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Self-Reflection #3: Castle Walls

I like to look back on my old pictures. Like most people, I enjoy that activity as a way to relive particular experiences. Unlike most people, I also like to look at my old pictures to find mistakes and think about what I could have done differently. With both goals mind, I recently reviewed pictures taken in 2018 during a trip to Europe. I came across an image that I took while walking along the ruined medieval castle walls above Sintra, Portugal. I believe the wall was built by Moors to defend the surrounding area during the middle ages. Fast forward a millennium, and the wall only serves a recreational purpose only.

I focused on one picture in particular. It was a color image, showing the castle wall winding down the hillside. These lines led to a man in a polo shirt, taking a break from his walk. I really liked the texture of the wall and the curving lines, but I didn't find the color picture compelling because most of the colors were fairly drab. So I switched tack to black-and-white, which has been my recent focus. I redid the image in black-and-white and applied my black-and-white adjustments. Here's the updated version of that picture:

Castle Wall Above Sintra, Portugal

Part of me views the approach I took with this picture as unfair. Unfair, because it might be seen as trying to produce a black-and-white silk purse from a multi-colored sow's ear. I don't think this image reaches the level of a "silk purse." However, even if it did, I think many people, including me, would still have some discomfort with this approach. In particular, the concern is that the shift to black-and-white is a post-hoc modification that doesn't follow from my intent at the time of shooting. If I had wanted to make a nice black-and-white photograph, I should've thought about it and delivered one at the time. Because the black-and-white image doesn't come from that original intent, it is necessarily deficient, or so the criticism would go. This criticism is based on what we hear all the time about "previsualizing" images that are later realized in post-processing and printing. Leica loves this approach, so did Ansel Adams. On this account, the best photographers make their best images by following this previsualization process.

Yet here I am--and I like this photograph more as a monochromatic image than I did as a color image. The black-and-white version emphasizes the texture in the wall and the curvature of the line leading to the man in the bottom righthand corner. This is what this image is about and what I wanted to take a picture of in the first place. It turns out that my initial take on it, which used color, was not a very strong approach. But having seen that and considered the black-and-white alternative, I was able to bring out the things I did like in the image.

Does the shift to black-and-white make this image a bad photograph? No--although this photograph isn't a great photograph, the time I spent refining my vision improved the image. Things don't have to be perfect on the first try. It's hard to know what Ansel did in the darkroom, but I doubt he felt entirely handcuffed by his original previsualization. I think I've seen different versions of Moonrise Hernandez with extremely different skies. It doesn't matter to me which of those is most faithful to his original previsualization (assuming he had one).

Instead, this photograph isn't great because its composition and sense of tonality strike me as a little flat. Maybe I can continue to refine this image. Alternatively, I can just see it as another learning experience. Sometimes it's better to move on than to dwell and try to make a silk purse from a sow's ear.

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