Image Above: Nikon D100, 35mm, 1/125sec at f/5.6
The Monochrome Set – Clive Rowley – Reader Profile
AP reader and retired doctor Clive Rowley discusses his love of black & white photography and the learning curve he has experienced through his work. He talks to Oliver Atwell
One of the most interesting things about developing your photography skills is seeing your own distinctive style gradually coming to the fore. Clive is a photographer who has become intrinsically linked with high-contrast, grainy, monochrome photography. Looking through Clive’s work, you can clearly spot the subjects he favours, such as graveyards and architecture. There’s something oddly melancholic about Clive’s work, which is surprising considering his obviously cheery nature. Clive is someone who is clearly in love with the medium of photography. It’s an infectious enthusiasm. Here we talk to Clive about his thoughts on monochrome, film, digital and how he fits his passion around his everyday life.
AP One of the interesting things about shooting predominantly in black & white is that you have to learn to see the world in a different way, almost in monochrome. When you look at a scene, how do you know that it will work as a black & white image?
CR It’s an instinct I’ve developed over years of practice. I was brought up on black & white. I started taking photographs when I was 12 years old. That was when I had my first camera. The problem was that I was always disappointed in the results that would arrive back from the lab after the negatives has been processed. The tonal range just wasn’t quite right. I had to take control. I joined a photography club at school and learned all about the darkroom process. Then later on I converted one of the rooms in my parents’ house into a darkroom. I was then able to hone my skills even further and develop my eye for monochrome.
However, it was a little later that I had my real eureka moment. One day I was holidaying in Wales and I found a book of black & white photography by John Clow called Snowdonia Revisited. I was gobsmacked and I wanted to learn everything about creative monochrome. I began poring through books about black & white photography and joining organisations that specialised in the medium. I was then able to start achieving what I wanted to in my own work.
Eventually I began to understand Ansel Adams’ maxim that the negative is the musical score and the print is the concert performance. I could see that a great many scenes could function as monochrome images. In time I began submitting my work to various publications and was very proud to see them being printed here and there.
Image Above: Mamiya RZ, 180mm, studio set-up with Ilford HP4 film
AP Would you say that you’re able to identify a particular visual style regarding the tonal range of your images?
CR I have always felt that the basic image has a plethora of tonal range variations. I’m particularly fond of high contrast but that will only be appropriate for a small selection of images. With others, a full gamut of tonal variations is appropriate. You may also notice that I favour grain within my images. The classic photojournalists used Kodak Tri-X or Ilford film and I have experimented a little with those films. They are very grainy. However, I sometimes shot on Agfa APX 50, which was virtually free of grain. That gave me pretty conventional-looking prints, which was appropriate for the subject.
When printing, I would always dilute the developer, experiment with enlarger filters and dodge and burn to achieve a tonal range appropriate for the image. I was never an adherent to the rule that there should be details in the highlights and shadows. I remember how Bill Brandt went through a phase of revisiting some of his negatives from 30 years previous and reprinting them with much more contrast. So who knows, maybe I’ll do the same with some of my negatives in the future.Now that I’ve moved on to digital I’ve found that the shadow/highlight tool in Photoshop is capable to bringing out details and tones that I never would have found using the manual darkroom process. When I discovered Photoshop, it was a real revelation.
Image Above: ‘Pilots Cottages, Llanddwyn Island, Wales’, Kodak HIE Infrared film
AP Were there any brands of film that you favoured?
CR Some of my favourites were Ilford FP4, HP5 and Agfa APX 50. I would often experiment with pushing the film just to see what results I could get. The penalty (or bonus) has been grain. If I want to achieve smooth results there has never been anything better than Agfapan APX 50, which I always called the Fuji Velvia of black & white. I suppose my all-time favourite film is Kodak HIE infrared film. I love the grain and diffusion of highlights. It’s virtually impossible to copy digitally. I’ve just started using it again with my Nikon F100. Peak Imaging of Sheffield process the film and can do large-resolution scans.
AP Could you talk me through your preferred lighting conditions when producing images?
CR I love all light, from the soft tones of dawn and dusk to the fierce contrast of the midday sun. The fact is, I have no preference. It’s whatever fits. I sometimes use on- and off-camera flash, light tents and bounced light from reflectors. For me, there are no rules. I’ve done night portraits outside using just security lights. I’ve even used the light from a computer screen to backlight translucent objects. I’ve done work in studios before and so understand how to use modelling lights and studio flashes.
Image Above: Dimmingsdale, Staffordshire, Kodak HIE Infrared film
AP Talk me through your process of going out to look for a photograph. Do you always have a preconceived idea?
CR Very rarely. However, I always find time to look for possibilities, whether it’s a group of shapes, textures, the unusual or just something that’s visually pleasing. Studio work is, of course, quite different. In that situation, planning ahead is vital. But much of my more serious photography is pure happenstance. It’s whatever I find, although there are particular locations where I always seem to find something interesting. There are two cemeteries that I love: Highgate Cemetery in London and the Cemetery on the Mount in Nice, France. English churchyards can give rich pickings and I have a predilection for graffiti, decay, people and Victoriana.
Image Below: Rodin Gardens, Paris, Minolta, 24mm, Kodak HIE Infrared film
AP You had previously gone on record as saying that you would never switch to digital.
CR In the beginning I thought noise was the big failure of digital photography. The first digital camera I tried was a Canon PowerShot G2 compact but the delay in the shutter release drove me mad. Also, the noise level was intolerable. What I had not anticipated was how quickly the technology would improve. These days I cannot imagine life without a digital camera.The transition from film to digital was not smooth. There was a massive learning curve as you would expect. But when I changed to digital, I felt like bowing to the Great God of Photoshop. To be able to manipulate tonal ranges so easily was a revelation.
AP How did your photography fit around your career as a doctor? Did it give you some respite from a hectic daily life?
CR Yes, absolutely. I have always loved medicine but I always found myself looking for other things to take my mind off my work. Photography was a godsend. But despite my passion for it I had never wanted to go into it professionally. There would just be too much pressure, even more than my career as a doctor. I didn’t want to produce work in order to sell it. That means I’m not restricted to what I can shoot. It’s always fresh and exciting. The only person I have to please is myself.
My Favourite Image
I’d say my best picture was taken with my Leica M6. It’s quiet camera. The shutter, rather than crashing and banging, seems to breath. I was in Manchester one morning with just the camera and one lens – 24mm f/2.8Asph. I had one roll of film, which was Ilford Delta 400. The image is a photo of the curved architecture around Manchester Central Library. It was published by Creative Monochrome and was also used as a backdrop to their stand at the NEC a few years back. I would never have got that shot using a zoom lens. The restriction of the prime lens really helped me to see that shot.
To see more of Clive’s work visit www.photo-moods.co.uk
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Image Above: ‘Betws-y-Coed, North Wales’, Kodak HIE Infrared film