Old and New Ways of Photographic Expression

I teach Communication studies at California State University, San Bernardino, and I take apart the word express to help my students understand the deeper meanings buried in the word. My students learn about the communication process both for personal and commercial purposes, and the word express helps them understand more clearly the goals and concerns in the profession of communications.

Express is comprised of the Latin present active exprimō, present infinitive exprimere, perfect active expressī, supine expressum or, simply, ex meaning “out,” and press, to press out. Express, therefore, means one’s attempt to press out from within and leave an impression on the mind of one’s audience, whether that’s one person or millions. It’s our goal to implant an idea, a message, a concept into the mind of our audience.

Express, therefore, means one’s attempt to press out from within and leave an impression on the mind of one’s audience, whether that’s one person or millions. It’s our goal to implant an idea, a message, a concept into the mind of our audience.

In the field of Communications the successful impression on the minds of others can translate into huge paychecks. Advertisers make fortunes leaving impressions on the minds of their audiences: drink this sugary substance because it will make you feel happy, purchase this means of transportation because it will make you “look good and hip.”

In fine art photography, impressing on the mind of one’s audience means conveying the photographer’s thoughts and feelings about a subject. I learned this from my principal life teacher, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, a westerner by birth, but a convert to the religion: we humans are comprised of these two components, he taught. It’s the way we happen. Our thoughts and feelings are parents of our deeds, he said. His goal was to awaken a person so that he or she could see that the world they live in was created by their own actions, thoughts and feelings. This understanding, I believe, is really important in its application to fine art photography.

When we look at a masterpiece, we see the thoughts and feelings of the artist captured in a photo, be it black and white, which is closer to the essence of things, or in color. The manipulation of light, the control of it by the photographer, and how it fans out across the subject, when done perfectly, can convey meanings far beyond mere words.

Examples of this can be seen when we look at the photography of Sebastião Salgado, who, in my opinion, is one of the greatest living black and white photographers. But more about him later.

Edward Weston, 1952
© Lou Jacobs Jr.

First, let’s take a look at the methods of the masters of old for creating fine art photographs and compare their methods to the fine art artists in this medium today. Lou Jacobs, who has written some forty books on photography, and countless articles for a host of magazines, described to me how the twentieth century photography giant Edward Weston used a military-devised contact printer, a simple box with dozens of lights beneath a piece of frosted glass, in the printing of his images. We were in his home near Palm Springs, California, admiring a portrait Jacobs had taken of Weston. Weston was seated near the great photographer’s dining room table in his home in the Carmel Valley. The portrait was done with natural light, meaning no flash, as Weston was seated near a window, and the soft light filtering through the window illuminated the photographer with a soft glow.

Jacobs told me that if Weston’s finished print was to be 8×10 inches Weston used a negative of the same size, placed light sensitive paper on the top of the negative which had been placed on top of the glass and pressed the lid down so there was no longer a gap between the negative and paper, and exposed the print to the light, creating a reverse image of the negative. That which was dark became light on the paper, and that which was light, or clear, on the negative burned to black. Shades of gray became shades of gray in the print.

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