Ever had the feeling that you were standing on top of a volcano? Then welcome to the club. Of all places in the world, I just happened to find myself in a place that everyone seems to have heard of, but few have ever visited. Mount Vesuvius? Nope. Mount Fuji? No. The infamous Mount Pinatubo? Not quite. In fact, nothing that dramatic, even if at times it did feel that way. The place I’m talking about is none other than Hot Springs, Arkansas. Yawn. Ok, no lava running down the streets or anything like that, but if you’ve ever imagined what it would be like to stand at a garden on top of a pressure cooker, then you’ll understand what being in Hot Springs feels like. Something is definitely happening under your feet, and the flesh-burning water coming out of the rocks, accompanied by ominous plumes of smoke spouting out of most city street drainage covers, is the stuff they make Hollywood movies about.
But just as in the valley adjacent to Mount Vesuvius in Italy, a wonderful existence takes place oblivious to the cauldron below. Steam, magna, sulfur, and who knows what? No worries, mate. On the contrary, health tourism appears to be booming, and to tell you the truth, I too felt my lungs happily expanding while getting a facial from all that steam. Well, it seems like they were expanding, but I better check with my provider just in case. But the point is that in some strange way, what takes place on the surface appears to be somewhat at odds with what’s taking place under the surface. Central Avenue downtown is downright wonderful, with the kind of great hangouts that once attracted the likes of Al Capone and friends. The bathhouses (of which yours truly did not partake), with their imposing structures, give the town a certain grandeur that makes you think of places frequented by royalty with their elaborate carriages. An outpost of health and beauty, but one apparently sitting on top of a boiling pot.
Let me start this post by saying that I love black & white photography. Not that I have mastered this medium by any stretch of the imagination, but rather that I have come to realize that there are some scenes out there that come to life when shot on black & white. In some strange way, the removal of color artifacts (or should I say, the substitution of these artifacts by different shades of grey) from the photograph kind of diminishes the judgmental interpretation of the photograph. No longer can someone point out that the red shirt was not that red in the real world, or that blues look over-saturated. When black & white photographs are involved, the observer tends to go through some sort of a mental shift as if being handed a different list of criteria by which to interpret the photograph. Without ever having heard of Ansel Adam’s Zone System, these observers begin to interpret the photographs in terms of those grey variations that lie somewhere in between absolute white and absolute black. What’s more, when black & white photography is involved, the whole notion of photographic composition seems to experience somewhat of a liberation to be analyzed without the distracting effect of color getting in the way.
But to what extent is the resulting photo the product of the photographer’s ability to “see” the scene in black & white prior to capturing it with his or her camera? Is there such a thing as “seeing” in black & white when it comes to photography, or is it all the product of post-capture manipulation with today’s advanced software applications? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I do venture to say that for most folks out there (and this includes your humble blogger here), playing with the software during post is where the action is. We try this or that like a New York fashionista until voilà, we know it when we see it. Having said that, I have no doubt that some talented photographers out there do have this ability uncanny ability to see in black & white. At the very least, in they are able to see in grey variations, à la Ansel Adams. For some, this gift will come natural; for others, no doubt the result of many years of photographic observation and practice. Whatever the case, I am just glad that black & white photography is alive and well and that companies like Leica pay it tribute with the introduction of such wonderful products as the Leica M Monochrome. We can only hope that other companies follow in their footsteps.