By Jonathan Bourla
To my mind, a Fine Art photograph must be both artistically inspired and also technically excellent. To be technically excellent, I think there should be excellent shadow detail, and the photograph be tonally excellent too, with a wide scale of grey tones. This is quite unlike the ‘soot and chalk’ tonal distribution which is quite common in black and white photography.
I use the Zone System to calculate appropriate negative exposure and development. The famous photographer Ansel Adams used the Zone System to great effect, and wrote about this technique in his book ‘The Negative’. Unfortunately many photographers who tried to get a handle on the Zone System from his guide books found this a very difficult task. I understand that many gave up, and then rejected the Zone System as impossible, and even unneccesary. There was also criticism that photographers using the Zone System produced similar-looking photographs. There is some truth to this last criticism as the photographs of photographers using the Zone System do tend to have very good rendition of details in the shadow areas, and they tend to have a nice tonal distribution. Looking at the photographs of the ‘greats’ such as Ansel Adams, John Sexton, Howard Bond and others will reveal the tonal distribution that I am talking about. Having a grasp of technique allows the photographer the capability, the freedom, to create photographs according to their unique vision. Instead of it being down to luck. I think of it as akin to needing to learn a vocabulary and grammatical rules before writing a novel.
I was one of those photographers who found it hard to understand the Zone System from Adams’ writings. I thought I was doing well, muddling through, until I attended a workshop run by photographer Howard Bond. The attendees at this workshop had the treat of being shown a good number of photographs by Master photographers. Then, showing our own prints to the group, it was clear to me that my own photographs really were lacking. Thankfully I then learnt from Howard Bond how to make sense of the Zone System. As with difficult things in general, once I understood the system it all made sense, and since then has been central to my photography.
The Zone System was important because photographers tended to make overdeveloped, and consequently overly contrasty, negatives. These negatives didn’t suit the printing papers available. I remember reading a recommendation from Kodak that countered the prevailing film speed/film development data given by all film manufacturers, Kodak included, but obviously they didn’t make enough of it to cause a change from the standards that were leading photographers to create negatives too high in contrast, and lacking in shadow detail.
I use a one degree spot light meter, to measure the light values of the different parts of the image, and consequently determine film exposure and also what development to give to the negative. A view camera using sheet film is ideal for this, as you can give the optimum development to each negative, as each negative is a separate sheet of film. You can use a more limited version of the Zone System with roll fim cameras, which make you develop all images on a roll for the same time. Some have two or more film backs for their camera. Ansel Adams, later in his life when he changed from the larger, more cumbersome view cameras to the smaller Hasselblad camera, used quite a number of backs with his camera, each destined to receive different development times. For my second camera, a Mamiya 7 rangefinder, I recently added a second camera body to give a limited Zone System flexibility.
So what use is the Zone System in my hybrid process of film negative, followed by scanning (and then followed by ‘interpretation’ on the computer)? Well, by chance, like traditional printing papers, film scanners work best with negatives of low or moderate contrast. So the Zone System is still useful for me.
My style of fine art photography is to some extent self-defeating. One aim of what is known as “straight” photography is that any changes or tonal manipulations made in what I call the “Interpretation” stage should be invisible to the viewer. In other words, if the viewer says “has that building been darkened?” or “I can see where the photographer has lightened that tree”, then the fine art photographer really has failed. I say self defeating because you may have been really creative and technically proficient in the interpretation stage of a particular photograph, but it isn’t allowed to shout to the viewer that all this effort has gone into it. I had an instance I remember when I was showing some of my fine art photographs to a gallery owner, someone apparently knowledgable about, and familiar with, fine art photography. Looking through my collection of photographic prints, he stopped to pause on one in particular. This photograph, like all of my photographs, was the product of considerable work to interpret from the camera negative to the finished fine art photograph. He studied the photograph, and then asked me something to the extent that the photograph looked very simple, and there clearly wasn’t much effort needed to produce it. I was really quite taken aback. And did the wrong thing – I started mumbling about the techniques that had gone into the making of the photograph. After talking for a few seconds, I think I realised I wasn’t getting anywhere. My opportunity was lost. I should simply have just thanked him for thinking the photograph had looked simple to produce, and taken this remark as a measure of my success. It’s easy to say that after the event, but at the time I was quite frustrated that all my work I had done to create this photograph was so easily dismissed, and by someone so supposedly knowledgable. And what of the not so knowledgable viewer? To quote my brother-in-law, pretending to hold an imaginary camera in his hands, “what’s involved in making a photograph is …click”. The average person has no idea the interpretative work that goes into the making of a fine art photograph. Strange to be producing artwork where the apparent difficulty is inversely proportional to the actual difficulty.