A few weeks ago Linda Lashford asked me if I would write an OSW blog-piece on my love of low key photography. It is true, some of my work over the last few years has been a bit on the dark side, but being asked to write about it has made me think more about this aspect of my image making. What fascinates me is playing in that space between pure black and pure white, and how we use the tonal range in our photographs to better tell our photographic stories.
This fascination started a few years ago, when I read a short section of John Blakemore’s Black and White Photography Workshop. He discusses the idea of the flexible negative and that with a well exposed, soft negative one can realise a broad range of interpretations from the same image. The text is accompanied by a grid of photographs all of the same tulip, that ranged from the most pale of prints, which seemed to glow from within, emphasising the delicateness and impermanence of the flower, through to a dark rich print which emphasised the texture of the petals, the shape of the flower and the stem.
It seems to me that when we photograph, every choice we make influences how we capture light and its impact on the shape and texture of our subject, the viewpoint, the lens (particularly with older lenses, with less perfect design), shutter speed, aperture, point of focus, the medium we use for capture (film or digital sensor), etc. Providing we have made a good exposure, this can be just the starting point to produce an image that truly expresses what we want to convey to the viewer.
Darker images can convey a whole range of emotions, from the obvious drama of classic film noir, to the unsettling and sombre, such as the series of photographs entitled Mametz Wood by Rob Hudson (a response to the poem In Parenthesis by the First World War poet David Jones). Alternatively, they can be richly sensuous, such as some of the tulip photographs by John Blakemore, with their silky textured petals undulating through the photograph with the sensuous curves of the tulip stems.
In my own work, both of the last two series of photographs I have exhibited have been made up of predominantly dark images, but for different reasons. In a series from three years ago, entitled Out of Darkness, I wanted to explore the mixture of feelings you have when looking out over a body of water: anticipation, wonder, insignificance, unease, calmness, etc. I used darker tones to help convey a sense of unease.
More recently, I have been photographing a small group of plants (pampas, yucca and hosta) in a couple of gardens. I became fascinated by the way the sunlight was caught by the leaves, constantly revealing and hiding new shapes as the light moved through the garden, particularly when a gentle breeze joined this play, and so started a new series of work. I had initially envisaged a series of pale, delicate images suffused with light that would hint at the shapes of the leaves and stems. However, for the most part those pale images just did not capture the sense of light or shapes emerging from and dissolving into the background. It was only when I started to experiment with a much darker interpretation that a feeling of the play of light, rich texture of the hosta leaves and transitory shapes started to come through.
And what of high key images, those that play in that tonal space that is closest to pure white? I always have the feeling they speak of the ephemeral and ethereal in a subject. When executed really well such images can appear to glow from within. Thinking of high key photographs, I immediately think of fellow OSW workshop participant Tony Gardner and his wonderful, delicate photographs of white crockery and how something so mundane as a cup and saucer can be completely transformed by a high key approach.
What have I learnt from exploring this aspect of my work over the last couple of years?
I don’t presume what we pre-visualise is necessarily the best or only way to represent what we are trying to say about a subject. After all, a well exposed digital image allows us plenty of flexibility when it comes to processing. And as a final thought (paraphrasing Miles Davis), maybe it’s not the tones we do play but the tones we don’t that help make a low key image work.
If you have any articles you would like to contribute or news you would like to share, such as books you are publishing or exhibitions you are working on, that are relevant to the OSW community, then please do email Linda or myself:
Email OSW editorial: