Once a year. For two days. The World comes to Lille in Northern France for what is proclaimed as the World’s largest flea market. Several days before vendors claim their turf with chalk lines along every street and sidewalk. Some sleep in their cars, others have been lucky and scored a hotel room in the area. Bright and early the bargain hunters come off the train in groves, or find their way from the giant overflow parking lots near the citadel.
Moules frites – mussels and French fries – are consumed in hugely impressive quantities on picnic tables set up for the occasion down the middle of several streets, and at the end a great enclosure holds a mountain of empty shells. By the time Sunday comes around and the packing up begins, the mountain has risen beyond the height of a man.
As you walk, shoulder-to-shoulder along the streets and boulevards, there are vendors on every corner, and every inch of sidewalk in-between. Local farmers bring whatever they found rusting in the barn, while others bring serious antiques from the high-end markets in Paris. There is something for everyone. And by everyone, I of course include myself with my camera. I had the great pleasure of walking this insane gathering twice. Each time was a challenge simply to have enough frames to capture the wonderful spectacle that flea markets so often can present.
As so many things, the 2020 version of the great Braderie was cancelled. This was not unexpected, given the hundreds of thousands of people that attend each year. Social distancing would just not have been an option there. But of course it is always sad when an event that has gone from being a simple flea market to a major international attraction – well regional anyway – is postponed, or cancelled outright.
I attended a few years ago and have selected a few photographs here for your enjoyment. I can strongly recommend the great spectacle and encourage anyone with the finger on the shutter to have a look. It is well worth the trip to Lille. But, fair warning; book early, expect insane crowds and don’t forget the mussels and of course the excellent beer. Northern France has a great brewing tradition, and given that Belgium is only a dozen kilometers to the north of Lille, it is hardly surprising that the selection and quality is top notch.
15 years ago, I bought my first photograph by Chris Killip. The photograph represents a time in history, where a committed, but impressionable 30 year-old Killip witnessed the bottom of an economic cycle in Northern England, when industrial manufacturing was dying, and poverty and despair were the order of the day.
I relate to the photograph in my own personal way, as I am pretty sure that the young man in the photograph is more or less my age. It is difficult to say exactly, as Killip has not said anything about his subject, other than naming the photograph: Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976. In 1976, I was 15 years old, much the same, I think as the young man in this photograph. My father always said that I should always remember that we do not pick where we are born. The Youth on the Wall grew up at a time when things were tough, factories shutting, unions being busted, and the industrial heartland of the United Kingdom gutted.
The young man is wearing a warn jacket – half a suit, I think, that has seen much better days – with pockets appear to have held clenched fists for a very long time, and perhaps a rolled up tweed cap. We can see a couple of stripes at the bottom of a sweater, which to me looks like part of a former school uniform. We cannot see what he wears under the sweater, but I would guess a not-so-white undershirt. His trousers are black and suggest that they have been worn a lot. Long wool socks connect the trousers that look shorter than they probably should have been at the time, with the massive worn boots, that seem impossibly big, or at least several sizes larger than what this otherwise gaunt young man should need. But what really grabs me, aside from the great photographic composition, are the clenched fists pressed against the young man’s forehead, and the lines emanating from his closed eyes, and across his forehead below the very short hair, no doubt cut quickly with a machine. It is as though the youth wants to will himself to disappear. To vanish from the trials and tribulations that form his seemingly endless reality.
The composition of the photograph reminds me of Ruth Bernhard’s nudes in boxes. It is as though the young man is making himself as small as possible to fit in a tiny space identical to the photographer’s frame. His clothes remind me of the grafters that would show up every day looking for backbreaking work in the docks of Liverpool, or Belfast. Men hoping to be picked by the crew bosses for a day’s work loading, or unloading ships by hand. Colin Jones’ work comes to mind. I can imagine that the youth has a rolled up cap in his pocket and could easily fit in among the thousands of day-labourers hoping to stave off the greedy landlord for another day and buy the basics for a simple meal for himself and his family. Of course, Killip’s youth is much too thin and weak to ever get called upon by the crew bosses.
Chris Killip passed away on Tuesday. He was 74. He is best known for his work in North England in the mid-1970s. He created a body of work that was collected in one of the most important photography books of the period: In Flagrante. Killip lived among his subjects, shared their loss and their despair and understood the context of his photographs – if not yet the importance – such that he was able to vanish into the background and show the raw reality of what was happening at a time in history that was cruel, hard, and for many an endless fight to simply survive.
I look at this photograph every day when I walk into my living room. It reminds me that I should take nothing for granted and should be happy to be alive, healthy and eager to take on the day.
Chris Killip (1946 – 2020) Rest in Peace, and thank you for the daily reminder.
Note: First published on The Eye of Photography: https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/in-memoriam-chris-killip-1946-2020-by-soren-harbel-dv/
The lab where I buy my Ilford FP4 film is in Valencia, Spain. Their service is excellent and I am happy to give them a shout out: Carmencita Film Lab is great. They ship quickly and always have stock on hand. I have not tried any of their other services, but if they are anything like their film service, I am sure they are great!
The reason I decided to write this blog entry is the tag line on Carmencita’s website, which I have used for the title here: Because Life is not made of 1s and 0s. I am starting to see a renaissance in the use of film. People stop me and ask about my camera. In the line-up at airport security – as it used to be – there was always curiosity around my old beaten up Leica, but the frequency is definitely up.
I take this as a signal that the concept of the limitation to just 36 frames, the wabi-sabi of having to wait to see your imperfect negative and print, along with the idea that digital manipulation is not a requirement, is back in vogue.
After all, digital manipulation has nothing to do with the concept of capturing light and shadow, which is the foundation of black and white photography, it is about fixing it later. Photography should be about you and your pursuit of excellence in the moment, much like drawing a circle freehand, over and over again, knowing you will never do so perfectly, but you still keep trying!
To many, I will always be a dinosaur. A slowly evolving photographer, who has spent countless hours trying to get the camera to help me capture my particular split second view of the world around me. I frame, I shoot, and I hope that I get what I conceived in my mind’s eye. Sometimes it works, more often it doesn’t. I like the idea of chance… of serendipity.
So, for those that are interested in analogue and those that see film as the new frontier: Welcome! For those that are still shooting film and love it: Keep doing your thing!
If we are lucky, the analogue ripple may one day turn into a proper wave – if not a tsunami – and we may actually trigger the rebirth of interesting printing papers on par with what existed in the first half of the 20th century.
I came across a photograph by the Italian Master Photographer Nino Migliori. Like most other photographers, I have known Migliori only for a single image. In fact, I will admit that I knew the photograph, but not the maker for many years. I am of course thinking of his spectacular Il Tuffatore (The Diver) from 1951, which I always think of in the company of Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer from 1917. Both of which have achieved almost iconic status.
“The Diver” – shown above – is the result of a great eye, a great composition and a little good fortune, given the speed of film in 1951. But, to my happy surprise, I ran into an auction catalogue, where I saw another Migliori image, which I had not seen before, and which I find wonderful.
Born in 1926, Migliori is closing in on his first century. He has worked in what I would describe as an independent and slightly irreverent manner his whole life. His work reflects a great love of his native Italy, while at the same time making images that are not necessarily geographically specific, but rather show the genius of a great observer. I have previously quoted Eduoard Boubat, who noted that the difference between a great photographer and everyone else, is that “the wandering photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He however stops to watch it.”
When you stand in the window and look at the rain come down and your daily walk with your camera is messed up, because of bad light and rain, it takes a certain genius to see this photograph develop in front of you. Add to that the great fortune that someone down there didn’t get the memo about the exclusive use of black umbrellas….. The photography gods were clearly on the side of Nino Migliori.
The photograph plays with scale. It takes a while to figure out what you are looking at, and to me at least, it has an almost botanical feel. A close-up photograph of a pillow of perfectly formed dark flowers with a single bloom that is without pigment? Or, with a smile on my face, I thought it could be the pope amongst his flock, but of course on closer inspection, the tightness of the crowd and their umbrellas throw you back to a time when people carried black umbrellas, wore hats, and suits and actually went to the office. Now people sit at home thinking of a time when crowded streets and subway platforms were the norm, hoping one day to return.
It is time to look at more work by Migliori. I look forward to it!
– It is sinking in…. even among non-photographers!
Early this morning, I was walking through the Milano Centrale railway station. For the most part you could fire a cannon in the place and hit nothing. For an average Wednesday, it was a little sad. No, very sad. COVID19 is still very much in play here in Italy and people are playing it safe. Doing what they now call ‘smartwork’ which is the new term for working from home.
I passed a bookshop that was open early, maybe dreaming of selling a newspaper or two, and much to my surprise it finally happened…… The photography monographs were mixed in with the painting and sculpture monographs. First, I was irritated, because seriously, who wants to go through reams of books to find the photographers. But then, it dawned on me. This is probably the first time I have encountered an art section, and not an art section, a photography section and an architecture section. I realized that this might just be the wave of the future – finally – where books on Rembrandt sit next to books on Marc Riboud. Martine Franck next to Helen Frankenthaler. You get the idea.
It is perhaps appropriate that I discovered this in Milan and not some other city, because this month kicks off the 15th Milan Photo Festival, which runs from the 7th of September to the 15th of November. Milan has always had a great crop of artists, chief among them Gianni Berengo Gardin – my personal hero – who turns 90 this year! Galleries work hard, alongside auction houses to educate and bring great exhibitions to the citizens of Milan and those that come to visit from elsewhere.
The photograph above is one from my collection, a small vintage print from a platform at Milano Centrale in the 1950s. More people then, than now, but nice to see that Campari was still a great drink then, as it is today! Mario De Biasi was a great photographer, not well known outside Italy, but worth a look!
When in the early 1990s, I finally went back to university to study art history with a focus on photography, there was no doubt that the female photographers dominated. This was in part because the school that I attended was a very pink school (I say pink, because when I was growing up, it was customary for the serious feminists to wear a pink-dyed headscarf, and for them to be referred to as being ‘pink’). In addition to being a university run by a strong group of feminists, it was politically quite far to the left of centre, and so one could argue that the pink became red and sometimes it was hard to determine the exact shade.
One thing is very clear: Female photographers were central to my first serious ventures into the world of photography. Add to this the egalitarian nature of photographing – after all, as Chef Custeau would have said, had he been a photographer and not a chef: “Anyone can photograph.” There is a level playing field for the photographer – any photographer – to create a good, or even a great image. Sure, there were, and still are, barriers to entry, from a commercial point of view, glass ceilings, and so forth, but the image itself is available to anyone. Back in the day, if you could lay your hands on a camera and some film, you could create. Today the average phone can do the trick. I hope that my time spent in a left-leaning school, in the company of women photographers has stood me well in my own work, trying to be humble and appreciate great work, whatever the source.
I have thought often about those days and all the images that moved from the projector to the screen, while the talking heads pointed out particular qualities and characteristics that were important to pass the upcoming exam. The list of female photographers; famous, well-known and less-well-known, was long.
Personally, I am drawn to work that has an ephemeral quality, where the photographer, the printing, the paper and the image come together in splendid whole, capturing an elusive fraction of a second in time. When this is successful, there is nothing like it. You can have long discussions about the technical aspects of all the steps that go into making a great photograph, but at the end of all this, only one thing remains, the gift that the photographer presents to you, or me, the viewer.
Photographs that really work have this extra quality that you cannot put your finger on. For me it is a whole movie with a great soundtrack condensed and concentrated into a single frame on a small piece of paper, brought to life by the vision of the photographer. There can be no lengthy description, no deeply articulated justification for the work. There is the work. The single image. The story that I get to write in my mind is mine, and mine alone, as I look at this humble piece of paper with blacks and whites and all manner of greys in-between.
I am drawn, in particular to a quote by Jürgen Schadeberg, who very smartly points out that: “there are certain moments we do not see unless we photograph them.” This goes hand-in-hand with what Edouard Boubat has said many times: “”The photographer sees the same show that everyone else sees. He however stops to watch it.”
I cannot pretend that these seemingly simple observations apply to all photography. Sometimes elaborate sets are constructed, lights are erected, timers engaged and subjects distracted by little birds on the end of toy fishing pole to encourage that particular smile, or a whole phalanx of assistants mill about eagerly anticipating the second when the maestro will press the shutter, before moving on to the next frame. But, this is not my kind of photography. It doesn’t speak to me.
When I really pay attention. When I really see. There are gifts everywhere. One of my all time favourite photographs, and yes, by one of those hardcore feminist photographers, is by Abigail Heyman. There is something very familiar to those of us who were around in the 1970s, who might have seen this exact scene play out any number of times, without really noticing it. But, as Boubat and Schadeberg both suggest, there is genius in stopping, watching and recording.
There is a time, a context, and a reality captured in this photograph, which on one hand is simply a 1972 snapshot at the supermarket, but there is genius in the composition, the generational play, the bleak future of the young woman in the foreground, who appears to be working on nothing more than becoming her mother, represented by the older ladies just behind her. A vicious cycle to be repeated over, and over again. But in this photograph I see a message of hope that the cycle can be broken. The photographer uses the mundane to put forward a new idea, a new vision, and a different future. There is a streak of defiance in the young lady’s eye, and a brighter flower on her dress. By pointing to the mundane and sad mediocrity of the suburbs in 1972, a simple message is delivered. We don’t all have to become our parents. God forbid. We can break the cycle. Make our own reality. We can change the world!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
All I see now is hands and more
hands. Such a shame.
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
“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…..
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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…..
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.
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.
Note: I have previously written a blog entry about the great Jazz Photographer Paul Hoeffler. This is my second short entry about Paul.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of
his book. In English TheDecisive
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.