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The legendary black-and-white imagery of Richard Garrod navigates a fine line between art and nature

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Waterfall, Yosemite, California, 1976.

For more than five decades, photographer Richard Garrod has been producing a strikingly unique fine-art approach to landscape and nature photography. Showcased primarily in glorious black-and-white imagery, Garrod’s body of work approaches the dramatic vistas and intimate scenes through an intensely introspective interpretation in which he’s able to find the hidden beauty of his subject matter, which can range from serene foliage to gnarled trees to sprawling waterfalls, each exploring the implications of the world around us while also examining form and composition.

Garrod’s talents haven’t come easily. He has practiced over many years so that he’s able to apply a complete understanding of all things photography to his work, from capture to final output and from the newest in technology to the latest in aesthetics. Once an apprentice of Ansel Adams, Garrod himself has taught workshops for more than 25 years on the varying processes and tools of the trade that are so important to such consistently impressive results. His academic and almost scientific manner to discovering the beauty in nature has yielded profoundly compelling imagery that explores the deeply metaphorical relationship between humanity and our environment.

Fine-Art Landscapes
“I am initially looking for an image, an image that conveys visual power, strong form and energy,” Garrod replies when asked what exactly he’s looking for in a subject. “These are ‘feeling’ issues I look for that go beyond just the ‘thing’ being photographed. Sometimes, these visual feelings are most strongly conveyed by an inherent pattern or repetition or texture or unique forms and shapes for which I feel an intuitive response. Often, in addition to the above, I see the ravages of time and three-dimensional space depicted in a way that helps to support or make the image.

Clouds, Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California, 2005.

“Sometimes, a unique or strong lighting will be the major focus of the image. I feel the major element in composition and perspective is balance, in terms of field and ground and tonalities. Repetition, to be useful, emphasizes important parts of the image and also plays a role in the overall balance of the image. Proper attention to the areas above assists and aids us to take the image beyond the ‘thing’ being photographed to the ‘landscape behind the landscape.’”

Ironically, after so many years of growing as an artist alongside the evolution of photography, Garrod’s imagery rarely follows convention. As he has matured, his work has become increasingly abstract. Garrod often will choose to use a close-up in a landscape, for example, as opposed to the wide shots that are historically chosen to capture the scale and magnitude of expansive wilderness. In this way, he’s able to capture an image that 99 percent of photographers will overlook while they’re searching for the perfect shot.

Another frequent technique Garrod applies to his work is the use of natural patterns and strong graphic lines that will lead the eye through an image. Many photographers use these methods, but unlike most photographs, there isn’t always necessarily a specific subject that the eye is being brought to. Patterns and form will simply lead to other patterns and forms until the subject often becomes the image itself. In this way, Garrod blurs the definition of what exactly a “landscape” is.

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Leaf Cluster, Hawaii, 1984. Photographer Richard Garrod combines an incredible eye for detail with a comprehensive understanding of photography to produce incredible fine-art nature imagery. For this image of a leaf cluster in Hawaii, for instance, Garrod carefully arranged his framing so that the bright green leaf dominated the composition. Next, he used a host of tools to emphasize the leaf, including exposure based on Ansel Adams’ Zone System, a medium green filter to enhance the top leaf, Verichrome Pan film for minimizing grain and preserving detail, and a final printing paper that ensured proper contrast for separating the leaf from its neighbors. Often, it can take a lot of work to make something look effortless.

“When photographing,” Garrod continues about his work, “I often experience an emotional response to the subject that relates to my life experiences, both long term and recent. I do look for the ‘beautiful,’ but I also feel a need to go beyond that to seek out shapes and forms that reflect feelings of energy, force and dynamic movement, which I feel help to define my approach to fine-art photography.”

The Black-And-White Approach
Garrod knows that when dealing with fine-art photography, especially when you’re using black-and-white imagery, composition matters more than ever before. Sometimes a beautiful subject, such as a sunset, sunrise or roaring waterfall, can carry an image all on its own, but when your photography explores the fine-art aesthetics of an object more than the object itself, then graphic elements like lines, angles, light, shadow, tonality and other considerations need to be perfected in a photo in order to captivate the viewer.

These considerations are particularly true in black-and-white fine-art photography because you won’t even have colors to distract the eye. Garrod largely chooses to work with the black-and-white medium because it permits him to be creative in a way that he says isn’t available to color photography. By manipulating tone and contrast with this palette of blacks, lights and grays, he’s able to use the simplified graphic elements of his subjects to convey the special meaning of an image. In order to accomplish his goals, Garrod uses every option available to him for gaining the ultimate control over an exposure.

“Photography relates to a range of issues from the technical to the creative in which we must become proficient,” he explains. “The technical includes exposure, development, mathematics, chemistry, optics, mechanics and others, including the Ansel Adams Zone System, while the creative aspect involves psychology, intuition, design, seeing and many other subjects. Thoroughly understanding the relationship of all these contributing areas to fine-art photography is of prime importance to my approach. Initially, the two areas of most significance are being able to apply the Zone System to the exposure and development of the negative, and the second relates to my ability to see images and how to relate my seeing to achieving balance in the overall composition.”

Salt Pond, Death Valley, California, 2000. Garrod’s images have a timeless appeal, thanks largely to the black-and-white medium with which he works extensively. The photographer has over five decades of photography under his belt, and many of the images in his extensive portfolio look as if they could have been taken today—and some of them have been!

By ensuring a full gamut of tone that blends highlights, neutral tones and shadows seamlessly, Garrod makes his negatives and his prints into absolute masterworks of exposure. Adams’ first developed the Zone System as a systematic technique for determining precise exposure in a photo. Still applicable now, even to digital photography, the Zone System is summed up in a famous Adams’ quote: “Expose for the shadows; develop for the highlights.” (For more on the Zone System, read “The Zone System Revisited” in this issue.)

“In black-and-white photography,” Garrod notes, “we need to thoroughly familiarize ourselves with the colors in nature and learn how different-colored filters can enhance the story being told by the image. Filters can affect contrast in skies and rock formations, for example, and can be used to emphasize areas of the image by modifying how much light reaches the negative and, in turn, can affect the tonalities of the final image. These changes, carefully studied and implemented, can be the final determinant of depicting the ‘landscape behind the landscape’ that I find most important to achieving my goal.

“I also control my tonalities and other image requirements in the darkroom by traditional means with different techniques that digital workers can do by use of Photoshop. I like the use of the darkroom and high-quality silver paper to achieve the special prints I am after. Some of the work I have seen in the past year or two via digital work in black-and-white is outstanding, and I can now acknowledge its beauty and high quality.”

Adds Garrod about working with the unpredictable conditions of shooting in nature, “I normally try to work with lighting conditions that I can control, so I don’t get contrast that’s impossible to work with. Soft lighting is normally very beautiful and adaptable to whatever I am trying to achieve; however, at times I find that low cross-lighting is very revealing and works well. I use a one-degree spot meter [Pentax] for reading the light—I take nothing for granted, or automatic, with the light and exposure. I love the analog approach to working with all aspects of my work, although I recognize the outstanding value of digital work and will no doubt be heading that way in due course.”

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Tenaya Lake, Yosemite, California, 1955.

Moving Forward
While Garrod does use Photoshop for some of his color work, he works extensively in the darkroom to perfect his black-and-white images. He has a deep love for film, especially large format. He shoots both 4×5 and 5×7, employing his “outstanding” Canham view camera with two different backs for the two formats.

“There are times when this equipment is very appropriate to the subject and location and produces elegant images from very sharp negatives,” Garrod says. “There are also times when it’s very appropriate to use a medium format, such as my Rollei SL66 with a tilting lens for focus correction. Both the large-format and medium-format cameras allow the use of these methods for correcting focus of the subject beyond what you can do with a simple fixed-lens camera. A zoom lens or a variety of fixed lenses can also be major determinants of the final image quality and perspective. A basic, but essential group of tools for image making is necessary, but we must study the science and effects behind their purpose and practical use if we are to maximize their value to us.”

Tree Roots, Sunset Bay State Park, Oregon, 2005.

As a working photographer for so many wonderfully productive years, Garrod has matured alongside photography in many different aspects. He has certainly seen his share of technological advancements, but more importantly, he has been able to watch black-and-white photography grow as an art form.

“Originally, the early pictorial photographs were strongly related to the romantic feelings of the time where the subject was soft and ethereal to convey those kinds of feelings,” Garrod explains. “The transition from those soft images moved us toward sharper and less romantic photography. Today, photographers seek out far more powerful images that convey strength and dynamic movement. It’s still evolving towards a different kind of personal expression, more open and unrestricted in terms of subject matter, composition, methods of seeing and even political expression.”

Garrod’s landscapes work so well as abstract material because they’re so grounded in the real world. He employs straightforward, realistic representations of his visual subjects, manipulated through the use of technological tools and darkroom manipulation to present a world that’s real, yet affected deeply by the subtle nuances of his eye and, hence, his philosophy. When asked if he, as a teacher and mentor to so many other photographers, had anything that he’d like to say to future generations, Garrod concluded with this.

“Be true to yourself and your inner voice,” he muses. “Go with your photographic work where your background and personality lead you. Don’t take current trends automatically as your direction; however, continually study the evolution of photographic work and the history of the medium, as well as current work in order to start finding your unique place in this exciting field. Open up and avail yourself of the panoply of facets of photographic work from the range of necessary technical aspects to the many avenues of exploring creativity. This is an exciting field, so study it, explore it, and practice it.”

The Ansel Adams Connection
Richard Garrod has studied alongside some of the great masters, including Ansel Adams, Brett Weston and Minor White. Adams referred to Garrod’s work as a display of “great solidity and constant awareness of beauty.” Here, Garrod talks a little about his interaction with Adams.“

I met Ansel in 1954 at his home in San Francisco and discussed my work as a young photographer,” Garrod recalls. “He invited me to attend his first Yosemite workshop following World War II in 1955. I later attended his workshop at Idyllwild School of Music and the Arts in the mountains near Palm Springs in 1960. I moved to Monterey in 1962 a few miles from Ansel’s home near Carmel. When he helped form the group Friends of Photography, I was invited to be on the Board of Directors. In 1966-1972, I was an assistant at the Yosemite Workshops.

“During these many years of working with Ansel, I found him to be a very gregarious, supportive and compassionate person. He was very open to assisting and encouraging young photographers to grow and embrace photography as a way of life. He was seldom negative in any way, always looking for a positive way to assist photographers and photography as a whole to advance in a disciplined, professional way. Although his work included a variety from portraits to landscapes, he was at heart a conservationist/environmentalist, and his major work conveyed a love for this basic discipline. However, it was most amazing that the depth of his technical virtuosity led him to produce images with deep and metaphorical meaning.”

To see more of Richard Garrod’s work, visit