal close enough to be photographed. Most of the development in this area started in years after the Second World War and by the 1950s some short telephoto lenses were available commercially. We now have the tools, so, why not the images?
Well, the images are there . . . they’re just not in black & white! In 1937 Kodachrome was introduced and, like telephoto lenses and the 35mm SLR, became popular and mainstream in the years after WW II. So photographers began making images of wildlife . . . in COLOR! And what a marriage that has been . . . magazines, galleries, books, posters, slide shows, two-dimensional wall art, the internet!
In other words, we had all the tools in abundance by 1960 and yet, 45 years later there is still no “body of work” in fine-art black & white wildlife. I took my first wildlife photos in the late 1960s and continued through the mid-1980s . . . the results were dismal. There is no style, no dynamic. What was the correlation to the lack of great black & white wildlife images? The great masters of medium had established and proven that natural landscape both close-up and panoramic could be dramatic, majestic and emotional . . . but why not wild animals?
Technology answers only part of the question. Obviously there was something else at play. Dynamic lighting played a part but the larger question started to answer itself when I realized that wild animals can be classified as predators or prey (sometimes both). As such they seek to avoid detection by natural camouflage and by hiding. Many are color-blind relying more on the ability to see motion, to smell or hear than actual animal identification. So, that deer in the summer with a rusty red coat, dynamically lit by the rising sun against a lush green forest becomes a grey against a slightly darker grey (about a Zone VI against a Zone V) . . . boringly subtle! Even a close-up can muddle into a lack-luster background.
When I discovered this in about 1984 there was no great ringing of bells, no dancing in the streets . . . no epiphany. That knowledge just sat there for ten years until I had the time to realize how important it would be to my approach to art. The bells are ringing now!
Learning to use the available light . . . the sun, the shade, the clouds . . . back lighting, side lighting, reflection is the real challenge. The planet is my studio. My techniques of pure white or pure black backgrounds are visual devices used by artists for thousands of years to accent the subject. When I am able to find the right combination of animal, light and emotion I can take the kind of negatives I need.
Then, in the darkroom, I can use traditional technique to isolate that subject from subtle or muddled backgrounds allowing the audience to focus on the subject. Did I actually invent this subject-to-medium approach . . . no, but I am part of a small by increasingly important group of photographer/artists that recognize the importance of establishing a body of black & white chemically-produced wildlife images while the technology is still available.
I’m a 60-year-old self-taught fine art photographer from Rapid City, SD. An avid photographer since the age of eight I did not succeed in becoming a professional artist until 1996.
Specializing in buffalo and other plains and woodland animals I work almost entirely in black & white producing both limited and unlimited edition of selenium-toned, gelatin silver prints. I am now beginning to produce digital images from scanned negatives.
I have spent the past 12 years refining a strong, easily identified style and portfolio and am now working on a book of images.