B&W Artist Interview: Markham Starr

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photographer on May 12, 2010 at 7:32 am


Markham Starr

Since first spotting Markham Starr’s photography in LensWork two years ago and once again in the latest issue, we have been impressed with his New England fisherman series … “Endangered Species”

1. Your work with the fishermen over time seems to be evolving into more environmental portraits vs straight portraits? What are your thoughts on the process?
I have always been a fan of the straight portrait, but in the work on which I have been concentrating over the course of the past three years I have gravitated slightly to an environmental portrait to make them more interesting to the general viewer. My long-term projects have been shot with the idea that they will eventually end up in book form, and for the viewer who does not know the person photographed, the environmental portrait adds the necessary context to make it interesting. In fact, you many have seen more of these portraits due to editorial bias on the part of the magazines that have chosen to run them. One of the main reasons for the fishermen series was also to record fishing techniques as practiced today for future historians, and a larger percentage of my work includes that type of shot as well. Like most photographers, I suspect, the more I get to know a person the tighter the shot becomes. I have to remind myself that I may often really like a shot only because I know the person well, and others won’t necessarily feel a connection to it without context.

2. The tonal range you use is consistent and has a particular style. How did you arrive at it?
While I will occasionally introduce photos outside my normal tonal preference range, I feel that the overarching body of work is often stronger with the addition of this unifying trait. (Or any other unifying traits you may use.) I have seen many bodies of work that give the feeling of being a "greatest hits" collection despite a uniform subject matter. Disparate elements in photographs, for me, tend to break up the collection. Taken to the extreme, for instance, by placing black and white, color, infrared, and wildly varying tonal ranges in the same collection, you may force the viewer to react more to the techniques used from photo to photo and keep them from focusing on the content of the collection. This is not to say that it can’t work, but I try to direct my viewer’s attention towards the content of the image using every tool available. This somewhat rigid editing process (and I shoot all types of images that don’t fit within this range – you just don’t see them in these particular collections) is what makes or defines, perhaps, my particular "style," although it is not something I intentionally set out to create. Style, in my case, is nothing more than a set of parameters that binds a group of images together.

(Continued below)

3. What is involved in your technique?
First and foremost, my technique may mostly be defined by the light in which I shoot. If you look carefully at most of my work, you will notice it is generally shot on cloudy days. While this does not necessarily work for color, I find I am happiest with the tonal ranges a cloudy day can provide for black and white work. Mother Nature’s giant softbox is hard to beat, although most fishermen think it strange when I turn down their offers to go out on those bright, beautiful, sunny days. I also try to shoot in natural light (and fishermen generally prefer not to have a flash going off in their eyes) whenever possible, although truth be told, I don’t know all that much about lighting correctly with artificial. A further benefit to shooting on the deck of a rolling ship – I don’t have to feel guilty about not using a tripod!

Why Black and White?
When I first got back into photography a few years ago, I printed mostly color as I could now control all aspects of the process at home with the advent of high-quality home printers. As I began experimenting with black and white images, however, I began to realize just how much color masked the true worth of an image. I found, time and time again, that the impact of many photographs drained away with the bright colors. What I discovered (and of course this is well known to everyone else working in black and white…) was that there had to be much more in a black and white image to have it succeed. This intrigued me, and until very recently, I have worked entirely in black and white in an effort to better understand this phenomena. In addition, of course, the subject matters to which I am drawn often have a long history in the black and white world. Most of the fishermen I have gone to sea with have photo albums of their father and their grandfather’s working at sea, and as you might expect, most of these images are in black and white. I think the use of black and white helps place these modern-day fishermen within the context of their family’s long history in the industry. And finally, I got very tired of color balancing my monitor.

4. Is there a next step in this series? What is next for you?
The largest fishing port in the world – New Bedford, is just one and a half hours north of me, and I have started working up there on various projects. I produced a book of portraits and interviews with people working in the industry there just before Christmas, and if that sells out by the end of the summer I will probably start another project there given the wealth of photographic opportunities the port offers. My current project, just nearing completion, is a book documenting the last four, family-owned dairy farms in my home town. These farms go as far back as 1791 and eight generations, and like the fishermen, may soon be a thing of the past. As with the work on fishermen, the farming photos are all in black and white, and all shot on cloudy days…

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