Minor White, the great 20th Century black and white photographer, was my mentor for two years when I was teaching at the New England School of Photography in the early 1970’s. I learned many valuable things about photography and its practice from him, and one of the most valuable was the tone exercise he used to give students. Basically, we made a set of gray, white, and black patches in the enlarger each with a just perceptible difference from one another. Beginning printers usually only made about 25-30 tones, but advanced printers made upwards of 55-60.
At the time I made 48. I had been in photography for about 10 years. The discrepancy between how many tones a beginner can make and how many an experienced printer makes always intrigued me. It’s not the ability to make the print itself that’s hard. It’s seeing the differences between and among very closely spaced tonal values. Lightness perception refers to it as articulation. In B&W Printing book by Lark Publications I’ve defined this hard-earned ability as presence. Over the 30 or so years since Minor’s death, I have carried on a more sophisticated program of what I call Tonerobics – learning the perceptual skill of seeing presence. It’s sort of like playing scales on a piano, but with visual black and white tones instead.
By the time you finish these exercises you will understand intuitively that there is a visual vocabulary of tone existing in the image that is created by the action of light alone, independent of the subject. You will also have a sound knowledge of how to create those tones at will with whatever technique you choose. Working with these “scales” and “arpeggios” is as necessary for mastering black and white printing as learning scales and arpeggios is to mastering music. Understanding comes from technical skill blending into intuitive response –the craft. Learning how to see black and white tones is the key to a masterpiece.
For more information on tonerobics and more about perception and the art of photography read George's latest book 'Black and White Printing, Creating the Digital Master Print', is available through Amazon.com or at BarnesandNoble.com
Go to the PDFs & Other Downloads page to download Tonerobics and B&W Sharpening.
Click on the linked images on that page to download the zip files. Tonerobics contains the 5 excersise folders and the instruction PDF file. B&W Sharpening folder includes a tiff image.
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If you have any difficulty or questions with Tonerobics itself contact email@example.com