Interview in a Time of Sequestration

A Photographer Talks to Himself About Shadows and the Mysteries of Black & White


ESSAY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


It seems much of your work is focused on the cultural life of your city and state?

Yes, it is. To paraphrase that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner, I discovered my own little postage stamp of native soil was worth photographing and that I would probably never live long enough to exhaust it.

So why black and white?

When I am obliged to talk about my photography—which isn’t that often, thankfully—I almost always start off with a discussion of my antediluvian preference for black and white. I do this because the question “Why black and white” is almost always the first one asked in the Q&As that invariably follow these talks, and I am hoping to preempt it, to cut it off at the pass as they say in Cowboy, because more often than not it is asked with an antagonizing hint of disapproval. It is a question that used to catch me by surprise. It doesn’t any more. My answer to it is always short. Black and white are for me—as they were for the famously crusty Robert Frank—the colors of photography.

Omar El Akkad, Writer, 2019.

Where Frank saw black and white as symbolizing hope and despair, I see them as augmenting our perception of form and content. Color, as we commonly think of it, is information. Lots of it. Black and white is an abstraction. When you subtract color you focus attention on form and content—on graphic order and psychological subtlety. For me black and white simply has a greater emotional and intellectual impact.

Any other regular questions about your work?

There is another question that comes up regularly at these talks (not with the same frequency as the one about black and white, but with a little of the same censure). It has to do with shadows and my obvious affection for them. “In photography,” August Sandor said, “there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.” This may be true, but it should also be noted that in photography there are a number of shadows that should be left alone.

Take a quick run through any contemporary tutorial on photography (portrait photography in particular), and you will find an ode to the glories of “fill light” and a handful of ratio-riddled strategies for “opening up” shadows. These are odes and strategies I usually ignore.

Laura Ross-Paul, Painter, 2020.

You don’t care for “fill light”?

Fill light has its place in commercial photography, in product photography, in macro photography, etc., but it rarely has a place in my photography. There is mystery in the shadows, and in mystery there is drama—and where there is drama, there is engagement. It is in the shadows that imagination roams. This is why I have a tendency to rely heavily on them, to emphasize them, in fact, whenever I get a chance.

Exactly what shadows are you talking about here?

The shadows I am talking about here are, for the most part, the darker ones—not those that give a photograph dimension, but those that give it pomp and power. The shadows I am talking about are the ones that go beyond simple sculpting duties—the ones that bend in the direction of obscurity; the black areas in which detail is lost, where transcription calls on imagination.

Stephen Hayes, Painter, 2020.

What is it about these particular shadows that interests you?

There is in these shadows an invitation to the viewer to complete the image. The interpretive possibilities are not foreclosed by specificity. It is here in these shadows that we sift uncertainty for subtle implication, that we concoct conclusions all our own.

Have you developed any sort of general theory of photography—a TOP if you will?

I have never been tempted to wedge these predilections of mine for black-and-white photography and heavy shadows into the corner of some over-arching theory. These sorts of theories can be fascinating and fun to fiddle with, but ultimately I am wary of them—and I am wary of them in particular when it comes to this medium. The poet Philip Larkin once said in a coerced statement that he found it hard to give any abstract views on poetry because he never found theorizing on the subject any help to him as a writer, and he had, in fact, avoided doing so as best he could for fear that it would damage his work. I sympathize with this view and in large part agree with it, but I am troubled by the anti-intellectual subtext. Anti-intellectualism doesn’t need any more friends, especially in this day and age. The admonition not to overthink one’s processes is a sound one, but so too is an admonition not to underthink them. Good work is invariably more than just instinct and intuition—some thought should be involved. Too little is as serious a problem as too much. Finding the right balance—that is the challenge.

Jon Raymond, Writer, 2019.

So what about spontaneity?

You are alluding to the “snapshot” aesthetic, I suppose?

Yes, I am.

There are things I like about those sorts of photographs—their vitality, their immediacy—and there are things about them that bother me. One I have already mentioned—the romantic idealization of impulse and its concomitant anti-intellectual bias. The other is a certain sanctimoniousness at the heart of the emergent cult—the feeling that the spontaneous, predominantly unmediated response to certain visual sensations captures some sort of primal authenticity that lends the resulting photograph a superior sort of moral authority. I just don’t think that’s the case.

Why?

For one thing, it fails to take into account or simply ignores the many dubious sources of impulse. For another, it fails to take into account the many complex sources of authenticity.

Beth Harper, Actor/Director, 2019.

So no general theories, then?

No. Black and white speaks to me in ways I don’t understand, but wish to replicate. It gives me an almost reflexive regard for this sort of work. Shadows preserve possibility, and possibility preserves engagement. In the end I am simply trying to make the sort of photograph I am interested in looking at, a photograph that means something to me, a photograph that honors the medium’s allegiance to reality, a photograph that preserves for myself and others a unique and honest sense of the subject.

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