Fine Art Photography Masters: Ultimately, It’s All About The Image...

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” —John Ruskin (1819-1900)

This month I am privileged to present four of the best fine art photographers working in the country. Bill Schwab’s introspective classical images made on collodion plates, the sweeping majesty of Michael Kahn’s handmade silver gelatin prints, and Lane Wilson’s lush images show why they are masters of monochrome photography. Even Cole Thompson’s Blog-of-the-Month resonates with expertise and vision that is at once traditional yet as new as a sunrise. Join me as we take a look at their websites and blog, and prepare to be inspired.
The images that Bill Schwab presents in his quiet website are found in three collections ranging from New Work to Archives to Collodion Plates, which includes images of nature and a few unblinkingly direct portraits. Introduced in the 1850s, the collodion process was capable of recording microscopically fine detail and was still used in the printing industry into the 1960s. Today it is in the capable hands of meticulous craftsmen like Schwab. Viewing New Work makes me feel like a time traveler. Rather than a retro gimmick, Schwab’s work, such as “Federal Building - Detroit 2011,” can be subtle while the details he includes in the nooks and crannies of the photographs make you want to linger and explore. Then Schwab hits you over the head with minimalistic images such as “Black Rock - Black Sand, Iceland 2011,” which is the veritable black cat in a coal mine at midnight where the skill and technique he brings to this image seems closer to one of Frank Stella’s black paintings.

In Archives, the images are collected by the years they were made and Schwab takes Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s philosophy of “less is more,” turning it into silent images that produce an inner calm for the viewer. His image of the Mackinaw Bridge (2008) makes you feel like you could look at it forever and produces a mood much as Andy Warhol’s black-and-white silent film Empire. His landscape images are impeccably crafted; each element seems placed as if by a Divine hand and silently captured by Bill Schwab who has “tiptoed in on pussycat feet.” Before you leave the site, be sure to take a look at his book Gathering Calm, which is a collection of images made between 1994 and 2004. You can preview the book online and order a signed copy.

© Bill Schwab
The minute you land on Lane Wilson’s Portfolio page and get a glimpse of his nature and landscape photography you know you’re in for an exciting ride. I didn’t know where to start but was drawn by the snowy images of Yosemite & The Sierra and started there. The site’s format is simple: a medium size image is shown with small thumbnails below and image capture data on the right. Forward and back arrows let you navigate and when I came to “Grass & Driftwood, Merced River” I was stopped in my tracks, mesmerized by the image’s delicate textures and reflections that is elegant in its simplicity yet complex in scope. And then I reached “Arching Oaks in Winter, Yosemite Valley,” the photograph that originally drew me in with its soft gray tones that has an almost audible quality of listening to snowfall. Then it was on to The Desert West with an image captured on film of Merrick Butte, Monument Valley that showed why John Ford’s iconic Western films got much of their visual power from this location. Wilson’s image says “America” as loud and clear as an image of the Statue of Liberty.

The Shifting Sands portfolio shows the desert in a more abstract way, created by wind and shadows and producing a tone poem of light and shapes. Before leaving the site be sure to visit New Images to see mysterious images of plants (“Narrowleaf Yucca, Capitol Reef National Park”) and a foray into objects created by the hand of Man with photographs of lighthouses (“Point Arena Lighthouse #2”) that are as far away from the cliché as possible. Wandering is Wilson’s favorite pastime and as a bumper sticker on his Jeep says, “Not all who wander are lost.” Join Lane Wilson in his wandering and get lost in his photography.

© Lane Wilson Photography
Need proof that it’s the vision, not the camera? Take a look at Michael Kahn’s site featuring images of boats and seascapes made using his 1950s-era cameras and printed in a traditional darkroom. His four photo galleries include Boats, Seascapes, Other, and New, so I peeked into New and saw what he was up to. What he’s up to is graceful photographs of sailing yachts racing into the wind in images that could have been made 100 years ago. His square format, toned images have a timeless quality along with an attention to craft that seems lost by the “I’ll fix it in Photoshop” generation of image-makers. There is a purity of vision as well as a strong essence of craft at work here.

I can’t swim, which is perhaps why I’m drawn to images such as “Mariette” in the Boats gallery that recalls a scene from 1935’s Captain Blood. This image encapsulates legends of an era long past but practiced today by the mariners who sail this boat and by Kahn’s ability to photograph them. And if you’ve ever tried shooting from a boat you know how difficult it can be and to capture this kind of wistfully romantic image takes not only talent but technical ability as well. Mixed in with photographs of boats in action are quiet moments of boats at anchor that segue into his Seascapes, which takes the mood further with silent glimpses of sea-land interaction that can be breathtaking in their straightforward design, as exemplified in the simply titled but beautifully rendered “Reeds.” The Other gallery contains a few nature and landscape images but their mood and composition make it worth a visit. To see Michael Kahn’s images in person click on Galleries to see a list that includes the McBride Gallery in Annapolis, Maryland, and maybe one near where you live.

© Michael Kahn
This month’s Blog-of-the-Month is from Cole Thompson and is an Art Palaver ( site. The blog’s format, like (most of) the images contained in it, is in classic black and white, which also describes Thompson’s work, but his blog has much to offer the fine art photographer who may think that he or she is alone in the world. There’s lots of well-reasoned text here and, written from his heart, Thompson talks about subjects that lurk in the back of many of our minds. When last I visited, a recent post “Don’t Copy Others, Even if it’s Yourself!” shows how technique, if used slavishly, can overwhelm vision. Since this is something all of us are often guilty of, these reminders, when taken to heart, can push us out of a creative rut.

The photographs contained in Thompson’s blog are small, mainly because his blog is mostly about ideas, but if you want to see bigger images that are unencumbered by text, I suggest you visit his website ( to view some of the blog’s images larger, as well as other expressive photographs showing his extraordinary talent. As an artist Thompson’s attitude is more realistic than most, which comes across strongly in his post “I’d Rather My Art Be In Thousands of Homes, Than To Sell It For Thousands of Dollars” that encapsulates his philosophy that art should be shared with others, not locked up and hidden away and only visible to a select few. This viewpoint is evident in imagery that is direct and accessible to the viewer and, because of his craftsmanship and skills, makes you stop and think. Isn’t that what a great photograph should do? In that regard, Cole Thompson has embraced the most democratic art form—photography—and turned it back on itself by holding a mirror up to our world.

© Cole Thompson