A! Magazine for the Arts

Untitled by Nina Rizzo is a split-toned gelatin silver print.

Untitled by Nina Rizzo is a split-toned gelatin silver print.

Photography as Fine Art

August 1, 2012

Nina Rizzo, Neil Staples and Jeffrey Stoner use different techniques, prefer different subjects and have very different artistic visions, but they all agree on one thing: what makes a photograph fine art is very similar to what makes any other medium art: emotional resonance.

"It requires thoughtful individual expression," Rizzo says. "It invites viewers to think and feel and experience the work through their own histories; it invokes a silent communication."

The communication is more than artist to viewer. "The viewer completes the process I started," Stoner says. "My goal is to create an image that not only includes what I am seeing, but also what I'm experiencing with my other senses."

That ability to draw a viewer into your world in its entirety is where the fine art photographer's skill and eye differentiate them from other photographers.

"One of the joys of photography is what I call the backstage work," Rizzo says. "Meeting and interacting with interested and interesting people, gathering and making props, reveling in the rich color and texture of fine fabrics, makeup and costumes that transform the attitude and the visage, the howls of laughter when something "jest ain't right' and finally that gorgeous light ... enveloping skin and radiating from eyes. The magic is in the making of the photograph. What a gift, that moment before the shutter is released and you realize that it has all come together, just as you visualized."

Light and the Darkroom

Light is integral to photography, not only the interplay of the light and the subject within the image, but sunlight in conjunction with certain chemicals is a method more than 150 years old of making photographic prints.

Staples still uses sunlight to develop prints for his personal work. Called platinum or palladium prints, they are favored because of their tonal range, the surface quality and their permanence. A platinum/palladium print provides a broad scale of tones from black to white; the tones range from warm black, to reddish brown, to expanded mid-tone grays that are unobtainable in silver prints. Platinum and palladium are metals that are used in the chemistry that coat the paper.

When Staples teaches this technique to his students he allows them to use a shortcut (an acetate negative from an inkjet printer); but when it comes to his own work, he takes no shortcuts – he starts with film, develops it, makes the paper negative, and then starts the printing process.

"I use very old processes for my personal work," he says. "They involve hand-coated paper and require long ultraviolet exposure times. I enjoy mixing the chemistry, feeling the texture of the watercolor paper in my hands and anticipating the results. Unlike digital prints, there can be many surprises and imperfections, making each print unique. For me, the process of creating the print is as important as the final image."

Stoner's process is digital. "I capture images using a digital camera in the "raw' format instead of the more familiar jpg. With jpg's, the camera applies sharpening, contrast and color saturation before you ever see the image pop up on your camera's display. A raw image is what the name implies – an image with no in-camera adjustments."

From there Stoner's darkroom may be digital, but he is essentially using techniques photographers have used for more than a century to control the light.

"In the traditional darkroom they would dodge and burn (lighten and darken) areas within the print to complete their vision. With Photoshop, I very selectively apply similar adjustments to transform an image from the raw image to a fine art print."

Rizzo says she is sometimes called a dinosaur for using a "wet" darkroom. But, as for many artists, the process is important to her. "I like to be a mad scientist, concocting formulas and using painstaking traditional techniques. I crank up the stereo and sing at the top of my lungs – slide a few dance steps in while waiting for a print in the fixing tray. Words can barely relate the joy of making art by hand."

And hands-on, she is. While you may see color in Rizzo's prints, they most likely were shot with black and white film.

"I've never liked color film. I think it's too literal a translation. It can never capture what the human eye sees. The eye is always moving, which changes the play of light, color and shadow; we can't stop it, but the camera does. By hand tinting, I can create the mood that I felt and saw but that was not captured by the camera."

Hand tinting photographs is an old technique, and she excels at it. She also uses a technique called Mortensen's Metalchrome which gives her luminous flesh tones. In a four-part process, Rizzo uses chemicals to tone and bleach the print. She works in small areas so she can keep a close eye on tonal changes. She even has to be careful drying the print, because "if it dries too fast, the paper will curl up like a potato chip," she says.

If you want to know why she expends all this painstaking effort, it's because when the photograph is complete, "The light seems to envelop and radiate from the figure unlike the opacity you get when using oils."

Her latest hands-on process involves using encaustic on photographs. She starts with a photograph, uses oil paints to tint and then adds the wax process. Using the encaustic technique, she heats wax, tints it with pigments and applies it to the photo. She began experimenting with this process because many of the materials she uses, especially for the Metalchrome technique, are becoming difficult to find. She estimates that only 10 percent of the materials she previously used are still available.

Studio or Location

Staples prefers to work in a studio where he can create his vision from conception to realization.

"I enjoy making props, placing and controlling the light, the subject, everything else," he says. "But I also enjoy shooting touristy things on vacation." Just recently he went to Roswell, N.M., on the Fourth of July and captured all kinds of "aliens."

Stoner shoots exclusively on location and he goes to extremes to find his images. "Every year I hike with my gear up Mount Rogers to photograph the goats, and I shoot a lot in the Smoky Mountains." These location shoots necessitate getting a very early start in order to catch the light. "I love the early morning light, which lasts about 45 minutes." It's not unusual for his day to start at 3:30 a.m. In The Early Light of Dawn (below) you can see a buck's antlers rising above the grasses. This was the result of one of those trips where he left the house at 3:30 a.m., drove to the Smoky Mountains, and then biked in the dark to get into position for the sunrise.

It's perhaps not surprising that two of Stoner's favorite personal photographs are a landscape and a train. Two of his favorite photographers are Ansel Adams and O. Winston Link. Like these masters of the art, he hikes with gear, sets up equipment and then spends time in the darkroom – digital in Stoner's case. "Ansel used to spend as long as six hours working on one image," he says. "What I do isn't anything new; it's just easier on a computer."

Rizzo shoots some commercial work and portraits in the studio, but she prefers shooting on location. Like Stoner, her location shots require a lot of effort. They often seem more like a movie set.

"I remember the making of a photograph for my religious series – a Renaissance courtier astride a magnificent Andalusian stallion meets an angel, by chance, along a forest road. I costumed and set the scene and then it took on its own life, playing before my camera. I clicked the shutter as though in a dream."

While she shoots on location, the location is not the focus of her images. She loves figurative art. Growing up outside of Washington, D.C., she says she "practically grew up in the National Gallery of Art, surrounded by marble sculptures and paintings of the human figure. It's no surprise that became my artistic bent. The majority of my work is figurative and has a very classical feel. It quite feels like I've been born into the wrong century sometimes. I have often wished that I had studied painting with the same determination as I have photography.

"I am intrigued with the possibility of using a computer in future works, but I can't imagine that I will feel this sensuous glow of living delight, the joy in our lovely world, this communication of spirits gathered up in the making of art, and the tactile sensuality of hand-making images," Rizzo says.

The delight that Rizzo, Staples and Stoner take in their work emanates from their images and draws us inside their worlds to share this vision, and perhaps changes the way we see our own world.

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