I'm introducing an occasional series on the idea of contrast in images by looking at the work of two most excellent photographers here on Deviant Art: thewolfcreek
. Talk to most photographers about contrast and you will here all about light and shade, the zone system, local versus global contrast and much much more. We photographers like to think of contrast in terms of variations and differences in the light values of adjacent parts of an image - pure black versus pure white being the ultimate photographic contrast. However, some considerable time ago, a Swiss expressionist painter called Johanes Itten en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johannes…
introduced to his students at the Bauhaus en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bauhaus
the idea of another type of contrast - contrast between characteristics and properties of objects, such as rough and smooth, narrow and wide, horizontal and vertical, curved and linear - was just as important in image making as the concept of variable light values. I wrote a short forum article about this a few years ago. okavanga.deviantart.com/journa…
Itten's idea can be taken even further; we can look for contrasts in style, content, intent, methods, media, and all such ideas are what these Features are going to be about - contrasts of a curious mind. (Itten will crop up again in future Features in this series.)
Let me look at five works by thewolfcreek
Steven is a well travelled photographer, particularly through the United States. He normally uses two Canon Rebel 2000 EOS 35mm cameras, one fitted with a Canon 75-300mm zoom lens and the other camera with a Canon 35-80 mm lens. He tells me he also uses a red or yellow filter and graduated filters with both cameras and lenses, and a tripod.
What do you think of these monochrome (black and white) images? I bet a lot of folk think...Hmmmm... they are all a bit grey and dull, and not that interesting. Well, if you think that, you are absolutely wrong, and if you follow this article you will come to see these shots in a completely different light. Nevertheless, in one respect our imaginary critic is correct - the images are a bit grey. In terms of classic photographic contrast they do not use the full tonal range available. The lightest tones are only slightly above mid-tone grey - look at the first image - the boarding of the house walls should be whitish, but they are not - they are grey. Look at the last image - nothing is above mid-tone! Why has Steven done this? Cannot he not see or read a histogram? The answer is that Steven's style of using a low contrast and an abbreviated tonal range is to create mood. The mood varies from image to image, sometimes chilly, sometimes melancholic, sometimes lonely or solitary, sometimes mysterious, threatening, odd... The titles he chooses reinforce the mood - "Something wicked...", "These woods of dread and fear...", "Black lake..." Even the use of ellipsis (the three dots in the titles) adds to the ominous mood.
Despite their slightly chilly nature, these are contemplative images. They don't fall into the modern "Wow" categories that rely on transient visual impact - seen today, forgotten tomorrow. The more you really look at these works, the more they reveal, the more you start to think - they as much an intellectual challenge as an emotional one. What went on in that house in the first shot, "This house of broken dreams..."? What histories, what lives, what agonies and joys were there? More prosaically, who built it? And, that barn, "Deserted and forlorn..." in the second shot - it must have been an important building, functional and solid, but now dead and decaying. Sombre contemplation from use of restricted contrast.
Many of Steven's works are also testaments to bygone rural architecture, as seen in the first two images. So, as well as the contemplative and melancholic nature of the images, they are a record of scores of disused rural buildings across many a State in the US. These images are valuable in this wider context This is an example of a contrast between the personal and the historic or public interest.
My second photographer is Metal-Bender
, Peggy.I know Peggy work with a Canon 5D Mark III, thus displaying her talent of picking excellent cameras! (OK - so I use one as well.) Peggy also works mostly in monochrome, and again I have chosen five works.
I've chosen the first two of Peggy's images as contrasts to those of Steven. Similar in style and subject, Peggy's view of the "Heartbreak Hotel" is in very marked contrast to Steven's portrayal of buildings. For a start, the photographic contrast range is from black to white, the trees and bushes are deliberately darkened to silhouettes, and the style is approaching that of a high key image. While Steven's buildings are within the landscape, this decaying hotel has a halo of clouds, bright and white, perhaps reflecting previous exciting times. The subject stands out from its surroundings. Yet, the sense of decay is there with those tendrils of creepers clasping and crushing the structure. The river with its bridge, too, is similar to Steven's "Black Lake...", but Peggy has used a full contrast range, although keeping the trees as silhouettes. She has also used a black vignette to focus or attention into the frame - a very useful technique in photography. The overall mood is brighter, even though the scene is dark.
In a huge contrast to Steven's work, Peggy likes people in her shots. In fact, Peggy likes Peggy in her shots in what might be a homage to Cindy Sherman! And, nothing wrong at all with that! www.moma.org/interactives/exhi…
I've chosen, "Closer Look" with the magnifying glass and very carefully controlled pose, as an example with so many contrasts in it - black dress, hair, gloves, white background; see-through gauze, impenetrable black, vertical arm, horizontal arm; big V shape on the neckline, little V shape on the brooch; little round dots, big round glass... Itten would loved this. The use of high photographic contrasts adds to the startling presentation.
I think the last two of the images I've chosen for Peggy really do bring home some of the ideas of contrasts - that industrial building with its converging lines is so modern and man-made the contrast with the amorphous cloud-swept sky needs hardly a mention; the rattling rhythm of the metallic ridges opposing the rolling softness of the clouds. And, finally, I could not resist "Bending Time" for an exercise in Itten contrasts: legs human (Peggy's?), bent clock, inanimate; thick diagonal stripes, rectangular patterns; angles and lines, warped curves; and "piece de resistance" red shoes in a monochrome image!!! I'm a believer in colour splash work when it works well, and this works a treat.
Overall, what conclusions can we make, particularly with respect to contrasts? My two photographers both work in monochrome, and there are similarities in some subject matter, but Steven uses a low contrast style to create mood and contemplative images whereas Peggy uses a higher contrast approach for dramatic effect. Steven's work not only hints at deep personal meaning, but also has a public value as archival record of bygone times; Peggy's work has a personal side, but also looks outward with more visual impact to excite attention. Steven's work has some of the Itten ideas inherent in the way he presents his work, whereas Peggy uses Itten contrasts (consciously or unconsciously) to full effect.
Both are very fine photographers who deserve as much attention and praise as we can give them.
David aka Okavanga