NOTES Views






From my earlier Website, mostly about the black-and-white infrared work:


A photography curator at a big-city art museum where I used to work once complimented me on a picture of mine that he’d seen at an exhibition. I’ll never forget the word he used to describe the image, “fresh,” nor that he qualified his praise with the comment that he ordinarily disliked photographs made with infrared film. I swallowed and offered to donate a print to the museum, which he graciously accepted. I felt worthy, because this curator’s acquisitions (which often came to me for copy photography) were always top-drawer, I thought.

When I dropped off the print a few weeks later I included a second print in the package. The extra print was one of the best pictures I’d ever made, I thought (and still do). But the curator sent it straight back to me. In retrospect, I was probably being presumptuous. But I think his rejection also had to do with preconceptions about the medium, because the image really wasn’t more visibly infrared (that’s a joke, son) than the one he’d singled out. In fact, it was tonally similar to a black-and-white print by William Clift, one of my favorite photographers, that the museum had recently purchased. (I was aware of the acquisition because I’d just shot an 8x10 copy negative of it.) Clift’s landscape had no less dark a sky than my rejected image. Contrary to popular belief, sky darkening is not an effect of infrared film per se; it’s largely the result of using a red, orange, or yellow filter with black-and-white film.

For most of the 30 years since I started doing black-and-white infrared photography, it has had a bad name in curatorial circles. Many fine-art photographers don’t like it either. Its obvious effects—the white foliage and glowing highlights—are considered a cheap shot. It’s true that the film has been abused, with photographers often relying on its instant-otherworldliness to transform otherwise banal scenes. Do a Google Images search for infrared and you’ll turn up photos of people blowing bubbles in the park, artless nudes with golf-ball grain, and views of quaint ruins. Some of this work adds insult to presumed injury by piling on other effects, from fisheye distortion to handcoloring—as if the infrared itself weren’t enough.

When photographers use black-and-white infrared film with an understanding of its subtler effects, though, I don’t think it’s any more of a visual crutch than 8x10 color (which makes things look hyperreal), or platinum printing (which gives pictures a ready-made antiquarianism), or the bromoil process, which is arguably a sort of paint-by-number Pictorialism. (I’ve done it, and it isn’t.) But I still feel embarrassed that I’ve used infrared film for the better part of my fine-art photography.

So what are infrared film’s subtler effects, and how do you get them? (Keep in mind that the following applies mainly to Kodak’s High-Speed Infrared.) First, you don’t use the visually opaque (No. 89) infrared filter that some photographers think is required. The price of its cutting out all but IR radiation is jacked-up contrast and scarce grays. Use a standard red (No. 25) filter and develop the film in D-76, and you get lower contrast and a nice range of midtones. (The same thing applies, minus the D-76, to filter use with some digital SLRs that have been modified for infrared capture.)

Yet even with this softer scale you still get a deep, dark sky (when the actual sky is blue), and you can still turn a landscape’s expected tonal distribution upside down. The dark sky not only makes lighter-toned things stand out, but also lets you hide darker-toned things. By merging those darker tones into the sky (which I’ve sometimes helped along by blackening areas of the print with a little flashlight) you can “flatten the picture plane,” to use the modernist phrase. I try to play that flatness—reinforced by adjusting camera position to align foreground and background elements that you’d ordinarily try to separate—against cues to depth such as linear perspective. I think this creates the visual equivalent of dissonance, which I’ve always liked in music. Even the inherent graininess of enlargements from 35mm infrared film, if it’s correctly exposed and carefully processed, has a crystalline, photogravure-like quality that enlivens large areas of solid gray tone. The clumpy, oatmeal grain often seen in infrared work is due to overexposure, overdevelopment, or a combination of the two, made uglier by softness from careless enlarging.

If my approach seems anachronistically formal, it’s because I’m a modernist in a Po-mo world. The odd thing is that the photographs I most like to look at are more about content than form, whether the new school of color realism, black-and-white documentary photography, or snapshots and other images created for no artistic purpose. Pictures ostensibly made for the record often transcend their realism, in my experience. But I’m not comfortable taking realistic pictures; it’s not me. And I firmly believe that a formalist approach to photography, aside from producing images that stimulate in a purely visual way, can lead to meaning and feeling. I don’t think that approach is fundamentally different than finding meaning and feeling through observation, which is the norm (sometimes minus the feeling) in today’s art photography.