A Year in Black and White

Report # Photo:

Untitled-1If you think about it, nothing was unclear in 2020. Either you were pro-Trump or anti-Trump, pro-Mask or anti-mask, pro-shutdown or anti-shutdown, pro-science or anti-science, pro Taylor Swift or begrudgingly accepting Taylor Swift because your daughter is a fan. In a year that seemed all Yin, people desperately sought Yang. There seemed there was no in-between, no balance. I can’t bring back that balance, but I can end the year with my favorite Yin/Yang shots for the year, maybe add perspective.

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My name is Jim Burnham. I am a US photographer. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter -> @BurnhamArts 


I save the black and white treatment for pictures with strong lines and where color would not bring about the emotional response I’m looking for. Black and white simplifies compositions and helps you focus on balance between shading and pattern. It enhances simplification of composition, and simplification is something we should all strive for. Black and white is more nascent feeling than overt emotion.

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Davenport, IA. This is next to Front Street Brewery down the street from the skywalk. If you look closely, you’ll notice the four right widows show right through to the buildings behind. Almost like an unfinished Trompe-l’œil. I don’t know how long it’s been like this, but at least since 2011 which was the last Google Streetview I could get. I saw it as an oddity and worth preserving. The pattern is obvious, and the BW treatment made the confusing visual signals more subtle. You can’t help but wonder who might have lived there when it was habitable, and what might have happened to the rest of the building.

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Dubuque, IA. Abandoned chic is usually going to get the BW treatment. I always run a risk of looking suspicious standing outside someone’s property, especially in remote areas. Once, when taking a photo of a misspelled entrance sign  (NO DUMPPING), I was approached by an angry farmer in a pickup, honking his horn madly. I didn’t stick around to explain, he would have thought I was nuts. Some people (especially the owners) don’t appreciate that I find this type of thing interesting and worth photographing. I feel voyeuristic, but I’m not spying. Well, I am spying in a way, a specific moment in time in a stranger’s life. Probably not something they are proud of, but this trailer was part of a larger junkyard, so this was probably part of the property security fence. 

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St. Donatus, IA – Historic Barn. Despite being one of the smallest towns I’ve driven through, St. Donatus was full of interest. Settled in 1838 by John Noel, the town was eventually founded in 1846 and named St Donatus after the patron saint of protection from lightning and violent storms. I never knew there was one! Fortunately, this historic barn was protected. You’ll see another St. Donatus landmark later. The repeating pattern here is in the limestone bricks complimenting the door and windows, supported by the horizontal boards.

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Peoria, IL- Riverfront parking garage demolition. Symmetry in shape and form is visually exciting for me, but the Yin/Yang of this scene is what drew me in. This could have also been an intriguing color photo, but I thought the balance of the doors and concrete being offset by the chaos of the bricks, which had come from directly above during a demolition project, was more important than the color aspect. This is a boring lawn now on the Peoria Riverfront.

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Chicago, IL – Lakefront Trail at the Adler Planetarium. This could have been a pandemic photo with the trail so vacant. Actually, this was taken at sunrise, and apart from the occasional jogger, it was pretty empty. With a cloudless sky, I was feeling a bit defeated. I rode a City Divvy bike all the way down from the Hancock Building (just off photo to the right) for the sunrise. It would have been nice to have some clouds to balance out the curves of the walkway. I waited for someone to fill the space and when nobody showed, I made my way up to the road. I saw this limousine driver having a smoke and had an idea. He was happy to oblige as he said he shuttles around a lot of famous people, but nobody ever wanted to take a photo of him. This was never going to be a color shot. It always had to be “film noir”.

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Empire, MI -Esch Rd Beach Pine Plantation. Pattern, shape, and form. The dark forest background connected to the snowy foreground by 90 year old pine trees. There are dozens of views in these forests, at all angles and at all times of the year. Massive deforestation in the early 1900s resulted in erosion that these pines were planted, in a mostly unnatural pattern, to stop. The Leelanau Conservancy has removed some of these trees to allow a more natural wildlife habitat.

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Frankfort, MI – Pt Betsie Lighthouse breakwall. High water has been battering the historic concrete skirt that fronts the Pt. Betsie Lighthouse. When the waves are up, the scene can be dramatic. In this case, the only way to show the drama was with a slower exposure, spreading out the waves as they crashed against the iron groynes that jut out into the water. I bet you didn’t know these were called groynes, did you? Neither did I. I hope everyone learned something new in 2020.

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East Peoria, IL – Dirksen Park Trail. This hiking/biking trail in a uncharacteristically hilly area of Central Illinois was started decades ago by a local bike shop for BMX bikers. Trail markers are homemade and either tin can bottoms or cut up aluminum siding. The holes in them look like gunshots, but it might be the result of multiple nailings. When a dead tree falls, the markers are simply moved to a live one. This one was meaningful in various ways, all personal. You can interpret this in any way you want. A broken path, separation, or even perseverance. It could mean that even together, there would still be a cracks.

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Galesburg, IL – A backroad cornfield. Another Yin/Yang shape juxtaposition. The neatly arranged rows of the fractal cornstalks blanketed by a billowing cumulonimbus storm cloud. Too much pattern being held down by too little pattern. The food and that which feeds it in balance.

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Sheboygan, WI – Sheboygan Asylum. Rembrandt was the king of “Rembrandt Lighting”. Of course he was, he invented it! Well, maybe not, but the strong natural side-light technique can make anything interesting by throwing strong shadows that hide minor distractions, and bringing out texture in surfaces. I had to move this old Speed Queen clothes washer into the corner of this basement laundry room, but sometimes you have to make subtle changes to make a big impression.

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Kenosha, WI Community Center. If I see someone standing (or sitting) in front of an interesting wall, I have to turn around and get a bit of street photography in. Everything came together in this image, the nesting angles following the angle of the hooded smoking man, the message on the wall (from the Kenosha riots), and the connection to the message about God being “the light” and the guy “lighting up”.

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St. Donatus, IA – Chapel at St. Donatus Catholic Church. This was another accidental find in the old Luxemburg settlement on Hwy 52, halfway between Dubuque and Bellevue, IA. After taking a short dirt road out of town to the North, I spotted a cemetery behind a Catholic Church. Then I noticed a path running back behind the cemetery up the hill. The path had brick grottos along the way marking the stations of the cross. At the end of the path at the top of the hill was a small stone chapel with a white fence surrounding it. What I found out later in the year was that the fence was mainly to keep the sheep from the surrounding farm out. The path was a bit “softer” the second time. Strong, unfiltered sun is usually a bad thing, especially with white in the photo. You can never get a good exposure with sun, white, and dark shadows. So, I did not try to bring the shadows out too much, only enough to pick out a little detail. I left the fence door open to mimic the windows on the front of the chapel.

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Milwaukee, WI – Milwaukee Museum of Art. Normally, I don’t photograph OTA (Other People’s Art), but I couldn’t avoid the patterns in this one. This is Josiah McElheny’s “Modernity circa 1952, Mirrored and Reflected Infinitely, 2004″. This is an impressive display encased in a mirrored box, one side with a two-way mirror. This is all shape and shape within shape, and all that repeating. I couldn’t resist capturing the scene repeated on itself, but also repeated in 360 degrees inside the round sphere.

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Lasalle Co IL – Auto Salvage Yard. Leaving you now with one of my last shots in 2020, in a salvage yard in Central Illinois. This isn’t any typical salvage yard. The cars there are mostly mid-century and many are in the same position they’ve been in for decades. This was a study in returning to nature, but putting up a fight. How long was this tree slowly lifting the hood of this late 40s Buick Eight? How did I know it was a 40s Buick Eight? Well, I searched “50s car with toothy grille” and this was the first result! The composition is diagonal lines and triangles. But the lines of the grille and tree are at first competing, but then run parallel.

2020 will go down in history as a year lost. I sit with my parents in Michigan for the fist time on Christmas with no additional family around. No special dinner plates, silver place settings or holiday table cloth. My kids would have normally been here, but COVID is too much of a risk until a vaccine is administered. I naturally manage to avoid being in groups of people, so I am not much of a risk. But I will be happy when I can go see a movie or concert with my kids again, or take a plane trip without having to worry about asymptomatic carriers (or symptomatic carriers that are in denial.) But yes, 2020 was very black and white for me, but it was not without its colorful moments. Here’s to a better 2021, which I understand is at least 1 better than 2020 by default.  

Thanks for reading. If you made it this far, congratulations! Please like and share or comment and share or pass it on and share using the social links below. If you would like an email when new posts are added, add your email below. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter: @BurnhamArts


One thought on “A Year in Black and White

  1. SailorPat

    B&W has always been a favorite genre to produce and view. Your presented images, along with your insightful comments, are quite enjoyable on a holiday week mid-day rest period with snow melting outside but no good sunlight to walk about with my camera.

    I always enjoy your thoughts matched up with images. Thank you for your posts in 2020 and I look forward to more good viewing in 2021.


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