Arthur Farmer – Composing in Black and White

In 2007 I joined the Blackwood Camera club.  The meetings started with an elderly gentleman giving a 5 minute “tip of the day”.  This was Arthur Farmer.  He was a retired surgeon who had taken up photography as a young man.  He had continued with this hobby into his eighties and was a regular contributor at club outings and at club competitions.  His images were unique.  They were always taken on slide film.  He had a preference for monochrome and had an eye for composition that was uncanny.  His photographic technique was exemplary.Image20

It is now the digital era and Arthur is a stalwart from a former age of photography.  He used an old Nikon film camera with a collection of his favourite manual focus prime lenses and of course the tripod.  Mirror up, cable release, take your time.  Arthur told me an anecdote about setting up his camera to photograph a statue in the botanical gardens.  Tripod, lighting, depth of field, it was a technical exercise.  A bystander stepped up to the statue, took off his coat and draped it over the nude torso, supposedly offended by the photographer’s unconcern at her nudity.   It was a poignant moment.  People don’t take photographs like this anymore.  Arthur had told me that he could buy a digital camera but he did not see the need as he had so much enjoyment from his existing equipment.  It is however getting harder to continue in the traditions that he has fostered.  The monochrome slide film that he preferred has gone out of production and he has to send his film away to America to be developed.  His advice however did not go out of style.  Passion never goes out of fashion.

Last night Arthur gave us a tour de force of his philosophies, of his tips and most importantly his images.  With his slide projector and two boxes of monochrome slides Arthur gave us a lesson in photographic composition in black and white.  On the night I took some notes and below I have summarized some of Arthur’s photographic wisdom.

“There are so many pictures taken today.  They are images of things.  Here is my granddaughter, or here is a car, a bridge.  These images are representational.  Each image shows a thing.  People look at it and see the thing.  I however want people to look and see the image as separate from the thing. I want them to say, “that was a beautiful picture”.  As a photographer you have to move from “taking” pictures to “making” pictures. It is a creative process.  It has technique and skill.  I will quote an article in the Advertiser by an Adelaide photographer Will Nolan.  “Photography is the medium”. Watercolour has a certain texture or feel, as does an oil painting, an etching or a drawing.  The photograph is another medium of artistic expression.  The texture of photography is different to all other media.  It has a different range of possibilities.  I want that ‘photographic’ feel to my images.  Allow the medium to express itself in the way that only it can.”

“Is photography abstract?  I say yes.  There are degrees of abstract.  Abstraction starts with the real and continues to the point where the image is disconnected from the real.  There are points of partial abstraction all the way along the continuum.  It is important to me that things are sharp.  But abstract is where the expression come in.  It’s about the arrangement of objects.  It’s about the choice of what you photograph and how you do it. Take for instance this park bench.  That’s representational.  You look at that and you can see it’s a bench, you can see the setting, the whole story.    You could do it again this way, or this way, or this.  It’s still a park bench, but isn’t that a stronger photograph.  It’s stronger because I have left things out.  I’ve focussed the attention in a different way.  To quote Ken Rockwell, he said you have to “Simplify and exclude”  Take the S from simplify and the ex from exclude and you get sex.  Ken was on about making photography sexy.

Image9“So what of composition? You need to get in close.  It doesn’t matter if you chop bits off.  You need to get in close.  It’s important to be sharp.  It’s the emotional element that makes the picture.  Don’t go and take 100 pictures for no reason.  Wait until you spot that emotional element.  Take what appeals to your eye – what strikes you when you see it.  Edward Weston the great American photographer said that you have to pre-visualise.  See the photo as it will be then go out and take it.  That’s what I do.   I ask, where does the eye go?  Does this picture lead you in or out, up or down?  I look at Form and weight.  This object is leaning, this one is suspended.  I look at the direction of light.  It adds weight to the subject.  Movement is important and attracts the eye.  With a long shutter speed you can blur movement.  I also look at form.  Some pictures are triangles others are square.  There are curves which make the picture dynamic.  Circles are often elongated.  There are lines.  A line can lead the eye to the subject.  They can work if they lead to the centre.  They are interesting if they are diagonal as well as up and down.  I look at the tonal value.  Some pictures are black and some are white.  Many pictures are just grey.  Tones can be contrasting.  Put black and white together.  Look for the element that breaks the pattern.   Some pictures take the form of a frame or a veil.  The edges of the picture are a frame.  I make a conscious decision to place the objects in the frame of my picture.  Here is a subject.  Where should it go?  Sometimes it works in the centre.  Try it.  It’s not wrong.  Sometimes it’s better to one side.  You are the author – you must make the photograph.  You need to decide.  You can take the same subject different ways.  Sometimes it takes several pictures to unlock the subject and capture its essence.

“When it comes to technique, I like to get the maximal depth of field by using the hyper-focal distance.  There is a point between two objects that will allow you to get both of them sharp.  You can work it out using the focussing guides and depth of field lines on your lens.  Of course you get more depth of field with a smaller aperture.  I will stop down to f32, but it means that I will need to use the tripod.”

Image19a“I am an admirer of Ansel Adams who used the zone system.  He allocated a number of tones to an image.  He aimed for a complete range of tones from fully dark to fully light.  It is important however, that you do not lose the detail in the highlights or the detail in the dark.  He was a master at it.”

Arthur was asked “where did you develop your black and white eye?”  Arthur explained that that was what was on his walls when he was a boy.  There were etchings, charcoal and B&W medical illustrations.  “When you remove the colour it shows things differently.  You see the texture and the form.  I think black and white reveals the essence of the subject.  It is the root of art.”  Arthur is particularly fond of the charcoal sketches by Hans Heysen.  “In my opinion he is the Australian Constable.  I have a special fondness for the large gums that Heysen chose to paint.  They are some of my favourite photographic subjects.”  Arthur also has a lot of time for Venice and Tody in Italy.  He has large collections of Venetian photographs.

Unfortunately Arthur has been unable to attend meetings in the last 2 years because of increasing deafness.  There were positive comments from both new and old members. The presentation received a very favorable reception.  As said previously, I really enjoyed this session. It gets back to the joys and pleasures of taking photographs. To quote Arthur, “’amateur’ comes from the Latin word ‘amore’, meaning to love. That’s why we take photographs, because we love it.”

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2 Responses to Arthur Farmer – Composing in Black and White

  1. Pingback: Composing in Black and White – Arthur Farmer – (author James Allan) | Blackwood Photographic Club of South Australia Inc.

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