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Inspiration / Interviews

Interview with Bernhard J Suess

I am so excited about this post! Recently I was reading an article at the New York Institute of Photography – Back to Black-and White: Choosing Subjects for Black and White Photographs. This article inspired me like no other before! It was different, insightful, exciting. It made me stop and think about photography in a different way.

The article was written by Bernhard Seuss.  Some of you might already know him, he wrote two books Mastering Black-and-White Photography: From Camera to Darkroom and Creative Black and White Photography: Advanced Camera and Darkroom Techniques. His photography resume is very impressive, he has major accomplishments in the photography world! When it comes to photography Bernhard knows what he is talking about.

I felt I just had to reach out say thank-you for article, and secondly ask if he would be interested in answering a few questions for DigitalCamFan.com – I feel so honored that he said yes! I feel very fortunate to have found him! I hope you take the time to read the article at New York Institute of Photography and the answers below so you can be as inspired as I am! So without further ado let the interview begin!

-Could you share with us the moment you knew photography would be a part of your life?

I took photos as a child with my parents’ box camera, a Brownie-like contraption that had no controls. It did focus, had a fixed aperture and shutter speed. I had no idea there was any control about photography, so when I bought my first 35mm camera I was surprised at how many things there were to learn. As I learned about how controlling the aperture would affect the depth of field and how adjusting the shutter speed could *show* or *stop* motion, I was hooked. It was also then that I decided to start developing my own film. I had done some developing and contact printing with the 120 film I used the the box camera when I was younger, but had not done a lot of enlargement printing. Having a camera with finer controls opened a lot of possibilities.

-You mentioned in one of your articles that “Beginners often photograph their subjects literally”. How do you make the jump from seeing your subject literally to seeing them dynamically?

There are a number of ways you can do that. The best way is to look at other photographers’ works. Try to figure out what they were thinking when they shot the photos. What did they see? What were they reacting to? Why did *this* photographer choose *this* shooting angle? Why did he create this composition? What could she have done differently? If *I* was presented with this scene, how could *I* have shot it? It’s especially helpful if you do that without reading about *how* the photographer took the picture or why. If that information is available, don’t read it until after you’ve looked at the work with your own eyes.

Then start looking at your own work. Do you see themes in your own work? Perhaps concepts that keep showing up, even if you weren’t conscious of it when you were shooting. What do you like about your own work? What don’t you like? Ask friends, especially other photographers whose opinions you respect, to tell you what they see in your work. Try to have them tell you without commenting, getting defensive, or explaining what you were doing — at least until after they’ve given you an honest commentary on your work.

Finally, try to think abstractly about your subject. In other words, don’t think, “I’m photographing a sand dune.” Instead, think, “I’m trying to show the texture of the sand by using the light at an angle. This will also show an ‘S’ shape if I shoot it from a low angle against the dark mountains behind and with the shadows along the right side.” (Perhaps even *that* is too literal, but it’s moving in the right direction.)

-When you find something you feel is interesting to photograph how do you see the lines and shapes? For instance, on your first visit to Glacier National Park you photographed Baring Falls. After I read your description I could see the lines and shapes exactly as you explain. But there are many lines and shapes in that photo (see Fig. 1). How do you narrow in and see the most important visual elements when composing your picture?

I usually go with my instincts. “This is a beautiful scene. Why?” When I take a photo, something has piqued my interest and I need to figure out what it is before I shoot. That usually happens quickly, but not always.

One way to help learn to see lines and shapes is to take a few of your favorite photos. Turn them upside down (that is, invert them 180°) and look at them. It’s much easier to see lines and shapes when you don’t recognize the subject. Try to see any dynamic lines or interesting shapes in the photos. If this doesn’t work, cover the top half of the image with a plain piece of paper. Now the bottom half. Then the left half and next the right. The idea is to try to force yourself into seeing an abstract image.

Once you’ve done this for a while, you will start seeing abstractly *before* you shoot.

-What is some advice you would give a student who wants to see in black and white?

As above, look at black-and-white photos. With digital cameras, I don’t find it as easy as when we shot film and developed and printed the photos. Some people may find it easier, but with all the options available (channel mixers, different conversion tools, and so on), I find it more difficult to teach seeing in black-and-white. If I needed to come up with a method to teach seeing in b&w digitally, it would be to use a consistent conversion technique, at least until the basic way of seeing was mastered. Then, other options could be applied, knowing what the basic look would be.

-I’m sure you have tried many lenses over the years. If you could only keep one, possible two which would they be and why?

My favorite lens for 35mm work was a Canon 20mm (f/2.8) lens. I really missed that when I switched to digital. So about a year ago I got the Canon 10-20mm zoom lens. Most of the time, I shoot with it on the 10mm setting (roughly equivalent to a 16mm lens on a 35mm camera). I also liked my 300mm lens, so I now have a 20-200mm zoom that takes its place. I probably use that 20% of the time (or less).

-What is the best piece of photography advice you ever encountered?

When I was starting out, I was told, “I don’t see any of *you* in these photos.” That got me thinking about what I was doing and rather than imitating what I liked, I tried to develop my own style. As I did that I began to get confidence in my own vision and worried less about what other people thought of my photographs. Though I no longer work as a photographer, I continue to shoot for myself.

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Discussion

3 Responses to “Interview with Bernhard J Suess”

  1. Excellent interview Amy. I do know you were so excited about this. It was super nice of Bernhard Suess to email back & then to get the interview. You had great questions for him & his answers were very encouraging. I will be looking for lines & shapes before a photo now. I HAVE turned a photo upside down or side ways & liked it better. I to liked the window photo in this article. It seemed to inspire to think beyond the box. I seem to like a lot of styles right at the moment. Hard to have favorite style. I just like great photos. GREAT JOB.

    Posted by Bonnie Donovan | October 12, 2012, 2:18 am
  2. After reading the answers I immediately turned a bunch of photos upside down to see if I could see the lines better… and I could!

    The window photo is one of my favorites!

    Posted by admin | October 12, 2012, 3:56 am
  3. The food photo examples were great. The squash photo is an excellent idea. Need to try that one. Love it.

    Posted by Bonnie Donovan | October 15, 2012, 12:50 am

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