50 shades of black and white
With their white backdrops and unposed subjects, Richard Avedon's shots are stunningly effective.
RICHARD AVEDON (1923-2004) was an American photographer whose photographs you know even if you couldn't name the photographer. His picture of a nude model entwined with a python is creepily memorable, and his photograph of a glamorous woman in a fabulous courtier frock posing with three circus elephants is a standout in the overloaded field of fashion photography.
His fashion shoots for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue are memorable but his portraits are even more stunning. Avedon: Murals & Portraits (Thames & Hudson, $120) is a collection of his people photos from the 1960s and '70s. Avedon's political sympathies were with the left and his massive portraits are of the heroes and villains of the Beat generation, anti-war movement and civil rights marches.
Avedon used a Deardorff 10-inch by eight-inch (about 25 x 20cm) plate camera to make black-and-white portraits of astonishing detail and richness in which almost no one is smiling for the camera. There are no props. His subjects are looking straight into the lens, posed against a plain white backdrop. Even when he went to Vietnam he took the big camera and the white background sheet.
The photos have pin-sharp detail and are luminous with subtle tonality.
You can't help wondering if the analstalgics (our word for those strange people who cannot let go of the analog age of sound and picture reproduction) might have a point. Digital does seem a tad hard-edged and artificial compared with the roundedness of images made with silver film, papers and chemicals. This book is a monument to the artist and to his technology.
And, in case you're wondering if your digital camera can come close to Avedon's Deardorff plate camera, at least you can get the black-and-white part right.
According to Vincent Versace in his book From Oz to Kansas: Almost Every Black and White Conversion Technique Known to Man (we bought our copy for Kindle for $22), the latest inkjet printers with their multiple black and grey cartridges let us get close to the analog ideal. All we need is the right technique for converting the colour image from the camera into black-and-white.
Versace is adamant we shouldn't use the monochrome mode in-camera because that is throwing away image information. His techniques are for converting colour to black-and-white using processing software in computers.
His sections on how the eye reads a photograph and where the various colours lie on the monochrome scale from black to white are theoretically useful but he makes heavy going of the conversion process.
With ready-made conversion presets in Adobe and Corel products, and the wonderful Nik Software Silver Efex Pro - which Versace uses and recommends - a lot of what he writes is akin to reinventing the wheel. However, he can't be faulted for thoroughness and we haven't resented the $22.