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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Subtle Drama


Scott Mansfield’s black-and-white landscape photography shows how soft tonality and a quiet approach can be every bit as strong as big, high-contrast imagery

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Mono Lake, Calif.
"There's a place in northern Arizona called The Wave," Mansfield continues. "It's magnificent. It's just epic. One time I started hiking around 4 a.m., was on the hike during the sunrise, and then got out to The Wave and was just sitting there watching when this guy hikes up, a photographer. He gets to The Wave, looks around, and he says, 'Ah, the light's crap,' and he turns around and walks back. I kind of chuckled. He would have gotten stuff that was unique to that day that he would never have gotten before; he had no idea what was down there, what was going to happen. Constantly waiting for something seems so silly to me."

Mansfield actually made some color images at sunrise on that hike to The Wave, though color only makes up about a quarter of his work. Color can bookend the day; he doesn't approach it the same way as black-and-white, which he can shoot any time of day.

"I don't think most of my stuff would work that well in color because I saw it in black-and-white," Mansfield says. "Color really does change with the light, I think even more than tonality does. The drabness of the color would take away from the beautiful tonality of black-and-white. It would just be boring. It would just be a light blue sky and dirty water, whereas in black-and-white it becomes a beautiful white sky with very subtle gray water. Color does look better during the magic hour, which is when I don't shoot that much. It's just not my thing. It's sometimes just too over the top. There's gorgeous color imagery out there, but it's a pretty postcard scenic done well whereas I think a good black-and-white becomes a little more timeless than timely.

"I bring both systems with me," he adds, "but I don't think I've ever had a case where I shot a black-and-white frame and then turned around and also shot a color frame. I just see so much differently in black-and-white, and I consider myself a black-and-white photographer. It's very hard to get rid of visual information in a color photograph, and that's something that I'm always trying to get to, trying to be as minimalist as possible. With black-and-white, you automatically get rid of the color information, so that's one great distraction you've taken away, and you're left with beautiful lines and tonality and contrast and so forth. I shoot color and black-and-white very differently.

"I think sunsets are beautiful to the naked eye," Mansfield continues, "but not necessarily for my own tastes. I find them a little bit gaudy and overdone in photographs. It doesn't really translate. I've never seen a sunset image that matched an actual sunset in real life. And I don't think that's a mistake on my part or other photographers' parts; I think it's just the nature of looking at a sunset. It's almost too pornographic in color, if that makes sense. I really, really like subtlety. For me, it's about tones and shape and composition, and less about 'this is a gorgeous time of day and therefore I should be out shooting.' I'm often looking for subtlety, a certain mystery in a scene."

Though well versed in finding beautiful black-and-white imagery in almost any circumstance, Mansfield prefers working around iconic locations, and he doesn't integrate photography into his daily routine. He couldn't; his focused approach is too intense.

"I rarely shoot around my house," says Mansfield. "I rarely go out on a Saturday and say, okay, I'm going to go photograph Marin Headlands, which is just 10 minutes away. Say on Monday I'm going out to Yosemite for a week, the moment I leave home I'm looking—I'm looking at everything through a photographer's eye. I think it has to do with this same idea of not waiting, this spontaneity. I'm here, it's in the moment, this is why I'm here at this place, to photograph, therefore I'm going to photograph."

To see more of Scott Mansfield's photography, visit www.scottmansfield.com.

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