Harvey Kupferberg: An Artist in Living Color and Black and White

Looking toward Corbier Lighthouse at Sunset/Harvey Kupferberg

Looking toward Corbier Lighthouse at Sunset/Harvey Kupferberg

Ask Harvey Kupferberg why he is a photographer, and he will tell you he can’t answer that question. He has had a camera for as long as he can remember. Some of his favorite childhood photographs depict him and his brother, also a photographer, with cameras around their necks. However it began, he has spent a lifetime studying tonal qualities and light.  

Kupferberg is fascinated with capturing the essence of landscape through the lens of his camera. His mastery and craft are on display in his March 2019 Touchstone Gallery show, Daylight Reflections: from Sunrise to Sunset. This exhibit showcases his facility with color through images photographed between 1993 and 2017 in a variety of locations—rivers, oceans, mountains, deserts—at either dawn or dusk. “I only work in the morning or the afternoon,” he says. “Why? When the sun is high, you get no shadows. All the colors are washed out, and there is no real tonal quality at midday.”  

Two of the images were originally shot on film; the rest were captured with a digital camera. Kupferberg made a conscious decision to keep the presentation relatively small with a maximum size of 20” x 24” for a framed print. “Most people don’t have the wall space for large prints,” he says. He hopes that the smaller size will be more appealing to viewers.  

The Making of a Master 

He didn’t know it at the time, but Kupferberg learned composition from his father, a painter. His father liked to show him landscape paintings from the masters and quiz him about what he saw. “He would say, notice the bottom left. Everything emanates from there,” Kupferberg says. “He told me to look for lines. There are always vanishing lines. He pointed out curves. There were always curves. I said okay, but I didn’t really think about using that.” 

By the 1960s, Kupferberg had a darkroom and was concentrating on black and white photography. There was a symbiotic relationship between his vocation and avocation. His background as a chemist and medical lab scientist gave him the analytical abilities to understand the alchemy of the darkroom, while the darkroom provided respite and rejuvenation from the challenging, sometimes taxing work as a medical scientist. However, by the 1980s, he was still not satisfied with the photographs he was creating, so he started taking black and white photography classes at Montgomery College.  

Dunes at Sunset/Harvey Kupferberg

Dunes at Sunset/Harvey Kupferberg

Still, Kupferberg wasn’t satisfied. He had a transformative experience as a result of a visit to Kathleen Ewing’s gallery in DuPont Circle, a wonderful shop devoted to fine photography that is unfortunately no longer open. When he and a friend went down to view some black and white photographs, he confided to Ewing that while he had worked hard on his own and taken many courses, he still wasn’t getting the results he hoped for. Ewing advised him to take a printing workshop with Bruce Barnbaum , a classical large format photographer headquartered in Granite Falls, Washington. Kupferberg and his friend took the workshop. “All of a sudden I started understanding how you work with black and white. Black and white photography is about understanding how to expose and develop the negative,” he says. “If you know your craft, it is tonal quality, getting the blackest blacks, the whitest whites and everything in between.” It is also practice. “You have to do it. And you have to do it again and again.” 

And those lessons at his father’s knee? Bruce Barnbaum required students to bring 15 photographs for critique. After looking at Kupferberg’s, the master told him that there was a great similarity in all of his work and asked if he knew what it was. Kupferberg hadn’t a clue. Barnbaum went to each of the images and pointed out curves and vanishing lines. “It was the characteristics of the old masters that my father had taught me. I had absorbed all that without realizing it.” 

The Road to Color 

In a roundabout way, Bruce Barnbaum’s black and white workshop was Kupferberg’s entry into the world of color. He gained enough confidence to start showing his work, winning first prize at the Montgomery County Fair the first time he entered a competition. A photo he entered in 2008 Photo DC won first place. That was nice and, even better, he was awarded a $1,500 gift card as a prize. He used the money to purchase a digital camera. “That started me on the road to color photography.” 

A photographer working with a large format black and white camera can only shoot eight or ten sheets of film (as opposed to a 35 mm camera’s 36 frame and a digital camera’s even greater capacity). Plus, the image in the view finder is upside down and backwards. As a traditional black and white photographer, Kupferberg had to learn how to look at the color landscape before him and imagine the tonal qualities that would appear in black and white.  

“It is not a static thing you are looking at,” he says. “The light is constantly changing. You have to make decisions. Do you want to click the shutter? When do you want to click the shutter?” Like painters and digital photographers, the film photographer has to decide what elements to include in an image, where they should be, whether it is to be abstract or realistic, but the decisions must be made in the moment, and there is little opportunity for change later. As he gained proficiency as a color photographer, Kupferberg translated the skills he acquired in black and white to his color photographs. His mastery of tonal quality is evident in the ethereal light of his other-worldly color landscapes.  

A professional hangar helps Kupferberg organize and hang his shows. “He takes my photographs and puts them in the proper place so that there is movement to the way things are presented,” he says. Kupferberg says he is his own greatest critic, but once the photos are in place he takes great pleasure in seeing what he has created. “One thing Touchstone allows me to do is to see my shows and feel some emotion. The artists are really accomplished in what they do, and it is gratifying to me to see my work among such beautiful, beautiful art.” 

Kupferberg’s work is beautiful and also accessible. Many of the photographs have emotional meaning for him. When people see his work, it often touches an emotional chord with them as well. They may not have the same memory of the place depicted, but it recalls some memory of some place, and it resonates with the viewer. His father would be proud.