Interpreting The Landscape

Black-and-white photographer Gary Wagner brings a refined vision to the California landscape

Gary Wagner tends to gravitate toward scenes that produce a dark and moody look. He explains, "I feel like it has the style of the image I want to produce. Do I take some images that are high-key or lighter-toned images? I do, but I very seldom end up printing these images that I make like that. I just don't feel like they're very representative of what I see and want to show others."

There's an age-old question about zebras: Are they black with white stripes or white with black stripes? In the striking landscapes of Gary Wagner, there's no doubt: His prints are deep and dark with select areas of midtones and highlights. He's a photographer who loves the abstraction of black-and-white, the artistic interpretation it affords, and the mood and mystery of a finely made low-key print.

"My pictures are completely subjective," Wagner says, "and they aren't necessarily what's out there. I'm not trying to have a true visual representation of the scenes that I see, I'm trying to have my own interpretation. Generally, they're darker with areas of lighter highlights. I find that, to me, they're more mysterious, more thought-provoking, that I, as well as others, may want to look further into those images in order to try and understand what I saw when I took them. When I go out, I'm not trying to copy the world and have it appear exactly as I see it. I often stand there and think, 'Well, if I was painting this scene, what would I do?'

"If you're a painter," he continues, "there's complete creative freedom to do whatever you want. Thoughts like that may be taboo to photographers, and certainly it has been a controversy for hundreds of years: Are photos a representation of the world, or are they an interpretation of the world? You know, I've been interpreting photos since day one with film. In the darkroom, I dodged and burned and did whatever I wanted in order to make that picture enhanced and show the beauty of what I saw and how I wanted it to look for others to see. I do the same thing with my photography now in digital. I interpret it, I change it, I make it look how I think it should and how I want others to see it. Now, I said all that, but, you know, all of my pictures are basically what I see. I don't do any extreme changes in my images, to put other parts in them or to incorporate multiple scenes; I don't do any trick photography. I don't do any of those things. Not that I feel that I shouldn't, but I don't. I do alter tones, as I always altered tones, in order to enhance scenes and make them appear the most pleasing to me that I can."

Wagner uses his DSLR much differently than his Zone VI 8x10 view camera. Not only can he more easily access a world of limitless compositional possibilities, he also relies on multiple exposures to produce an exceptionally wide dynamic range—much as he once relied on the Zone System of film exposure and development.

"For most of my photographs," he says, "I take multiple images, bracketing those, and I do HDR on a huge majority of my work. This is really because, having worked with film, and knowing the quality and detail in shadows is so important, and knowing how I want my highlights to look on film, and how much exposure I was going to put on that film when I photographed and when I processed that negative, I wanted to be able to have that same quality show up in my digital images. That was very important. So I found that by doing this multiple type of exposure, I could capture stops more of shadow detail and highlight detail and combine them together in order to make those photos as similar in my mind to how my black-and-white film work was done and how my prints looked. I've found that you can take an individual raw image and people will say, 'The highlights are captured there, you know they are!' But I found that if I were to bracket it two stops, I could have so much more detail included in those highlights rather than just having monotone light gray highlights. I could have a tremendous amount of detail included in those highlights by doing this HDR process, so that really was a revelation to me to be able to make prints this way."

Typically, print quality is particularly important for black-and-white landscape photographers, and Wagner is no different. He was a serious darkroom printer who has carried the same rigor into the digital darkroom.

"The digital print today is a beautiful-looking print," Wagner says, "and I feel like it's just as exciting to look at as it was to look at those silver prints. My process is, first of all, after I take these images and look at them in Photoshop and pick ones that I like, I do my black-and-white conversion and then I make 8x10 proofs. I have stacks and stacks of images that I've made 8x10s of, to see how they come out. So, for my proofing printer, I have an Epson 3880, an Epson 4900 and an Epson 7880, for all of the prints that I'm currently making and showing. I'm using Epson K3 inks and doing those on an Epson 3880 and an Epson 7880 on Epson hot press and cold press natural papers. I find that the quality of the Epson inks works perfectly fine for me. I also have an Epson 4900, which I have Piezography ink in, selenium ink in, and have been experimenting and working with it for the past three or four years. In the quest for making the best-quality prints out there, I've experimented not only with Piezography, but with other black-and-white alternative inksets, including making inks myself."

Wagner prints up to 20x24 inches from his Epson 7880. It's possible, he says, that if he had a larger printer, he would make larger prints.

Gary Wagner's Gear

Nikon D800E
AF-S NIKKOR 16-35mm ƒ/4G ED VR
AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S NIKKOR 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR
I have a 28-300mm Nikon, and, you know, it has never been considered one of the best-quality lenses out there, but it's a great one-camera lens that I can take when I travel—I take the majority of my images on that lens. Is the quality as good as the 24-70mm? It's not. But when I make the pictures, do I ever feel that it matters? Very seldom. I'm not shooting jewelry, and I'm not photographing things that require high-quality detail. I'm photographing scenes of nature that can be looked at and interpreted in any way that one wants to. And even though I feel that all of my images are sharp and clear, to use traditional terminology, the quality of the pixels between those lenses, you know, there's a quality difference, but very seldom does it ever really matter in the images that I make.

"But that brings us to really the question," he says. "I went from the Canon EOS 5D Mark II—and I loved that camera—to the Nikon D800E because I wanted more pixels to make larger prints. But not everybody is as interested in making larger prints. Or even if they are, they may not need the quality of those larger prints to equal the same quality look as an 8x10. Even though we talk about quality, I feel like the prints that I make are really about the scenes that I capture and the emotion of the landscape that I want to portray. But a whole other side of me is, like, 'But they still have to have a quality look to them,' because that's my historical background of how I look at and interpret photography.

"It's not important to everybody," Wagner notes, "having more megapixels. I find that black-and-white challenges digital files far more than color does. I think that flaws in that digital file, because of eliminating a lot of color from it, you're left with a much 'rawer' group of pixels than you have when you have that full color spectrum there. I feel like you need the best-quality file that you can possibly get if you want to retain all of the tones and highlights and shadows and pixel quality in there with black-and-white."

The scenes that most appeal to Wagner are often found in California, northern and southern, from the mountains to the sea. He spent the better part of a decade in Northern California, Tahoe and Yosemite, photographing for his Sierra Mountain Wilderness project.

"I worked out there every season of the year," he says, "and I took thousands of images and loved being there and loved the outdoors and being able to—as I've often said to people—photograph rocks, trees and water. That's my studio, and that's what I do. I love being outdoors, and I love the surroundings, and I love capturing those images. I have lots of favorite images, but, you know, I think the ones I love the most are ones that are water-related."

From mountain streams and rivers to the coast's crashing surf, Wagner gravitates to water of all kinds. It's found in many of his images no matter the location, and it even has formed the foundation of his current project—photographing the Pacific coast in Northern California and Southern Oregon.

"I love the movement of water," he says, "and the emotion that comes from it. I've photographed the ocean off the Pacific coast here for 20 or 30 years, but I'm really working now on producing a complete body of work and a show that I can have of my ocean images. I've found the ocean to be so exciting and interesting. I've just been spending days, weeks out there listening to it, looking at it, doing images and trying to capture and understand the water and the tides and the sounds, and how the water moves and how the fog interrelates with it and how the light strikes it.

To get the look he wants, Wagner makes certain to bracket every image. This gives him flexibility when he processes the images. "I now take five images in order to be able to get two stops above, normal and two stops below," he says. "And whether I use them or not doesn't really matter. I never have to worry about exposure, but I get the right exposure. Exposing to the right never is a concern to me."

"I took the techniques that I was using in order to do mountain waters and streams and rivers," Wagner says, "and I brought that to the ocean. Most of my images are long exposures. I photograph almost exclusively at sunrise and before, so there's very low light levels. And I do multiple long exposures in order to be able to create these images. Some are individual images, others are combinations of multiple long-exposure images put together in order to create a somewhat different look of the water. The waves are moving, the ocean is constantly moving, the fog and the light are moving....

"I've long felt that black-and-white photography was the best way to show my vision to the world," he adds, "how I see things and portray light and shadows and tones and contrast and shapes and designs. I love the fact that it's not real. It's not what we see. It's an interpretation from the very beginning, and that's the reason why I continue to use black-and-white. Because I love that: being able to interpret it my way and show people that."

Gary Wagner's new book "Digital Black & White Landscape Photography: Fine Art Techniques from Camera to Print" is out now from Amherst Media. See more of his work at

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