More on Pictorial Photography
Some of you may know that I have been doing more pictorial style photography lately. I have studied it for many years, but until the last decade, I never felt like I had anything to share worth mentioning. When I started thinking and teaching my “feel your way to a photograph” theory, I began to find a voice that wanted to express itself through pictorial images.
Telling the stories of the birds without being tied to a natural history approach was very freeing to me. The bulk of my publication work is natural history work, meaning I have almost a photo journalist’s ethic driving me. I don’t manipulate those images. They have to represent the “state of the bird” I am photographing.
But when I do birds as art, then I am free to go where I want; to feel my way to a photograph, even to try to make one with love for my subjects as the driving force.
One of the things that attracts me to pictorial images are the fact that in this style, I can place beauty, tonality, and composition above creating an accurate visual record. This gives me room to bring emotion, feeling and love into the process.
Being a slave to the scientific aspects of avian subjects is very limiting, from an artist’s perspective. Being able to concentrate on mood is a fantastic freedom.
I began to get a clearer grasp of the role of pictorial imagery though my study of Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz and other Pictorialists understood that a photograph was created when the camera was used as a tool, like a paintbrush was a tool. But that is just it – it is a tool – nothing more or less. What comes from it is up to the maker.
There have always been two primary factions in photography…the scientific and the artistic. I have straddled both worlds, but in my “senior” years, I find myself being more satisfied with the artistic side, especially when making pictorial images.
Of course for me, a visual work is not really a photograph until it is a print, and it’s in the printing of these pictorial images that I am able to apply genuine love and care.
I print my own pictorial images using processes and techniques I studied from Japanese pictorialists. I print on Washi paper. The process is labor intensive and it’s one where I take my time. I actually take a meditative approach when I make these prints. I use handmade papers from Japan, preferring the Moenkopi Washi Bizan 300 paper.
It is a single-sided, natural in color paper made of mulberry and hemp. It’s very thick and is water-resistant. It’s very thick at 300GSM and it is finicky, to say the least.
Printing on this paper REQUIRES love. That is the only way I can put up with it. Each sheet costs about $45 including shipping. It only works in professional grade printers, capable of custom platen gap settings. Each print must be painstakingly fine-tuned. It reminds me of when I printed in a wet darkroom. I’d make as many as a dozen “test prints” before I settled on the one I thought best represented the story I wanted to tell and the negative from which I worked.
On average, I make four or five “test prints” on the Moenkopi Washi Bizan. Yes, that is expensive, but it takes many tries to get the image to come out just right.
It’s through this painful, agonizingly slow, trial and error, that I have found a way to express genuine love. Perhaps this is too touchy feely for some of you but I am writing this for those who want to go deeper into their photography. There is a Zen-like, peaceful feeling that overcomes me when I am making these prints. In fact, the process of doing this is how I really learned what Zen means. Zen emphasizes rigorous self-control, meditation-practice, and thoughtful insight into the nature of a thing.
When I am working on pictorial photography, that process begins in the field, follows me to post and eventually to the printer and the painful use of Washi paper. It’s on paper where the final expression of the idea takes permanent form.
I am not suggesting that everyone reading this run out and spend a fortune on Washi paper. I am not sponsored by Moab. Instead, I am suggesting that WHATEVER type of photography you are doing, you may benefit from doing it more thoughtfully – deliberately – being deliberate and purposeful in your choices, learning patience and carefully considering the very nature of the thing you are trying to represent.
It’s going to be hard…perhaps even frustrating, but it’s where you will find your greatest challenges and hopefully, your most meaningful work.
I am rooting for you.