Slices of Silence: Quiet Black and White Infrared Landscapes

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All photos by Nathan Wirth. Used with permission.

“I also don’t work on photography unless the weather is shitty.” says photographer Nathan Wirth, who was born and raised in San Francisco. He is a self-learned photographer that uses a variety of techniques— including long exposure and infrared— to express his unending wonder of the fundamental fact of existence by attempting to focus on the silence that we can sometimes perceive in between the incessant waves of sound that often dominate our perceptions of the world. This is partially the foundation for his project: Slices of Silence.

It also has a bit to do with Nathan’s recent studies involving Japanese traditions of Zen, rock gardens, and calligraphy– as well as the transience, impermanence, and imperfections of wabi-sabi. Nathan’s studies of calligraphy and Zen writings have led him to the practice of trying to achieve, while working on his photography, a mind of no-mind (mu-shin no shin), a mind not preoccupied with emotions and thought, one that can, as freely as possible, simply create.

This project features infrared landscape shot with a Sony camera–and while we think they’re quite dark and foreboding, Nathan personally does not.

We chatted with Nathan about his work for Slices of Silence and about how he almost didn’t become a photographer.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Nathan: When asked this question, I often tell the story of how my wife tried to stop me from buying my first DSLR back in 2007 because she thought I was going through a midlife crisis and buying a toy to compensate for the fact that I was no longer youthful (and clearly I could not afford a fancy, fast car like wealthier men). She was certain that I would be bored after a few weeks. This particular instance is one of the few times she has ever admitted to me that she was entirely wrong.

That said— I, like many, had been taking photos for a long time but only with an instant film camera and only to record memories of vacations and parties and other personal experiences. However, I had also been, for quite some time, enjoying viewing the work of many of the more famous black and white photographers (Edward Weston, Paul Strand, Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams, Wright Morris, and Walker Evans to name a few). Until the advent of the somewhat affordable DSLR, I had never thought about the possibility of trying to work on my own images with the same careful attention as the photographers whose work I had long admired.

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Interestingly, in a complete and absolute state of foolish ignorance, I began my foray into digital photography by setting the camera (a Sony Alpha 100) in black and white mode— thinking that, by doing this, I was somehow a tried and true black and white photographer, one who laughed at the color settings of his camera (and I only took jpegs, having no idea what a RAW file was). I must confess that I took images of everything I encountered with a curious blend of ignorant enthusiasm and reckless abandonment. I took no classes (and still never have). I did not read much of anything about how to operate a camera (including the manual for the camera). I just photographed and photographed and photographed and photographed. The idea of sharing my “cataloging of the world via a lens” never struck me as a possibility. I just wanted to see how the camera recorded light. I wanted to find contrasts. I wanted to find shadows. I wanted to see what I could fit in a frame and how it looked once I squeezed a scene or object into that frame. I didn’t know anything about rules (and still care little about anything formal or expected). I tried to find things as organically and freely as I could.

After all, what works works and what does not work does not work because it does or does not (though it does take some time and practice to realize such things).

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Considering how much I am now willing to process certain images, I find it especially curious that, at first, I was a purist without even knowing what that really meant. I thought any processing of an image was a sign of weakness, a sign that one did not have the talent or the skill to capture the light. I simply did not understand the limitations of a camera, nor that many of the images that I had admired over the years had been achieved via some dodging and burning and tweaking of the contrasts in the darkroom. Somehow, in the midst of all that reckless confusion and joyful experimentation and ill-advised ignorance, I found my way into my own particular style.

Phoblographer: What attracted you to infrared photography and landscapes?

Nathan: To be entirely honest, nothing about the traditional approach to or look of infrared photography attracted me. For my personal tastes, nothing about the overly showy whites of most infrared photography has ever had any real appeal to me; however, I wanted something different to experiment with, and I saw the potential to experiment with those infrared whites that come from the greens and the infrared blacks that come from the blues, so I set out to “squeeze” and manipulate them until I found the stark contrasts that I was interested in.

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As for landscapes, I have always been attracted to rolling hills and trees (and the sea). So, in the end, I simply wanted to use the possibilities of IR to explore a different tonal range than the typical long exposures I had been working on for the past five to six years. For, truly, tones are something that draw me back to image-making again and again.

If I am being entirely honest, infrared images, mine included, border on kitsch. It’s very easy to let the gimmickry of it all overshadow the composition and general reason for the taking of the photo in the first place— and so much so that the focus of the image easily ends up being centered on the “trickery” of infrared and not on the composition, contrasts, and tones (the same is also true with taking long exposures). For some of my IR images, I still let those whites glow—but I still try to bathe them in an acceptable tonal quality that downplays the overly glowing whites commonly expressed when using IR—and always, always, always, always, I keep my attention focused on the composition of the image as much as I can— all in the hope that the composition remains the star and the IR effect is simply a supporting player in the mood of the image.

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I am often asked how I process my infrared images, and I always respond by saying the following: in the same simple way that I process all my images. I am simply looking for pleasing contrasts and a decent tonal range so that I can express the silences that I am looking for. There are no secrets to my methods. They are the simplest of processing methods. I dodge. I burn. I tweak. There are many technical, processing wizards who know every twist and turn and trick in the book out there. I am not one of them. In part, this is because I truly am not interested in the potential complexities and time-consuming marathons of photo processing or the never-ending developments of camera technologies or even the evolution of photography as an industry. I am interested in mood, in tone, in contrasts … in making images and naturally evolving in whatever ways that I evolve. I am interested in staring out into the natural surroundings. And, most of all, I am interested in silence.

Phoblographer: What inspires you to create the specific scenes that you do?

Nathan: This is a very easy question for me to answer. If you look at the landscapes and trees in my images, you will see the beauty and simplicity of these things (not because I am necessarily adept at capturing such beauty and simplicity but because these things are inherent to the scenes I am capturing— or, at the very least, this is how I perceive and witness them). It is that beauty and simplicity that inspires me. And I don’t mean that in a nifty, let’s-all-feel-good-about-ourselves Facebook meme kind of way. I simply mean that I am drawn to simplicity and beauty and, perhaps, also the form of things, their shapes and lines and convergences—and their inherent silences.

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In the end, however, I don’t think much about the process of what I am doing while I am doing it or why I am inspired by it. I am far too enamored with the simplicities of just doing it and just experiencing it. I can’t help but think that many might think my response is mystical mumbo jumbo, for it is difficult to talk about the experience of silence (one, after all, needs to shut up to feel it). For me, it is not new age mysticism. It is simply a way of seeing things. I am far more interested in the experience of wandering around in the landscapes of Marin and Sonoma Counties and encountering things than I am in talking about or explaining it.

Phoblographer: Infrared photography can be very tough. What is the biggest mistake that you made when starting out that you wish you knew about? How did you correct for it?

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Nathan: First of all, I personally think that infrared photography (and all photography) is really quite easy. I suppose one can make it far more difficult than it is by over-thinking everything— and there are complex ways to process things— but, in the end, infrared photography is just a matter of recording a wavelength of light that is not visible to our limited eyes. Plus— I don’t really think about photography in terms of mistakes. Everything I do, no matter how foolhardy it may be, is just part of my ongoing process of working on images. Looking at things in terms of mistakes implies that there is a set way things have to be done, that there are set rules, that things need to look a certain way or they are somehow wrong. I have never understood that part of the formal photography world. Such an approach seems far more bound to the teaching of photography—to presenting a set of approaches that will yield what many critics, teachers and writers think is the exact way a photo is supposed to look (and such experts often speak about such things in an environment where someone is trying to make money off selling a process or a look or an experience or to explain things that really aren’t necessarily explainable). The truth is: some things and or approaches never quite look right, yet, in certain situations, those same things / approaches could look quite right. One can’t really know until one plays around with the possibilities. For example, if I were to have followed the typical expectations of an infrared image, then I should have focused primarily on snowy white images of trees and grasses that glow (and, for some reason, there seems to be no end to the amount of IR images that feature palm trees).

That said—from the beginning I worked on intentionally avoiding the snowy glowy [sic] allure of the typically-expressed wintery-white world of infrared. This is, after all, how the converted camera typically captures the greens of the landscape. One of the odd, silly and probably “incorrect” things I do is: intentionally choosing odd white balance settings. The internal IR filter for my camera is 830nm, which captures a pretty deep contrast from the outset and provides a RAW file that works especially well with black and white conversions (or at least it does for what I am looking for). Typically, for this filter, one sets a custom white balance by photographing something green in the available light and then using that custom setting for the remainder of the time you are photographing in that quality of light. After some experimentation, I now have a series of saved white balance settings from bright light conditions and lower light conditions. I tend to experiment with those settings. For example, I will use a setting for lower light to photograph a bright scene and vice a versa. Knowing full well that via Photoshop one can alter most any settings that one uses, I still play with these various white balance settings simply to see what they yield. This process is probably meaningless and foolhardy and unnecessary, but I like the notion of playing around with things to see what I get.

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I also don’t work on photography unless the weather is shitty.

So, if I have to come up with an early mistake, then I would say I should have been much more willing to experiment and try odd things earlier on. For many photographers, the goal is perfection of technique and mastery of every move and complete knowledge of all possibilities. For me, the goal always has been to experiment and discover and evolve. If I ever know everything about photography and can predict every outcome, I will no longer be surprised and I will quite likely lose all interest in what I am doing.

If I can dare to offer advice to anyone out there, I would say don’t be afraid to experiment. Randomness and bizarre experimentation and a touch of uncertainty can be quite exhilarating (and, yes, other times it can be quite frustrating).

Phoblographer: Your scenes tend to be very dark and foreboding. What do you choose to render them in this style?

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Nathan: First of all, I personally think nothing about my photos look dark (other than the specific tones and contrasts) and foreboding, but this has everything to do with the differences between how I see things and how others see things. The deep contrasts, from my perspective, are simply meant to further highlight the silence of light, to add drama and to add mood.

These images are entirely unreal looking. This is often a consequence of only using blacks, whites, and grays for highlighting contrasts in an image. Such images reflect a complete and intentional disinterest in recreating reality (and I would argue that no image ever captures reality—even those images in which the photographer tried to preserve the moment as accurately as possible). Infrared images, like long exposures, are, at best, a parlor trick, a visual sleight of hand that yield an illusion. I often hope that my illusion will express a mood of silence, of solitude, of contemplation, but, that said, I can only hope that this shall be the case. Many people see these dark tones as eerie and ominous, so I suppose that I have failed to fully express my illusion. But this failure reflects, I think, something that is very true about creating images. Once we have finished our image and we make it available for others to view, we cannot really expect others to see and feel the images in the same ways that we expressed them. Every viewer simply brings him or herself to every image viewed. This is just how it is.

As for what I choose to render them, I am, in the end, simply a dodger and a burner. I start with my RAW file, which can look rather mushy and sometimes even fairly flat at the outset, and then I burn in the darker portions and dodge the lighter portions, often capitalizing on and further emphasizing the light. Some images I manage to process in a few minutes—others have taken me a few years to fully understand or work out (and they sit in a folder filled with other unfinished images for a long time). This, by the way, is the same exact approach to how I work on my long exposures—and even for those occasional times I dabble in color.

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After responding to this question, I am now wondering if you meant to ask me “why” I choose to render them in this style. The answer to that is very simple. I am looking for deep tones and stark contrasts, for ways to express silence, and for any opportunity to dramatize the beauty and simplicity of light. These often low key images are what I have come up with so far.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the gear that you use.

Nathan: I just use cameras and lenses, ones that I can afford with the meager paycheck I make as a community college English teacher. I don’t think, in the end, gear matters so much. I would surely love to be able to afford a $50,000 dollar digital medium format camera, but I will never be able to—and I doubt very much that I would ever convert that expensive camera to read infrared light. For my infrared work, I simply converted two cameras that I was no longer using. For a couple of years, I used a converted Sony a100, but the shutter release recently died, so I recently converted my old a700.

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The one thing about infrared photography that can be a little bit tricky is that when you wish to work on long exposures with either a converted camera or an external IR filter (I used to use a Hoya R72), many lenses yield a fairly large hotspot in the image, which is a very annoying and often difficult to remove. So, one needs to do a quick bit of research to find which lenses do not have this problem (the hotspots are not typically a problem when you take a normal exposure). Sony makes a very inexpensive 16 mm – 105 mm. It is surprisingly sharp for its price (though it is— I must confess— not a very solidly built lens). Of course there are far more impressive lenses, but this lens has yet to yield a hotspot when I have used it for an IR long exposure.

Phoblographer: What’s the goal for Slices of Silence? A Book?

Nathan: I have no exact goal. I spend most of the free time that I have available for photography simply working on photography. If someone ever approaches me about a book, I will gladly accept the offer. I have looked into publishing my own, but, for now, I don’t have enough money.

That said—I recently worked on a collaboration with the poet Peter Weltner (his poetry and eight of my images), Stone Altars, which features eight of my images. A South Korean publisher will be releasing a Korean translation of Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, which will include sixteen of my images. I will also be included in the second volume from Kozu Books, a publishing company that seeks to highlight the work of long exposure photographers.

I will also be doing a solo showing of images used in my collaboration with Peter Weltner. The reception, which will take place on September 19th at the Great Highway Gallery in San Francisco, will also include a reading of some of the poems from the book. My images will be available for viewing at the gallery until the 19th of October.

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