No Grey Areas


by Jack Hubbell

“If it ain’t one thing, it’s another,” and therein lies the concept of duality. A binary existence, this is a world of yes versus no; up versus down. Yin contrasting Yang. And whoa, but there’s very little compromise when you meet a man who sees everything in pristine black and white, for such a man is prone to say, “Ladies and gentlemen: we have no grey areas here at all.” Perhaps, he can pull that off in his political mindset, but in the chiaroscuro world of his visual existence, there’s no denying that a touch of grey now and again makes for a far more pleasant palette.

Shades of grey? I guess it all comes down to just how pleasant you want to be. Look at the majority of images I have posted on Flickr and you’ll quickly come to the conclusion that my demeanor is somewhat less than delightful. “A proper photograph must have a full tonal range!” Oh really? No surprise here but I’ve never been a big fan of the Zone System. Zone 0 to 10 and all those digits in between? You mean there’s supposed to be more than three? Let’s face it. There’s a limited latitude of tonal range inherent to a roll of Tri-X film and its 24 by 36mm rectangles of grain. Oh, you can spend a lifetime trying to walk in the shoes of Ansel Adams and attempt to stretch that latitude to its utmost limits,or you can thumb your nose at all that anal aesthetic and embrace the inherent limits your chosen medium provides. When it comes to calibrating your eye as to what qualifies as photographic art, you have to ask yourself which it’s going to be: a print by the above mentioned Mr. Adams or one by William Klein. The ultra-tonal range of a John Sexton photograph or the ink soaked pages of a Daido Moriyama book? I imagine if you’ve viewed my photographs, you’ve figured out just where my favor lies.

Seoul 1981-1983 © Jack Hubbell 2007
From Song Tan and Seoul, South Korea © Jack Hubbell 1981-1983

Speaking of Mr. Moriyama, the Japanese lexicon contains the word Notan. The concept of Notan is similar to that of chiaroscuro and likewise deals with the play and placement of light and dark tones. You are tempted to think of the manifestation of Yin and Yang, but that infers balance whereas with Notan there is a deliberate imbalance. A hint of white on a field of black? Where is the beauty in that? So, now that we’ve established I possess an imbalanced mindset, just how did this visual perception of Notan transition from that cavity behind my eyes to that which you see as you gaze at your computer monitor? I could tell you what camera and lens I used to create the look of my images, but when you savage Tri-X or HP5 the way I have, does it really matter how well your optics can resolve a fine line? No, let’s skip all that and jump to the meat of the matterthat which affects the transition from film to negative.

As well as being a fan of Klein and Moriyama at an impressionable age, I also came under the influence of Ralph Gibson’s early work. A good portion of Gibson’s look came down to the fact he liked a somewhat dense negative. He achieved this by both over exposing and over developing his film in Rodinal. In my case, I don’t care to over expose my Tri-X but will shoot at its normal ISO rating and develop in Rodinal as if it was one stop over. That is, processing 400 as if it had been pushed to 800. Do this in any fine art college class and you would likely get slapped for letting your negative’s highlights block up. Just plain evil. Debased negatives? Well, if such negatives were good enough for Ralph, they were good enough for me.

Okinawa City 73.jpg
From Okinawa City© Jack Hubbell 1993-94

Now for phase two.

Back when dinosaurs walked the Earth and you had to project your negative down through an enlarger, prehistoric photographers had access only to graded paper. Again, this was the time period I came under the evil influence of Klein and Moriyama, so if you looked on the shelf next to my stone-age enlarger, you’d find that most of the adjacent paper boxes had the number ‘4’ on them. Yes, there are images that require the higher contrast that grade 4 provides and then there are those that certainly do not. Look through some of my older work as in “Under the Overpass” set and you’ll see a lot of images that should not have been done with such hard paper. But being possessed, I’d grab my camera, load it with Tri-X and head out into a heavily overcast “Daido day” in search of dull tonal range and the absence of shadow. With this, an over developed negative and grade four paper, how could I not help but get some gloriously sinister tones? Yes, assuming my composition was suitably abstract and with Notan in full affect, I couldn’t help but produce a decently somber photograph.

Song Tan 5.jpg
From Song Tan and Seoul, South Korea © Jack Hubbell 1981-1983

But I’m not done. It’s time for phase three.

You on the internet cannot see my proposed masterpiece unless I can get it from where it sits on my table top all the way to your monitor. A scanner is needed. The assumption is that I possess some ultra-sophisticated model but in fact, I do not. I’m currently using a Canon Canoscan Lide 30 that was purchased 2 or more years ago, and it certainly suffices to produce a JPEG I can get to Photoshop for final enhancement. At the moment I have a lowly version of Photoshop 7.0 loaded on a Mac OS X. At Flickr I’ve had more than a few comments critiquing my heavy use of post-processing. In actuality, most of what you see was achieved in the wet darkroom. As far as Photoshop goes, it’s kept rather simple. I access “Adjustments” to tweak brightness and contrast and then after hitting the image with a little “sharpness”, I do my final (if sometimes pathetic) dust busting with the “stamp tool”.

Some might ask, if the image on paper is truly the epitome of photo-nirvana, why I bother to tweak it a further with Photoshop. Okay, this is just my opinion but, what you see holding the raw photograph at hand’s length is not exactly the way it will translate when it ends up on someone’s monitor on the far side of the world. You may have an exquisite bouquet of chiaroscuro there beneath your desk lamp, but turn your print over onto the scanner bed and soon the vast digital domain takes over your vision. Its critical assessment of what’s black and what’s white may not be in harmonious agreement with what your eyes saw. So yes, I often nudge my imbalanced Notan just this side of total collapse. And there on your monitor, a final element of duality arrives. Indeed, that moment comes when you look at my conveyed world of black and white and make the decision of yes or no. Thumb up or thumb down.

© 07 Jack Hubbell/CyclopsOptic

More of Jack Hubbell’s writing and photography on his blog:


5 Responses to “No Grey Areas”

  1. Jack Hubbell CyclopsOptic Says:


    Second paragraph from bottom:
    “You on the internet cant’ see my proposed masterpiece”
    If possible, change “cant’ to “cannot”.

    Otherwise, I am very pleased with what you’ve but together.

    Picture me swooning.


  2. nyc_slacker Says:

    Jack, thanks for the article, it rocks!

  3. nyc_slacker Says:

    done, Jack. for some reason, your comment ended up in the anti spam software filter so I only got to it today. but you are cleared now :0)

  4. The Ink Soaked Street Photographs of Jack Hubbell (aka Cyclops-Optic) — Eric Kim Street Photography Says:

    […] “No Grey Areas” – an interview on Street Photography Today […]

  5. No grey: the blood and the ink of Jack David Hubbell | Alex Coghe Editor and Photographer Says:

    […] Article on Street Photography Today […]

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