Saturday Studio: It’s Not All Black & White

Naomi Vanderleest, Education Assistant

It’s finally getting warmer out, so for this Saturday Studio let us venture outside and take some pictures along the way. At the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, we are wrapping up our Century of Making Meaning show by delving into our Special Collections and Archives. When you hear the word archive, you might think of a historical collection of documents. In art museum’s, an archive can also refer to a relationship that the institution has with a certain artist(s) to house a large number of their works, which the museum will preserve over time. This relationship is symbiotic: the museum receives excellent artworks and the artist is ensured their legacy is preserved and presented. John Bower is a photographer who has granted us the right to preserve his work in the museum’s archives; below, you’ll find an example of his work. 

A black-and-white photo of a dilapidated corncrib. The floor is strewn with hay and boards, while the wall opposite is falling apart.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Corncrib, Spencer County, Indiana. Silver gelatin print, 2012. Gift of the Artist, 2018.169.68. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Why is the photograph in black and white? John Bower has said that he enjoys the drama of black and white photography. This photograph was taken in 2018. Black and white photography is sometimes regarded as old, especially since old photographs were only in black and white, but that isn’t always true. Black and white photography can be a stylistic choice. If this picture was in color, how would it change? When a photograph is in color you can get distracted; in the absence of color, the only thing to see is how dark and light the image is, the shadows and the brightness. My eyes are drawn to the light at end of the hallway. If there was a bright color at the entrance of this hallway, however, this might not occur. Where do you think the picture was taken? Bower lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and takes photographs all over the state. He likes to take pictures of the forgotten, such as abandoned buildings and eerie cemetery statues. Can you think of any places like this where you live? Before you go searching for the perfect location, let’s talk about what makes a good photograph. The best way to learn is by looking at other artists’ work! Below is another example of John Bower’s photography. 

A black and white photograph of an abandoned school. The bell tower stands tall in an open field with cloudy skies, while the rest of the building has fallen in, beyond repair.
John Bower, American, b. 1949. Oak Grove School, 1913. Silver gelatin print, 2009. Gift of the Artist, 2018.168.14. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

When taking a photograph, start by thinking about the composition. There are many different ways to approach this, but one technique that photographers use often is called the rule of thirds. I have placed a grid that divides this picture into 9 different sections. The idea of the rule of thirds is that the subject will fill three boxes, or one-third, of the image. The subject should also intersect with one of the vertical lines. These two elements combined create an off-center image that is more pleasing to the eye. When using the rule of thirds try not to put anything directly in the center of the image to create a more pleasing picture overall. Bower has achieved the rule of thirds in this image because the abandoned building intersects with a vertical line and only takes up three boxes.  

Another term to consider is the word value. Value describes the range of light to dark that you can see in an image. The example above has a high range of values because there are really dark greys and almost white greys in the same photograph. If a black and white photograph doesn’t have a high range of values you might not find a reason to look at it; value can draw you into an image. Bower claims that black and white photography forces the viewer to think about the essence and form of the subject, rather than its color. Challenge yourself to think of the world in black and white! When you are taking photographs, make sure you take them in, or change them to, black and white so you can see the range of values in real-time.

With this understanding of photography, I went out and took some photographs of my own. Do you recognize where I took these photographs? 

A black and white photograph of a Japanese garden. In center, offside, is a limestone sculpture resembling a house.
In this black and white photograph, a patch of ice covers a wet brick path. On the right side is a bench.

After taking these photographs, here are some tips and tricks I picked up along the way:

  • You don’t need a camera to take photographs! I used my cellphone to take pictures. While using my cellphone camera, under the filters section, I was able to see only black and white through my phone screen. This helped me find the perfect shot. 
  • Look for an area where the light is hitting, you should be able to find a high range of values there.
  • Think about your background, a lot of details can be distracting.
  • Weather is important, a cloudy day vs a sunny day will result in different pictures. Your pictures can have a different range of values depending on how much light is in the sky. 
  • If you can’t find a way to make an interesting shot in an area, come back to it on a different day when the conditions change.
  • Time of day is also important, when the sun is setting or rising shadows appear. When the sky gets darker, so does the range of values you can get in an image. 
  • Your point of view can drastically change your photograph, try changing your perspective between high and low vantage points. 

Lastly, even though I only shared a few photographs that I took, I photographed a lot more! John Bower takes many photographs, but he only prints the photographs that fulfill his mission of capturing the lands of Indiana. Don’t hesitate to take hundreds of pictures, somewhere you will find something that speaks to you. Below are examples of similar photographs that I had shown you, but these photographs were taken at different angles. What changed between my examples? 

A black and white photo showing a panorama, as opposed to a close up, of the Japanese garden.
A black and white photograph of a brick path with benches and empty flower pots. In the background you can see buildings and lampposts.

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