Is b/w LF photography a "tradition"? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Is LF b/w photography a tradition? The many posts concerned with originality or esp. creativity seem to me to suggest that it isn’t or, if it is, it would be better off if it weren’t. Consider the following:

In my office I’ve hung a vertical 8x10 b/w contact print portrait of Marilyn and me seated on a bench on our deck shot with a 300/9 Nikkor M. By sitting with our feet pulled back I was able fit everything in. The camera is looking down at us bringing the film plane into line with heads and knees so no movements were needed. Apart from some convergence of hair and birch leaf foliage, not so bad—except for one thing: because I had waited for the late afternoon sun, the house cast a long vertical shadow along one side of my outside leg. At first I thought I’d discard the negative, then I remembered a justly famous modernist masterpiece by Edward Weston—his “Nude” of Charis Wilson of 1936, the one with the shadow on Charis’ right arm. The shadow was an accident; neither model nor camera could move. My shadow was an accident. I wasn’t thinking of EW, Charis, or of anything other than my own vision when I set up the shot (for one thing, we were both fully clothed!). But I titled the print “Shadow: Homage to Edward and Charis”, hung it, and am proud of it.

Last Saturday, we took the 8x10 up to Hartwood Acres, an estate with mansion now owned by the county, to work on tilts. But after a few near-far exposures we were diverted by another opportunity for self-portraits. There is a huge oak on the slope below the house. We took turns seated on the rising base of the tree, squarely in front of the massive trunk with the mansion in the bokeh behind (no tilts on this one). Now comes the interesting part. At some point in the process I remembered Ansel Adams’ portrait of Edward Weston, Carmel Highlands 1945—subject seated at base of a massive eucalyptus. Was I subconsciously knocking off AA’s vision and composition? Or was this my own idea, the recollection coming only after my own vision was in place? Does it make any difference? Should I have avoided this composition (or should I now discard the portraits) because (whatever the truth, which I am unable to sort out, might have been) a knowledgeable viewer might think I was copying or imitating a well-known image by a well known photographer?

Consider the case of Edward Weston himself. On Henrietta Shore: “I was awakened to shells by the painting of Henry [Shore’s nickname]. I never saw a Chambered Nautilus before. If I had, my response would have been immediate! If I merely copy Henry’s expression, my work will not live. If I am stimulated and work with real ecstasy it will live” (Daybooks vol. 2, p. 21). EW also had very substantial debts to Imogen Cunningham and his own son Brett. The whole subject is treated by Karen E . Quinn, “’Universal Rhythms’: Edward Weston and Modernism after 1927” in Stebbins, Quinn, and Furth, Edward Weston: Photography and Modernism, MFA Boston 1999, pp. 81-103.

Do these influences make EW any less a photographer? Could anyone possibly think that he single-handedly created his art, that it was entirely the product of his own vision, that his work was utterly original, and without antecedents? Personally, I don’t think such a thing is possible. We all learn from and are influenced by others, whether it’s formal instruction, a teacher or mentor, how-to manuals, another medium such as painting, this forum, telephone calls to Midwest or Badger, or the instructions on Kodak chemistry packages. The question is whether the photographer is willing or not to acknowledge those influences which necessarily existed or exist in one form or another.

In the couple of years I’ve been in LF photography, the evident resistance to acknowledging the founders of the art has come as a surprise to me—it’s something I still don’t understand. College professors (of which I am one) often are quite open about their place in a “tradition”. If you did your PhD at university A in department B under professor C, and it’s something to be proud of, you’re not going to hide the fact. Similarly with classical musicians. If a flutist attended school or conservatory X or master class Y or studied under teacher Z, she’s going to let you know about it. But it’s a two-edged sword. By advertising your antecedents you set yourself up for possible failure—a more catastrophic failure than if you’d kept your influences to yourself, by creating heightened expectations. When you publish a book or walk out on the stage to perform the Chaminade Concertino, you are totally naked. It’s crunch time, and your famous teachers can’t help you—in fact, the viewer or listener’s knowledge of them will only serve to magnify any shortcomings.

I agree with everybody who says art photography is all about vision, and that expressing that vision is what we understand as creativity. But any vision is conditioned by all the ego-related factors of time, place, gender, age, background, and the rest, so when we come to express our vision we find that others with similar histories have already been there before us, opening up the possibilities of real or imagined imitation. My point is the solution to this problem is not to flee in the opposite direction, avoiding the famous predecessor at all costs. For one thing, in the process of doing so you might be forced to surrender your own vision—the very last thing you want to do, right? Better to accept the tradition. By expressing our individual uniqueness, the end product can only be unique even if it bears strong accidental and unintended similarities to the work of others.

I’d like to know what people think. All the best, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, February 14, 2002


You are doing OK until you start titling your photos "Homage to....."

-- Richard C. Trochlil (, February 14, 2002.

I think we get too caught up in worrying about "things." We worry if we are copying other photographers. We worry about d-max. We worry about shadow detail. We even worry about danged shadows. If Edward Weston had allowed his obsession about that shadow on Charis' nude to dominate his thinking, I would have missed out on one of my favorite photographs. I'm sure that image has been used intuitively in some of my efforts, but I never set out to duplicate it. We are a product of our environment, and we can't escape that fact. Who knows what influence classical music had on Ansel Adams' intuition while peering through ground glass. Songwriters constantly talk about borrowing ideas, themes, etc., from novelists, and they aren't castigated for following in someone else's foot steps. I say stop worrying so much about tiny details. (Although I agree about making homage in your titles.) Enjoy your work, learn from mistakes and persevere. If you are satisfied with your efforts, carry on. Eventually, your vision will mature into an individual style.

-- Bruce Schultz (, February 14, 2002.

I agree with Bruce. If we get too caught up in whether or not we're doing this or that, I think it can stiffle creative energy. Everyone is a unique entity and can see the world in a special way. Sure, some photos might look a bit like this person's or that person's, but that's cool. I think if we just keep doing what we want, proceeding intuitively, and having a good time (except maybe when you have to finally start tackling that growing pile of undeveloped film!), good stuff just kind of happens.


-- Chris Jordan (Boston) (, February 14, 2002.

You're just too dad gummed edumacated. Don't think too much. You've obviously done your scales so, as Louis Armstrong said, "just blow, baby!" There are too many variables involved in the process of making a good photograph. All the things you mention should and should be allowed to inform your vision and process. Critiquing yourself is healthy. Don't reverse engineer yourself or censor yourself into entropy. Ground breaking and paradigm shifting work still relies on antecedents.

-- Donald Brewster (, February 14, 2002.

After you've read enough art and photo books, and enough years have gone by, you'll find it difficult to look at *any* image and not see connections and similarities with something else. I'm not saying every photograph has already been made, but the "prior art" is damn substantial. Odds are that whatever image you make, there's some form of clone somewhere. You may never see it, but it's out there. So what to do? I gave up worrying about it. Shoot what you feel like shooting. Wanna copy a shot you admire, fine. You're subconciously using ideas from other images for every shot you take anyway. True creativity doesn't mean that every image is completely unconnected with anything that's come before.

-- Conrad Hoffman (, February 14, 2002.

Nick -

You're obviously a college professor: too much analysis! Zen approach: don't think, do! Agreed: forget Homage! Finally, to paraphrase Ellington: "if it looks good, it is good."

-- Andy B. (, February 14, 2002.

Let me pipe in with an opposing point of view. I think it's good to 'analyze', or at least think about issues like this - if nothing else, its a pleasant change of pace from 'analyzing' resolution numbers....

In general, being totally original is pretty hard - we start with what's inside our heads, that's what gets used to interpret and understand (and at a more basic level, it influences what we pay attention to). Even truly, startlingly original work is often pretty much a pastiche of different things that have been floating around (and that is hard enough to do). All those sci-fi horror creatures are pretty much a mixture of creatures that we have seen (sort of like 'alright, let's mix a spider and an octopus and see what we come up with').

I don't think that is problematic - we build on what we've discovered before. The achievements of any lifetime are pretty modest compared to what we achieve as a species, and that is pretty much because we build on what others have done. The 'let's break things apart and put them together in a different way' approach does yield new insights but we are still working with things that have existed before.

I think the greatest problem I have is in getting my mind to shut up. Like I said, we respond to things we 'recognize' - over time, that means our work becomes stale and repititve. I've worked in a particular area for a long time, and I found that I kept goinending up at the same viewpoints. It was almost as though my mind was elbowing its way into my 'seeing' and saying, "Why are you wasting your time - here, let me show you how to make sense of this..." Part of the trick seems to be in training ourself to respond to 'new' stuff. I'm afraid the only way I have found is to keep working - force yourself to find 'new' things even in the 'old'. Its frustrating and hard (especially when you don't see anything new), but till I find some other elixir, it's the only one I've got.

Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, February 14, 2002.

No man is an island - John Donne. Do what looks and feels right to you - originality is way overrated.

-- Wayne DeWitt (, February 14, 2002.

Nick, there's a fantastic article written on the very subject you're addressing here, which was the text of a speech recently given by the director of a new movement called the Art Renewal Center. It's an artistic life-changer of a piece-- I highly recommend it to all. See link below.

~chris jordan (Seattle)

-- chris jordan (, February 14, 2002.

Oh Chris. Yes, it is an interesting article in a certain reactionary sort of way. However, I don't think even Hilton Kramer would subscribe to the sentiments of this article. I have a degree in art history (which is a "world's tallest midget argument I know). I was exposed to the 19th Century academists in more than a couple of classes and seminars. But for Mr. Ross to put them on the same pedestal as the renaissance and baroque masters while calling modernists nihilistic is completely over the top. This is the Thomas Kinkeade argument removed by 150 years. Saint Ansel and Saint Edward are spinning at high RPM. There is more to artistic vision than slavish and formulaic technique.

-- Donald Brewster (, February 14, 2002.

Some of your pictures are as good as the masters'. That's good. You're technical skills are at a level where you subconsciouscly make a picture about as good as the masters'. That's good too. Your next lessons are these:

- Increase consistency. Raise the ratio of pictures that are of master quality. - Expand technical skills. Pick a different master photographer in a different style and learn to subconsciously take good pictures in that style. - Establish personal style. Go beyond the master, such that when other people see your pictures they say "That's a Nick Jones picture in the style of EW" (this one's really tough :-)

Whadya think?

-- Mike Kelleghan (, February 14, 2002.

You mentioned Brett Weston, his father and influences. From a 1981 Robert Holmes interview,Brett speaks of his father: "I love his work. I was influenced by him. He was influenced by Imogen Cunningham, Steiglitz, I'm sure Paul Strand. He was influenced by me, so he said. He was a big man. He was open to influence." Darkroom Photography, Volume 3, Number 3.

-- Merg Ross (, February 14, 2002.

"When you look through the viewfinder, if you've seen what you see before - don't shoot it!" - Alexey Brodovitch

The ridiculous extension of this is a colleague who is a mature age convert and student of photography who flatly refuses to look at any photographs by other photographers lest they influence his perceptions.

The humand mind is a distillery of encountered experiences ; a melting pot that simmers a chaotic assembly of cultural, literal, visual, aural, olfactory, tactile and taste inputs until they brew as own own fine spirit.

Of course we are influenced by the work of others - peers and bums alike. We have no way of knowing just at what point of the 'creative' process the subliminal influences of the past kick in. It is probably some time later in the act that we become conscious of them.

What is relevant to this discussion is, I think, the delineation between 'influence' and 'plagiarism'. The 'Homage To ..."? I have no problem with that. Music is full of it "Improvisations Based On A Theme By .... (Paganini, perhaps).

Walter Glover

-- Walter Glover (, February 14, 2002.

Nick, on a daily basis, we are bombarded by visual images, of course we get influenced. Using these influences to arrive at original seeing is completely legitimate, a child learns by observing their parents. Don't get to hung up on this, just keep creating and enjoy what you are doing.

-- Ed O'Grady (, February 14, 2002.

When Art graduated from “creating a likeness” to a “ means of personal expression” you would have thought that this issue would have gone away.... Who’s to say that one person’s feeling and vision and expressions thereof are more or less valid than anyone else’s?

-- Bruce Wehman (, February 14, 2002.

Photography can drive you crazy. My advice? Take a vacation from the 8x10, buy a $20 Holga, and only shoot with that for a week or two, at least a few shots every day. Be sure to tape up the Holga. After you see the contacts you can go back to 8x10.

-- Arthur Gottschalk (, February 14, 2002.

>>>> YAWN....!<<<<

-- Matt O. (, February 14, 2002.

Another thought provoking question. Thank you. My 2 cents:

I have been looking at Micheal Kenna's work recently at his web site and at the AIPD shows. It is very popular, sells very well. Just about all the major galleries carry his work. However, to look at it, some images are quite wonderful. One in particular I like is of a huge chess board inlaid on a walk way by the sea, shot against an ominous cloudscape. But other images look like 1st year student's work.

I have not seen one print larger then 8x10, most are 8x8 and smaller, mounted on 14x17 or 14x18 boards. They sell for over $1000.00. Apparently he uses mostly, if not exclusively, 2 1/4 square format. I do not know what materials he uses, nor do I really care. His images are sharp focus front to back. His print quality from a technical stand point, is not always perfect, yet perfect enough to express what he wants to say. He travels the world, to many exotic places, takes pictures, sells them, and apparently lives the life style many can only dream of using a very simplistic approach.

So what's the point? His approach looks to be that of Steiglitz, or even Weston, that is, "less is more," simplicity of equipment so to free one for creativity. For Weston, it was an 8x10, lugging that monster along with a huge, surveyors sized tripod, where ever he needed it, and was nimble enough and intuitive enough with it to shoot head shots, and even a man urinating. Just how long does it take to pee?

When it comes to equipment, you have to use what frees one up for what is important, taking meaningful pictures. Your equipment should be an extension of your mind and vision and used as a tool to convey what you see to the viewing auidience. Equipment and it's use has to be intuitive, if not, maybe it's time for a change.

-- Rob Pietri (, February 14, 2002.

I would never claim that color photographs are "easier" to take, but I think color sometimes takes away from the impact and isolation of what photographs can bring to a subject. I personally think black and white nudes can be form and beauty without being invasively real. Textures and form enhanced by light and shadow are what black and white are all about. I really like the substance of portraits for the same reason. Is it a tradition to shoot large format black and white. Sure. I am lucky to own a Weston (Cole print) which I bought when I was a starving student. I have it hanging in my hall where it is not exposed to direct sunlight or harsh elements and I look at this print at least 4 times a week. Not because it is a Weston, but because I am always drawn to it and amazed at what is not in it and the attention to detail that is there. It is technically startling to me. 25 years and I still enjoy this photo. I have ONE of my own I love this much. I think this print would have died in color. Edward Weston's color was not anything like the black and white. Why large format? I think you would not be on this forum if you did not appreciate the potential and impact of a contact printed negative. It ISN'T the same as an enlargement. No one in their right mind would haul around an 8x10 if visual impact wasn't part of the issue. It is sometimes a really subtle thing other times obvious that the big camera was used and as we get older it gets to be a bit harder to haul that thing around. Brett Weston ended his career with 6x7 and 6x6 stuff for most of his work. Gotta tell you, pretty nice stuff...but he shot almost everyday (even from his sick bed at times) for 65 years! It IS good to look at other people's stuff. You learn about the problems with your stuff. Hand positions, branches that should not have been there, lousy choice of background, a shadow :<)...things we all screw up. We are not (even Weston) born with perfect vision. I,personally, would be hard pressed to exactly copy a Weston, especially from memory. If I could, I would be pretty good (actually damn good) and I know I would that I had technique down pat. I think all of us learn from the masters not only of photography but of painting and sculpture as well.

You are not likely to create serious art in an afternoon or without a lot of careful thought...period. Don't take it so seriously you choke yourself up. Enjoy it

-- Will Ewing (, February 14, 2002.

Well today is valentines day and the only appropriate answeris to relate this to a kiss. All the B.S. about , if you have seen it before then don't take the picture and is it a tradition misses the point. Photography at the very basic root is love, feeling and a sense of familiarity or a desire realised. So when did you ever refuse the kiss of a beautiful woman because she kissed like all the other women, or the kiss of you wife or lover( I keep mine the same) because you had seen it in the viewfinder before?!!! HeLL!!! you just kept on kissing because you enjoyed it. So the is ABSOLUTELY nothing wrong with taking the same picture you enjoy taking over and over again. If it fells good do it! If you like it do it, and keep doing it. If you want to take 10,000 pics of half moon dome from the "official" outlook do it!! And those who critise you just don't get it. Certainly they won't critise you for kissing you loved one hundred or thousands of time. So what is a few hundred sheets of film to them! To you it is love, satisfaction and deep feeling. To hell with those who don't under stand you. If they buy it greaat or if not forget it. Think for just a fleeting second that Ed Weston was usually busted, broke and did not sell his pics for big dollars. Now his prodgeny do but he died poor. Ansel lived off a post card retail shop for most of his life and only when he was an old geezer did the dollars come in. So lets really look at the old masters, Atget did it for his love of Paris. So you do it for love too and enjoy it and don't take any guff for you shooting. The world will understand after you are dead and gone. But you understtod it when you were alive and enjoyed each kiss ( exposure). Simple ? You bet it is!!!

-- ED (, February 14, 2002.

I will just add a couple of thoughts the the discussion. First, if you never saw anyone elses work, you would still make images that could pass as copying another's style or specific images. That is because art is simply an effort to explain, explore and gain some understanding of the themes and currents that run throughout humanity. So of course you are going to copy others to some extent as these themes have been explored in a multitude of ways for 150yrs with photography.

The idea of originality is to find some new way to express the above. I think it is easy to be original. The problem is, are we to concerned with what others (friends, critics, peers) will think of us and our work. Many original ideas are scoffed at and ridiculed only to become masterpieces later. Sometimes those who are considered to be the most original had the courage to persevere with their vision.

-- James Chinn (, February 14, 2002.

Maybe it is more productive(if you are going to use the mind) to ask yourself these a very deep and heartfelt way...who am I?...and ....what do I truly love?...and ...what do I have to say, in a deep way?...also...which is the best way to say it?...and how should I say it? Maybe not to speak at all ...only when I really feel. Embrace the an empty cup...then let it be filled. Peace.

-- Emile de Leon (, February 15, 2002.

Picasso: "The artist who tries to be original deceives himself. If he creates anything at all it will just be an imitation of what he likes" Do not worry about having a personal vision or about being original. One has it or one doesn't and it is nothing one can do to try to get. It comes as a function of living and working fully. If you haven't already done so, go to our web site and under "writings" see my articles, "Letter to a Young Photographer" and " On Teaching Photography." In part, they deal with your question.

Do not worry about making photographs that appear to be imitative. When one comes upon a new influence, whether another photographers work or something else, that influence will appear strongly in one's own work. Over time, as one absorbs new influences the original influence will be diluted. If it is an influence truly right for you it will remain in your work forever. If it is not meant for you it will disappear of its own accord. In any case, it is nothing to concern yourself with. As I wrote near the end of "On Teaching Photography," "Everyone is unique. With a broad foundation in the medium and with continued work over a period of time, one’s uniqueness will emerge."

Michael A. Smith

-- Michael A. Smith (, February 15, 2002.

After you've been looking at photographs for a while … for years … you notice something about the imagery that breaks down around a simple idea; that a photograph has a natural look and feeling or it doesn't. It's as though in the first case you stop seeing a photograph and just see. The image leaves its paper support and becomes a cerebral suspension, hanging in the air … you stop breathing. Caponigro's running deer comes to mind. In the second case the image is trapped on the surface of the paper, it's of this world. You realize that you're looking at a photograph of something … the photographer was bored.

-- Charles Trottier (, February 15, 2002.


My heart-felt thanks for the deep, searching, and provocative responses to my posting on tradition. It’s a lot to take in all at once, …it’s gonna take some time to digest it all.

Without immodesty, I think I can truthfully say my life to date has not been without memorable experience, feelings, or variation , and that I’m introspective almost to a faul … what I’m dealing with now is finding ways to express the vision already produced by that introspection in my chosen medium—and, now that I think of it, the medium is itself part of that vision (but that one, I think, has been said before too…).

Chris, I’ve found the ARC article, but I have to say that, unlike Fred Ross, I have no problem with modernism …in fact I’m a proponent of it, esp. in b&w photography.

Michael, I’ve downloaded your two articles and find both very illuminating, esp. “On Teaching Photography,” which speaks directly to the concerns of my post. (And sorry, again, about not discovering sooner than I did your email to me about the computer problem).

Sincerely, Nick Jones

-- Nick Jones (, February 16, 2002.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ