What Would Chuck Do?

Last week I posted about my trip to the Bethlehem Steel Stacks in which I hinted about a conversation that I had whilst shooting and that I would soon unravel the mystery.  Without any further ado, here is the gist of that conversation.

Scene: Smoke stacks walk way. Chock-a-block with tripods and photography enthusiasts. As I grab my bag and gear to re-locate I hear one of the enthusiasts, we’ll call him Herb, say:

Herb: “I wish someone would just come over and pull out all of these trees. They are getting in the way!”

Me: “Really? That’s the best part!”

Herb: “But they are in the way!”

Me: “But they tell a great story. The organic leafy things that are not only growing but also thriving amidst the man made pile of rust. It’s wonderful!”

Herb: “But I see all of this in Black and White.”

Me: “Me too!!!”

Herb: “But how are you going to make that work in Black and White?”

Me: “How do you NOT make it work in Black and White?”

As I said in my last piece I came home to look at my shots and it was as Herb foresaw—I did not make it work in Black and White. Actually, I did not make it work period. Not be deterred, I know in my heart-of-hearts that I was correct in that conversation. The fact that I did not make my current images work did not mean that it couldn’t work in the future. It certainly did not mean I wouldn’t make it work in Black and White. I did what any self-respecting photographer would do in such a situation: I called Chuck Kimmerle!

Having explained the situation to Chuck I sent him a few sample images. (Please note: I know these images are not good; I am willing to show a few duds in order to get some very good points across. Also, I am certain that even Ansel Adams tossed a few negatives into the recycle bin. Yes, I know I’m not Ansel Adams. You get the point.)

The bad example image I sent. 

Another example I sent. 

Below is a portion of my conversation with Chuck regarding the duds you see posted here:

Me: Thank you for doing this. It was such an interesting little conundrum that I had to ask what you would do in this situation. Actually, that’s wrong. You would have never gotten into this situation. Now that I’ve done it, is there any way to rectify this?

Chuck: Well I looked at the first picture you sent and looked on your blog at the other pictures where you avoided the leaves. And I’ll be honest; leaves with man-made stuff are always a bit tough because when you look at the leaves they always look so bright. But in reality their overall luminosity is probably not much brighter than the stuff around it. It’s just that the yellow color has a solution of being brighter.  If you took readings on it you would probably find that the leaves are the same color. 

Now there are two ways to do it. One is like the second way (Like you did on the photos you already posted to your blog) where you get tight enough to avoid the leaves. On one of the pictures you sent the leaves were in there as in, “I can’t avoid them so I may as well put them in a little corner down here.” And to me when confronted with these wonderful designs, and there are things that ruin the design, you can avoid it or you embrace the hell out of it. 

Me: As I was walking around I found it fascinating to have all of this organic stuff amongst the man made decay and I liked that. There is a little whimsy or a little something in there. I don’t know if it is because of the color contrast. If that is the case then how does that relay to black and white. But, to your point, if it’s a design thing and it goes to black and white it ruins the whole design focus.

Chuck: Well, the first picture I noticed really wasn’t about the design because if you look at the top there are a lot of doo-hickies that have nothing to do with the design. Same with the bottom and then there’s the leaves. Some of your tighter stuff had to do with design. And when you are confronted with this juxtaposition of this man made order and nature’s cacophony you really can’t do a lot with design unless the design is super super strong and you can juxtapose the two. But that’s all you can do anyway.  Your first picture you include it more as a scenic picture. It didn’t really work because it’s just too much you don’t’ know where to look. 

So here it is. If you want to include it you can’t just include a piece. You have to really really commit to it. Maybe the way to look at it is that your picture isn’t the man made elements your picture is the tree or the growth in nature within an artificial environment. If you look at it that way then the tree, or nature, becomes more of the subject and the man-made stuff becomes the extra or the second half of the juxtaposition. It’s really hard when your mind is dead set on “I really love this man made stuff but how do I deal with it with the stuff in the way.” All of a sudden, then, you are thinking of the natural part as being a negative entity and it’s going to influence you, and not in a good way, of how you create the picture. 

The second set of pictures [in the blog post] were all about the man made stuff, but nothing that I saw was about the growth. 

When you are dealing with that [what you need to do] is to shoot wider and put things in a greater context. You could have shot wider and shown all the great man-made stuff with this small forest or woods growing in there and turn it into mother nature taking over man sort of thing. But, again, that’s when you are really embracing the trees to the point where they almost become the focal point. 

Me: I was right in that I CAN include them, but was wrong in the way I was delivering the punch. 

Chuck: Ya, I think what you were trying to do was to still shoot the design and not ignore the tree. When people look at the pictures they think “I don’t see a design here, the tree is just in the way.” And it’s hard to know what you were trying to come up with. Make sense?

Me: Yes. I think I need to go back. . .

The conversation then turned to fundamentals in Photoshop and I’m not going to go into that here. There is this thing called the Internet full of information on that front. So, here are the critical points I got out of this conversation:

1)    It’s not about whether it’s Black and White, Color, or Cyanotype. It’s about the composition and the narrative. (And the point of view. Don’t forget your point of view.)
2)    The luminosity of the green is going to be the same as the man made parts. Even though my eye distinguishes these as two different color elements when I go to process in black and white they will be similar tones. But that’s not a bad thing! I can make choices when I start to process. (NOTE: I could make these same choices if I was Ansel Adams working in a traditional darkroom or if I were Chuck Kimmerle working in a digital darkroom.)
3)    There are many ways to look at a scene. You can look at it graphically or you can look at it scenically or you can look at it upside down if you want. Make sure you know your point of view. 
4)    Let me repeat. All roads lead back to good composition and understanding the narrative before you even click the shutter. Sometimes it pays to think first and then shoot.

Chuck left me with one last comment that I think was very telling. 

“The guy you were talking to . . . I believe his biggest problem, and I see this a lot from people, is he went in with pre-conceived expectations. Before he went in, in his mind, saw these wonderful man made structures. And then when he saw the trees he froze. Because in his mind he had already figured out what he wanted to do. What I recommend people do is to go in saying ‘I’ll get what I can get.’ That way when you are confronted with trees you aren’t going to say, ‘Damn. They are in my way.’ You’ll say, ‘How can I use those?’  If you go in with closed minds that is a big deal. “

And there it is. Thank you for joining me in photography 101 with Chuck Kimmerle! Next time we will discuss the proper positioning of Bison. [inside joke] Actually, next time I hope to be posting some Mother Nature images from Bethlehem Steel! I need to get back there soon. Any takers? Carla?