Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Michael Kenna, Brett Weston, Sebastio Selgado, Nick Brandt, Cole Thompson – all masters of the art of black and white photography. How does one find the path to such a level of artistry and hope to join it?
From June through August 2017 I participated in a 7 week photography class, “Black and White Artistry,” at the Richard Stromberg Chicago Photography Classes (RSCPC). RSCPC was founded in 1969 at the Jane Adams Center Hull House by Richard Stromberg, and operated there for 33 years. The school moved twice since then , and is now located at the corner of Irving Park and Ravenswood in Chicago. Founder Richard Stromberg passed away in 2014, and RSCPC is now owned and run by Nick Sinnott and Rick Katz, former students of Stromberg. The school provides photographic instruction for a wide range of student experience levels and interests, from beginners trying to decide on a first camera to advanced studio, lighting, and post-processing techniques, as well as local area and destination workshops. Visit the RSCPC website for more details.
The Black and White Artistry (B&W Artistry) class came to my attention when the instructor, Jim Welninski, gave a one-hour presentation on the subject at the Out of Chicago Winter Conference in February 2017 at the College of Lake County. While I did not attend this seminar, I did see representative work from the class at the RSCPC vendor booth, including Jim’s architectural b&w work in the style of Julia Ann Gospodarou‘s b&w fine art techniques (which I have studied and admired) that caught my eye and interest. My initial concern was that RSCPC would require me to attend several prerequisite classes (at just under $500 per class) before taking the B&W Artistry class, but after a couple of telephone calls and emails we established that I had the required Photoshop background to go straight to the B&W Artistry class.
This class is taught by Jim Welninski, a Chicago area fine art photographer for the past 20 years, and a regular RSCPC instructor. Jim has a very detailed discussion of his artistic vision that he shares at his website, alteredspacephoto.com, where you will also find beautiful photography examples from his portfolio. I cannot say enough good things about Jim as an instructor. He is very personable and committed to your learning as a student. He also draws from a deep well of experience, and is highly proficient in the intricacies of Photoshop, its many associated plug-ins, as well as competing software suites such as On1 and others. Regardless of your post-production software experience and preferences, Jim is very qualified to help you learn how to get more from your post-processing platform.
In this course, Jim guides you through the entire process of creating fine art black and white photographs. Some of Jim’s award winning images are used as classroom examples and to dissect the workflow and techniques used to create them. The focus is on learning several alternative techniques and workflows, and then employing them with your own images, culminating in a printing session to produce your own original fine art prints.
Before going any further, I should punctuate the point that this course addresses making fine art black and white images from color digital files; it does not cover analog film or chemical darkroom processes, and the focus is on converting color files to black and white. Specifically, the course explores what makes a photo a good candidate for black and white conversion, and then details several alternative methods to effect the conversion. Methods introduced include Google’s Nik software suite (especially Silver Efex Pro), Photoshop gradient mapping, the zone system (including the use of Photoshop zone system plugins such as Blake Rudis’s Zone System Express), luminosity masking plugins (such as Greg Benz’s Lumenzia, Jimmy McIntyre’s Raya Pro, or Tony Kuyper’s TK Actions), dodging and burning techniques, the uses of masks (including quick masks and alpha channel masks), and the use of Photoshop tools including masking layers, layer blending, group layers, and curves and levels adjustments. I cannot detail in a paragraph or two the endless array of options available for post-processing black and white images in Photoshop; this course provides a glimpse of the possibilities that these many tools and techniques offer – it is up to the individual artist to choose which assets he prefers to add to his bag of tricks.
I mentioned that my initial interest in the class came from noting the impact of Julia Ann Gospodarau’s black and white artistic approach on Jim Welninski’s work; Jim in fact attended Gospodarou’s (en)Visionography workshops to further his technique. As this class is broadly based on a wide range of black and white techniques, it can only brush on the more advanced workflows detailed by Gospodarou. One of my takeaways from the course is that the key to this type of processing is mastery of masking methods. The course introduces many approaches to image masking, but only continued practice and exploration will give you the power to selectively apply the effects and edits to specific parts of your image that will maximize their impact.
I found the course very useful, not only as an in-depth look at black and white conversions, but also as a confidence-builder in my use of Photoshop. The course demonstrated the broad range of possibilities Photoshop offers your post-processing efforts. There are literally hundreds of ways to accomplish something in Photoshop, so your results are limited only by your own imagination and your creative intentions. Another interesting realization I came to in this course is that you need to really think about how you want to spend your creative time and energy. These conversions with the intent to produce a fine art print are involved and time-consuming; you do not want to dedicate this time and effort to a mediocre quality image or one for which you have no passion. I now better see the need to concentrate my energies on images that matter to me; how could you expect an image to engage a viewer if they do not engage you?
Is the B&W Artistry class something you should pursue? That depends on you, of course. Does black and white imagery speak to you? Does the work of the great black and white photographers mentioned at the start of this article inspire you? Do you derive satisfaction from taking an image out of camera and transforming it through post-processing manipulations, to realize an artistic vision that may be well beyond what the original image captured? If you answer to these questions is “yes,” then Jim Welninski’s Black and White Artistry class at RSCPC will help you hone your craft to allow you to better achieve your vision. See Jim Welninski’s Spark page for more information about the class.