Pete McCutchen on Breaking the Rules and the Importance of Vision

Pete McCutchen is a fine art photographer known for looking past the obvious. He zeroes in on subjects we overlook — a scrap of oxidized metal, a fleck of chipping paint — and brings them to life, presenting us with a new sense of possibilities. His photographs, awash in vibrant, saturated hues, challenge viewers to discover beauty in the mundane. It goes without saying that when we think about McCutchen’s recent work, we think about color.

When the photographer recently won Honorable Mention in the internationally acclaimed Monochrome Awards for a black and white photo, we wanted to hear all about it from Pete McCutchen himself.

Pictured above, Five Lights, winner of an Honorable Mention in the Monochrome Awards.

Winning an Honorable Mention in the Monochrome Awards is really cool.  My life as a photographer began when I was eleven years old, and like most of my generation I started in the black and white darkroom. (The kids these days, they mostly start with an iPhone.)   I did black and white almost exclusively for years and years.  But with the advent of digital technology, I’ve done a lot in color.  The tools of digital editing allow for precise control and color management that just isn’t possible in the color darkroom, and inkjet printing gives a color gamut and archival characteristics that far exceed any chromogenic process.   For the last decade or so, I’ve done mostly color work, for which I’ve become known (to the extent I’m known, that is).  All of my solo shows have been color work, and nearly all of the awards I’ve won over the last decade have been for color work.  I’ve shown a black and white piece here and there, but mostly I’ve become a color guy.  In fact, some folks think my color is over the top — rich, lush, saturated color.  I use color expressively, more like a painter than a traditional photographer.  My first award in an international competition — the Neutral Density Awards — was for a color portfolio. Indeed, a lot of the work I do is very abstract and in many ways un-photographic.

It’s really gratifying, therefore, to be able to return to black and white and be recognized for a very traditionally photographic image.  It’s even more gratifying to be recognized in an international competition at this level.  I’m not usually prone to excessive modesty, but I feel really honored when I look at the quality of the work produced by the other awardees, and the number of countries from which they’re drawn — Spain, Italy, the UK, Brazil, the Ukraine, both Israel and Iran, and many others.  It’s amazing to be included in such a group.

I often tell young photographers that they should learn the technical camera stuff and all the “rules” of good image-making. But focus on the Vision.  Vision is the thing.  Light and composition are a part of vision, far more important than bits and bytes and megapixels.  Certainly more important than “rules.”  We have tools to make art.  In the last decade or so, digital cameras have gone from novelties to being very serious tools; the computer has taken its place beside the enlarger.  A carpenter has to know how to use saws and planes and hammers properly, and so too the photographer must master the tools.  But the tools are instruments to achieve a vision, not ends in themselves.   Vision is what is important.

But new technology can open up new possibilities, can serve vision in new and interesting ways.  That’s what happened in the case of this image.

Expedition 9

Expedition 9

I was out shooting a few years ago with my young friend Amanda, then seventeen.  (She juried in to the Torpedo Factory last year, at the ripe old age of 19).  She had a crappy tripod and the head didn’t really her camera steady.  We were shooting in an abandoned industrial facility, and parts were very dark.  She had borrowed my tripod; I was wandering around shooting hand-held.  I looked up at the ceiling.  (Another thing: look up.  Look down.)  There were these big lights suspended form the ceiling — the sort you see in gyms or warehouses, or, well, industrial facilities like the one we were in.  The fixtures were coated with a shiny white material to allow the light from the bulbs to spread and offer general illumination.  The bulbs were long gone, obviously, but the light streaming in from the big windows hit the reflective coating of the fixtures just right; they glowed.

Even with the light coming in from the window, it was pretty dark, and Amanda had my tripod.  On a camera, the “ISO setting” is the  sensitivity to light.  In the case of film, it’s built into the physical structure of the silver halide crystals embedded in the gelatin film base.  In general, bigger crystals mean more sensitivity to light, but more film grain.  In the case of a digital camera, the chip is the equivalent of film, and the ISO is adjustable.  Increasing the ISO makes the chip more sensitive to light, but there are tradeoffs, including reduced exposure latitude and increased noise.  Noise is just random glowing pixels, particularly in the dark areas.  Unlike film grain — which can be quite nice — noise is ugly.  Green splotches glowing and distracting from the image.  Sans tripod and basically shooting in the dark, I cranked the ISO up to 10,000.

Fractalization 2

Fractalization 2

This is an example of technology opening a possibility, because in the days of film, anything over ISO 400 was considered “fast” film.  There were a couple of black and white films rated to ISO 3200, and a few but they got pretty thin if shot at that speed.  ISO 10,000 was just out of reach.  But it’s not out of reach for a Nikon D3, which has excellent low light performance.   The technology gave me the ability to shoot hand-held in marginal light.  The light was beautiful, there just wasn’t a lot of it.  Even with a D3, at ISO 10,000 there is going to be noise.  Particularly in the shadow areas, and in this image, there are a lot of shadows.

Another advantage of new technology: in the old days, you had to decide if you wanted black and white or color in advance and load that type of film in the camera.  Now, you can easily convert a color digital file to black and white.  Sometimes I know when I’m shooting that it’s going to be black and white, but certainly not all the time.  In this case, I chose to convert the image to black and white because the image is about light and shadow and drama, and that’s got to be black and white.  Another happy result:  by converting I turn ugly noise into something that now looks like film grain, enhancing the image by adding a gritty textural feel.

SBW #6

SBW #6
Now on view at 1650 Gallery in Los Angeles.

If you follow camera club rules, you might very well toss this image in the garbage rather than entering it in an international photo competition.  The light from the windows is very bright, and the shadows are very dark.  With limited exposure latitude at ISO 10,000, I had a choice.  I could expose the image to retain highlight detail in the windows and end up with total darkness in the shadows, or I could blow the highlights and retain shadow detail.  Most people, today, will tell you to never blow your highlights with a digital camera, because blown highlights are just white blobs.  But I believed that glowing highlights would add to the etherial feel of the image, so I exposed for the shadows and let the highlights turn white — and it works.

So I broke the rules — technically, you could argue that the image is flawed.  I shot it  hand-held in the dark at a ridiculous ISO, and I let my highlights get blown out.  But the rule-breaking was done for a reason, and it served my vision.

Yellow #7

Yellow #7
On view at The Art League Gallery through April 6, 2015.

You can find Pete McCutchen’s work in Studio #344 at the Torpedo Factory, online at and on Facebook. In June, Pete will be participating in a show entitled Being and Becoming: Enter the Kaleidoscope at the Touchstone Gallery. The show will include a collection of abstract studies.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *