Rock Work by Christian Fitze
Perhaps I'm unusual in that I tend to appreciate photographs for a number of reasons — that is to say, I can appreciate a photograph for: its subject content; its ability to show me a moment/slice of life; its insight into the human condition; its technical accomplishment; or its simple delight of tonalities. This image falls in the last category. The sense of light off these wave-worn rocks is simply a delight to my eyes.
That said, it is also a great example of the limitations of the printed image compared to an original gelatin silver print. Here in the Internet age, we find ourselves engaged in photography in this new medium with enthusiasm, frequency, and depth. Hoorah. But let's not forget that the physical artifact of the print has characteristics that simply do not translate to the screen at all. Paper texture is an obvious one. Scale and size are another. The metallic glow of certain tonalities in certain prints (like this one) is one of the greatest losses. I wish all of you could see this in the original gelatin silver, but alas . . .
Worse, I fear that for some of the younger generation, the appreciation of such prints is being lost entirely. The best way to learn the appreciation of an original print is to see lots and lots of them. In my generation, we did this at galleries and perhaps even more importantly in workshops. I've said for years that the lion's share of the benefit of attending a workshop is not what you learn but rather what you see. Training our eye to appreciate the subtleties of a fine print is an important step in our artistic process.
Back to Fitze's image, this is again an ideal example to talk about tonal relationships and the phases of a photographer's career.
The pattern of predictable phases in the learning process when one engages black and white photography if fairly universal. First, all beginning students make gray prints — flat, gray, boring prints. Somewhere along the line, they learn about black. In the second phase, they crank the contrast through the roof in search of that deep black, typically resulting in a period where all their prints exhibit far too much contrast and hardly any of the dreaded gray. If they are lucky, they progress quickly through the "black-is-everything" phase and discover the third phase — the full tonal scale. Here is where lots and lots of photographers get into trouble. They get stuck here and never move beyond full tonal scale prints. Too bad because there are some great images that are all high-key or low-key tones. But there is yet another phase beyond these — where harmony of tones is the key.
A large part of the reason this particular image is so tantalizing is because of the tonal relationships. I think of this like chords in music. It's not the individual notes that count, but the combination of the notes that make the chord. Similarly, the chord of tonalities in this image is the magic in it. Notice the high-key tones of the smooth rock next to the gray tones, then the punctuation of the black shells with their specular highlights. It's a visual chord of tones that just sings — if you'll excuse the pun. The best photographers understand this property of the tonal relationships of a print and it is often the difference between a very nice print and a breath-taking, spectacular one.
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