Slices of Silence: Nathan Wirth's Black and White Photography

We recently stumbled upon the stunning black and white photography of Nathan Wirth and were enamored with his fine blend of photography with a poetic sense of fine art. His bio states that "Poets such as George Oppen, Seamus Heaney, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, James Schuyler, Lorine Niedecker, and George Mackay Brown have played a fundamental role in shaping his attention to the things and places that he photographs." Nathan was kind enough to do this interview with us, and we're thrilled to share his work and ideas with you today.

1.) What's your photography philosophy? And what inspires you?

Philosophy is an interesting word to associate with photography. If we are talking about a system of principles that one might apply to one's work, then my answer might well be that I am trying to cultivate an individual vision, and I am doing so by exploring the possibilities of long exposures, infrared and, from time to time, intentional camera movement (ICM). I recently interviewed Joel Tjintjelaar, who, when defining what he thought fine art is, talked about being authentic. That resonates with me because it implies that whatever one does, it should come from the heart, from the soul.

Photography is such an interesting medium because it includes so many different purposes and practices—and everyone chooses to create or capture photographs for so many different reasons and goals. I am thinking about such seemingly disparate genres as documentary, commercial work and fine art. Certainly, these are all bound by the fact that they require a camera, an eye for composition, etc. and each genre can easily cross with the others, easily blurring their individual boundaries. But they are also very much decidedly different and created with far different intentions. And, of course, the most popular, widespread photography is performed by those who—with cellphone, point and shoot, or DSLR in hand—catalog all of their personal memories and post them for families and friends to see (all of which, of course, is part of a culture that has been doing this quite regularly since the proliferation of the first automatic cameras). Commercial and documentary photography are almost exclusively about making money and most fine art is also created with the intent to eventually find someone to buy it—so money making is a very clear motivator in much of this. Many modern fine art photographers are very concerned with the "wow factor" of photography, looking for images that "pop" with coolness and flashes of brilliant color—and quite often they find a style they enjoy and then emulate it as best as they can, working within the accepted conventions of that particular style. All of this strikes me as very reasonable and such work, goals, and approaches often yield some very beautiful work.

I mention these things because even though I recognize their value and importance, they are the kinds of things that hold little interest for me and have little to do with what I am trying to explore and create. Instead, I am trying to cultivate an overall vision, and so far I have several pieces to that puzzle, but I am still working very hard to nurture it and see where it takes me. If I am being entirely honest, as I try to cultivate that vision, I realize more and more that I am not really, in the conventional sense, a photographer. I am far too self-critical to even suggest that I am an artist, but I am certainly after something other than just trying to create photographs—which brings me to the other common definition for philosophy: that rational investigation of what we might mean by truth, and, by extension, such questions as: what does it mean to photograph something and why do we create in the first place? Again, I am too self-critical to suggest that my work searches or ponders any kind of "truth," whatever such an ambiguous goal might possibly be, but there are at least two very specific themes I am consciously exploring (even if no one else ever realizes I am thinking about these things).


The first is based in questions of ontology: the question of what does it mean "to be" (to exist)? This is where my many years of studying poetry comes into play—and, specifically, the following lines from George Oppen's poem, "World, World--" are particularly important to me: "The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on." Oppen's words suggest quite a few things, but I am especially interested in the implication that the real mystery of existence is not "who we are," but the very fact that we "even exist in the first place." Such a perspective focuses much of the awe away from "why we are here" to the surprise, wonder and awe that there is even a "here to be from."

I like to believe that much of my work reflects that wonder. I have been working on an ongoing series of self portraits in which you see a lone figure, standing and gazing out at whatever is in front of him. Interestingly, many viewers see such a moment and immediately conclude that I am expressing loneliness. I find such an interpretation especially curious because I yearn for every opportunity I can find to get away from the obligations and responsibilities of life. I crave that kind of solitude so that I can ponder, ruminate, and let my imagination run amok—and, often, engage that wonder of the mystery that anything exists at all.

The second one is even more poetic and, I always imagine, probably ridiculous to some. I wish to photograph silence. On the one hand, a photograph certainly makes no noise and has no words, so, in a sense, why would such concerns even be relevant? But I am specifically trying to capture that silence that resides in the cracks and crevices of our daily lives, in the folds of the ever present noise that permeates every corner of the world we live in. It is a silence that both paradoxically and simply cannot be experienced or heard. The composer Debussy once said that, "Music is the silence between the notes." I like to think that my images are searching for the silence between the ever present droning of noise that drenches our perceptions of the world that we live in—whether we try to tune some of it out or not. My photographs are a thin representation, a thin slice of silence, of whatever I chose to photograph.

In the end, such explorations take me as far away from more commercial interests as possible. If I am being entirely honest, I am not concerned about the "cool" or "wow" factor of my images either. In fact, as I already mentioned, I am not entirely certain if I should even be considered a photographer. I do use a camera, a lens, some neutral density and graduated neutral density filters, some software, and a tripod, but my interests and goals are somewhat removed from the more traditional goals of most photographers. I suppose that I could simply say that I am archiving slices of silence. Yes ... that fits my "philosophy" quite well and, though indirectly, it also explains what inspires me.


2.) I see that you're a writer and that you love poetry. What is it about poetry that inspires you to take photos?

My interest in poetry began when I was an undergraduate student, an interest I cultivated even more as a graduate student (I earned both my BA and MA in English Literature at San Francisco State University and most of my studies were focused on poetry). I make my living teaching college level English composition classes at City College of San Francisco and some of my writing courses touch on the study of poetry, so I often find myself looking for ways to introduce my students to its value. Most of my students seem to recognize that poetry is probably important in some way—whether they enjoy reading it or not—and that every poem surely must "mean" something. However, it is this meaning that confuses most of them.

One of the most important lessons that I learned in my years of study is that whatever a poem might mean, that meaning must come from what the poem is, first and foremost, about. In other words, if you are reading a poem about someone who stops by some woods on a cold winter night to watch the snow fall, then you must begin with the fact that it is a poem about someone who stops by some woods on a cold winter night to watch the snow fall. Surprisingly, the majority of my students skip this essential fact and leap to whatever they think the poem might mean to them—and usually via how it makes them feel. I am not saying that what a poem, or any piece of art, makes you feel is unimportant. Such personal connections are the foundation for why most of us enjoy engaging with art in the first place ... emotional connections, after all, are often more alluring and lasting to most than any intellectual ones. However, if we are going to talk about what something means—keeping in mind that, at best, such possibilities are steeped in ambiguity and, thus, there is more than one possibility—then one must begin with the very fact of what it actually is and draw one's conclusions from the helpful limitations of whatever that is.


I am guessing that at this point many are likely asking what any of this has to do with photography. Well, for my work—and, arguably, any photography that hints at possibilities other than the actual—it has a lot do with how one perceives what one sees (which, inevitably, includes whatever personal experience, expectations, or desires one brings with them). When I photograph a rock in the sea, I am, of course, photographing a rock in the sea—and we could easily stop there—though one might also notice the fact that I took the time to focus on the presence of light. But are there other possibilities to consider ... such as mood, contemplation, presence, or, in my case, silence and solitude and this wonder of the marvelous fact that things exist? In my mind, the answer is yes. However, for many others, it will be a definite no; in fact, many will likely see the image and say, "nice rock" or think to themselves, "why did he bother to take an image of a dumb rock," or maybe even "this lonely little rock sitting in the water all by itself makes me feel sad."

All three of these reactions are perfectly valid and acceptable, even expected. Truth be told, I am humbled, flattered, and grateful that anyone would even bother to look at any of my images in the first place. But, again, I am after that silence, after that solitude, after that cataloging of the wonder that the rock even exists in the first place (or the sea that it rests in, or the sky above it, or the tides that undulate in and out, out and in). I am profoundly aware that I cannot possibly expect anyone to really know my intentions. But this is still where my love for poetry intersects with my love for photography most significantly. I suppose, in the end, it is a very personal thing, one that will often only be perceived by me and those that know me (and only because I told them). Still, I hope that such silence permeates my every image. I like to think that one day, after I have died, that someone will see my images and feel that silence, maybe even see that silence, that I worked so hard to capture.

I once read an interview with a musician (I think it was Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead), who said that he tried to play lead guitar in the same way a sax player might play a solo, the important point being that such an approach shifts one away from the limitations of working in the expected conventions of the instrument—and opening one up to so many more creative possibilities. I like to compose my photos as if I am composing a poem, my composition zeroed in on the actual presence of the subject I have chosen—and my heart and soul hopefully having found a way to express my wonder that such beauty, such silence, even exists in the first place.

3.) What draws you to black and white photos the most? Do you ever shoot in color?

My first glimpses of photography as an art form—as something other than simply preserving memories, capturing an event, or presenting something to sell—were found in the classic black and white photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Wright Morris, Walker Evans, and Imogen Cummingham—as well as Jim Marshall's iconic images of sixties and seventies rock and roll musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Grateful Dead—and those amazing photos of jazz sessions for Blue Note records by photographers like Francis Wolff.

Later, when I started seriously working on my own images, I discovered the amazing work of Hiroshi Sugimoto, Brett Weston, Charles Sheeler, Alexy Titarenko, and, my favorite photographer, Michael Kenna. All of these photographers primarily, if not exclusively, have worked in black and white. Fine art photographer, Cole Thompson, has spoken about how in his childhood the films and shows he watched were in black and white and that, for him, he feels that he grew up in a black and white world. I had similar experiences as a child. Even though I was born in 1966, well after color films had become the norm and most televisions in American homes were color, throughout my childhood and into my early teens, I used to enjoy watching Charlie Chaplin's ingenious and funny silent films, serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, early horror films like Frankenstein and Dracula, Hitchcock's early work, the old westerns (especially anything by John Ford), and many other classic black and white films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. My parents only had a black and white television, so when I watched the modern shows of that era, all of which were in color, I experienced them in black and white. Unlike Thompson, I did not necessarily feel like I was growing up in a black and white world, but I had this very strong sense that the past had somehow occurred in black and white—and that only the present day was occuring in color.


To this day, because of the older Hollywood films and the many reels of War footage that I saw in school, it still feels a bit like World War Two was fought entirely in black and white. All of this translates to a very nostalgic connection between my past and the blacks and whites of the movies and photography that I first enjoyed when I was younger. I still love to watch old black and white films—especially the classics from Kurosawa and Ozu as well as all of the remarkable film noir movies from the forties and fifties, with their chiaroscuro lighting inspired by all of those equally amazing films from the German expressionist movement (you might think of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and especially Murnau's Nosferatu). I often look for those same kinds of contrasts in my own work.

On a more technical note, I am interested in working with the stark contrasts of black and white, the balancing act of sifting the middle grays, and the play of light and shadow that are so prominent in monochrome photography. Even more importantly, I am drawn to tone. I work very hard to find the right tone for each image. I am, first and foremost, a dodger and a burner—and I am always looking for ways to draw out the contrasts waiting in each image as deeply as I can (and, if I can't locate that balance I want, then I will typically abandon the image). I tend to focus on very minimalist subjects, which makes some of the processing a bit easier, but this only makes me concentrate harder on trying to find the exact balance I want.


I enjoy color photography, but, overall, I have little interest in creating my own color images. The world, after all, is filled with color. I only need to open my eyes to experience color. That said—it seems to me that the general public is far more impressed by color images. However, if I am being entirely honest, many photographers slide that saturation bar too far to the right for my personal tastes, and sometimes the colors become too, too, too much, too garish and bordering on kitsch, the major focus centered on the "wow" factor, the "cool" factor and not on developing any personalized expression. I recognize the appeal of a color image that "pops." It takes some serious talent and vision to create such images—and I am, by no means, suggesting that anyone should shy away from whatever interests them or that such work lacks merit or serious consideration, but I simply don't feel drawn to such work. I love to witness a beautiful, radiant sunset in person, but have no interest in photographing them. I love the beauty of a forest spilling over with fall color, but I have no interest in photographing it. I would rather just stare at such things and enjoy them in the moments they occur. That said, I love the quality of light just before, during, and shortly after the sunset (or sunrise)—and many of my images are captured during that period (or on stormy, foggy, crappy weather days).

I do think that it is important for black and white photographers to play with color from time to time and to learn how different colors translate to monochrome when converted. I work on a color photo or two or three every month to keep my eyes and mind sharp and aware (but I typically keep them to myself). And I do very much enjoy working with color when I am experimenting with intentional camera movement (ICM), but anyone who does ICM images knows that the results are going to be random—and, in the end, one never really knows what one will end up with as one sweeps the camera to and fro (plus I must look ridiculous doing them). Still, I really like the potential mood that ICM offers for seascapes and the resulting bands of color and light.

I should also confess that I shy away from color, in part, because frankly I am not very good at it.

4.) Tell us a little bit about the gear you use. I know you do infrared—any tips for someone looking to get into that?

A lot of people spend a lot of time fretting over things like finding the right gear, choosing the best lens for the scene, finding the ultimate camera, experimenting with every camera body they can find, arguing over whether Canon, Leica or Nikon is better, searching for the ultimate lens(es), and basically getting lost in a long, dragged out debate over what is the best this or the best that. I do not worry about any of those things (well, not so much, because there are, after all, cameras and lenses I would love to try out, but for budgetary reasons I know I never will be able to). In a sense, this reminds me of a person who might collect first edition books with no intention of ever reading any of them. The collection looks great on the shelf—and I might even be envious of some of the books—but what is the use of owning those books if you do not use them for their intended purpose ... to be read. The physical book is merely the vessel that contains all the finely crafted words. The true value of a rare book is not really in the price, scarcity, or desirability, but in the quality of the language. Cameras and lenses are tools and their only real value is found in how we choose to use them. Certainly, some tools are better than others—but the crafty individual quickly learns how to use whatever tools they have in front of them.

I want to cultivate my vision. And, due to budgetary restrictions, I am cultivating it with whatever I have managed to afford. When I decided to seriously pursue photography back in 2007, I chose Sony ... but not because I felt any affinity to the brand; rather, a friend of mine had some Minolta lenses that fit the alpha model, and he promised to let me use them if I bought a Sony—so I picked up a Sony Alpha 100. To this day, my friend has never let me borrow a single lens, but I have continued to use Sony.


In 2009, I discovered the world of long exposure photography, and I have not looked back since. I doubt I will ever move away from it entirely. For anyone who does not already know, if you want to take a long exposure photograph (several seconds to several minutes or longer) in the daylight, you need a neutral density filter (at least 10 stops). Knowing, at the time, very little about what exactly to buy, I started with some very cheap Dolica neutral density filters (three of them, which I stacked). Nearly all of the images I took during that unfortunate period are under lock and key and will never see the light of day again. As I gained some experience, I discovered the B+W ND 110, which I heartily recommend to anyone who is interested in beginning to experiment with long exposure photography. In 2010, I bought a used Sony Alpha 700 and a Sony 11mm-18mm lens, which began my preference for wide-angle-composed, long exposure seascapes, a theme that has dominated much of my work. In early 2012, I purchased a used Sony full frame, the a850. At first, I used a 24-70 Zeiss lens (I taught an extra summer class just to buy that lens), but last year, I dropped it and broke it and still don't have the extra money to fix it— so I have been using a Sigma 17-35, which is a surprisingly sharp lens for the money. In 2012, I also shifted over to the Lee filter system and now use their 10 stop Big Stopper and a set of hard grads and soft grads so I can better balance my exposures.

So, currently, I am primarily using the full frame, the Sigma, and the lee filter system (and a Manfrotto tripod).

In early 2011, I began playing with a Hoya r72 infrared filter. I liked some of the results, but many of my shots ended up with an annoying and rather larger circular hot spot in the center of the image (which has much more to do with the lens than the filter). Also, the r72 filter is dark, dark, dark, so the exposures were typically a minute or two. I love to play with long exposures, so the time factor was not a problem, but having spent so much time with a tripod, I was missing the freedom of hand held shots. I decided to get my Alpha 100 converted to infrared and a very cheap, but surprisingly sharp Sony kit lens calibrated to more effectively "read" infrared light and have been working on adding infrared landscapes to my overall vision. I love being free from the tripod.

Most photographers who dabble in infrared look for those dreamy, almost kitschy, stark whites that transform the summer-like greens of a landscape into a winter-wonderland-like extravaganza (and the blues into dark blacks). I see the allure—and many of those images are quite lovely—but something about them strikes me as gimmicky and such tones and contrasts not only have little to do with the vision that I am trying to cultivate but also have no lasting appeal to me. So I started to look for a way to work outside of the box, outside of the expected conventions of the typical infrared photograph, and landed once again in familiar territory—darker tones, moods, and contrasts. This helped me bring out something more authentic, something that expressed that silence I was looking for. I recently wrote the following for a competition that I entered some of my infrared landscapes into:

A camera allows one to captures a single, thin slice of whatever one wishes to preserve. And within the folds of any subject, an imperceptible silence resides even resonates— a silence unheard within the nooks and crannies of the ruffles of noise that blanket the world we all live in—such matters hinting that, camera in hand, we can freeze and catch a glimpse of what we can and cannot immediately witness through the possibilities and limitations of our senses. Similarly, infrared photography permits one to capture a quality of light that lies just outside of our visible perception of the world, a quality of light that shines, perhaps, more brightly, more intensely, than we can ever truly experience. These images merge both these photographic possibilities and focuses them on the minimalist simplicity of trees—some standing solitary, others huddled together, all of them bathing in the silence of light. Such compositions, especially in this day and age of social media and sharing, have become ubiquitous—and perhaps they even border on cliché—but the experience of seeing, really seeing, such moments reveals, again and again, how extraordinary such beauty is as well as how truly human it is to appreciate the simple beauty of the curve of a tree branch, the shapeliness of a tree trunk, and the multiple connections and intersections of a tree’s many lines. By exploring these qualities of silence and light, which reside just outside the scope of our senses, I seek to illuminate such beauty and remind the viewer of the wonder that such things even are.

I know that to some this might seem a bit over the top and as far removed from what we call photography as possible, but these are the things that concern me and this is where I am taking my infrared work so far—and as I have already stated, I don't really think of myself as a conventional photographer.


As for tips, if infrared really appeals to you, I recommend converting one of the cameras that you don't use very often and getting a lens calibrated to read infrared more effectively. This will give you much more freedom than one of the IR filters, which will limit you to only using them on a tripod. The most important piece of advice that I can offer is to try and avoid getting too lost in the gimmick ... many infrared photographs seem to suggest that the photographer was intoxicated by the "look" and "feel" of those snowy whites and forgot to pay attention to the composition. It seems almost like a cliché, but never underestimate the importance of the composition no matter what you are photographing. You should always ask yourself why you are choosing to frame what you are capturing—and, more importantly, why you are choosing to frame it in that way. If you have no answer to these questions, I heartily recommend that you search your heart and soul for a response until you find one (but keep taking photos; don't ever stop taking photos).

And to those that swear Canon is inherently superior to Nikon or vice a versa (or that Leica is the winner of best ever cameras), I cordially invite you to send me any of your extra cameras or lenses so that I can decide for myself!


Some final words:

I am often asked for advice about the whys and the whats of what I am doing with my simple, little images. If you are interested in photography for the money or the recognition, then I don't really have any solid advice because neither of those things are truly my focus so I have no tangible experience. The most important piece of advice that I can offer to anyone who is looking to find a vision, to find an individual way to express themselves, is to simply just do it. I know that this sounds overly simplistic and obvious, but I have found that many people get lost in the processes and the frustrations about not having the right equipment or not living next to anything interesting to photograph or failing to catch the appreciation of others. Believe me when I say that I completely understand such frustrations. At one time or another, I have experienced all of them myself—and sometimes such annoyances rear their ugly heads once again—but, overall, I have been the happiest and the most productive, when I simply "just do."

Don't be afraid to think outside the expected conventions. Photograph a rainbow in black and white just to see what you get. Thrash about wildly while holding a camera during a five second exposure just to see what you get. Fiddle with the sliders in your processing software just to see what you get. Compose something entirely and jarringly off balance with the rest of the composition just to see what you get. And then learn from those experiments. You might discover a trick, a photographic riff, or you might realize, truly, why you should never do THAT again. The secret has been out for a while ... there are actually no rules ... some people love to see wildly experimental images, others enjoy a more formal, classic look and subject, others just like pretty pictures of waterfalls and sunsets. All are valid and worth your time. Taking a photograph and sharing it with others in the hopes that they will appreciate it is, inherently, an act of the ego; indeed, it is very difficult to separate that ego from the process, from the act of creating and maybe even the desire to create, but I recommend trying to do it anyway (note that trying is not necessarily succeeding—failing has its own very valuable rewards as well—and working and working and working and working at something, even if you never entirely succeed, can be just as beneficial as actually succeeding).

In another recent interview, I was asked what advice I have for other photographers, and fully knowing that my response to that question contradicts everything I have just said, I responded: beware of advice!

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Black and white photographyJune 2013Nathan wirth