Sunday, May 17, 2009

A Fine-Art Photographer's Must-Have New Book on B&W Printing!

George Dewolfe - photographer, teacher, workshop instructor and author - has just published one of the best books I have run across in a long, long time on the art and craft of fine-art B&W printing; called, naturally enough, B&W Printing.

Generally speaking, there are three basic types of digital-photography-related books on the market: (1) the beginner's guides, that walk the aspiring photographer / "camera user" through the steps necessary to take a picture, how to operate her camera, and how to download images to the computer and print them out on a small ink-jet printer; (2) the intermediate guides, that assume readers are already familiar with their camera but want to learn more about how to process their images for the web or prints; and are tailored to readers who are serious about their photography (certainly more so than casual "point and shooters," but do not invest more than a few hours on a weekend, say, or as "designated photographers" at family get-togethers and vacations; and (3) the advanced guides for affirmed afficionados of photography (who want to learn all of what Adobe's Photoshop has to offer, for example) and professional photographers (who may want to learn additional techniques or, if they are film-photographers, want to boot-strap themselves into digital photography). Each type of book is well represented on the market, of course, and there are many excellent books - classics even (the "advanced guides" by Martin Evening, Katrin Easemann, and Scott Kelby all come to mind).

But, thus far at least, the digital photography world has lacked a particular kind of voice that film photography has enjoyed for decades, simply because film photography has been around for so long. Namely, the voice of a seasoned fine-art photographer / printer writing about and dispensing with his years of experience as a photographer applied to the new, emerging digital imaging technologies. How many times have I picked up a book with a titles like, "Advanced Fine-Art Digital Imaging" by so and so, intrigued by the title and number of pages/examples, only to be disappointed to find either that the images in the book are at best serviceable as "fine art photographs" or, at worst, dismal examples of what "fine art" ought to be, or that the images are wonderful - perhaps even gallery-like in their presence - but that what I had hoped to learn by way of "digital craft" is nowhere to be seen, since the author is a fine photographer but less-than-gifted writer or Photoshop technician. The rarest kind of book of all is a book on fine-art photography - particularly black and white fine-art photography - that combines great pictures, great technical skill, and great writing. I have seen no finer example of this rare breed of book than B&W Printing, by George Dewolfe, published this month by Lark Books as part of their Digital Masters series.

As one can glean from his website, Mr. Dewolfe has been a photographer since 1964 and holds an MFA in Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology. He studied photography with both Ansel Adams and Minor White in the 1970s. He also studied perception with Dr. Richard Zakia (a fact I mention because Dr. Zakia's book, Perception and Imaging, is among my all-time favorite books on the subject). Mr. Dewolfe has taught photography at several universities (and continues to teach photography and master print classes), and conducts workshops throughout the country. His works have appeared in numerous one-man shows and galleries. He was part of the development team behind Adobe's Lightroom software. He also authored one of the first (and best) "advanced" books on the craft of digital printing I purchased for my personal library (and still frequently refer to): George DeWolfe's Digital Fine Print Workshop.

And so we get to Mr. Dewolfe's new book, B&W Printing. What immediately sets it apart from 95% of related books on the market is immediately apparent after even a quick perusal of its 200+ pages: its subtle, almost understated, elegance. It oozes with quality, and attention to detail.

The images - all examples of one technique or another (except for a small portfolio toward the end that exhibits some wonderful "final" prints) - are each carefully arranged to highlight a specific approach, and are all expertly crafted and presented. Indeed, I suspect many a reader will look at the first such example that a chapter starts with - an out-of-camera image that Mr. Dewolfe displays to show the "before" part of a specific workflow, and wonder, "What can one possibly do to improve such a beautiful image?" ("Beautiful" both as a technically brilliant print, and as a fine-art photograph). The answer to which, of course, after reading Mr. Dewolfe's elegant prose - full of finely honed and expertly distilled advice on why something needs to be done, when and how to do it, and how to tell when its "done" - is "quite a bit." As the "final" image is revealed at the end of most chapters, the reader marvels both at its innate, shear beauty - Mr. Dewolfe's images all have a preternatural "glow" to them; they are carefully crafted in such a way that their ostensibly two-dimensional forms leak into a third "magical" dimension - and the relatively "simple" steps by which the original image was converted into it. Of course, it is precisely Mr. Dewolfe's gifted ability to describe what goes into these "relatively simple" steps - done in such a way that even a novice Photoshop user (albeit one who is well versed with the basic of aesthetics and photographic "seeing") can easily follow them and apply them to her own workflow - that sets this apart from most others and elevates it to the level of an instant classic.

The book consists of three main sections, and a portfolio at the end. A glossary and index are also provided. The first section discusses fine-art black and white photography in broad - but philosophically deep - terms. Great attention is given to the nature of "seeing" (by both camera and photographer), and the most important qualities that make up a photograph (tone, luminosity, luminance, sharpness, and so on). Though this may sound like so many other dry incantations of "obvious" material, perhaps done to death in other volumes, even here, in only the introductory parts of the book, Mr. Dewolfe provides something special. Using the way in which humans process visual information, Mr. Dewolfe astutely distinguishes between "luminance" (a combination of reflection and illumination, and which is essentially what both camera and retina "see" in any image) and "luminosity" (which is what we, as observers, "see" - or the way in which we interpret - luminance. It is the apparent luminosity of an image that gives the images its strength, its character, and ultimately, if the image is to express the artist's vision, its meaning. The best photographers are those that are able to expertly manipulate the raw luminance of their images into something that communicates how they "see" (and feel about) the world. This is a deep discussion of fundamental truths of the art of photography; but is not overbearing in any way; the typical reader will probably not even recognize that she has been treated to a master discussion of the very core of what defines fine-art photography. Needless to say, few if any books provide half the wisdom waiting to be plumbed in the first 60 pages of this magnificent book.

The heart of the book lies in the second section, and spans about 130 pages. Here you will read about designing a workflow, how to choose and setup your software, how to input your images (the author uses Adobe's Lightroom), how to make global and local adjustments to an image, how to fine-tune an image, and, finally, how to make the best use of your printing tools and methods. Each example is meticulously and lovingly presented, with each step described in both words and illustrated with screenshots (of workflow) and the effects interim steps have on a particular image. As a bonus, each chapter also includes sample workflows by featured artists (some of whose work I knew about before, but others were new to me and compel me to look up their work).

The third section contains some musings on the nature of photography, how to hone your skills as a photographer, and the art of mindfulness in art in general. The small, self-contained section on mindfulness perfectly illustrates Mr. Dwewolfe's best gifts as a teacher. In what amounts to no more than a page, Mr. Dewolfe provides - in sparse but artful, Haiku-like prose - a natural gateway toward applying meditation techniques to creating meaningful photographs; punctuated, in the end, by yet another beautiful, luminous image.

Mr. DeWolfe begins his book with the question, "What is a masterpiece?" By the end of the book, the reader will have seen a fair share of masterpieces created and crafted by Mr. Dewolfe's refined eye and skill. And the reader will leave the book behind (though no-doubt leaving it within easy reach to refer back to when necessary) knowing that she is now prepared to craft masterpieces of her own. Mr. Dewolfe has written a truly sensational book on the art of B&W printing, and one that is destined to become a classic in its class.

The only mild criticism I can make with regard to the book - though not of the material that appears in it per se - is that Mr. Dewolfe does not provide a discount code for readers of his book to use to purchase his PercepTool plug-in for Photoshop (which is an integral part of the workflow described in the book, and encapsulates much of what Mr. Dewolfe has learned during a lifetime of "seeing" as a photographer and as a student of human perception). I have seen other authors provide discounts for software in their books, but for software nowhere near as rich and far-reaching as PercepTool. I would encourage Mr. Dewolfe to do the same. But I make this criticism only in hopes of getting Mr. Dewolfe to reach an even larger audience with his teachings. Perhaps in the second edition?


Charles said...

I don't believe your criticism is particularly valid, that a book of this type needs beautiful images. Consider the standard tome, The Negative by Ansel Adams. He deliberately used boring images of no particular aesthetic merit to illustrate technical issues. "Beauty" might be a distraction from the technical points he was trying to make.

But this raises another issue. I wonder how many photographers would recognize a high quality B&W image if they saw one (regardless of digital or film), let alone know how to produce one. I remember back in art school, I had to produce a "Perfect Print" (as defined by Adams and the Zone System) to pass my advanced photo class. This seems to be a lost art. Even with the advent of digital imaging making the most technical issues easier, advanced subjects like photographic densitometry are more widely ignored than ever (well, judging by most work I see, at least).

Andy Ilachinski said...

I appreciate your comments Charles, but (1) I didn;t say this book (or any book) "needs" beautiful images, only that this one has them in spades (in IMHO, others may differ of course); and (2) whether photographers do or do not recognize a quality print is in some sense besides the point. The book exists, in part, to educate the interested reader in what a quality print ought to look like. Given that Mr. Dewolfe is an accomplished printer and craftsman, the reader is in good hands here in attempting to further their education.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this excellent review Andy. Only last week I downloaded the trial version of Lightroom and found it to be brilliant software (though a bit to expensive for me at the moment). This book on the other hand is much more affordable so I think I'll be going shopping soon :)

Matt Needham said...

Sounds like a good book.

The mention of Ansel Adams and the concept of a technically defined "perfect print" in the comment above reminded me of this Mark Citret story:

Chuck Kimmerle said...

I was a workshop student of George's a few of years ago, and can attest to his expertise, talent and ability to teach. It was a very, very good session and I highly recommend him as an instructor for anyone wanting to elevate their b/w file/print quality.

As for Charles' assertion that photographic densitometry is widely ignored, that is not true. Advanced printers use densitometers to create custom profiles for their printers using either Epson's driver for color, or QuadToneRIP for b/w. It's essentially identical to plotting characteristic curves of film/paper, without the bendable curved edge. Photographic science is not dead, it's simply evolved.

Miserere said...

Thanks for the quick review, Andy!

John said...

I'm almost finished with the book. I'm reading it through first, and then will sit down with it and LR. I like his emphasis on "presence" in a print, as well as his stress on the simplest possible workflow. I'm also a sucker for anything with "contemplative" in it. But the book really is practical, we'll written, and at times inspiring. I'm confident it will improve my work. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
- John

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