The Art of Black & White Photography – Workshop Review

A week ago, I returned from Montana where I had attended a black & white photography workshop, “The Art of Black & White Photography,” June 9-14, sponsored by Photographer’s Formulary, in Condon, Montana, and taught by Nathan McCreery.

Nathan McCreery, from his Facebook page

Nathan has been a professional photographer since his college days, with work encompassing wedding, portrait, commercial and product photography; he is primarily focused today on fine art photography and traditional wet darkroom printing, although digital work also plays a part.  I first came to know of Nathan’s work via his presence on Facebook, particularly on some film oriented groups that I follow there.  When I saw that Photographer’s Formulary was hosting a workshop with him teaching black and white fine art photography, with an emphasis on film and darkroom workflows, I was immediately interested.  The fact that the workshop was in early June, just 1-1/2 hours northeast of Missoula, in beautiful Big Sky Montana just cinched the deal for me.

The focus of the workshop was to use a film based workflow to create outstanding photographs – not exactly an unambitious goal! That being said, the objective truly was to learn photographic and darkroom techniques to achieve excellent fine art prints, but more importantly, to begin developing an eye for composition and an appreciation for the fine art potential in every photograph we attempt to make.  In short, I think Nathan was trying to cultivate the ethos that great fine art photography is more a product of the photographer’s attitude, rather than sheer technical prowess.  This gelled nicely with my personal workshop objective of developing my eye for the smaller details versus only looking for the big epic subject.

This was a relatively small workshop, five students working with Nathan – I found this just about ideal, as I think anything over ten students in a workshop dilutes the instructors attention, and may reduce the students’ interaction with the instructor.  In this case, all of the students had considerable experience in film photography and in the darkroom, so we could dispense with the rudimentary “exposure triangle” level of instruction and deep dive into more advanced subjects.   Each student brought interesting and diverse life experiences (hailing from Chicago, New York, California, Alaska, and nearby Missoula) to the workshop which both enriched the photography aspect of the course, and proved to be socially entertaining as well.  I did regret, however, that I only brought my Pentax 67 (and Fuji GW690 as a backup) in lieu of my 4×5 equipment.  Nathan and three of the students were using large format cameras, and I could have benefited from more instructional exposure and practice with mine.

We typically started each day in the classroom, discussing a technical aspect pf photography. We then looked at photographs, both prints from Nathan’s portfolio and prints that each of the students brought to showcase their work and highlight areas for improvement.  We would then get demonstrations of darkroom techniques, including proper proofing, split contrast printing, bleaching, and various dodge/burn masking strategies.  Nathan used one of my negatives from my White Sands, NM trip earlier this year to demonstrate his complete printing workflow, incorporating all of these techniques.

White Sands, NM at sunset, demonstration print by Nathan from my negative. Pentax 67, TMax 400, Pyrocat HD

(In addition, one of the students, Steve Epstein, gave a demonstration of Platinum/Palladium printing that has got me excited about trying another alternative photographic process.) We would then normally head out to one of the local lakes for a field session of photography.  Our field sessions included visits to Holland Lake and Creek, Van Lake, and the Swan River National Wildlife Refuge.  We enjoyed full 24 hour access to all of Photography Formulary’s darkroom facilities, both for developing film and printing (they had at least 10 Saunders/LPL 4500  II enlargers, exactly like what sits in my home darkroom).  I chose to leave developing my film upon my return home, but I did work on printing from a few negatives I brought to the workshop.

Among the many topics covered during the week:

Zone System

Zone Placement and expansion/contraction development

Special Exposure problems

Basic Printing Workflow

Proper Proofing

Contrast Control

Pin Registered Masking Methods

Vellum/Mylar Masks & Digitally Printed Masks

Composition Guidelines and Methods

Light & the Nature of Light

Obviously, each one of these subjects could be a comprehensive blog topic by itself, and it is beyond the scope of this review to attempt to cover them here – let it just be understood that there was a wealth of information to discuss, and the makeup of the workshop afforded us the flexibility to concentrate on whatever topic best addressed our most pressing needs or interests.

I will admit one disappointment in the workshop, probably stemming from the fact that I haven’t had the opportunity to spend much time in Montana other than a great visit to Glacier National Park several years ago.  I was really excited to be returning to Montana, and looked forward to some epic “Big Sky” landscape opportunities – our field sessions were not aimed at this perspective, as Nathan was trying to encourage us to develop our photographic vision a bit more deeply.  As I said earlier, this was one of my personal goals for the workshop, but my commitment must be weak – I still wanted more Big Skies!  In fairness, other students preferred the workshop’s focus just as it was, to allow more emphasis on deeper engagement with the photographic scene and on technical darkroom skill development. I think the right solution to this would have been to schedule some free time before or after the workshop to pursue these personal areas of interest while focusing on the stated objectives during the actual workshop.  I did, in fact, have part of the day after the workshop to explore the area, and got to see some of my Big Skies and made some photos, too.

Before I conclude, I have to also say what an awesome host Photographer’s Formulary is for a workshop. We all stayed at the Standing Stones B&B co-located with the workshop, run by Bud and Lynn Wilson, who also own Photographer’s Formulary. They and all of their staffs at both the B&B and the PF were most gracious hosts that took care of our every need.  The rooms were comfortable, and the meals provided (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) were outstanding.  Considering that the workshop location is relatively remote, making lodging and dining elsewhere iffy at best, to have good accommodations and good meals on location made the entire week a pleasurable and carefree photographic getaway.

The Photographic Formulary hosts numerous workshops throughout the year, catering to various photographic disciplines.  If they are run as well as Nathan’s workshop, and enjoy the great hospitality we encountered, I could only strongly encourage interested folks to attend.

For more information about Photographic Formulary and their hosted workshops, visit their webpage.

I do also encourage you to visit Nathan McCreery’s website or Facebook page to experience his beautiful work.

Below are scans of some of my first darkroom working prints from this week in Montana:

Ferns, Swan Valley Wildlife Refuge, Montana, Pentax 67, TMax 100, Pyrocat HD

 

Holland Lake, Montana, Pentax 67, Pan F+, Rodinal

 

Saws, Garnet Ghost Town, Montana, Pentax 67, TMax 100, Pyrocat HD

 

Abandoned Boots, Garnet Ghost Town, Montana, Pentax 67, Pan F+, Rodinal

 

Corral and Hills, north of Missoula, Montana, Pentax 67, TMax 400, Pyrocat HD

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