Venice and the Cruise Ship

I have spent many, many weeks of my life in Venice.  I have amassed a great number of images from this incredible city, which I visited for the first time when I was 4.  I walked with my grandmother along the canals and went into little cafes.  I had my first cup of espresso with 3 sugars.  I do not remember, but no doubt I was wired for the next few of hours!  But I remember this city as being pure magic from the first time I saw it.  All the cool buildings, the canals, the boats, and no cars!

There is a sensation that you get nowhere else, when you enter the city in the lagoon from the only rail and road artery to the mainland.  Most pop out of the big, wide and flat modern train station that is one of very few buildings built in the city during the 1930s.  Across the canal, past the chaos of vaporettos (water buses), water taxis and flat-bottomed delivery boats, and the odd iconic gondola, there is the first classic church dome.  The copper dome of San Simeone Piccolo.  This is my first memory of the city.  But this blog is not about pretty buildings, canals and bridges, but rather about tourism and what we can do about it.

As tourists, guests and visitors to a city, or country, we have an obligation to participate in the economy in a meaningful way.  This means that we stay locally, we eat and drink locally, and contribute to the cultural maintenance of a location by buying museum tickets and perhaps bringing home a trinket, or in the case of Venice, perhaps a great piece of glass.  There is the potential for fair trade between tourists and hosts. 

In Venice, this has gone completely off the rails.  This is in part due to insane cruise ship traffic, which bring visitors to the city in the lagoon, who eat, drink and sleep on their ship and who benefit from volume discounts at museums and galleries and who can be seen walking around in groups with green or red number-stickers on their shirts, or worse with matching hats or jackets.  They march like armies of ants through the narrow streets and alleys completely oblivious to everyone around them, listening intensely to a narrative provided by a tour guide, who is rarely local, but has learned the basics from a book, or worse.

Harbel – St. Marks Square

Here are the numbers: based on scheduled calls for cruise ships with more than 500 passengers, 1.2 million cruise ship passengers were destined for Venice in 2020, had it not been for Covid19, 56 cruise-lines would have delivered 514 cruise ship arrivals over the year. 

Venice is a small city with a shrinking population.  The city has a total population of just over 60,000 inhabitants.  In 1950, it was 170,000.  The number has been falling every year since tourism grew to levels, where it was more profitable to have a shop selling cheap trinkets to tourists than a hardware store.  It becomes more and more difficult to live in the city under constant siege from hoards of tourists. 

Harbel – A cruise ship tourist

Lots of thinking has been going on during the corona-crisis in the city.  What if…..  Citizens have enjoyed their own city for the first time in years.  People have tried to reimagine what a better managed tourist destination could look like.  But I digress.  This is a blog about photography, and of course, the city is a wonderful destination for photographers, but also one where the arrival of the cruise ships offer a sad reality that is hard to miss.  While I normally do not give cruise ship tourists much time, or film, it is telling that even I, who tries to be timeless in my work, pretending I am local, cannot avoid the disaster that is an overrun city, where more than 1.2 million people come off their cruise ships adding nothing and contributing nothing, but congestion and misery.

Harbel – Cruise Ship Venice

I feel strongly that cruise ship traffic to Venice should be banned.  The ships are too big, too disruptive, and they damage the seabed and the foundations of the very buildings that tourists come to experience. 

Tourist visits should be allowed only, if staying overnight in the city in a hotel.  And there should be a minimum-spend per day.  I believe countries like Bhutan still enforce a daily minimum spend to help pay for the negative effects of tourism. 

Harbel – Canaletto Umbrellas

There is great beauty in Venice, but it doesn’t work without local people that make it a living, working city.  It would be sad, if tourism traffic will finally break the back of the city and turn it into Disneyland.  I can recommend visiting Las Vegas to see what would happen to Venice, if unscrupulous financial interests are allowed to continue to destroy La Serenissima, the Most Serene Republic.

Sadly, the cruise ship tourists do make for good subjects, but I can certainly live without them. 

Harbel    

 

Remembering Paul Hoeffler and Lady Day

I remember sitting in my basement with Paul Hoeffler, not with jazz in the background, but the annoying sound of my scanner, as we were working our way through stacks of photographs of Billie Holiday.  Bowmore 12 was the poison of choice.  The stories flowed, as did the single malt.  We were scanning images of Billie Holiday for the now legendary Burns series Jazz.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday

We scanned many photographs of the legendary singer, but what I find most interesting in hindsight was maybe the contact sheets.  I have reproduced 1 below.  The sheet was not the greatest, in terms of quality, but you have to admire the degree of access.  Don’t forget, this is while Billie Holiday is on stage, singing.  She is a Superstar, with a capital ‘S’ in Jazz terms, yet she is no more than a couple of feet in front of Paul’s lens, maybe less.  I might even forgive her for forgetting a line, when you have a camera in your face like that!  You can read Paul’s recollection here:

 “ ‘Lady Day’ as she was known, died the summer of 1959.  She was in a NYC hospital – arrested for drug possession – two detectives stationed at the door.  Billie Holiday was 44 years old.  She has been described as a ‘simple woman with a gift’.

These photographs were taken during her week-long engagement at the Ridge Crest Inn, Rochester, New York.  I was in Rochester studying at R.I.T., and covering the music and musicians.  These images represent a fraction of those taken; the contact sheets show a radiant Billie, then the next frame displays a troubled and confused singer having forgotten the words.

Twice, or three times, I drove Billie, her husband and Alice Vrbsky back to their hotel.  Alice was Billie’s close friend, seen here putting on her coat and wearing glasses.  Alice tried to keep Billie in a responsible state.  Peppi, Billies little white dog, was always along.  Peppi was the substitute for the child she never had.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday and Peppi

What I saw was a very troubled woman, angry at social injustices, burdened by alcohol and drugs, and not able to steer clear of the bad actors – the men, the lovers.

Billie Holiday had a strong presence.  She was vulgar, basic, with a natural ability to make music, which touched many, many people.  It still continues to reach out today.”

I don’t think anyone, other than maybe Paul himself has seen the contact sheet below.  I scanned it for him, as we were working our way through the stack of prints that would be scanned and forwarded to Ken Burns.  I have been hesitating to show it, but I think it is a reminder of what Paul always talked about; the good old days before the goons, or should I say security guards, the publicists, the official photographers, and the hoards of long lens paparazzi.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday Contact Sheet

And finally, below, something that Paul did, but was much less known for. A colour image from the same set.  Yes, he could do that too.

Hoeffler, Paul – Billie Holiday in full colour

Harbel

The Art Critic – A Necessary Evil?

I have been thinking about this blog entry for a long time.  I know we need critics in all aspects of life.  Often they are journalists who keep our politicians, governments, corporations and yes, even artists in check.  There is no denying that critique is an important part of any reasonable conversation about a work of art.  There is a world of checks and balances out there and one probably does not exist in the proper form without the other.  But, what is the role of the art critic, and how does one make sure that whatever the critic writes – because they usually write and rarely comment directly to the artist in person, or in a public forum – is reasonable adds to the dialogue? 

I think here of Anton Ego, the caricature of a food critic in the cartoon Ratatouille.  He knows that he can end careers of chefs and close restaurants with the stroke of a pen, and likewise on rare occasions, if his distinct palette is satisfied, he may write a praising review that will give a restaurant, or a chef, reservations into next year, or the year after that.  He is ultimately turned to the light by a dish from his childhood that has him recall mother’s cooking.  Simplicity, much like a successful, great street photograph.

In the art world, careers are made, or indeed tanked, depending on the mood, opinion, and sometimes the personal history of a particular critic.  Off the top of my head, I cannot recall a critic in open dialogue with an artist, other than maybe including the odd quote from an artist’s statement at an exhibition.  I don’t know why this is the way it is?  Wouldn’t it be fair if the artist had a certain number of days to respond before a critic publishes a perspective on a body of work, or exhibition?

I clipped the following from an Irish critic, Sean Sheehan from the website https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/, a great source for an assortment of exhibitions, portfolios and stories all related to photography.  Mr. Sheehan’s bio, which I could only find on LensCulture.com describes him as: “… a writer, based in West Cork and London. He has written a number of books…, including Jack’s World,… about Irish farming life in the last century. He writes about photography for The Irish Times and other publications.”  There is no evidence that I can find that he would consider himself a photographer, which may suggest a limited understanding of what a street photographer considers when making a photograph.  Regardless, he has the following to say about one of the more iconic images of kids playing in New York, as seen through the lens of one of the greats of the 20th century (the image is shown at the end, but I encourage you to read the commentary first):  

“A good example is her photo of two boys handling glass fragments from a broken mirror. What transcends the whimsical happenstance of a boy on a bike looking down from within the frame of the broken mirror is the bigger semiotic picture of manual (the word comes from the Latin for ‘hand’) activity taking place around him. As well as the boy’s own hands holding his bicycle – and a hand on a second bicycle intrudes at one edge of the picture – there are hands holding the mirror’s frame, a child’s hand in his pocket, and, central to all of this, the handling of the broken glass by the two boys, their vulnerability arising from their task imitated in empathy by the two hands of the boy on the left looking down at them. The background provides other layers to the composition: lettering on the laundry’s window and other shop signs: a woman’s grasp of a pram; the gesturing of three girls and the man in the straw hat. The hand of the adult seen contingently glancing at the children is not actively deployed, she just happens to be walking past, but is at one with the others in owning the space of the street; it is their polis, contracted down to the space of a sidewalk.”

Now, if you haven’t already figured it out – don’t be embarrassed, because I couldn’t figure it out without the illustration – here it is:

Levitt, Helen – Boys playing with mirror frame

Those of you into street photography will know that there are milliseconds between the perfect shot, such as this, and the one that got away.  In my humble opinion, the kids are not looking at the camera, which suggests the shot was taken quickly.  Likewise, the boy on the tricycle in the frame of the broken mirror would only have been fully framed for a second, or two before being cut off by the frame.  The photographer would have had a split second to make the image.  No consideration of the placement of hands,or any other of the observations made above. 

When you photograph on the street there is a tendency to center the subject of your shot in the frame.  If there is time to compose, often the main subject will be placed off-centre, for a more classic composition and following the general rules of composition, but when on the street, there is often no time for this consideration.  The natural tendency is to make sure you get the shot by placing the main subject in the center of your frame.  All this suggests that Helen Levitt was in a hurry. 

As a photographer, one of the fun challenges that most everyone attempts at some point in their life is the frame-in-frame.  Finding a square through which one scene is visible, while the frame itself forms part of a greater whole.  It is hard to do well, but when successful can be a thing of beauty.  I would venture that Helen Levitt was focused entirely on the mirror frame and the boy on the tricycle.  The rest was good luck and a bonus.

The question I am trying to raise is whether the world has gained anything by Sean Sheehan’s writings about Levitt’s work. He writes an extended description, invoking Latin not once, but twice, to show his knowledge of art theory, leaving the purity and beauty of Levitt’s work not to the brilliant image, but something one might apply to a carefully constructed painting, completely ignoring why we love street photographs in the first place, namely the immediacy and skill it takes to execute a wonderful photograph in a fraction of a second.

I liken Sean Sheehan’s observations of Levitt’s masterpiece to the ruining of a great song when someone truly messed up licenses a song for a television commercial, forever ruining the song with a miserable association that your mind cannot dismiss, or forget.  Sometimes a critic is best off saying nothing and letting the photograph speak for itself.  Levitt famously was very short on comments, or any real discussion of her work.  She let her photographs do the talking.  Amen.

All I see now is hands and more hands.  Such a shame.

Harbel

As a Man Sees, so He Is

I borrowed this title from William Blake.  What does a photograph say about the photographer.  When a photographer makes a photograph, does he reveal a little of him, or herself?  Many photographers have chimed in on this topic over the years.  Here are a couple that made me think:

“Without the camera you see the world one way, with it, you see the world another way.  Through the lens you are composing, even dreaming, with that reality, as if through the camera you are synthesizing who you are” – Graziale Iturbide

Or:

“Great photography involves two main distortions:  Visual simplification and the seizing of the instant in time.  It’s this mixture of reality and unreality and the power and truth of the artist’s statement, that makes it possible for photography to be an art” – Roger Mayne

Whatever your preference, in some ways, we are talking about the holy grail of photography.  The so-called personal style.  The ability to make a photograph that is recognized immediately as being by you.  I once read that Frank Horvat, who is now in his 90s was accused of not having a ‘personal style’ and therefore was difficult to discern and identify as a master of the medium.  I would argue that Horvat has periods of personal style, which are fairly easily identifiable, but that the length of his career, going into seven decades now, has allowed him to move here and there on the style spectrum, sometimes making it hard to identify his work. 

I think deep down, most photographers would judge their life’s work as complete, if they could walk up to a relative newcomer in the photography world and that person were able to say that a particular photograph is by them.

Particular photographers have particular ways of composing their images, some have particular times of day that they work, usually early morning or just before sunset.  Some go after a particular subject matter time and time again.  Some print in a particular way.  Some overexpose, some underexpose.  I remember reading that Bernard Plossu said he only wants greys in his photographs.  I am quite sure Ray Metzker would argue against that, were he still alive.  Metzker favours a lot of intense and deep blacks. So many ways of seeing, so many photographers.  Such a broad and varied range of possibilities.

Photographers strive.  Few succeed.  With great passion come hope of maybe a little of the photographer’s personality seeping into every image and someone out there being able to discern your work from that of all others.  We live in hope.  At least some do.  Others are quite happy being forever anonymous and will argue that it is a mistake to do anything but document in a democratic coat of pure, neutral observation.  Ah, if only…..

Harbel        

The Wabi-Sabi of Photographing with Film

I once toured the ‘S’-class Mercedes manufacturing line, where hundreds of highly paid auto-workers hand-build the top-of-the-line Mercedes cars.  There is a certain respect owed to those people that build and assemble with their hands.  The aura in the great hall was palpable and the pride was everywhere.  I crossed the road and went to the ‘C’-class Mercedes plant, which is virtually 100% automatic and has robots swinging large and small pieces back and forth across space and time, before a car emerges at the far end of the line. 

In discussing the two plants, which could not possibly have been any more different, the member of the design team that was walking me around said that actually, the ‘C’-class is a much more accurate and precisely assembled car, and if it wasn’t for the customers who insisted on having a hand-built car and were willing to pay for it, rightfully the ‘S’-class Mercedes should be built by a similar line to that of the ‘C’-class.  Sometimes there is value in a little inaccuracy, knowing that it was made by a human, and not a machine.

The Japanese have a lovely term called wabi-sabi.  Wabi-sabi has many definitions.  To me, it means that there is perfection in imperfection.  That a small error, or imperfection in say a drinking vessel, a flower arrangement,or even a new building, is what adds the human touch.  The little something that is a signature of human quest. 

Harbel: The Sicilian – (I only saw the mask once I got in the darkroom)

Analog photography is much the same.  There is film, a camera, developing, printing, a final print, and at each step, there is a little bit of the photographer.  A little bit of wabi-sabi.  Bruce Weber talks of clients being impatient and wanting to see a photograph, even before it is taken.  How digital has created the need for urgency, immediacy, perfection, and if not, the ability to make perfection. 

“A lot of people have gotten so used to this digital age. They all expect to see the picture before it is taken. Or they want to change the picture. I like it when pictures aren’t so perfect.” – Bruce Weber on Shooting with Film

I read recently about the thousands of individual micro-lenses that combine to create the perfect depth of field in a digital camera.  The perfect sharpness from the front of the image, all the way to the back.  This is like the new hyper clear and sharp televisions that give me a headache.  Life is not like that. 

When we look at our surroundings, our eyes focus on something.  We focus on something close up and everything else around that object falls slightly out of focus.  If we look at a wider area in the distance, things that are near us drop a little out of focus.  To some degree, analog photography mimics this.  As photographers, when we focus a camera on a particular area in front of us, we are making a decision.  We are choosing to focus on something, and not something else.  Or we may elect to throw it wide open and get as much of the scene in front of the lens into view, but that usually comes at a price, which drops whatever is immediately in front of us out of focus.  Of course, modern technology can mimic these types of decisions.  A digital camera can be set to take photographs like an analog camera.   But, most photographers who shoot using digital don’t bother.  They deal with that on the computer later, using Photoshop, or whatever software platform they choose. 

The joy to me of analog is that you see the image in your mind’s eye.  You set your variables, select what goes where in the frame and focus on whatever draws your attention, or not, depending on what you are trying to achieve.  You press the shutter and you wait. 

First there is the joy of seeing the negative and placing it on the light table, getting out the glass and having a look at what you have managed to capture.  Then there is the print itself, when you place the negative in the enlarger and make the first test print.  Perhaps a small 8×10 or 5×7 print.  And only after you have studied and played with the process for a while do you end up with the final print.  Doubtless, there are imperfections.  Things you could have done better.  Perhaps a bit of shadow where you had not seen it, when composing the image.  Perhaps the horizon line is not entirely level.  Perhaps there are a couple of people in the distance that you had not noticed, because you were so focused on getting a particular subject just right.  To me, this is the fun of photography.  The serendipity that sometimes works in your favour, sometimes not.  This is analog photography.  Photography as it should be.

I have the luxury of making the same photograph five times;  I compose it in my minds eye;  I make the photograph;  I see the negative;  I see the test print;  I make the final print.  And no matter what, there is always something that you wish you could have done perhaps a little differently.  This is wabi-sabi.  The small imperfections that make us human.

Harbel

Paul Hoeffler’s Saturday Night at the Rollerskating Rink

Hoeffler, Paul – Hat and Two Dancers

One of the stories that Paul told was of the Friendly Shooting.  Paul was at a performance by Erskine Hawkins and his minimalist Tuxedo Junction band.  I have selected a few photographs from that evening below, but first, a word or two from Paul:

“The economics of touring with a 16-piece band forced Erskine Hawkins to bring only 6 musicians, including himself on trumpet and Gloria Lynne, vocalist, to play a dance in Rochester, NY.  The performance was held at a converted rollerskating rink.

Hoeffler, Paul – Lady X

Mr. Hawkins and the players were in good spirits, and supportive of my photographing the event.  The tenor player, Julian Dash, strongly suggested I stay with him on the bandstand, when a ‘friendly shooting’ took place.  A girl was most unhappy that her boyfriend had brought another girl to the dance and brought a gun and fired a couple of rounds – nobody was hurt.

Hoeffler, Paul – Dream Dancing

This was a typical evening at this all-black function.  At many of these events, I was one of the few, maybe the only white person there.  There was no hostility, and many people were interested in what I was photographing.  This is a time that no longer exists.  Like Atget’s images of Paris at the turn of the century, these images are a time capsule, a record of a period in our history and in our culture, which we cannot return to.”

Hoeffler, Paul – Gloria Lynne

What I particularly admire about this photography event is the lack of photographs of the band.  I find it infinitely intriguing that Paul spent most of his time on stage shooting the other way.  Out, out onto the dance floor.  It looks cold, along the walls, people are wearing overcoats.  Must have been freezing.  Those that worked the dance floor look a little more comfortable, for a time.  Gloria Lynne pulling a cigarette from a package, surrounded by paper cups of coffee, perhaps spiked with a bit of whisky to keep warm.  There is a wonderful mood in these photographs, a mood that is almost dreamy.  Paul would often refer to these photographs as the Dream Dancing series.  I got the impression that of all his work, these images rose to the top of his list.  He was proud of these images.  This was not Herman Leonard, or William Claxton.  No cigarette smoke to set the mood. This was something entirely different.  More real, more escapist perhaps, and definitely dreamy…..

Harbel

Paul Hoeffler – Lee Morgan

No Outlet

I remember sitting in Paul’s livingroom, or should I say office.  Paul Hoeffler was a great photographer, who lived in a large, old Victorian house in Toronto.  It was the biggest room in the house.  Filled to the gills with files, photographs, reels of taped music… Jazz playing in the background.  Softly.  We were going through some boxes together and Paul was telling me stories.  I liked to sit and listen, as he would hand me a print to look at.  I would take in the circumstances that he was describing, while holding the resulting photograph.  It added an extra layer to the conversation.  Paul was a great storyteller.  One story in particular, which he never actually dictated to me, so I will have to paraphrase, was about his photograph of Lee Morgan. 

Paul described Lee Morgan as one of the very best trumpet players he had ever heard.  A promising and rising star on the Jazz scene.  I am not a musician, so it is hard for me to recount all the superlatives and capabilities as a musician that Paul described, but suffice it to say that he was if not the second coming, at least destined for the stars. 

Paul explained that he had been photographing a performance in 1958 of Lee Morgan playing in Rochester with Art Blakey.  He had met him the year before in Newport.  Paul took a great number of very good photographs of him that night.  But the one that struck me, was an unusual photograph for Paul.  Taken outside the venue, it is Lee Morgan after the concert.  More portrait like, but also very atmospheric.  He is holding his horn, as if about to play.  His carrying case on the ground.  Clearly Paul must have asked him to pull his trumpet out for the photograph.  He never did quite explain how that came about.  But, here is Lee Morgan in his overcoat, horn near his lips, fingers ready to go, his case on the ground in front of him, a little to his right.  He is standing on what looks like wet pavement, with a scattering of leaves around his feet.  But, what you immediately notice is the beaten up sign attached to the telephone pole.  It reads: No Outlet.  The photograph is from 1958.

This photograph Paul saw as a spooky premonition of what was to come in 1972.  He often singled out this photograph when I was around and shook his head.  Somehow feeling connected to a story that he was not a witness to, nor had any part in, but which he somehow felt. 

Paul Hoeffler, – Lee Morgan No Outlet

For those that don’t know, Lee Morgan got introduced to heroin by Art Blakey, during a time when he played with Art Blakey and his Messengers.  The down spiral was hard and the heroin quickly took over.  He met Helen Moore, who ran a kind of after hours gathering place for jazz musicians, doubling as a soup kitchen for down and out jazz musicians in NY.  The story goes that she took pity on Morgan, got his horn back from the pawn shop, and helped him back from the edge. 

They remained a couple for 5 years.  Never got married.  But might as well have been.  Morgan came back with a vengeance and unfortunately, so did the bad behaviour; the booze and the womanizing, which Helen took badly, as the story goes. 

Moore went to one of Lee’s concerts, at the same time as another woman that Morgan was seeing on the side, at the time.  The two women got into a fight during intermission.  Helen reportedly went home and picked up a gun and in a fit of anger shot Morgan in the chest during the second set.  She was heard screaming:  “Baby, what have I done!” as she ran towards the stage.

The joint was appropriately called:  Slugs. 

Lee Morgan was 33.

No Outlet.

Harbel

Note: I have previously written a blog entry about the great Jazz Photographer Paul Hoeffler. This is my second short entry about Paul.

Japanese Post War Photographers

I have spent a lot of time recently looking at Japanese photography from the 1960s through the early 1980s.  There is a great depth of material.  Photographers that are outstanding and so very different from what we are used to seeing in Europe and North America.

I am sure that we can come up with many reasons for this.  The end of WWII.  The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The devastation of a nation.  The loss of a generation.  Famine and malnutrition.  Layer upon layer of pain and suffering.  But the crop of photographers that are now dying out, who were born during or shortly after the war, are sadly not well known outside of Japan.  They did incredible work. 

Often heavy and moody.  Often a little, or even very sad.  Contemplative.  More often than not printed with heavy blacks.  There is a feeling.  An atmosphere that makes me pay attention.  Often saying ‘Japanese’ well before I look at the label.  It is hard to explain.  But, very real.  It is as though the Japanese idea of perfection is there, in terms of skill.  Like a great sushi chef, who spends 10 years making the rice before being let near the fish, or a knife.  Photographers in Japan of the postwar generation are like that to me.  Skilled beyond most anyone, but being Japanese they perfect their skills and then they let a little wabi-sabi in.  A little natural error.  Beauty in imperfection.  This is done with the harder blacks in the printing, the crop, or simply shooting from the hip without even looking, and saving it in the darkroom, as in the case of Moriyama.

I was recently able to view a show by Shin Yanagisawa.  Now in his 80s.  He frequented a particular train station in Japan with obsessive regularity and produced a body of work.  A wonderful book.  And to my good fortune, a small show of vintage prints in a small gallery in Paris.  In the print here, which I admire greatly, he has achieved a feel, a mood and a story to be told by anyone who has ever seen anyone off at a station or airport.  Only 18 x 24 cm in size, the black is deep as the darkest night, and the woman… well, what can I say.  This is a photograph that is universal, yet, so very Japanese.

Shin Yanagisawa – Untitled

In 2001, Shin Yanagisawa said: “…… I have always believed that photographs express something that cannot be captured in words.  If I were able to express myself in words, I would stop working as a photographer.”

The lady on the train needs no title, no story.  This may be the highest form of poetry.

Harbel

Probably the Most Important Living Photographer in America – Shelby Lee Adams and his Appalachian People

One can only stand back and admire Shelby Lee Adams and his commitment to a full and honest presentation of the people of Eastern Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.  For nearly 40 years, he has been doing this with a large format 4”x5” camera, a heavy tripod and repeated visits that have made his sitters close friends, who look forward to his visits, and the photographs that he brings, as a gesture of thank you for letting him make their photographs. 

I think of Shelby Lee Adams as a contextual portraitist.  A photographer who includes enough circumstance and environmental content to not only portray the image of the person, but who also includes references to where the sitter comes from and what they are about.  I could perhaps refer to this as the antithesis of the Irving Penn Worlds in a Small Room photographs.  Where Penn photographed in his mobile studio against a neutral background, Adams works hard to include the references around the sitter to help the viewer better understand the subject of his photographs.

Shelby Lee Adams: Brothers Praying

I understand that Adams walked and drove with his uncle, a retired physician, who after a year of retirement in Florida came back to Kentucky and in a WWII Willy’s Jeep did many years of house calls in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky.  Often riding with his uncle, Adams earned the trust of the many families he met, and one could say, earned the right to return with his heavy and cumbersome tripod and lights.

The photographs that Mr. Adams makes are of course anchored in a long tradition of great photographers.  The list is long and you can no doubt come up with everyone from Disfarmer, to Evans, Dorothea Lange and so forth, but when you take the time to study Adams’ work, you realize that he is different.  The Farm Security Administration set out to document migration and the lot of those that suffered during The Dust Bowl of the 1930s and started the slow move West.  The mostly anonymous people in the FSA archive, who may from time to time be identified with a short description following a quick exchange with the photographer, before they moved on to the next shot, remain largely unknown. FSA photographs are documents, or proof of a certain suffering.  Adams’ work is different. 

Adams’ sitters have a glow in their eyes, an affection that comes across only when the sitter is a close friend, beyond just being a subject.  Adams has spent many, many hours with the families, has shared meals, drunk good home made sour mash and enjoyed the company of these largely forgotten people that somehow the American Dream left at the doorstep.  Proud, free and honest, often grounded in a strong Christian faith, the people of Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs come to life in a way that can only happen when you can feel an intimacy between the person with the button and the person in front of the lens. Adams says: “I can’t emphasize enough how vital a non-judgmental eye and sincere recognition is…. Kindness and empathy contribute on this journey. “

Shelby Lee Adams: Mary, 1989

Shelby Lee Adams of course is also a master printer.  His work comes across in beautifully toned prints on paper that is the best available.  I am sure, he would have dreamed of having some of the papers that were available 50, or more years ago.  There is a classic elegance to the work that would have been perfect on a warm 1930s paper.  However, we live in the 21st century and we work with what is available and Mr. Adams does a wonderful job presenting his subjects in a manner that can only be described as timeless, reverential, but honest and true to the circumstances under which the people live in the Hollers of Eastern Kentucky.

When still available, Shelby Lee Adams worked with a Polaroid back for his 4”x5” camera and used to give the Polaroid to the subject of his photograph, before organizing himself for the actual exposure.  Taking home the film and developing and printing the images in his studio at the very north tip of the Appalachian Mountains, Shelby Lee Adams returns a couple of times a year to visit and share the resulting images with his friends, who greet him with a smile and a hug.

You can feel Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs.  This is rare and wonderful and justifies my nomination for the title the Most Important Living Photographer in America.

Harbel

The World of Photography Knew it was Inevitable. Yet We Mourn.

Robert and Fred died within a day of one another.  Both hugely significant in their own right, and while one will always overshadow the other, it would be a great shame for one to be lost and not given the proper attention that he deserves…..

On Tuesday the September 10th, it happened.  What everyone had been expecting and nobody wanted.  Robert Frank, perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century passed. I have a great passion for the type of photographs that Robert Frank made.  Frank’s timing was not always perfect, his focus sometimes a little off, even his lighting was sometimes a little too hard, or too soft, but he captured images that forever changed photography and gave him almost mythical status.  Among those of us who like to think we make photographs in a certain tradition that for all intents and purposes link directly back to him, he is a god.

Robert Frank had an uncanny ability to see things that captured the essence of our existence.  I doesn’t matter if you look at his later work, which was more cerebral, or if you look at his break-through portfolio ‘The Americans’, it was always about capturing an honest, unembellished truth.  The essence of an American town, a rodeo, a road leading to eternity, or a tuba.  His images were not all individually outstanding, though many were, but they have an honesty and a virtual time-stamp that bring out the best in time, place and circumstance.

Robert Frank was Swiss, he captured America with an open mind and an open heart, as only one from ‘away’ can, which leads me to the second thing that happened that week……

The day before, on the 9th of September, in Vancouver, a city known in photography circles mostly for contemporary work – some in large light boxes – the passing of Fred Herzog went largely unnoticed, except by those who either knew him, or admired his visionary approach to colour photography. 

Vancouver in the 1950s was a backwater, a pacific port with lots of warehouses, ships coming and going and a departure point for those engaged in the mining- and logging industries.  Not particularly refined, nor particularly pretty.  With a setting between ocean and mountains it had a great canvas. But as only we humans can, it was a lot of front row industry, a busy, dirty and noisy port, lots of really bad neon, bars, wooden houses that looked ever so temporary, surrounding a couple of monumental stone buildings, that would eventually come to anchor what most will now agree is a world city. 

Transience was the nature of the old wood houses that were usually no more than a couple of stories high, set in a tight geographical setting that over time would require much densification and endless high-rises.  As such, much of what was around in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased.  Virtually no evidence of the frontier town by the water remains.  Thank goodness for Fred!  At a time when colour film was slow as frozen molasses, and people still moved as quickly as they do today, Fred captured Vancouver in a way that is both local and global.  He found qualities in simple new cars in an alley, a sea of neon lights, the interior of a barbershop, a window at the hardware store, and in people who look like they are from everywhere. 

For most people these scenes are difficult to place geographically, other than it being somewhere in North America, but that is what makes them great.  Herzog doesn’t dwell on the incredibly beautiful Vancouver setting with mountains, sea and sky, but on the urban.  Often the slightly gritty urban.  His head-on elegant use of colour and composition with people peppered in for good measure, always in just the right number and somehow perfectly placed, gives rise to his great eye and masterly skill, using tools that today seem almost impossible to handle well.

The Equinox Gallery in Vancouver still has a great selection of Fred Herzog’s work.  It is still attainable and exquisitely printed from the original Kodachrome slides that in miraculous fashion have survived less than optimal circumstances.

Fred’s work found its way to Paris Photo a few years ago, the annual mecca for those, like myself who are consumed by great photography.  A bold show of only Fred’s work took up an entire, large booth at the seminal event of the year.  It was a popular stop for collectors, who found something new, exciting and rooted in photographic excellence.

Fred worked for the University of British Columbia for almost as long as I have been alive.  He started the year I was born.  He photographed in the name of science and in his spare time out of personal obsession the city he came to love from a very early age.  Anecdotally, he came to Vancouver based on a single photograph in a geography textbook at school back in Germany, where he was born, during a time of great upheaval. 

Fred came to Canada in 1952.  He leaves a legacy, having captured a vanished time, but while geographically specific and significant, also of great universal appeal.

Ulrich Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart, Germany, September 21st, 1930 and passed away in Vancouver on September 9th, 2019. He was 88.

Both Herzog and Frank were not from where their most famous work is made.  Is this significant?  Does the outsider see differently…?  Save that for another day.

Harbel, Donostia

The Americans – the Book – Robert Frank’s Lessons for all Photographers

“I want to do a big project on America, and I’d like to apply for a Guggenheim grant.  You would need to sign a paper for me, agreeing to publish a book with my photographs.  I think that would allow me to get the grant.”

Robert Frank to Robert Dalpire, 1954, Artist and Publisher ‘The Americans’

Much has been written about the photography book that defines the genre; ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, published by Robert Dalpire.  I am interested in this book for three major reasons.  One; of course because it is a wonderful collection of photographs by a Swiss photographer seeing America for the first time.  Two; the building of a book of images, none of which dominate the others.  Three; the origin of the layout and how it came to be.

Let me address these three points in order. 

There is something wonderful about seeing a place for the first time.  There is something even more wonderful about being a photographer and seeing for the first time.  America in the 1950s was a place that experienced unprecedented growth.  Prosperity and the development of the suburbs, grilling on the barbeque, big – no massive – cars with fins and all manner of chrome and engines so big, a small village could run for a week on the gas alone.  There was advertising everywhere and progress looked like it would go on forever.  Optimism was the American way in the 1950s. 

Against this excitement of a new era, Robert Frank traveled to the United States and got in a car and drove, and drove, and drove and made pictures all along the way.  One could say he looked behind the veneer of what appeared to be endless happiness, freedom and hope.  He saw, as only an outsider can, which is what makes ‘The Americans’ such an incredible book.

On my second point, I have written before about how when you make a book you cannot have one or two home-run photographs, you need to have a balance of images that are complementary, without a single stand-out image dominating.  There is a fine art to acknowledging that you may not want to take your best photograph and put it on the cover of a book, because it has a tendency to dominate everything in the book, to the point that nobody sees anything but the incredible image on the cover.  In short, you need a different approach to making a book than making a photograph.  Robert Frank understood this.  He decided on one image per double-page-spread.  Letting each image speak for itself, without a context, or a story.  Just an image.  No image dominates the others, and no image stands out as being better, or more successful than the others.  There is an elegance and balance here, which every book-maker and photographer could learn from.

On the third point; In an interview Robert Dalpire, Frank’s publisher, says that he and Frank laid out the photographs on the floor, with no pre-determined number of photographs.  Dalpire is quoted as saying:  “….There was no problem in terms of the selection.  As for the sequence, we did it just like that, intuitively.” Dalpire and Frank ended up with 174 pages.  What they did that day changed how photography books are made and has set a standard rarely achieved since.

Finally, I would like to address the critic.  In ‘The Photobook; A History, Volume 1’ by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon, 2005), there is a description of how ‘The Americans’ is structured around four segments, or ‘chapters’, as Parr/Badger call them.  Each section introduced by the American flag.  Parr and Badger say the book has…“an internal logic, complexity and irresistible flow that moves from the relatively upbeat pictures at the beginning to a final image of tenderness….”.  To this Roger Dalpire responded: “I say it is non-sense. It is a very subjective remark that has no relationship to what we did.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat is quoted as saying: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”  Yet, we place great emphasis on what is good and what is bad, according to a few people, who in many cases are powerful influencers, who can make or break a career.  We cannot all be like Basquiat and not care, mostly because we all need to make a living doing whatever work we do.  Artists are no different, they may work for themselves, or in collaboration with a gallery, but there are still influencers out there that can make or break their career with the stroke of a pen.  A nasty review and the buyers and public stay home with their wallets tightly shut.

All this said, it is great to see now and again that the critic, who takes himself seriously and writes eloquently about photography, in this case photography books, is completely overthinking the work and is outright wrong, creating context that simply is not there.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Harbel

Remembering D-Day 1944

Harbel: Pointe du Hoc

For those that weren’t there, D-day will always be a concoction of movies like The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, Saving Private Ryan, etc. mixed with stories from books, and in my case the 11 photographs by Robert Capa, that in my mind are among the most mind blowing photographs ever taken. 

As we park our car and walk into the centre of Sainte-Mère-Église, on the 5th of June, we are immediately taken by the carnival atmosphere in the small town.  I don’t know what I expected, but what I clearly failed to understand was that for the French June 5th, 1944, and the many days that followed from town to town, was a celebration.  A party. 

Harbel: Sainte-Mère-Église

I am sure the local population thinks every year about all the sacrifices that were made to liberate their towns The locals were people that for the better part of 5 years had been under the thumb of the Germans.  Over the 5 years leading up to the 5th of June, the Germans were either preparing for invasion or laying out their coastal defenses.  The villages must have been crawling with Germans.  And then one night there was deliverance from the sky in the form of hundreds of parachutists that were to help hold the bridgehead, when on the 6th of June the main landing would take place.

The local people of Sainte-Mère-Église dress up in period costume, they wear fatigues, the women and girls wear dresses in the style of the 1940s, they set up stands selling anything and everything that could pass as a souvenir, or could be consumed in the form of food and drink. But don’t misunderstand. They honour the allied soldiers that came to their rescue and they mourn those that never made it off the beach.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

Canadians, British and Americans come here to mourn their dead and honour those that survived the greatest amphibious landing in history, ultimately leading to the downfall of yet another tyrant set on global domination.  Those that were there come to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice, those same men who to this day cannot understand why they are still alive when their comrades fell by the hundreds and thousands.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

On the 5th of June we watched as the large Hercules aircraft dropped hundreds of parachutists in a field near Sainte-Mère-Église. A parachute jump organized across regiments and nations that participated on that fateful day 75 years ago.  As the parade passed along the streets to the main square, where the famous parachute still hangs each year from the top of the church with a dummy representing the famous parachute drop that was a little too close to town, so prominently part of the famous story that became The Longest Day.

Harbel – Sainte-Mère-Église
Penn, Bob – Contact Sheet – The Longest Day

We honour those that made it ashore and lived to fight another day, ultimately making it to Berlin and ending what was perhaps the greatest risk to the freedom and democracy, that we enjoy today.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

On the 6th of June, we visited the beaches, walked through the cemeteries and at one point stood above a beach, where a single solitary figure stood hunched over, only a few feet from the water’s edge.  No, I didn’t take the photograph, nor did I go closer.  This was a veteran that needed to be alone and to remember his friends.  Those that did not survive the day.

Harbel: Beny sur Mer

This is neither the time, nor the place to play politics, or pontificate, however, it seems to me that we are standing at a time when democracy is at great risk in many places around the world and it behooves us to remember and to make sure that the men that landed on D-Day did not do so in vain. 

Harbel 

Paul Hoeffler – the G.O.A.T. Jazz Photographer

Paul Hoeffler was my friend.  We spent many a night discussing great Jazz musicians and his photographs over bottles of single malt whisky.  Always Jazz music playing in the background, softly, as often Claire, his wife, would be giving piano lessons in the next room.  Paul is virtually unknown outside a small circle of committed admirers, yet, he deserves so much more…..

I think back on the man that didn’t take the obvious photograph, but was more in tune than any other musician photographer, that I can think of.  Paul knew music.  He knew Jazz.   His office and studio took up the entire living room in his traditional red brick house in Toronto’s Roncesvalles area.  And unlike any other photographer that I have visited, Paul’s place was equally full of records, discs, reel tapes and recordings of every kind, and the boxes, and boxes of photographs and negatives that made you careful where you sat and vigilant about where you put down your whisky glass.

But first things first.  I was introduced by my bank manager, who thought I knew something about marketing and perhaps could help one of his customers figure out what to do with a room full of prints and negatives.  We met and I would say that had Paul been a sailor, I would have called him salty.  He was in his early 60s when we met.  Paul was born in 1937.  And he was surrounded by a very large amount of stuff, which I think only he knew his way around.  When we met, he had had a long career in places like Rochester, NY; New York City; Providence, RI, before moving to Toronto and settling down for keeps.  I got the impression that he was sad at the state of the art of photography, in the sense that he felt that he no longer could get the access he needed to make the photographs that mattered.  Too many managers, handlers, agents, security guards, fences and locked doors.  He would often say things like: “those times are gone”, or “it is not like that anymore”.  A little bitter perhaps.  I don’t know, but a master of the highest order.

Paul studied photography at RIT, the famous Rochester Institute of Technology. Names like Minor White and passers by like Ansel Adams were the cast of characters that gave courses and instructed the young Hoeffler. RIT is of course located in the legendary city that spawned Kodak, and therefore seemed like a logical place to study photography.  He started to shoot at virtually the same time as Tri-X film became the film of choice for consistent black and white photographs.  As a young student one of his first assignments was a Jazz concert. And as they say, the rest is history.

Paul knew the music, almost as well as those playing it and he therefore knew where to be and where to focus during a performance.  I was fortunate to work endless nights with Paul on a catalogue for an exhibition.  A humble 24 page booklet, yet, I heard and re-heard stories that eventually got transcribed by me and became part of the catalogue. 

I don’t think anyone will be able to find a copy of the catalogue today, so I will take the liberty of recounting a couple of the stories.  Ones that have stuck with me. 

Let me start with the 1955 meeting with Louis Armstrong.  During a break in the concert at Rochester, Paul Hoeffler went back-stage and went into the dressing-room where Armstrong was holding court.  I will leave the words to Paul, as I recorded them:   

“Armstrong was there with a lot of fans and admirers.  People would come up and say:  ‘Louis, I am a little short, can you help out?’  He had his big roll of bills, and he would peel off a $5, a $10 or a $20.  The place cleared out a bit and I was shooting some pictures.  He had a bandanna around his head and he looked at me and said ’Oh, you might want to have a picture like this.’ He put his horn up to his lips and posed for me for several pictures.  I had enough sense to shoot a few frames and stop and say:  ‘Thank you, very much.’  I added; ‘Incidentally, in the movie last year, you played a tune called Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya.  Would there be any chance of you doing that in the second half?’  Trummy Young the trombonist, was with him and Louis nudged to him and said:  ‘Remember the movie we made about the white trombone player, Miller?’  Trummy smiled.  ‘Remember the tune we played, Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya?  Our friend here would like to hear that in the second half.  Think we can do it?’  Trummy nodded.  I thanked him very much and went out.  For the second half of the program, I went into the pit right in font of the stage.  The band came out.  Armstrong played a tune and then spotted me.  He nudged Trummy, looked at me and announced to the audience: ‘Last year we made a film about Glen Miller.  And in that we played a tune called Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya.  We have a special friend here tonight, who made a request to hear that tune, and right now we would like to play that and dedicate it to our friend.’  I was 17.  I was floating.”

Paul was full of stories like this.  He would tell me he was on stage with Erskine Hawkins and his band taking pictures, under the watchful eye of Julian Dash, the tenor sax player, who had suggested he stay close.  He was the only white boy in the entire roller skating rink, and following a disgruntled girlfriend shooting a couple of rounds, apparently upset that her boyfriend had taken another girl to the dance, Paul understood and stayed close.  Nobody was hurt.  I don’t know if this explains how Paul had access, but he took photographs from under keyboards, behind drums….  That night, Paul shot the audience from the stage and produced what he often referred to as his Dream Dancing photographs.  A little fuzzy, very moody, they show outlines of bodies moving around the dance floor.  You can almost hear the music.

Paul Hoeffler: Dream Dancing

Finally, the one shot that I think says it all about how Paul worked. He was at a show with Count Basie and his Orchestra. He was, as usual in prime position, but he didn’t do the obvious, he photographed the wives and girlfriends waiting in the wings. Desperate for the show to end and their lives to begin again. It is a photograph with so much atmosphere and so much feeling, and at the same time an eye for what it was like being on the road, night after night putting on a great show.

Paul Hoeffler: Wives and Girlfriends

I am often reminded of how Herman Leonard, or William Claxton photographed Jazz, and while Paul was in contact with many other jazz photographers, he was in my mind better.  Unlike Leonard, who seems to desperately cling to a steady supply of cigarette smoke emanating from conveniently placed ashtrays, Paul didn’t need these tricks to make magic.  He felt photographs. 

I will probably write a couple more entries about Paul and his photographs.  He passed away from cancer some years ago.  Never a dull moment around Paul.  He was full of stories, full of life and had a deep, very deep knowledge of the music and the musicians that he photographed.  Paul Hoeffler, the Greatest Of All Time. I miss him.

Harbel

Henri Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment on the Run

In a recent article, Agnes Sire, the Director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed the legendary photographer – by most collectors and enthusiasts of photography simply referred to as HCB – setting out to explain some of the magic that has surrounded the photographer for more than three quarters of a century.  Here is my contribution:

In HCB’s seminal book, in English called “The Decisive Moment” and in French “Images à la Sauvette” (1952), HCB assembled a selection of his photographs of various subjects, in a novel style that was made possible by a small, nimble hand-held camera, in the hands of a master, who had a great eye and a classical background in composition.  The book has come to be, perhaps, the most important book ever published in the field of photography.

The HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of his book.  In English The Decisive Moment, in French translated into English Images on the Run.  Arguably HCB did both, he found the exact moment to take a photograph. He did so with great composition and great command of light and shadow.  However, the concept of the decisive moment is based on perfect composition and perfect content, but to make a photograph at the decisive moment, you have to wait for the decisive moment.  You have to be patient.  You compose your image in the view-finder, you set the graphic elements and ensure that the light and shadow elements will work in the final black and white print, and then you wait.  You wait for the right element to enter the photograph, usually this is people, a dog, a car or another moving object and you press the shutter when the moving element is in the perfect position in the composition you have prepared for it.  This is the Decisive Moment. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Hyères

A good example is the bicycle rider in the 1932 image from Hyères in the south of France.  The graphic elements of the staircase, the position of the photographer above the subject, and the stairs, walls and building all round, create the perfect setting.  The perfect light and shadow elements form the perfect frame for the lone bicycle rider that comes along the cobble stones on the road below. 

Images on the Run, on the other hand, suggests that you lift the camera, compose the image on the fly and capture the moving elements perfectly within the field of the viewfinder.  All in a fraction of a second.  This requires not only incredible luck and intuition when it comes to the compositional, or graphic elements, but also the moving elements have to be just perfect.  While I would argue that this happens, it does not happen often, and certainly not every time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre

A prime example of this would be HCB’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre, which captures the jumping figure and his reflection in the standing, perfectly still water, with a poster in the background of a circus artist in a strikingly similar position as the jumper in the foreground.  There would have been only a second or two to anticipate this shot and certainly no time to prepare.  Lucky?  Perhaps, but it still takes a great eye to make this come together.

The contradiction in these two photographs is that in the first, the one from Hyères, it is 99% sure that the composition was created, and the shutter pushed down only when the bicycle appeared below.  Arguably, HCB might have seen a bicycle come across the field, followed by him setting up the shot and waiting for the next bicycle, however, unlike the Saint Lazarre image, where HCB could see in advance that the figure was going to come across the boards and would perhaps jump, giving him time to raise the camera and press the shutter at the perfect moment, the shot with the bicycle could not be anticipated, as the bicycle  would have come from behind the building to the right at some speed, and there simply would not have been time to even raise the camera.

This interpretation of the two book titles, perhaps illustrated with the two examples above, creates part of the mystique around HCB.  He nursed this mystique.  It is said that he buried a small box of negatives – individual negatives cut from whole rolls – in his garden before the outbreak of World War II.  The mystique is augmented, as some of these negatives are among his most celebrated.  They date from the 1920s and 30s and are in many cases iconic.  However, in saving individual negatives only, as opposed to entire rolls of film, you cannot see, if he took 30 photographs to get the one with the bicycle…. Perhaps there was one with a pedestrian, one with a pram, one with a car, and so forth, and he selected the one with the bicycle.  There is no way of knowing how the decisive moment was achieved.  How many shots it took before the  bicycle came along.  It is more than likely that there would have been several photographs from the same spot before the bicycle came along.  We will never know, and I am convinced that HCB liked it that way.  The box of individual negatives contributed greatly to the legend that he became and cemented in his followers his incredible ability to compose every frame perfectly every time.  We will never know how many photographs of the same scene would have appeared over and over again with variations in the key moving elements, until the right one came along and the decisive moment occurred.

Why is this important you ask?  Well, I think the majority of HCB’s iconic images are actually very carefully composed frames with moving elements captured just at the right time.  As opposed to simply lifting the camera at the right second and by magic shooting at the same time as designing the composition within the frame, as would be the case with the ‘photographer on the run’.

This is by no means a scientific analysis of the master’s work, nor is it a critique of the man’s incredible skill and his wonderful photographs, it is my interpretation of how he nursed his own legend and at the same time suggested that compositional, framing elements were everything, but that the fraction of a second when the decisive moment happened was also everything and somehow the compositional elements came together with the moving elements in a decisive moment, in a spontaneous, not pre-planned fashion.  This is pure fabrication.  Perfect composition, lighting and the moving elements do not just come together in the 1/125th of a second that one might shoot in today, or the 1/50th of a second that HCB would have shot at in the middle of the last century.  Yes, it can happen.  Yes, experience will help with the composition elements.  But it is not something that happens over and over again and just for HCB.

I am not suggesting that HCB’s photographs are not mind-blowing and that the sheer volume of his incredible photographs are not awe-inspiring for any photographer, what I am saying is that a great number of his photographs are carefully composed in advance and taken once the moving, critical element entered the frame in exactly the right position and the shutter was pushed.  Of course, lots of HCB’s photographs are absolutely taken on the run, but often the compositional elements are not quite as strong, and the action, or the moving elements, as I call them, tend to be a little more centered in the frame, as would be natural, if you see something happening, you raise and point your camera, and press the shutter, all in a matter of a split second.

In conclusion:  HCB did both the well-composed decisive moment photographs and the images on the run photographs.  So, perhaps it is appropriate that his collection of photographs published to such great effect in 1952, in a somewhat convoluted manner had both titles.  The result is a collection of both carefully composed images, where behind the scenes, an entire roll might have been committed to get just the right moving element, and images that were a result of a split second decision to shoot, where a roll might actually contain 36 completely different photographs.

HCB was superb at supporting his own legend, and had a reputation for harshly critiquing mentees who broke his rules for strict composition and perfect timing for the moving elements.  He was a great photographer, but the legend that all his photographs were split-second decisions, where he just happened to be exactly in the right place, in the exact right position, in the 1/50th of a second where the whole thing came together in his view-finder just so, is entirely the stuff of legend and a carefully nurtured legend at that, which HCB seems to have enjoyed thoroughly.  His writings, his quotations, his legendary privacy, hatred of having his picture taken, all have fed the reputation and formed the iconic legacy that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and beyond.

One of his more famous quotes reads:

“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry – it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.

 This is the stuff of legend, and for the average photographer the kind of stuff that makes the knees knock and the hands shake.  And while it can certainly happen, it is the exception rather than the rule, because as a rule with HCB, composition came first, and more often than not, the moving elements were the result of patience and multiple efforts before achieving the final result.  The quote is revisionist, and designed to further fuel the legend.

It doesn’t diminish the value or the incredible number of magnificent photographs that the master produced during his long career, but it does make him human.  At least a little more human than the legend might otherwise suggest.

Harbel             

Peter Fetterman – The True Gallerist

For a long time I have been subscribing to Alex Novac’s newsletter.  Alex sells photographs and is a well-respected expert, particularly in the area of 19th century images.  He also takes it upon himself to provide updates to his subscribers on a variety of current events, and I paid particular attention to his summary of discussions with exhibitors at Paris Photo, which I attend each November and have for years.

This year, he interviewed and quoted a number of exhibitors who overall were very happy with the exhibition and enjoyed the incredible attendance and the many sales, as well as seeing what their colleagues are up to.  Paris Photo remains the key event in the calendar of anyone collecting photographs, wherever they might be from in the world.

In 2018, one of the booths at Paris Photo was Peter Fetterman, one of the Grand Masters of the medium from his gallery in California.  Peter Fetterman’s booth at Paris Photo was a wonderful display of what the French call ‘Humaniste’ photography, what I often translate to ‘The Human Condition’.  I quote, as follows from Alex’s newsletter:

With regards to the photography market generally, Fetterman commented, “If it’s great material and it touches people, then the market is strong. I think people are more sensitive now and can tell when an image has been created for a market rather than as a personal statement. All these photographers in my booth, back in the day they never sold anything. They did it, because they had to do it. Emotionally they had to express themselves through their photography. But a lot of the work created today is big prints about nothing, in an edition of three, and that’s supposed to make it important? It’s manufactured, and I think people are catching on to that. It’s a lot of hype. I think the real artists will always be successful, and the here-today, gone tomorrow won’t. It’s Darwin basically, survival of the fittest and the most talented. And I think market corrections are good.”

I have for many years been wondering how some of the modern photographs that we see commanding huge prices can possibly be set along side some of the masters of the medium.  More about that another day, and hats off to Peter Fetterman.  I share his views.

Harbel