For students brought up essentially in the digital world, the world of black & white photography is more often than not now, accessed through the conversion filters of Photoshop, and is sought as some kind of creative refuge from the inherent defects of certain colour images.
I therefore felt it incumbent upon me to present in my photography class the work of two masters of monochrome: Michael Kenna and Ray Metzker, who have shown a singular attachment to black & white throughout their careers, combining supreme technical skills with a unique artistic vision so as to create images of great beauty and force. What I believe is fundamental in both their approaches is this intrinsic ability to directly visualise and interpret the world in a spectrum of black, white and grey, having in mind the final image at the point of releasing the shutter.
It is a testimony to the extraordinary aesthetic quality of Kenna’s work , that he has been, in a way, very much copied and imitated. Whether he is photographing landscapes, industrial sites, or famous monuments, there are certain characteristics that define his unique sensibility. The feeling of calm, being alone in a vast space, the smooth textures, the square format that underpins a sense of classical beauty and natural order. There is also that spiritual element, a poetic timelessness, that derives to some degree from his sublime working of the light (working with very long exposures at dawn or night), and imbuing his images with an other-worldly atmosphere.
By contrast, Ray Metzker’s work is specifically more urban, rooted in the architecture of American cityscapes, most notably Chicago and Philadelphia. Whereas Kenna’s images exude a certain ephemeral softness, Metzker’s photos have a harder, rougher edge. Metzker is the master of visual graphics, deliberately exploiting high contrast to capture passers-by as seemingly disconnected figures set against the imposing structures of the surrounding buildings. A metaphor perhaps for man’s alienation within modern consumer society? Whatever Metzker’s social aims, his pictures are above all renowned for the beautiful play of light and shade, the rich expanses of black, the chiaroscuro lighting effects, and his creative ability to elevate ordinary street scenes into moments of pure artistic abstraction.
For their last project of the year, I therefore decided to give my students the challenge of creating one image in the style of both photographers. There were some very impressive responses and here below is my selection of the 10 best in the Kenna idiom, followed by the 10 best for Metzker.