By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Seeing the world in black and white

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterLarry Kurtz shows off photographs he entered in this year’s Yamhill County Fair. He won several ribbons, including the Judges’ Choice Award.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Larry Kurtz shows off photographs he entered in this year’s Yamhill County Fair. He won several ribbons, including the Judges’ Choice Award.
Larry Kurtz is fascinated by the textures and shapes of sand dunes, both in the desert and on the Oregon coast.
Larry Kurtz is fascinated by the textures and shapes of sand dunes, both in the desert and on the Oregon coast.
Fire escapes are another favorite subject.
Fire escapes are another favorite subject.

There’s nothing wrong with his vision. Most of the time, he views the world in full color, whether he’s looking at his wife, Diane, his grandkids, the hydrangeas in his front yard or the hummingbirds out back.

But when he puts his Canon DSLR to his eye, black and white rules. He sees shape, size, line and, especially, texture, as a matter of contrast and crispness.

His love for black and white photography goes back to his film days, when he had a home darkroom — first in the bathroom, later in an upstairs room devoted to his hobby. He shot almost exclusively black and white film.

But it wasn’t because he could develop it himself. “I just like black and white,” he explained.

Kurtz won several ribbons this month at the Yamhill County Fair. Ironically, his biggest prize — a Judges’ Choice ribbon — was for a color photo of sand dunes at sunrise.

He’s entered the fair each year since he joined the Yamhill Valley Camera Club. He found the club after switching to digital photography, and said he’s enjoyed interacting with other enthusiasts.

“The camera club has been such a positive for me,” he said.

Kurtz became interested in photography when he was in high school in Merrill. He took a few photos — back then, you had to plan your shots carefully so as not to waste film — and developed them himself in his dad’s darkroom.

Then he got too busy.

First, it was studying at the Oregon College of Education, hitchhiking from Monmouth to Forest Grove to visit his sister-in-law at Pacific University while his brother was in Vietnam, and serving in the Army himself in the U.S. and Germany. Then it was assuming the demands of marriage and fatherhood. Finally, it was teaching English and social studies in Elgin, afterward taking a retirement job as a medical transcriptionist.

Along the way, he built a darkroom where he could process shots from his SLR. But he didn’t really return to photography in a serious way until he retired from his retirement gig and moved to McMinnville in 2000.

He later made the move to digital — a huge adjustment.

“I still miss developing, even though I can probably do more with Photoshop,” he said. “I enjoyed being in the darkroom, being able to see what I could do with contrast or burning things in.”

Kurtz and his wife chose Mac because it put them closer to sons in Sherwood and Portland, and thus a set of grandkids.

In addition, he had fond memories of Linfield from his days playing basketball for OCE. “We wanted to be in a college town, and Linfield is hard to beat,” he said.

Figuring he could rent darkroom space, he sold his processing equipment in preparation for the move. “But I couldn’t find anything here,” he said, and running to Portland proved as unsatisfying as it was expensive.

Finally, he broke down and bought a digital camera.

A vacation experience helped him make that decision. While he and his wife were visiting Death Valley, he encountered an array of colorful cacti, and black-and-white film didn’t do them justice.

Kurtz now shoots entirely in color, using a digital Canon pro-style SLR and a digital Olympus point-and-shoot.

He still looks at his subject through a mental black-and-white filter, though, and uses Photoshop afterward to remove the color from most of his shots.

He prints some shots both ways, depending on the subject matter.

Kurtz printed his judge-pleasing sunrise dunes shot in color for the fair, but he has a black and white version at home. And of the two, it’s his favorite.

He said he enjoys the digital editing process since it allows him to remove color as well as doing whatever he could do in the darkroom. He likes all of the the creative fun things he can do as well.

“Recently I saw on the Internet how to eliminate things in the photograph, so I tried it,” he said.

“I took a ladder out into the backyard and put a beer bottle on top of it, took the picture,” he said, “then moved it and took another picture.”

Back at his computer, he overlaid the photos and removed the ladder. The result: Beer growing from a tree.

“Just for fun,” he said.

Kurtz likes what he creates with his camera, whether it’s a beer tree or an evocative shot of moving sand. “I just enjoy the end product,” he said.

The only thing is, he said, that he has hundreds of finished photos on his computer by this point. “But what to do with them?” he wondered.

He has made prints for his family and for friends, and donated other prints for fundraisers. He’s entered the fair and a contest sponsored by The Oregonian, which chose a shot of a lamp post in the fog for display.

He has dozens of his photos posted on the walls at home as well — images from a trip he and his wife took to Greece; favorite scenics; a picture of young seals swimming; and many of staircases and fire escapes, two of his favorite subjects.

One frame, which looks like a strip of negatives, features photos of all sorts of staircases, from the rough stone steps in a park to the circular stairs in the Astoria Column.

In addition to the architectural shots of steps, Kurtz loves to photograph texture. That might be the rough concrete of the McMinnville parking structure, or the leaves of his canna lilies, or knotholes or tree bark.

He also shoots a variety of items — a bell, the glow from solar lights in his garden, the sky defined by clouds.

“Just things that catch my eye,” said Kurtz, who almost always has his camera with him. “I don’t really go out a lot just looking.”

An exception? A foggy day.

“On foggy days, I go out and drive around, looking,” he said.

His dunes photo was also an exception to the rule. During a two-week vacation in the desert, he rose before sunrise several morning specifically so he could shoot photos.

Each time, he hiked across the sand to an area unmarked by footprints or tire tracks. Then he spent an hour or so clicking the shutter, moving his tripod to another location, then clicking again as the sun shifted.

“With a film background, I’m fairly selective,” he said. “I try to get good photos to start with. I don’t just shoot a bunch hoping for something good.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or

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