Impactful Portraiture in Black & White

Impactful Portraiture in Black & White with Peter Hurley

Looking back over my career for the last 20 years, there is a distinct line of when my work went from predominantly black & white to taking an immediate turn to color. It happened when I captured that first medium format digital image in 2004 and I never looked back.

I truly do miss my old film days when my work was concentrated on cranking out black & white headshots of actors as my career was ramping up. I toiled tirelessly with my Kodak 120mm Tri-X in order to get the look I wanted. I would spend weekdays shooting and processing my film in my New York studio apartment and then would drive out to New Jersey on weekends to print in my darkroom that I set up in my mother’s basement. It was a grind that all came to a screeching halt when I went digital. 

My biggest source of inspiration has always been Bruce Weber. I consider him my mentor, and his encouragement was the only reason I picked up a camera in the first place. I’ve always loved his work; his black & white imagery can be mesmerizing. He first helped me by starting my modeling career. He gave me a bunch of black & white prints that he photographed of me that I’ll cherish forever. There’s something about a print that I’ve always loved and his are something to behold. They are printed on beautiful matte fiber paper and have a low-contrast grainy feel to them that is absolutely gorgeous. I don’t think there’s anything quite like the combo of shooting film and printing on fiber—and nobody does it better than Bruce.

Even though I love Bruce’s work, I never found a way to take his influence and incorporate it into my own. His work is so inspiring, but to me his creativity is where his true genius lies. That’s just not something anyone can emulate and I felt fortunate enough to be there to witness it. I continued to study other photographers and encountered the work of Richard Avedon. I was immediately drawn to his black & white portraits on clean white backgrounds. I knew that was the direction I needed to go. I built my entire business around natural light headshots photographed on white. The simplicity of them seemed to catch on and I found myself at the forefront of the headshot industry in New York City. 

But times change, and as a photographer it makes sense to adapt. My transition to digital was quick. I made the decision at the right time because actor’s headshots were about to trend toward color and I wanted to be ahead of the change. The second I began shooting my Contax 645 with an Imacon 132C digital back my black & white output took a big hit. I wasn’t sure how to convert it in order to get the look I wanted, so most of the time I just worked on my color. That’s a trend that has continued on to this day. 

My curiosity as an artist toward discovering a distinct look for my work has always been prevalent, whether I’m working in black & white or color, and I’m constantly searching for inspiration. Recently I’ve found myself drawn to the black & white work of Platon, Nigel Parry and Richard Burbridge. I’ll scour the web or flip through magazine after magazine looking for anything that strikes a chord with me. Pinterest boards can store images that I want to go back to and I love having black & white images show up in my Instagram feed. One of my favorites to swipe through is @starsofthescreen. It consists of beautifully curated headshots of celebrities in black & white and is worth a look. I consider myself a student of the game and studying is something that I will always partake in. I’m constantly looking for inspiring work to share with the photographers that I teach through my Headshot Crew coaching program.

So, once I’ve got some inspiration, then it’s time to think about how I’m going to shoot my images with a black & white conversion in mind. It’s always been interesting to me when an image calls for it. There’s just that little voice inside you that says, “You know this one is gonna rock in monochrome.” Then I start the process that to this day I still haven’t quite pinned down. It always starts with how much contrast I’m looking to get out of the image. Do I want to crush the blacks and how hot do I want my highlights? I’ll mess with any kind of slider I can get my hands on until I start to see what I’m looking for. 

These days I’m always shooting tethered into Capture One, so I just start there by working some sliders. I’ll check in on black & white by dropping the saturation to -100 and tweaking the contrast slider up a bit and taking a look. At times I’ll be happy and be done with it while other times I’m just getting started. I go back to my original color shot and move over to the black & white panel to enable it and start going to town. I’m most concerned about the skin tone and making sure I capture highlights, midtones and shadows in the image, so I have to be careful how I mess with it. Detail in the skin is probably number one on my list. I always have the thought of film and printing on that fiber paper in my head, but now it’s a completely different animal. 

I believe that most photographers are afraid of juicing up their contrast on a black & white image and everything kind of blends into a mushy gray look. Commitment to my blacks is key for my work. I’m also always thinking about the person, clothing and background prior to shooting that will determine what I’m going to do with the image in post. I’ve always been drawn to gray hair on a black background. That look was specifically inspired by Yousef Karsh’s shot of Ernest Hemingway as you can see in some of my work. I also like shooting dark-skinned individuals on white backgrounds and light-skinned individuals on black backgrounds. I also often have my subjects wear the same color as the background, so white on white, gray on gray, and black on black. I’m not sure how any of this came into play, but it definitely became my thing. 

Each photographer needs to develop their eye to create a black & white conversion that works for them and can gain them some consistency in their work. I’ve really only discussed my Capture One process, but there are a number of other things that I’ll try within Photoshop as well as using plugins. Bottom line is to find what feels best to you and your workflow. You’ve got to create your own digital recipe for your black & white conversion. Use photographs you’ve found that you are drawn to and concentrate on replicating that look to create your own conversion process. Bounce the images off other photographers whose work you respect and put together an entire black & white portfolio on your site. I think anything we can do right now to show a range of talent in our work will definitely be beneficial down the road. And hey, if you start booking based on your new portfolio and your ability to create stellar black & white images, then that’s major SHABANG in my book! 

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