Steam is one aspect of the urban landscape that always catches my eye. I’ve been trying to photograph it for three or four years now. Some days seem magical as far as particular subjects are concerned, and last Saturday — Jan 10, 2015 — was a magical day for steam. I came across an alleyway in downtown Boston where I had noticed steam venting before, but on this particular day the steam’s release seemed wilder and more dramatic than ever. The alleyway was dark but there was a shaft of sunlight illuminating the puffs and plumes in an improbably specific way. And although I had fallen out of my street photography habit in previous weeks, I happened to have my camera with me on Saturday. It was cold enough that at the end of the shoot I barely had enough sensation in my fingers to be able to put the cap back on the lens, and actually I had forgotten what that felt like.
The images here show physical prints of the steam photographs from Saturday. What you see in these images represents a departure from the process I’ve followed since I first got serious about photography. I usually avoid doing any significant post-processing of my images beyond the minimum necessary to create a physical print. That’s because I prefer to keep photography as something that happens in the moment: I want to maintain a connection to my images as things I saw and captured when I was there on the scene, not as things I created or altered after the fact at my editing desk. But in reviewing these steam images, I had a strong hunch that they’d be more powerful in black and white than in their original color versions. In some sense, white in a color image can never reach the same dramatic intensity as it can in a black and white image. You might think that converting a color image to black and white is a straightforward or deterministic process but it’s not; there’s probably as much room for interpretation and variation when you go from color to black and white as there is when you colorize a monochrome image. So this is one case where I let myself experiment with tweaking brightness, contrast, and the like in software to “create” effective black and white versions of the color images. Letting the final versions of these images be so heavily influenced by post-processing decisions is not how I’ve typically worked — as mentioned, I prefer restricting the most the important choices to the moment of capture — but I’ve decided to offer these steam images in their black and white re-interpretations because, in looking at them, I’m so strongly reminded of what it felt like to stand there on Saturday gazing at the scene. I wasn’t thinking about color then; I was occupied with the steam’s many grays and its brilliant sun-drenched whites.