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Monday, 13 April 2020


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Hi Mike

And then there are these:

Yep, a bit intense. Looks stylized, but then the number of conversions and filters a file may go through may be giving it that result. I remember back in the day I used to bounce my ads through AdSend to NYT and it would render the images deep and dark, even when tweaking the PDF And NYT profiles... Can’t imagine that’s the case these days, but you never know unless you got the photog on the line about his stuff...

The use of B&W is obviously an aesthetic choice, and I'd point out that many of Heisler's shots have a full range of tones from quite brilliant white through black. However, you can make a very interesting comparison with Peter Turnley's portfolio on the same theme, where Turnley does use a considerably wider range of middle tones. I personally find Turnley's portfolio more interesting and human, but twenty years from now, I suspect that if both were displayed side-by-side in a gallery, Heisler's would be the one that would attract most attention and would spark more emotion, because these are psychologically dark days, and people will remember them as being dark. Heisler's are also more explicitly medical: there are many shots in Turnley's (admittedly more human) portfolio that couldn't be pinned to the corona virus, but could easily be related to something like Robert Frank's "Americans," more of a survey work unpinned to a particular event.

I actually like both portfolios quite a lot.

So agree. Look at street photography galleries, the blacks are so unreal, I always wonder where these contrasty places are.

I agree that, to put it tactfully, Todd Heisler's tonal preferences are a lot different from my own, but I interpret this less as a sign that B&W tonal standards are going to hell than as an example of how today's photographers have a perverse tendency to flout classical standards for the sake of having a distinct "style." Mix a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda with 250ml water and drink it down. You'll feel better before you know it.

I agree with you Mike. Not that there isn't some plastic beauty in these images - but I for one am kept wishing for more shadow detail, for example in the skyscrapers...

Michael, as an aside on Peter's images. I sent the link as examples of tonal values. Am I imagining things or did someone overdo adjustments on some of the images? For example, the ambulance driver pushing the gurney - wasn't somebody heavy handed with the sliders. And, the interesting gentleman -
the attempt to separate him from the background creating a halo effect? In your judgement, are they OK? You don't have to publish this. As my oldest would say - just sayin'!

Definitely a current "look". I see this a lot with people who shoot B&W digital Leicas - capture the highlights at step 5.5 or 6, let the rest fall where it may. I guess the idea is that there is so much lower end detail available in the files one can get away with this, but I wish folks would actually try pulling some of the detail and tonality up into the realm of visibility . . .

My guess is that there is a photo editorial processing concoction in place across the board meant to dramatize or infer seriousness for the sole purpose of attention. Not unlike the designs of supermarket tabloid cover pages.

It probably works, unfortunately, meaning the public at large is acclimatized to that look and then won't consider a more subtle finish as worthy.

Kinda the effect Life magazine editorial photo choices had on what the public viewed as serious photography. It was after all that generation of editors who initially rejected Robert Frank's The Americans.

Agreed. Heisler's images are like in an old Western (movie) where they simulate a night scene by darkening down the exposure of what was obviously shot in full daylight. I look at those movies as using a time and money saving technique appropriate for a low budget film. The same practice does not apply to legitimate photojournalism - I would assume (maybe standards have change). Exposing for the white clouds doesn't give him a pass.

I think this is both personal expression and cultural experience...a "neorealism" interpretation of the current dark times. It might not be deliberate but quite instinctive, instinct bred out of the personal experience of the photographer's time and place.

For the lead picture, it reminds me of when I use a circular polarizer filter and spin it so the sky gets as dark as possible. In this case, making the sky dark (and exposing for the clouds?) also makes the buildings and trucks look dark as well.

That doesn't take away from your comments about the picture. It feels to me like a cheap way to manufacture drama.

For the Brooklyn Hospital picture, I like the complicated triangle shadows in the background, but the figures in hazmat suits don't do much for me. Without the people, it might make a nice abstract.

What do you think of the image of the New York City AIDS Memorial? I find the combinations of lines, shadows, and textures arresting. It would be a good picture even without the health care worker in the mask.

I guess this kind of raises the question:
Assuming he does not shoot film, how does Peter Turnly convert his images to B&W? This also assume that you like the way *he* does it. 8^)

The aesthetic looks like he/she is trying to make it look like a grimy concentration camp.
Also, in bright daylight the tonal range of digital is so bad, if you want to keep the white tents from blowing out glowing white you have to under expose and that makes all the middle and dark grays get shoved down into mostly blacks.
Not so pretty.

Looks like he set the Shadows (And maybe Blacks) to -100 in PhotoShop.
A more pleasing (To me) example of black and white conversion was Alessio Mamo's work on Covid isolation in the Guardian:

Looking at the histogram for that first photo (or the web version), and there seems plenty 'space' for more exposure, before any shadow recovery. The latter improved it with a basic editor, but then shows the sensor is need of a good clean. But I'm no pro, so what could I know...

Have been experimenting digitising old negatives, with a DSLR over the Easter break - can't face scanning anymore. In the editing of the files, have had more problems settling on a look for the B&W photos than the colour ones. They probably won't appeal to a connoisseur, such as yourself, but the 'depressed tones' look won't be a considered option!

OK, so it's not just me. I saw that series before reading this article and had the same reaction.

Digital DeCarava? Okay, I'm stretching.

It is meant to be "expressive," but it is most definitely... "excessive!"

I have long been a fan of Heisler's photography. In the above-mentioned essay, it looks as though he used a red filter on many shots. That would tend to exaggerate tonal ranges!

I must admit they are wee bit extreme, however I kind of like them as artistic representation of the post-apocalyptic world in which we find ourselves. Personally and probably irrationally I loath the tone and visual dynamics of Sebastiao Salgado's photographs and have never understood why they are so popular.

Seems like Diado Moriyama also gave black and white a bad name.
But I'm just a lousy amateur who actually happens to use the same kind of crippled tonality, so I'm biased anyway. I can definitly see the point in your argument and not every image lends itself to theese steep contrasts and yes, the title image is too much, even for my taste.

Hi Mike
I have to agree with you on the New York Times prints. For me lack the depth of a good B/W print.

I'm not one for B&W, nor am I very knowledgeable about the subtleties, but I totally agree with you, just over the top.

I am totally in agreement with you. And it's not only in B&W.

In fact, I find the tonal range used by the NY Times to render many photographs almost useless at what they are supposed to do, namely illustrate the articles. What would normally be reproduced as highlights are rendered as midtones, and anything that would normally be reproduced as midtones or below are black and invisible. On some devices I can crank up the brightness way beyond what I normally use to view photos, but some devices I can't; in particular iPads, which I normally use to read the Times.

As an example, the article about oil and it's effect on Guyana shows this well:

Guayna is a tropical and sunny country. When you go there, you can see it very well. Not in these pictures.

Stop it, people! A photo conveys no information if it's too dark to see!

Hi Mike. When I look at these pictures, I see myself walking through a city that is made up of deep, shadowy valleys, on a day when a strong sun makes the shadows even darker. I feel ill-equipped to disagree with you, but I have to say, these are great photographs and to me the tonality of the picture meets the nature of the subject matter in the most striking manner.

I looked at these also and that was my impression. They were way too dark and obvious. They look like the exposure is off several stops instead of looking dark and depressed. If he wanted to do this he would have been better off shoot9ing Ferrania P30 or Rollei Blackbird and scanning. Some of the compositions are really nice but definitely not the processing.

Yeah, OK. I went and looked and have to agree. I shot only B&W for at least a decade and printed most of it myself, so I have some feel, memory of what B&W can/should look like. And those shots are way too manipulated for my taste. (Given they are photojournalism) Some almost IR looking. Overdone! IMHO

I'm never quite sure if I'm guilty of the same crimes against B&W, but looking at those pictures I can see your point. I'm definitely not that bad.

My taste is like yours Mike. It's too OTT for me. However I don't believe that there is any such thing as photojournalistic objectivity. The moment chosen to press the shutter, the choice of what to include in the frame, the editor's choice of image that best tells the story, and indeed the tonality or feel etc etc. I must admit though that some photographers are better at it than others. Don McCullin comes to mind.

I agree entirely Mike. even the lightest is too dark.

I don't like it either, but we might be the minority these days... I"m 49, so I don't like to think of myself as being old, but I've definitely been there during the days when film was king and what you saw was what you got... the days before extreme post processing.
I hope that it will go away like that ugly extreme HDR and the super-edited pictures that look like a badly colored cartoon.
At some point, mid-tones will make a comeback.. hopefully by then the pendulum won't totally swing to the other side and ALL will be just midtones :)

We have heard, "Expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights."

In Todd Heisler's portfolio, the "film" seems underdeveloped for the highlights.

"and a lot of people these days seem to want it to look bad." Honestly, I find the same with much contemporary digital color work. Make it dramatic, make it jump out at you. Prove that you are an innovative photographer (like the other 10^7 innovative guys doing the same thing).

They look like Kodabrome RC in the hands of a darkroom apprentice.

I think that perhaps the idea is to move the white of the tents, gloves, morgues, into the midtones and crush the rest into the shadows.

Actually it reminds me of a lot of 1970s film photography, especially late Gene Smith, Arthur Tress’s work in the 60s and 70s, just about any B&W Japanese photographer I can think of in the 70s, Wegee, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Ralph Gibson, Diane Arbus, and I could go on and on, all made photos as dark as these.

I think burning down the shadows and background is less popular these days because software makes open but dark shadows easy. Silver prints could have shadow detail that would only reveal itself when viewed in direct sunlight but on a screen you can’t see anything but glare.

I think this reveals more about the era in which you learned b&w printing than it does about anything else. Most of us here learned the same things: avoid soot&chalk, full range of tones, etc etc etc.

This is, to my eye, just a "look" of many.

You could argue, I suppose, that it's "less accurate" but I think that's a fallacy. The scene didn't look like that, but also it was in color, and 3 dimensional, and not so small. I think you and I are trained to "read" a modernist style of print and more or less correctly fill in what the scene looked like. We know what Yosemite or a log or a tree or Winston Churchill really looks like, and we can "back out" from a modernist print to the real thing without effort or even really noticing.

So that printing style which we learned from Ansel feels "real" to us, although it is no more real than a tintype, or this sort of soot&chalk rendering, or Majoli's weird ambrotype-lookin things from Italy:


All these different artifices are, more or less, equally untrue I think, but you and I can't read some of them as well as we can some of the others.

It is not only about this portfolio but in general, I am getting tired of seeing the same three or four themes of coronavirus pictures: empty streets, people in their homes/doors/decks/porches, "dark" views like the portfolio that is the subject of this blog post, and pictures of random strangers wearing masks while they go about their business. You can probably combine some of those or mix and match, but whatever the permutation, I'll be happy if, once this thing is over, I never again see another image that screams "spring 2020 / coronavirus." The first few times, ok, it seemed different. By now, it seems every self-styled street photographer and photojournalist is doing the same damn thing.

Exaggeration like this gives news a bad name.

We all know that digital images can only emulate film in an inferior way. There can be no other creative use allowed or tolerated.

The images are pretty consistent which suggests to me that presets/scripts were used to create a 'look'. I doubt the 'look' is a dime-a-dozen anybody can do it sort of thing. It takes skill and hard work to create custom image processing workflows. Not unlike the effort you might associate with darkroom work.

Time marches on and styles move with the times.

I have to say that I like Heisler's photographs and their mood. The photography is one of the reasons I subscribe to the Times. Sometimes I like over the top, at least in art and photography.

I really like it. And, I like the imagery as well.

Hey, he's shooting for the New York Times, and the photo editors there know a thing or two about photography.

And I'll leave you with my thoughts...

His vision is different than yours. That's okay. It may not work for you and some readers here, but it works for me and I am confident it works for many readers of the Times.

By way of example, take a look at the work of Jonas Rask or Valerie Jardin some time...

I know you grew up loving Tri-X processed and printed in D76. Guess what? I don't like that look at all; I find it flat, tiresome, and boring. When it came to B&W film, processing and printing, I liked Ilford FP4 processed in highly diluted Rodinal printed on Seagull. Here's the thing: my sensibilites are just as VALID as yours.

Some of us like this style.

That said, there is also quite the trend involving art photographers (particularly landscape) who purposely overexpose their images. Sometimes it can lend a rather eerie, dreamlike resonance; other times, it too can be downright irritating...


What about the great Bill Brandt. Have a look at some of his most famous images. He used blocked shadows, lack of midtones and blown highlights to make his point. All on film of course. No digital in those days.

I'm torn between Dave Allan-Harvey's great advice to "shoot what it feels like", and the title, which explicitly reads: What New York Looks Like".

I'm sure it feels grim, but on the other hand, what makes everything feel surreal is how the consistent the world looks. Absurdly horrific things happen under the same sun as their happy counterparts from last year. Like you, I think I'd like the the aesthetic to do a little less work and so that the subject can do a little more.

I'm sure many readers have already seen it, but this reminded me of Reading The Pictures' retrospective on the darkening of Natchwey's 9/11 pictures: https://www.readingthepictures.org/2012/09/james-nachtweys-911-eleven-years-later-like-night-and-day/

To my eye, the brighter images are starker, less theatrical and more 'real' in retrospect.

Speaking of theatrics... I'm glad Andrew Molitor brought up Majoli's work in Vanity Fair! That aesthetic is much more about the current viewpoint of one photographer's on world events generally. He's been using strobes to create the feel of stage lighting, to suggest that the events of our lives are like scenes from a theatre for long enough to have already published a book that pivots on the idea: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/alex-majoli-scene-theatricality-life/ This event just extends that portfolio... I'm not sure how I feel about that.

One thing I think is true of visual media in general right now is that there is a fierce competition to grab attention and impress. There is less time, less contemplation, less news, more opinion. Higher contrast and greater subjective interpretations seem to be born of the moment. Do Heisler's pictures in the Times feel more of the moment than Mamo's more timeless tones in The Guardian to you? They do to me.

What I am enjoying is this discussion, and the fact that we suddenly have a range (sorry) of contrasting (sorry again) examples from different photographers and publishers working on similar themes around the web and the world.

Maybe you could lay out some COVID crisis pictures from Peter Turnley, Alex Majoli (Vanity Fair), Alessio Mamo (Guardian), and Todd Heisler and write us a survey of the black and white interpretations, Mike. It'd be a great teaching exercise!

Todd Heisler has an impressive resume, being a Pulitzer prize winner, Emmy winner, etc.

I find the first picture conveys a mood befitting the bleak situation in New York. It gets my attention quite dramatically.

Stay safe everybody.

The dark tones might have worked with a grainy, contrasty look, but is that because those of us old enough to have seen a lot of black and white film are condoned to see that? Take one of the pictures, run it through SilverFX with high contrast and add a lot of grain and you’d probably love the dark tones.

Younger people probably like the sharp, smooth look and think us older people have no taste either.

Is it possible Todd took the pics that way or is it definitely PS? I find it hard to criticize his work. I’d give my left arm, figuratively, to have his talent.

The best method of converting to B/W is?
Is it EXposure5?
All suggestions welcome.

While I agree the shots are dramatized for effect. I suspect that if they were not, then aesthetically there would be very little to appreciate in these shots. As they are there is quite a lot to like. Personally, I have yet to see any shots of the pandemic that seem particularly interesting, so these are better than most. Straightforward shots of a few people wearing face masks, or a some specially chosen views of "empty" streets (although there are usually people in them anyway), are not really talking to me, so these at least make some attempt to speak.

I guess if you're going to do that to bright sunny day you need to make sure the people in your photo aren't wearing sunglasses. The incongruity would ruin the whole vibe.

I have to agree. I think you have set a challenge to your digital monochrome-loving audience.

Is this not pictorialism, in the age of post processing?

I believe the NYT were following the stylistic recommendations of a certain blogger who stated that in B&W, when "all the mid-tones are depressed...[it] gives me a feeling like the flu, or the fog of despond."

They probably should have checked the rest of the post for the context, rather than being right on the nose...

Yeah, "hugh crawford" got it. I immediately thought of that W Smith guy, and his "A Walk To The Paradise Garden". Typical ham handed newb work. Not even all in focus. Sure, it was only 1946 and all, but still... Check it out if you can stand to at: https://iconicphotos.wordpress.com/tag/w-eugene-smith/

I don't think this is digital vs. film. This is just current taste, and if digital didn't exist, current film would give you this look as it would be what sold and generated money to the film companies.

When the old film look comes into fashion again, digital will look just like film again. :-)

I suspect the photographer may have a particular look and feeling in mind, but also might reconsider down the road. That said, I wouldn't call them awful tones across the board - most of the photos simply don't work for me even if I understand the intent. I do like the 2nd shot and think it's "appropriate" to the subject matter.

louis mccullagh: I use Exposure and it does a good job for me. I'm on v4.x, haven't upgraded to 5 yet, as I haven't really read up on what it brings to the table.

A bit late to this one, but anyway.
Many times when you complain about the tonality in digital BW, I'm quite puzzled, but this one was quite obvious. I guess some people like the dramatic effect, but this didn't look like something done by a true craftsman. Apart from the tonality, what really distracted me was all the obvious blobs of sensor dust all over the place. I guess they showed up when all the sliders was cranked up to 11. Sloppy.

My point is that if you are going to do an artistic representation, then you need to get it perfect. If it was just another news article I would gladly accept technical flaws as long as the pictures told the story as it was. I'm guessing the photographer did not do these adjustments. Or if he did, it was with a proverbial gun to his head.

+1 on the probably too dark. Half-tones likely terrible. Comments refer to the tonality as an aesthetic choice. But, it's the fact that they chose Black & White in the first place that intrigues me. B&W as an editorial choice, now that's interesting. Add it totally fits within Mike's Tones for Times theme. The end product is journalism and it is produced with the reader/consumer in mind. It's not photography for photographers. That's where Fun With Psychology enters the picture. (Couldn't help it.) My Two Cents. Sorry I'm late.

For what it's worth, the same spread in the print edition (last Sunday) is printed lighter, especially the opening shot of the reefer trailers. But I like the online version better - it matches the subject matter.

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