We live in an image-driven society and, thanks to cell-phone technology, most of us have the ability to document our every encounter, action and meal. But when one thinks of photography as an art form, the black-and-white print is a dominant image. Since its invention in the mid-1800s, black-and-white photographs have had the ability to distill a scene to its essence, while still evoking drama and mystery. "Noir," a juried exhibition at the Pacific Art League (on view until April 25), demonstrates that contemporary photographers still find aesthetic challenges in this historic medium.
"Noir" is the venerable art league's first show devoted solely to black-and-white photography. It certainly attracted the interest of regional photographers, according to marketing director Aly Gould.
"Our call to artists for this show was sent to many local artists and photography groups in the Bay Area and attracted 185 submissions from professional and amateur photographers. Our submissions came from not only the local area but also from San Francisco, Oakland, Sonoma, Half Moon Bay and Aptos," she said. The entries, culled down to a total of 65 in the exhibition, were judged by Daniel Garcia, photographer and creative director of Content Magazine.
"It was difficult to pare down the submissions to fit the limited show space," said Garcia. "There were many strong images, with a nice variety of styles." In the end, what he was looking for was, "that 'something' that grabs me, that conveys a feeling, an aesthetic, while also considering technical or craftsmanship standards. Then, it is a weighing between the aesthetics and craft."
The exhibition includes every manner of styles, from landscape to still life to portrait. There are also numerous techniques represented, including archival pigment prints, digital prints, inkjet prints and, of course, "iPhoneography." Garcia said that like many artists working in the medium, he began as a street photographer and that he remains a fan of this particularly spontaneous style. His choice for first place in the show, Terri Vershel's "Striped Calf," was notable for "conveying the skill of capturing the 'decisive moment' and was technically excellent and aesthetically striking."
In the image, we see the legs of a woman and boy in midstride. It's a prosaic scene that is made interesting by the geometry of lines created in the pavement, from the shadows of chairs and the dappled sunlight on the ground. The recognizable shapes of the legs and feet anchor the image, while the contrasting tones of dark and light evoke the enigmatic quality of film noir: Who are these people; are they together and where are they going?
The award for second place was given to Oliver Klink for his dramatic "The Story Teller." This print, a portrait of an old man and a young girl, is a study in chiaroscuro. We can barely make out the figures, who emerge from darkness and are seen in profile. The child is gazing up at the old man, whose head is surrounded by billows of smoke from his pipe. His head is bathed in soft light from a nearby window and he leans down to address the girl in such a way that we instinctively know the narrative of this tableau -- an ancient sharing his wisdom. The image is laden with emotion that could only be conveyed in black and white.
Several prints exemplify how even the most quotidian objects can lend themselves to artistic analysis. In Jim Beck's "Coffee Service," cups, milk pitchers and a silver coffee pot inspire a study of light and its reflective qualities. Dan McLean's "Three Urns" is a meditative experience, both due to the beauty found in the classical form of the urns and the way the light caresses just one side of each object. The result is both simple and elegant.
Notable in the exhibition, and represented by numerous prints, is the work of Tom and Marj Green. The duo started taking photographs as a retirement hobby but found, as they spent more time shooting, that it had become a serious pursuit.
"We are inspired by old black-and-white movies, Ansel Adams and other early 20th-century black-and-white photographers," explained Green. "There are many challenges -- early morning shadows on a lonely street, discarded toys in a play yard, an array of pots and pans ... it never ends."
Their prints are textbook examples of how the effects of shadow, contrast, tone, shape and texture can create emotion. In Marj's "Pitchfork, Manzanor, CA" the composition consists of the simple farming tool left on a barn floor under an overhead window, creating a perfect square of light and the shadows of the tines under the fork. Gray tones evoke a feeling of abandonment and melancholy. In other prints, the Greens consider the strong lines and sharp contrasts of architectural subject matter (parking garages, stairways, etc.) that result in compositions that are studies in abstraction.
There are prints that seem to pay homage to photographic masters from the past. Robert Zucker's "Beau Tie Nude" shows a nude woman lying on a bed with layers of crumpled sheets and blankets gathered around her. This very traditional subject is one that was also captured by Eugene Atget in his "Femme," dated 1925. Richard Man channels the work of Robert Frank in "American," a portrait of a man draped with American flags, which he also holds in his hands. His intense gaze seems to challenge onlookers to react to his patriotism. Judy Kramer's "Mesquite Dunes West" tackles landscape photography in the tradition of Edward Weston, focusing on zig-zag patterns on sand dunes that lead the eye towards a mountain range in the background, while overhead the sky is etched with fluffy clouds.
Finally, Linda Degastaldi ("Looking Down") demonstrates how an iPhone shot of water collected in fractured asphalt can be a fascinating landscape of pattern and texture.
The exhibition is proof positive of the enduring quality of black-and-white photography. Explained Garcia, "It continues to have an impact because it has a subconscious nostalgia that draws from the roots of photography -- a timeless quality."
Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at email@example.com.
Where: Pacific Art League, 668 Ramona St., Palo Alto.
When: Through April 25, Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.