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.
When photographing people, we tend to distinguish between subjects that are posing – basically sitters fully aware they are being photographed – and those photographs that are taken of people not aware they are being photographed, often classified as street photography. I am interested in how these issues play out in a particular situation.
I have collected photographs by Shelby Lee Adams for a while. In my mind one of the greatest, if not the greatest living American photographer. Mr. Adams has been photographing in Eastern Kentucky for many, many years. He has been making portraits of families and individuals in the settings where they live, using an 8 x 10 camera.
In the technique employed by Mr. Adams there is a
long process of building confidence, sharing meals and eventually posing the
subject(s) for a portrait in their environment.
Mr. Adams uses a large format camera with a Polaroid back. He would use the Polaroid back to ensure that
his lighting, which was often quite complicated, offered him the right support
for his final photograph, as well as a tool to discuss with the subjects of his
photograph, confirming that they like the setting of the image. He would often present the Polaroid to the
I have had several discussions around the use of Polaroid backs in portraiture, because it crosses between the sitter being unaware and the posed photograph. This is because when you make a photograph using the Polaroid back, the sitter knows it is not yet ‘serious’ and therefore their pose and facial expression is often more relaxed. I would call it more natural, more genuine. More real. As such, the Polaroid back crosses from the photograph where the sitter is unaware, and the final staged photograph using the 8×10 photograph. The subject knows there is a photograph being taken…. later, but the Polaroid is just a step towards the final photograph, so no need to stress or worry what it looks like, just relax.
I have shown above the Polaroid, which is in my collection, as well as the final photograph. I personally like the Polaroid, as I find that the subjects are more relaxed and perhaps project a more ‘true’ representation. For example, I find that Grandpa has applied more of a ‘poker face’ in the actual, final photograph. I find the young man, the grandson in the white t-shirt has a more relaxed expression in the Polaroid than in the final image.
In a similar, but different comparison, here are two photographs by Karl Lagerfeld. The Polaroid is in my collection, the other image is what was ultimately published in Glamour Magazine in Italy in 1994. I know this is completely different, but the result is the same. At least in my opinion. I find the expression in the Polaroid much more relaxed and interesting than in the final shot, which was ultimately published.
There are of course countless discussions to be had on this topic, but perhaps these two examples are food for thought. Whether you agree, or disagree, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we think about how a sitter poses and how we get the best result. The most authentic. The image that best represents the sitter.
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.
I recently wrote about plagiarism. About the need to pay tribute. About paying homage to those that inspire us.
I know when you see a lot of photographs, you are likely to
borrow, or at least recall certain composition elements, or particular subject
matter. This is as old as time. Romans copied Greek statues, and basically,
it has not changed much since.
Picasso is said to have stolen liberally from his peers and
borrowed even more from those he called his friends. Books have been written about his rivalry
with Henri Matisse, and when you see a Juan Gris cubist painting and one nearby
by Picasso, you would be fully in your right to think one is the other, and the
other the one.
In photography plagiarism has been discussed widely, and this blog is not so much about that, as it is about how we pay tribute, and are inspired by great photographers.
I had a chance to walk a Marc Riboud retrospective, maybe 10
years ago. Marc Riboud was a
Cartier-Bresson protégée, who broke free from the Master and Magnum, the agency
that he founded, to follow his own path.
Riboud spent a lot of time in China around the time of the Cultural
Revolution and is responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of China
at the time.
One of the most unassuming, but genius photographs that he took was indeed in China. It is titled: Le Petit Lapin – Shanghai 2002 (The Little Rabbit). As you can see above, it shows a simple white plastic bag, with its handles knotted. With a little imagination, it is a small rabbit sitting on a table in a Chinese classic garden.
When I left the show, aside from his most famous
photographs, such as the Painter on the Eiffel Tower, or Washington DC 1967,
the photograph that stayed with me to this day was the simple plastic bag.
For years after, I kept seeing tied white plastic bags, and I kept thinking that I too could take a photograph that would perhaps be my version of the white rabbit. I have been at this for years. Then one day, I was in Aix-en-Provence, and saw what I think is a fair homage to the master. I don’t place objects, nor do I move things to create composition, I merely observe, focus and press the shutter. Did I get a monkey off my back. Not really. I still see knotted white plastic bags as rabbits.
So, for what it is worth. Here is my homage to the great Master, Marc Riboud, who will be an inspiration for the rest of my photographing years.
Mr. Riboud, you may have passed, but your legacy lives on.
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.
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.
A most famous, smelly leather jacket recently sold for $147000. A remarkable amount of money for a remarkable garment. Levi Strauss & Co. made the jacket. They called it the Cossack. Originally sold in 1931, Levi Strauss & Co. bought the jacket back in 2016. Why you ask?
Albert Einstein purchased the leather Cossack jacket – a brown leather model with a small collar and a simple row of buttons. No embellishments. A simple, straight up and down leather jacket that would look modern today, as it would on someone like Steve McQueen or James Dean in the 1950s and 1960s. Timeless.
Ms. Lotte Jacobi had photographed Einstein in 1928 in Germany and returned to photograph him at Priceton in 1938. At Princeton, she asked Prof. Einstein to invite Leopold Infeld to join him in his office, so that she could photograph Einstein while in a conversation with the colleague. The resulting photographs show a relaxed Einstein wearing his now famous leather jacket with his signature hairdo. The photograph may well be the most famous image of the Scientist and Nobel Laureate, perhaps competing with the Arthur Sasse 1951 photograph of him sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
Einstein bought the jacket around the time when he was in the process of
becoming a US citizen, and continued to wear it for many years. He wore it frequently. There are several photographs showing him
wearing it, including an iconic April 4, 1938 cover of TIME magazine, a colour
illustration based on the Lotte Jacobi photographs from the session at
As a collector of photography, I often wonder what makes an icon, and what
best illustrates an icon. Is it a photograph
of Marilyn Monroe’s skirt over the subway grate by Bruno Bernard, is it the
Dennis Stock photograph of James Dean walking in the rain with a cigarette in
his mouth near Times Square? What photograph has that something that makes the
subject an icon, or indeed makes the photograph iconic? What makes it cool, and
why do these photographs continue to capture the imagination? I don’t know, but Einstein in his leather
jacket is the best, it is simply the definition of looking cool.
Einstein started work at Princeton University in 1933. He applied for US citizenship in 1936 and
became a citizen in 1940. A colleague at
Princeton, Leopold Infeld wrote about the jacket in his autobiography: “One of my colleagues at Princeton asked me,
‘If Einstein dislikes his fame and would like to increase his privacy, why does
he … wear his hair long, a funny leather jacket, no socks, no suspenders, no
ties?’ The answer is simple… One leather jacket solves the coat problems for
many years.” Thomas Venning, who works
at Christie’s added that the jacket was “an incredibly worn, rather pungent
leather jacket.” And added, “Einstein was an incessant pipe smoker and,
astonishingly, 60 years after his death, his jacket still smells of smoke.”
Levi Strauss & Co. will add the jacket to its archive, said Tracey Panek, the company’s historian.
In the late 1970s, when the birds flew the nest, the first few of my friends begged and borrowed and in some cases managed to get a pad of their own. Among the wooden crates that doubled as both tables and chairs, were thrown the first very adult wine and cheese parties. At a time when young people would find the oldest looking one, send him or her to the shop and pick up a bottle or two of inexpensive wine, the adventure began.
The short, dark, bulbous bottle, with the distinct shape, with the light pearling on the tongue, blush hue, and the semi-sweet palate was the favorite. Many bottles were consumed with much enthusiasm.
The Portuguese global success that for many decades now has been the choice beginner-wine has changed little. Made not far from Porto, the wine is as distinct as it is pink, and as unique as the pearly bubbles captured in the bottle, which for several generations has doubled as a candle stick, along side the straw wrapped bottle from Chianti.
In the mid-80s I was in Hong Kong in my first job, and Matheus Rose was one of the products that the old trading house that I worked for represented. It sold well in Asia, where wine was just starting, and a heavy drinker was one who consumed one or two glasses per week…. Not per meal. I reacquainted myself with the great looking label and unique bottle, and promised myself that one day I would go look at this building, which had such a profound influence on so many.
Reflecting on a Small Chateau – Matheus Rose
I finally got around to finding the rather elusive estate, particularly well hidden behind a big fence down a rather non-descript road. As I drove up, I saw the label. True in every detail. A particular Portuguese baroque style, two mirrored wings and a curious staircase leading to the front door. A door one cannot access directly, having to either make a sweep to the left, or the right up a rather modest set of steps. The building felt smaller than I expected. The chateau is as you might expect big on first impression and much more modest inside. At least, I thought it showed a lot better at first sight when entering the property, than it did when you walked through some rather simple rooms. I guess my many years of accumulated expectations fell a little flat. But the first impression. Splendid.
The setting and the gardens are quite wonderful, the building perfectly positioned among the formal and less formal elements and water features, but at the end of it all, it was that first look, so true to the label on the bottle that brought back the memories of candlelight, a baguette, a few cheeses and the obligatory glass of rose.
One more crossed off the list, leaving only a couple of hundred to go!
In continuation of my previous entry on the Vintage Photograph, here is Part II:
The case for giving special consideration to the vintage print is straightforward and logical. Consider that until only a few years ago, there were very, very few collectors and no photography market to speak of. Until very recently there was no reason for a photographer to print multiple prints of the same image? He might print a couple to swap or give to close friends, fellow photographers, or on occasion send out in lieu of a Christmas card.
Following the argument that the vintage photograph is as close to the original vision of the photographer, the vintage photograph is the panacea of collecting. Add to that the fact that there was no photography market until very recently, there are no more than a small handful of any given photograph. More often than not, vintage photographs will be small in size. They were easy to send, or give away, so the most likely size of a vintage photograph is 8″ x 10″ or smaller. This is the real deal.
The source for vintage material is often the photographer directly. But just as often the source is wherever a photographer might have sold his work, a commission for a magazine, a company, or a person sitting for a portrait.
It is not that long ago that a career photographer would simply send over a print with the original negative to whomever gave the assignment, and that would be it, as far as the photographer was concerned. As a result, many now-defunct publications and newspapers had filing cabinets full of original prints and negatives sitting in a dark basement or storage room. Some photographs are lost forever, known only from the magazine or newspaper where they appeared. Some were picked from the dumpsters by what now must be seen as very wise and foresightful people. Some were sold in bulk to junk dealers, antiquarians, or antique stores. Wherever they went, they never seemed to make it back to the photographer. These are the true vintage photographs.
Some large publications – which shall remain nameless – tried to sell photographs they had in their archives. With the market for photography going up dramatically over the past two or three decades, I am sure you can imagine the CFO getting wind of the goldmine sitting in the old filing cabinets in the basement. However, seller beware; a number of publications have been sued successfully by photographers for not returning material to them after use. So far, living artists have been more successful than estates in winning these types of cases, and I am sure many more battles will be fought before it finds an equilibrium.
Giving strength to the photographers’ claim to their rightful property is the famous Magnum Photos cooperative. The cooperative was founded by some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, and changed how photography is treated by the media. As a first, Magnum photographers retained the rights to a given image and licensed the media to a single use of a photograph by way of a contract, forever changing the value of the photograph and limiting its use. Magnum changed the balance of power between the publication and the photographer.
But back to the case for the Vintage Photograph….. The price of a vintage print by Edward Weston can go into the mid-six-figures, whereas the prints from the same negative printed by his son Cole will be in the four- or low-five-figure range. Edward Weston watched Cole print, he approved the prints, however to the purist, they are just not the same. There is no contest.
If you find a good image in a garage sale, flea market or antique store, give it a good look, see if it is stamped and maybe even has a scribble on the back, and you may have a small or even a large jewel for your collection. Always look for vintage first. It is the photograph in its purest form.
I have been asked to put together an exhibition on the theme of Paris and France for a brand new spot in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having spent extended periods of my life in the City of Lights, this is a very welcome challenge.
Location is not usually a way I think about my photographs, and putting together the show presented an interesting challenge. I started to think about the idea of the flâneur. A flâneur is a uniquely Parisian term, rooted in Old Norse, where a verb flana meant to ‘wander with no purpose’. In sixteenth century French the verb flânerie evolved and took on the meaning of “idly strolling with no particular urgency or destination”. In the nineteenth century someone engaging in flânerie became a flâneur. A person widely romanticized in the second half of the 19th century by the likes of Baudelaire, who referred to the flâneur as one who engages in the ‘botany of the sidewalk’, and Balzac – who gave me the title for this show – referred to the flâneur as someone engaged in ‘the gastronomy of the eye’.
What can one say about Paris? She is in your blood. Nowhere else does a river, acres of cut stone, and uncompromising nineteenth century urban planning come together to successfully form a city that dreams are made of. A city of light, of enlightenment, philosophy, and fifty years ago, where the spirit of ’68 erupted to echo around the world, so very apropos.
People who live in Paris have found a way to coexist and share their good fortune with millions and millions of visitors each year. Parisians get on with their lives, enjoy their croissant, their café-au-lait, their petit verre and slices of saucisson sec. More often than not, they do so on the sidewalk, protected by an awning, sitting at tables that are impossibly small, on chairs that are comfortable, but not too comfortable.
Paris is a tempting mistress. A place where you can disappear and be the photographing flâneur. I wander the streets of Paris, soaking up the atmosphere, taking in the smells, merging with the pavement and the walls to see, but not be seen. I see, compose and photograph, only to once again fade into the background.
If you happen to be in Copenhagen, please visit the exhibition anytime after April 19th, 2018 at: Frenchy, Store Kongensgade 69. Frenchy serves a mean coffee and the brunch is legendary.
Perhaps I should have called this Another Kind of Portrait. I get great joy from making informal, somewhat secret photographs of people. Capturing individuals in a particular setting. I try hard to stay anonymous. Unseen. I want to achieve a natural representation of a single person in their particular moment. These are Photographs that I imagine the subject might appreciate, or at least be able to contextualize. Me, I make up little stories or vignettes for myself when I look at these photographs.
Harbel: The Cadet
I think of my portraits as small stories that I hope in some cases will remain relevant well beyond the present. I have no responsibility to anyone to make a great likeness, nor do I have to explain or seek the appreciation of the subject, who is unlikely to ever see their photograph.
Portraits have always had a certain formality about them. A sculptor, painter, or early photographer would have a person sit for a long, long time before delivering a likeness of the sitter. In photography terms, it used to be a matter of going to a photographer’s studio and sitting still before a backdrop and waiting for the negative to be developed and a print made in the darkroom. Then with faster film, the camera came off the tripod and more dynamic photographs became possible.
My photographs are more than anything a response to one of the more shattering moments in my art history education: The 1962 Diane Arbus’ photograph of the young man with the hand grenade in Central Park. Arbus took an entire roll of medium format photographs. 12 photographs. On the contact sheet, 11 of the 12 images show a regular looking kid playing in the park, like any other kid. But there is one of the 12 photographs, where the boy is making an ugly face and his body appears strangely rigid. The boy looks like he is possessed and perhaps a person with some severe mental challenges. By looking at the contact sheet, we know this is not true, but this is the photograph that Diane Arbus chose.
I reacted badly to this revelation. Diane Arbus was one of the reasons I started making photographs in the first place. As such, I now take extra care to try to be honest and fair. When a photographer makes photographs of someone not aware that they are being photographed, there needs to be accountability and fairness. The photographer cannot be greedy, ungrateful or take unreasonable advantage.
The photographs in this group – The Ones Gallery on Harbel.com – are my way of seeing. I hope the viewer might appreciate what I saw, but in such a way that the context is still a bit of a mystery. There are only minimal titles and no locations indicated. In my mind, a photograph should leave the viewer to make their own story. Their vignette, which might very well be different than mine. I like this. All my photographs are analog. I am a follower of the great Italian photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin and have picked up his use of the green stamp that reads: Vera Fotografia – Italian for real photograph – on all my prints. Vera Fotografia confirms that this is a photograph made from an analog negative and printed by hand in a conventional darkroom. There is no digital manipulation or intervention what-so-ever.
Harbel: First rays
My photographs may not be classic portraits, but to me, a single figure – often unaware – in a particular setting is my kind of portrait.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. One of the world’s most expensive photographers, born of the German post-war tradition, Andreas Gursky (b. 1952) says with a straight face: “I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”
Gursky is a child of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, two masters who set out to show sameness and differences in buildings and industrial installations, cataloguing and recording them for posterity. In short, the founders of what has become known as The Dusseldorf School. How is it possible that one who shoots with a digital camera and admits to manipulating the digital files, so as to make them more pleasing and interesting to the eye – adding a couple of bends to a race course, or removing a large and unsightly factory from the banks of the Rheine, as in Rheine II – can be the maker of The Encyclopedia of Life. How is it that curators and critics quote and agree with this pretense? How can this graphic artist – I refuse to call him a photographer – even contemplate calling himself the maker of an “Encyclopedia of Life”?
It seems to me that yet again, we are having to question everything we see, every image, every movie, every piece of news, because not a single conveyor of knowledge or imagery can be trusted? Is that really the legacy we want to leave for the next generation, or the ones after that, who will never know the truth, because we in the present day knowingly allow it to be altered.
Andreas Gursky: Rheine II
Anonymous photographer: Rheine I
Is it photography when what is in the photograph does not exist in real life? Are we getting so accustomed to an alternative reality, where super heroes dominate the silver screen, zombies walk the streets and natural disasters are glorified though CGI, not because it is a great story, but simply because we can. When one can sit at home on the couch and virtually walk through a busy shopping area with a Kalashnikov and try to hit the bad guys, but if you take out an innocent civilian you lose three points. Is this to be our desensitized, pathetic legacy?
Do we have to check the raw file from every image printed to see if it is real? Do we have to physically travel to the banks of the Rheine to look across and see the ugly factory to know what is real and what is fake?
If Andreas Gursky gets to be the writer and illustrator of the “Encyclopedia of Life”, then it is nothing but a ruse, a badly written screenplay put to life in the form of a huge piece of brightly coloured paper, mounted, framed and carrying a million dollar price tag. One great big lie.
Most of my friends and fellow analog photographers (those that use film and manually develop the film and print by hand in a darkroom) have been speculating, whether the reason a digitally modified image is sold as a photograph, as opposed to digital art (a digigraph?compugraph?manipugraph?) is simply fear. The fear of facing a collector with the reality that the ‘photograph’ they have just sold is more computer than photograph. Fear….
I propose that what drives this fear is the vanity of the art market. Let me explain. Many looking to buy art – more and more often with one eye investment value – have dived into photography. Art advisors and many art-value indexes suggest that photography may be the place to invest, better than almost any other area of collecting.
The art market has in many ways been reduced to just another index ruled by nouveaux riches collectors shaping it with large amounts of money, which otherwise would sit idly in the bank making little or no interest. Massive bonuses prop up an overheated art market, reaching levels that are difficult even to contemplate.
If these new collectors had to think in terms of what a photograph represents, versus a work of art created from one or more computer files, manipulated by software programs, and printed by a machine, would he or she still pay the prices that photography commands?
Can a contemporary computer manipulated image by an artist that has barely arrived on the scene reasonably command the same amount of money as a hand printed silver gelatin photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan or Henri Cartier-Bresson?
Perhaps it is time to embrace the digigraph, or the compugraph? Let the family tree of art sprout a new branch. A new discipline that can stand on its own, command its own attention, on its own terms.
Let the traditional darkroom photograph be. Stop the confusion. Stop the insanity.
A green stamp on the back of each of Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographs reads: VERA FOTOGRAFIA.
Vera Fotografia, because he is saying that what you see in his photograph is what was in front of him when he made the photograph. It has not been manipulated, changed or enhanced with Photoshop or other digital editing software. It is made from an analog film negative and is printed by hand on fiber based paper, in a conventional darkroom.
It is a delight to see a photographer that lives in the spirit of observing life, upholding the standards of purity that I aspire to, and who boldly and confidently stamps every photograph he makes, warts and all. That is truly someone after my own heart, something worth aspiring to. And, as such, I have adopted the same approach, stamping my photographs with a like stamp, for the same reason and with the same intent. Vera Fotografia!
I don’t think of myself as particularly pure, nor innocent, but I do think of photography at a cross-roads. Let me give you three quick examples:
I have been a follower and admirer of Peter Beard for many years. In the early 1960s, Peter Beard took wildlife photographs in Africa from his base in the hills near Nairobi. He brought the world The End of the Game, a book, or record of the terrible future facing wildlife in the face of human encroachment, the ivory trade, etc. I would be curious to hear from Peter Beard what he thinks about Nick Brandt’s lion that appears to come straight from central casting, having just passed through hair and make-up?
For a long time Nick Brandt claimed that it was all done by hand in the darkroom and that he had taken a medium format negative and simply printed it. This was followed initially by whispers, then more loudly by an echo across the analog photography community: This is just not possible. Then in a response to a blog discussion on Photrio.com he came clean, well most of the way, anyway. Nick Brandt: “I shoot with a Pentax 67II and scan my negs. Photoshop is a fantastic darkroom for getting the details out of the shadows and highlights with a level of detail that I never could obtain in the darkroom. However, the integrity of the scene I am photographing is always unequivocally maintained in the final photograph. Animals and trees are not cloned or added.”
I am mildly amused that he refers to Photoshop as a fantastic darkroom, but I do feel woefully cheated when I look at his work. I don’t know what to believe anymore. Digital art perhaps. But a photograph? A representation of what was before him when he made the shot? Perhaps through rose coloured glasses, but not in any reality that I have ever seen.
At Paris Photo last year, I had a very enlightening discussion with a dealer, who claimed that a particular image shot by Sebastiao Salgado for his Genesis project had to be shot with a digital camera, due to the movement of the boat in Arctic waters. She explained that this was merely to freeze the moment. Digital had nothing to do with making the penguins pop out against a rather dull day. Penguins literally jumping off the paper. No, it was all about holding the camera steady on the boat in rough seas. Really?
And finally, my favorite… One of the most expensive photographs ever sold. You know the one, the belts of green grass broken only by the dull gray of the river and the sky. Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II. I understand there was an unsightly factory on the opposite bank. It got in the way of the composition. So Gursky simply removed it. Digital art? Art for sure. $4.3 million says it is. Photograph? Maybe not.
Three examples of what you see, may not be what was actually there. But, then I am not here to question other people’s ‘photographs’. Merely to suggest that perhaps there are different kinds of photographs, and it is time to think about this.
I for one have adopted the Green Rubber Stamp. My photographs now read “Vera Fotografia”, partly in homage to my hero, who took the bold step of declaring himself an authentic analog photographer, but also, to make a little, if tiny, point…
It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.
Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.
Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?
I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.
Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?
A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.
Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.
I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.
But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…
Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.
Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.
I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!
Alfred Stieglitz is one of the key names in the history of photography. Alfred Stieglitz set art photography back 100 years!
Alfred Stieglitz opened a gallery in New York called Gallery 291 in 1905. In his gallery, Mr. Stieglitz showed primarily photographs. He also published a magazine, Camera Work. An expensive, subscription only, publication dedicated to the art of photography. With these tools he managed to control and I would argue stall the development of fine art photography around the world. In Camera Work’s prime, photographers from across North America and Europe, mainly in the United Kingdom, would take out expensive subscriptions to Camera Work and would submit their amateur photographs to Stieglitz for approval and perhaps even inclusion in Camera Work. Stieglitz decided what was good and what was not. He was judge, jury, and executioner all in one.
Edward J. Steichen – Rodin
Stieglitz believed very strongly that two things needed to be present in a photograph to be an art photograph:
The first thing was a certain feel or mood, which for the majority of Stieglitz’ career meant a painterly feel, meaning that the photographer had to manipulate the negative using various chemicals, coatings, printing techniques, etc. to express a mood or feeling that imitated what one might expect to see in a late Victorian sofa painting, rather than a photograph. A straight photograph showing what was in front of the photographer, and printed without manipulation, was not art. Not to Alfred Stieglitz.
The second, it was not acceptable for a fine art photographer to be professional, to do commercial work. This meant that if you got paid, or made a living from photography, you were a lost soul. To belonging to the circle around Stieglitz you had to have independent means and do photography, because you thought it was a wonderful hobby and a suitable high-brow pass-time. (The irony here might be that for years Stieglitz struggled to make money with his gallery and his magazine, both poorly executed commercial disasters.)
Gertrude Kaesebier – le dejeuner sur l’herbe?
Many may disagree, but I believe the photography-world inherited two major problems from Stieglitz. Problems we still very much struggle with today. The first problem with Stieglitz, that took almost 60 years to fix, was that if you were shooting straight photography, meaning that you printed what you saw, no manipulation, but processed and printed with minimal correction or changes, this was not art. I would argue, that it was not until the legendary Harry Lunn started selling editioned photographs of Ansel Adams’ landscapes did this change. We are talking 1970s.
The second, some would argue has yet to be fixed, because many still very much believe that an art photographer cannot be a commercial/professional photographer, or have a job on the side. By way of an example, let me illustrate the mindset of a lot of gallerists: A photographer friend of mine recently returned from New York, where he presented his work to a dealer. The dealer liked his work, but did not consider him serious, because he had a job to support his photography. The dealer suggested he look at a photographer she represents, who has been shooting since he was 14. He shoots full time and is a serious art photographer….
Clearly, we have not passed the point where it is acceptable to be commercial in the sense that you support your art-photography with a full or part time job, or by shooting green peppers for the local super market chain to make ends meet. While there may be some hope on the horizon, as some fashion work and still life photographs are going mainstream as art, there is still work to do. Commercial photographers like Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn have helped break the curse.
I hold Alfred Stieglitz responsible for holding back fine art-photography from its destiny for the better part of 100 years. From the infancy of photography in the 1830s, until the painterly direction in photography that Stieglitz promoted started to dominate in the 1880s, it was perfectly acceptable to have a photograph of Rome, Venice or Athens hanging on your wall next to a painting. It took a full century, until the 1980s before this was again something you might see other than in your local pizzeria or Greek restaurant.
Stieglitz found straight photography again towards the end of his career, and in some ways his gallery did matter, bringing photography to an albeit select group of visitors in New York. But, he led photography down a blind alley, and the wonderful portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, or his Equivalent photographs do not make up for the damage he did. As a photographer, there is every reason to hate Alfred Stieglitz!
Lee Friedlander – Montana 2008
Photography – straight photography – has a place in the pantheon of fine art, along side painting, sculpture and the other fine arts. This is a fact. Even the naysayers will get there eventually…..No thanks to Alfred Stieglitz.
To see more visit my website: Harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to the artists identified and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
What makes a great photograph? It is very, very personal. Books have been written, conferences held…. For me, I have learned that it can be a moving definition. It can change with time, but it is worthwhile to have a look at the process of becoming great.
I am going to turn to the French philosopher Roland Barthes. He wrote a book called “Camera Lucida.” It is a small book with a long philosophical discussion of the photograph. Barthes coins two terms that are worth remembering: ‘studium’ and ‘punktum.’
Pictures or images with studium are images that you notice. Think of all the photographs you are exposed to every day, ads on your phone, computer, television, billboards, photographs in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Now, of all these impressions, which some now count as more than 3,000-5,000 a day, there is maybe one that you really notice. That image has studium.
A photograph with studium has the ability to capture your attention. It draws you in. It may play on your heart-strings, it may remind you of something, it may fill you with guilt, play with your mind. You may not like it; you may think it is horrible. Image creators know what works and what doesn’t (most of the time). Think babies, puppies, humour, sex, and so on. Studium you notice.
Punktum is when one of your studium images stays with you over time. These are quite rare. It is an image that comes back to you under certain circumstances, given certain stimuli.
You can probably think of images that you saw today that had studium, but probably not the ones from yesterday or last week. More importantly, you can likely think of images that have stayed with you and surfaced over and over again in your mind’s eye. They have punktum.
Let me give you some universal examples:
The dead migrant child on the beach in Greece; the Vietnam War photograph of the young girl running naked towards the camera following a napalm attack; the first man on the moon; the plumes of smoke on 9/11, etc. These are universal. I don’t have to show you any of these photographs; you have them stored in your mind, in full detail.
In addition to the universal images, there are punktum images that are particular to you. You know what they are. You may not be able to command them to appear before your inner eye, but given the right stimuli, they will show up, time and again.
Among my personal punktum images, none are news photographs. This may be because I look for a particular skill in the photographer. In the simplicity or minimalism of the photographs, which has a particular appeal to me. No accounting for personal taste.
Both my examples are of a single figure, a portrait of sorts. The Horst P. Horst Mainbocher Corset was one of the first photographs I scraped together enough money to purchase. Made in 1939, it represents to me a daring, superbly lit figure from a time in photography, which was starting to move from recording fact, through early experimentation and surrealism to the mainstream. Made by the master of studio lighting, Horst, the photograph represents a very sensual rear-view of a corseted woman, with the ribbon loose and laying across a marble surface and in part hanging over the edge, where it catches the light beautifully. Revolutionary for the time, the model is photographed from behind and skirting, if not crossing, the line of what was permissible in print media at the time. An incredible image, which has remained with me since I first saw it in an art history class. I look at it every day and continue to be in awe.
My second punktum image, is one that I call Boots. I am not sure what the proper title is. The photograph by Chris Killip, I first saw at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles. It hit me as being an incredibly composed and lit photograph, but emotionally charged with what I believe is anguish and maybe desperation. To me, what hits home are the disproportionately big boots. I remember as a kid getting a shirt and jacket that were ‘to grow into’. These boots look like they are several sizes too big, maybe from a military surplus store. It is a photograph of desperation. I have seen many photographs of people that are down and out, but this boy, or young man is just too young to be this desperate. Every time I look at this photograph, my toes tighten in my shoes, I get goose bumps. I have had it hanging on my wall for several years now, and it still feels like a punch in the stomach every time I look at it. Punktum.
To address the idea that your personal punktum may change over time, I can say that Diane Arbus’ Boy with a Toy Hand Granade was the photograph that made me change my focus at university to Photography from Renaissance Art. The photograph had huge punktum for me, but has since lost its charge. Why? I saw the contact sheet from the shoot, and later read an interview with the boy in the photograph. In the Arbus photograph the boy looks like he is a person with a mental disability, which is very consistent with the outsiders that appear again and again in Arbus’ work. However, on the contact sheet, the boy looks like any other little boy playing in the park, and I do not like the fact that the photograph that Arbus selected from the roll, somehow misrepresents what was in front of her. It no longer resonates. It is like the Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which I loved as the epitome of Parisian street photography, until I learned that it was staged with two actors…., but that is another story.
I must have seen millions of photographs in my time as a photographer and collector, and if you asked me to draw up a list of photographs that had punktum for me, I might get to 25 or 30. Some of these I have on my wall. Some I would dearly love to hang on my wall. Some I will never have, because they are either sitting in a museum and not available on the open market, or I simply cannot afford them. Others, despite their punktum, I don’t want. They might be gruesome, or too difficult to look at and live with. I am fortunate to have a few punktum images in my collection that I love and would never part with. This is the power of punktum.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
Ink and brush are the tools of the Japanese Zen monk, who hour after hour commits himself to the drawing of an enso. An enso is a circle painted in a single stroke, pen touching paper the entire time and lifted only once the circle is complete, or the ink is no more and ends in a feathered wisp.
Ensos are often considered to be of two styles, the one that is complete, and therefore a full circle, the other being left incomplete with the final wisp of ink not quite making it to where the circle was initiated.
The Zen monk, looks to the ink stone and the brush to achieve a physical manifestation of Buddhist practice. The circle, when perfect, round, and complete symbolizes the highest form of enlightenment, the achievement of true perfection, earth, the universe, nothingness, the void….. The incomplete circle, symbolizes the determination of the monk to strive towards enlightenment, through meditation, repetition and the minimalist expression of perfection.
Several years ago when I started making photographs, I was encouraged to read Zen in the Art of Archery. The book describes the art of perfection in shooting a bow and arrow through the eyes of German professor of philosophy, who studied archery in Japan in the 1920s.
In the book, Professor Eugen Herrigel speaks of achieving a state of mental calm and focus that allows the shooter to become one with the bow and arrow, as the arrow moves towards the target:
“…The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill…”
Achieving the technical knowledge, predicting the outcome and putting together all the elements perfectly, is of course the optimal execution of any task we set for ourselves. In photography, this is reflected in how well you know your camera, your film, lens, and all the right settings to achieve a particular outcome, when making a photograph.
I think all photographers know the feeling when they are close. When you have one of those moments, when the mind’s eye achieves perfect balance in composition, the lighting is just right, the shadows fall just so, there is a greater harmony. When the photographer then manages to intuitively get all the camera settings right, and depresses the shutter, there is a possibility that the circle may be complete. But we also recognize that when we look at the final print, there is always the little tweak, or the thought of what if….. The enso remains incomplete.
Whether you think of yourself as the bowman, or the monk with his brush, you must be content in your desire to grow, learn and improve. You must be satisfied that you are on the path to enlightenment.
I believe in perfection. I recognize that I am unlikely ever to achieve perfection. Like the monk and his incomplete enso – my photography is a work in progress. This is why I incorporated an enso in my logo and in my footer. It is a reminder to keep working, to keep striving…
• Last year the famous photographer Steve McCurry was caught having digitally manipulated a number of his photographs. He blamed his ‘team’ (Petapixel.com, May 6th, 2016). But what about his other family, his Magnum family?
• Only a few weeks ago, Peter Vik announced he was leaving Magnum Photos, because he refused to sign a new contract with an outside investment group. He left Magnum to protect his freedom, as a photographer (British Journal of Photography, June 15th, 2017).
These two news items may have nothing in common at first glance, but they may be symptomatic of trouble at Magnum Photos and perhaps a warning of things to come.
I have for many, many years been a strong supporter of the legacy that has led Magnum Photos to be a place for photographic independence, where photographers retain control of their photographs, sold for single use only to media far and wide.
When the founders of Magnum came up with the single use policy, it laid the foundation for the livelihoods of many of the best photographers of the past 70 years. The price for this success was of course a certain set of iron-fisted leaders that forced photography in a particular direction.
One of the early drivers was Henri Cartier Bresson (HCB). A fiercely independent photographer, who with a substantial family fortune behind him could afford to be selective in his assignments, and who as luck would have it with his first self-assigned project for Magnum Photos struck gold. HCB was in India to photograph Gandhi. As it happened, this was the day before Gandhi was murdered. HCB went on to cover the funeral leaving the world with some very iconic photographs that were sold to newspapers and magazines far and wide. In some ways, this single assignment cemented the name of Magnum Photos and made it what it has been for the past seven decades.
HCB was the backbone of Magnum Photos for many, many years. He worked hard at critiquing and schooling superb young photographers like Marc Riboud until he was satisfied that they had mastered the HCB esthetic. Shooting in his image, one might say. But strong personalities have their own challenges.
When Kryn Taconis an early Dutch member of Magnum came to Paris after having returned from Algeria, where he had been photographing on the side of independence (and therefore against the French, in the eyes of HCB), Magnum Photos on the specific orders of HCB refused to circulate his photographs through their usual channels, effectively muzzling Taconis. Taconis soon left the collective.
I met Kryn Taconis’ widow a few years ago, around 2002, I think. By then she was in her 90s. She showed me a photograph by HCB. A modest size print of Kashmir, from 1947. The inscribed photograph was HCB’s gesture of contrition for having effectively censored Kryn Taconis out of Magnum. He had come to visit, in person, admitting he was wrong to block Taconis’ work, by letting his own personal politics get in the way. He was a dollar short and a couple of decades late. Kryn Taconis had passed away in 1979.
In modern times, when Steve McCurry was found to have manipulated his photographs to perfection, he blamed his ‘team’. McCurry made a lame argument that he was not shooting on assignment, and had not supervised sufficiently, etc. Had there been only one of these manipulated photographs, it might have been OK. Write it off to assistant enthusiasm, perhaps? But there are several internet-sleuths, who have uncovered further examples by simply comparing photographs by McCurry that are in circulation on the web. Does this taint all of McCurry’s work? You decide….
The final product
The original image
Reuters and AP and several other agencies, including National Geographic, all seem to endorse and enforce a code of conduct: Mr. Gerry Hershorn, who until 2014 was Photo Editor for Reuters, put it this way: “Well, there are … some very accepted practices. If you take a picture and somebody’s skin tone is purple by mistake, it’s very common for a photographer to bring the skin tone back to a proper skin tone color. A photographer is never allowed to change content. You can’t add information, you can’t take away things.”
Not long ago, AP severed all ties to Narciso Contreras. He had digitally removed another photographer’s camera from one of his photographs, taken in Syria. AP acted swiftly and scrubbed their website of all Contreras photographs. Santiago Lyon, VP and Director of Photography said in a statement: “AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code. Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”
Don McCullin, one of the last greats of photojournalism – and not a member of Magnum – put it this way: “Digital manipulation of photographs is ‘hideous’ and has left photographers able to ‘lie’ to the public by doctoring images. Pictures have been ‘hijacked’ by digital, with old-fashioned skills of the dark room eclipsed by computer generated colour.”
When it comes to Steve McCurry, Magnum Photos has chosen to remain virtually silent.
It seems that when the big names in photography make mistakes, like HCB with his politics, or Steve McCurry with his digitally perfected colour photographs, there are different rules. HCB may be dead, but I do not think he would be happy about Magnum Photos taking on outside investors, and starting to lose control of the collective he founded. Likewise, had he been alive, I am pretty sure he would have asked Steve McCurry to leave Magnum Photos.
But, if Steve McCurry were asked to leave Magnum Photos, what would the new investors say? What would losing a revenue stream from work by what used to be one of the great photojournalists of his time? This may explain the silence from a usually outspoken Martin Parr, who just stepped down as President of Magnum.
For all its faults, Magnum Photos may be the last refuge for some of the best photographers in the world, who might otherwise have had to shoot weddings and corporate annual reports to survive. In a world where a cell phone video by an anonymous witness, has replaced professional photojournalism in most media outlets, it is tough to be a photojournalist.
I worry…. If books are anything to go by, Magnum Photos is doing everything it can to invent new revenue streams. There is a TV series in development, and I understand that there are discussions about how best to leverage the brand. With the new investors in place, who will be looking for a return on their investment, can coasters and coffee mugs be far behind? AND in refusing to tackle the McCurry issue, has Magnum opened the door to doubt about authenticity, and legitimacy of itself, and its collective of great photographers?
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to Steve McCurry, and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
Rome never quite dealt with, or reconciled its attempts at a new empire. A number of fascist architectural buildings and monuments remain much as they were at the end of the ill-fated reign of Il Duce. Rome was declared an open city during the war, something I for one am very grateful for, but there are consequences, good and bad.
Being an open city, Rome has been left with a legacy of buildings and sculpture that are full of symbols, and history of a time that most would like to forget. Yet they remain.
In Berlin and Munich most every sculpture and building of the so called 1000 year Reich, has either been destroyed by the bombs from above, or by dynamite at the end of the war. The few buildings that were allowed to remain, deemed to leave no risk of becoming some kind of cult shrine, were scrubbed clean, their original purpose soon forgotten. Few would know, or remember that the Ministry of Finance for the Republic of Germany in Berlin was once The Ministry of the Airforce, which once housed the obscenely large offices of the equally obscenely large Reichsmarschall Göring.
In Rome, on the other hand there are many examples of buildings and sculpture that were part of the new vision, or should I say the rear-view vision of Mussolini, his architects and his artisans. No real attempts have been made at scrubbing them clean of their Fascist history.
Two particular examples of this are the sports complex a little north of the city centre and the EUR. Both were intended to showcase the glory of the new empire, one as an Olympic venue and the other, as the heart of what should have been a world exposition in 1942, which of course never happened.
The photographs here are a few from my record of the macho Roman revival of the 1920s and 1930s. The sculptures are large, white and powerful. Almost exclusively male, and displaying their finest athletic prowess, but there is a sinister side to them. There is a mix of athleticism and military might in these sculptures. They cross over from athletics and sport to soldiers of war. The line between sport and war gone.
On some level, the sculptures are evocative of ancient Greece and Rome, but are Rationalist, in the same way that the contemporary architecture is. The delicate features of ancient Greece and Rome are replaced by angular, hard faces and ripped bodies. Where Greek sculptures and their Roman followers worked hard on the folds of fabric and the perfect locks of hair, the Fascist neo-realism is more in your face, usually nude, or almost nude, and designed to impress. This was supposed to be a new imperialism. These statues represent the macho, oversized superhuman soldiers, who failed so miserably, even against Abyssinians armed with shields and spears.
Hollow promises of greatness stand in Rome, 80 years after Mussolini found his end, killed by his own people and hung upside down by a rope, following his feeble attempt at disguise and flight. Like the coward he was.
What you see in these photographs is the result of my interpretation of a legacy that has gone from being something sinister to being used by everyday Italians trying to run faster, jump higher or throw further. Kids kick a ball around, and tennis players surrounded by marble seats, play in the heat of the afternoon. They play in the shade of the giants, that no longer serve any master.
The sinister may be gone, but the story remains.
See more on my website: harbel.com
All images on this website are subject to copyright of the photographer
I don’t know if Shōji Ueda and René Magritte ever met. Probably not, but there is an uncanny use of bowler hats and umbrellas in their photographs and paintings along with a surrealism that I think would have made them great friends.
I returned from the MEP in Paris yesterday. I visited the exhibition currently on, called Mémoire et lumière (Memory and Light), which is a collection of photography by various Japanese photographers dating from 1950 to 2000. There are only a handful of prints by Shōji Ueda, but they are entirely their own, when put next to the rest of the exhibition.
Ueda’s work is in some ways very minimalist. Some might say simple. He often used his family and friends as props/models and various simple tools such as hats, umbrellas, small frames, etc. to build his deceptively simple, yet very evocative photographic language. Using mostly a wide angle lens, good light, which allows for a lot of depth of field with good focus from front to back, he has created something that Salvador Dali would have applauded, as would Magritte and other surrealists, who were looking for a new language. A new way of seeing.
Ueda had the great fortune of living close to large sandy beaches, wide and mostly flat with very little vegetation, which is a superb backdrop for someone trying to make the viewer lose track of distance, horizon and scale.
It would be fairly easy to reproduce Ueda’s photographs, there is nothing technically difficult about the images, but when you factor in that they were made after the war in the late 1940s and 1950s, when Japan went through a very inward facing period, they stand out. A mixture of loss, guilt, profound sadness, and extreme poverty led to most photographers turning to dark, gritty scenes that very much reflected the post-war mood in Japan. Ueda went in a different direction.
Ueda chose to make photographs that were optimistic, often fun, clean, focused and minimalist. The beaches near his home led themselves particularly well to making horizons disappear and almost floating his models, family and friends on the sand, where on overcast days, it is close to impossible to figure out where the sand ends and the sky begins.
In one photograph, Ueda has placed a woman on the sand 30 or 40 meters from the photographer himself holding up a small, black rectangular frame and shooting though the frame, presumably using a cable-release, he has captured the woman far away in a way that is not much different than a formal Japanese studio photograph. With hand extended holding the frame and wearing a fancy scarf, the vision of the stylish artist, as the bohemian, is complete.
There is a language in these photographs that on the one hand gives rise to admiration of the innovation and style of the photographs, and on the other makes you admire the fact that this is so relaxed and fun that it invites the viewer not to take any of it too seriously. A delicate balance, but clearly one that Ueda mastered fully.
Ueda went through several seasons of photographing on the sand, at different times of the year, but always using the monochrome to his advantage and making his subject float in a surreal manner, matched mostly by the surrealist painters a couple of decades earlier.
There are many Japanese photographers in the show at the MEP, and it is worth a visit, but for me, Shoji Ueda calls for a deep dive into what else he has done and may even one day call for a visit to Japan to see his museum. An entire museum dedicated to this superbly gifted photographer.
Mémoire et lumière runs through the end of August. Worth a trip, and maybe an escape from the Paris summer heat. Or, if you are in Japan take the time to visit the Shoji Ueda museum in the city of Kishimoto, Tottori Prefecture.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are by Shoji Ueda and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
He doesn’t look 80, more like 60! We shake hands. He lifts my old M6 from my chest to see if there is a screen on the back. There isn’t. A big smile spreads across his face and he gives me the thumbs up. It turns out that for many years, Giuseppe Leone has been shooting with the same analog Leica. He still does, still uses film and develops and prints his own work. My kind of photographer!
At Corso Vittorio Veneto 131 in Ragusa, Sicily, Guiseppe Leone keeps a studio with a window to the street showing classic black and white portraits – three framed and hanging in a row – facing the street. But if you walk up a couple of steps and open the door, you start to see that there is a lot more going on here than simply portraits on demand.
On the ground floor, you get a glimpse of the Sicily that we should all be eternally grateful that Mr. Leone has captured and preserved for over 60 years. If you are fortunate enough to be invited upstairs, you will enter a large space that with a few extra steps opens into the neighbouring building. Here you find lots of Mr. Leone’s photographs from across Sicily. All sizes, some mounted some not, some framed in simple black frames. All a little random, but the photographs are wonderful. This is also where he does his portrait commissions. On the third floor is the darkroom. Throughout, he has a few small glass front cabinets that hold old camera equipment. With pride he pulls out an old daguerreotype portrait to show us that he is part of a long line of photographers that have served humanity by making a permanent record of individuals, friends and family.
Mr. Leone shows us several photographs of the island that he very rarely leaves. There are photographs of the miles and miles of dry stone walls, a testament to the tough life working the fields. There is a record of great architecture influenced by all the invaders and occupiers of Sicily; Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Spaniards, Piedmontese, to name a few. There is no place in Europe that I can think of, able to boast this kind of happy co-existence in architecture, landscapes and the genetic make-up of its people. It is with the people of Sicily that Mr. Leone is at his best. His people. The peasants going to church, going to the market, tending their sheep, cows and goats. There are celebrations on religious holidays. Guiseppe Leone captures the people of the island, in a manner the French would call ‘humaniste’. He particularly likes to photograph children at play, who are often improvising with the absolute minimum of toys, but making the most of a cardboard box and vivid imagination. There is a lot of Helen Levitt in these photographs.
Mr. Leone still runs a commercial photography studio for portraits, and has engaged widely in wedding photography along with other commissions to feed his personal pleasure of making great photographs of his island. The Sicily that he loves.
Looking at his photographs, it is evident that he has a wonderful feel for telling the story. As Helmut Newton would say: “making a movie in a single frame”. Even among his wedding photographs, which to shoot can be very repetitive and perhaps even boring to those that weren’t there, there are great examples of Mr. Leone’s keen eye: The bride is headed towards the getaway vehicle, multiple generations of family and friends are looking on. An old woman sits on a chair, her arms around a grandchild, or great-grandchild, with a priceless look of disapproval on her face. It seems that even when working, Giuseppe Leone cannot help himself. It is in his blood.
Mr. Leone is a skilled photographer. A large print at the top of the stairs Mr. Leone claims as his first. It is also the first image you see on his website, though the photograph is much more impressive in person. I was told he made this photograph in his mid-teens: A steam train with a string of tanker rail-cars is crossing a very tall arched bridge, below in the deep valley, a narrow silver steam snakes along a wide floodplain, the unmistakable silhouette of the big dome of the Duomo in old Ragusa is in the background. The air is misty, perhaps mixed with the smoke from the train giving the photograph a soft filtered light. The photograph is bold. Taken almost directly into the sun. Great skill, or unbelievably good luck, I have no idea, yet given all the great photographs that came after, there is no doubt that Giuseppe Leone has a wonderful ability to be present and anonymous among his people, the villages and towns, hills and valleys that make up the great island of Sicily. He understands Sicily. Maybe this is because Mr. Leone has always been here.
You can see more of Guiseppe Leone’s photographs on his website: http://www.giuseppeleone.it/.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Images are borrowed from the web and are by Giuseppe Leone and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.
The collection of Sir Elton John counts more than 8000 photographs according to a recent interview. What I saw at the Tate Modern in London was nothing short of spectacular. A no fuss exhibition with nothing more than a short stencil intro to each room and a 4:30 minute video interview in a side-room with the man himself. The photographs mostly hung side-by-side on white walls at eye level. The light good and the ability to get in close, unencumbered.
I have traveled far and wide and have seen many, many exhibitions of wonderful photography, but rarely as many superb quality images in one place. When each year I attend exhibitions, I often think of the number of ‘fillers’ versus ‘keepers’. Elton John’s photographs selected for the exhibition at the Tate Modern, are all superb, all vintage and in near mint condition. 160 photographs, each one perfect. No fillers.
One thing that I found particularly gratifying with this collection, which spans from roughly 1920 to 1950, is the size of the photographs. There are no 100 cm x 150 cm (3 foot by 5 foot) images of the Rhine and its banks, or Italian beach scenes. Only small images, often contact printed, that you have to get in close to read, see, admire and truly enjoy.
When you consider the speed of film available in the day these photographs were taken, and the diversity of papers to print on, the success of every photograph in this exhibition is mesmerizing. You stand before a 24 mm x 36 mm contact print of the Underwater Swimmer by Kertesz, your nose mere inches away, and you feel how modernism must have gripped the photographers building on the constructivists’ myriad angles, shooting from above, from below, achieving some of the results that we today mimic and aspire to. The sun’s reflections in the water, the striped swim trunks, the distorted thigh, the elongated limbs of the swimmer cutting through the water…. this is 1917 we are talking about! It is among the greatest and most inspiring photographs of the 20th century.
Move along to the side-by-side pairing of Noire et Blanche by Man Ray printed positive and negative in frames that Sir Elton says normally hang above his bed and would surely kill him, if they should ever fall. Death by Man Ray. There are surely worse ways to go. Each print is perfect on beautiful textured paper, that one can only dream about. The tonal range in these photographs is among the best I have ever seen.
Each photograph in this exhibition is consistently of the highest quality I have seen. There are no fillers here. The photographs are not necessarily expensive or iconic, though most are, of course. The photographs are by many photographers, many well known, but some almost forgotten and deserving of revival. All are framed with flare and you are close enough to see your breath on the thin glass separating you from the masterpiece itself, be it a Man Ray, Andre Kertesz or Emmanuel Sougez. It is truly exceptional company for any aspiring or committed photographer.
And then there are the frames…. I confess that most of my photographs hang framed in plain, boring black or natural wood frames, but there is something here. Why can a great photograph not be framed in a great frame, gilt, hand-carved and heavy. Why not indeed! I had heard lots about the frames in the Sir Elton John collection, but seeing them with my own eyes, I must say, I like it. It works. I will have to go and revisit some photographs on my walls and perhaps buy a new frame or two.
The way forward: Small, intimate photographs of the highest quality. Hand printed and exquisitely framed, each one inviting you to engage at very close range.
Outside a relatively small circle, Ray Metzker does not seem to be well known or understood. I first saw his work in a booth at Paris Photo some years ago. He is truly one of the great users of light and deep shadow. A student of Harry Callahan in Chicago, Metzker went on to make some of the most graphic and in some ways lonely and sad cityscapes in modern photography.
A man who photographed in the streets of the big city, Metzker often worked among the skyscrapers of Philadelphia for great effect. Through experience, he learned where the light was at its most intense, and I get the impression that he would lay in wait for just the right person to enter the otherwise cold and clinical trap that he had set for them. Then in a tiny fraction of a second he would turn an otherwise normal day in Philadelphia into great art.
Ray Metzker made small photographs that lesser photographers would be tempted to blow up to enormous sizes. Yet Metzker seems to want to bring the viewer into a very close relationship with his work. My kind of photographer!
Virtually all of Metzker’s photographs are printed on 8 x 10 inch (20 cm x 25 cm) paper with fairly generous white boarders. The viewer, while getting in tight to properly view a Metzker photograph and enjoy the quality of the printing, is treated to subtle detail in what at first appears to be black fields, but turns out to be a cityscape of shapes in deep, deep shades of grey, interrupted by bright shards of white that strike the frame of a car, or the outline of an often solitary person.
In his more abstract work, simple lines created by a white center-line on a street, or the outline of a parking spot, are often the only elements of light in otherwise very dark fields. One might be excused for thinking of Pierre Soulage or an ink drawing by Chillida. A lot of shades of black and shards of white. Patterns of light and deep, deep shadow.
On a dark, dark grey field, a dirty glass bus-shelter presents a dull grey rectangle that is lit by a shard of pure white light, trapping a handful of soon-to-be bus riders. The rest of the small photograph is a barely visible cityscape of buildings and an empty street and sidewalk. In another photograph, this time vertical, a white line on the road leads to what looks like a beam of light from a search helicopter. The narrow shaft of light seems to have fought its way through a forest of high-rise buildings, found in any downtown American city. The column of light forms an elegant continuation of the white line on the road that leads to its base and the woman standing there. Deceptively simple. Graphically beautiful.
One might argue that the strength of Metzker lies not in the photograph itself, but his deep understanding of how fields of dark and fields of white made from the sun’s strongest rays in early morning, or late afternoon, put together just so, can create a graphic whole, which is pleasing to the eye, superbly balanced and truly masterful.
Ray Metzker passed away at 83 in 2014. His work is so rich and timeless, that surely the viewers and collectors will be drawn to his superb body of work and will treasure it as a milestone in the simple use of light and shadow, of black and white. The photographers among us will honor the skill it takes to make deceptively simple, yet incredibly complicated photographs on a consistent basis.
Les Douches la Galerie is located in the 10th on 5, rue Legouvé. Ray Metzker’s incredible work is on display until May 27th, 2017. If your travels bring you to Paris, there is no excuse not to visit.
See more on my website: harbel.com
Bernard Plossu (born 1945) is not a well-known name in international photography, unless you happen to be French. Or at least, he was not to me. He is an avid traveler and his photography reflects everything from the journey itself, to what he sees when he gets there. I cannot say that I have known his name for long, only that I found him, a couple of years ago, when I was preparing for a great trip to Morocco with a Moroccan born Canadian friend, who took us on a fantastic trip from Essaouira to Fez, via Marrakesh and the southern interior, across the Atlas Mountains, not once, but twice!
Like I always do, when I travel, I take a look at photographers who have shot in the area that I am going to. I had a fair bit of notice, and therefore could look around Paris Photo, which I attend every year. One of the booths had a great photo of a few djellabahs laid over a stone-wall. A beautifully composed black and white photograph, in a size that I can hold and admire – the print was approximately 20 x 30 cm – and was hanging just below eye level. My eyes wondered to the label, which advised that the photographer was Bernard Plossu and that the photograph was taken in Morocco.
During our trip to Morocco, I made a lot of photographs, some with which I am almost entirely satisfied and a few I wish I could do over. It is difficult to make photographs in a place where the population is notoriously unhappy about you pointing a camera at them, so a lot of images, out of necessity, are ill prepared and very spontaneous.
When a people dresses in a characteristic way, it is often easy to go a little ethnographic, which is of course totally acceptable, but there are countless photographs in circulation of ‘types’. Postcards were sold by the millions in the first half of the 20th century, depicting your standard ‘type’ in a hood, face in the shadow, walking along the narrow streets of Fez with his donkey, or the more underground postcards of disrobed girls, often young, who for small change became eternalized in the cannon of poor taste and colonial dominance.
As you walk through the streets of almost every town and city in Morocco, you notice that not much has really changed in 100s of years. Delivery vehicles are often replaced with carts and donkeys, for the simple reason that the streets are very narrow and dark to keep the punishing sun at bay, and the temperatures just a few degrees cooler. In Morocco, it is possible to make photographs, which are entirely timeless. But at the same time you are at great risk of the cliché. So what do you do? Well you might think like Plossu, who seems to have been looking for the things that may be timeless, but would not have been photographed by the conventional travel photographer. Working in black and white, as do I, Plossu has taken great advantage of the bright light and deep shadows that are so intense in sun-baked Morocco. And of course, you then add the shapes that are so foreign to the west, of men and women wearing a cloak with a pointy hood and pointy slippers, which on their own make great shadows and in combination can take on a modernist feel when the composition allows.
One of the great things about Plossu is his eye. He has been very consistent throughout his career. He likes things a little quirky and things that are a little off. He has spent many years building his personal collection of photographs 1200 or 1300 of which have recently been given to the MEP, the French museum for photography, which is one of the great stops in Paris, should one be through here in the future.
The interesting thing about the collection that Plossu has donated is the absolute breadth of photographers and subject matter, from landscapes, to portraits, to close-ups and pure photojournalism. They are mostly small in size, forcing the viewer in tight to have a good look. But most importantly, the 1200+ photographs are by more than 600 different photographers, and all are the result of Plossu being given the work, or him having traded his own work for it. It is a remarkable achievement, to build a large collection of great photography, without spending a cent.
For me, the viewer of the 160, or so photographs from the Plossu gift, that are currently on display in the upper gallery of the MEP, the excitement is around discovering photographers that I have never heard of, and am seeing for the first time.
Each year, we go to galleries far and wide to discover new photographers. Some years, we go for many months without discovering someone new, who fits our particular esthetic. The Plossu show was the first time in a very long time that I saw dozens of names in the credits that I had never heard of. A cornucopia of talent and a joy to behold.
I made a lot of notes and enjoyed several evenings of pleasure scouring the internet looking up photographers to find more of their work.
Sadly, the Plossu gift has no catalogue, or even a list of photographs on display, at least not that I could find, but it does remain in the MEP collection after the exhibition comes down, in a few days. I went twice, and could go again, there was that much to discover. Thank you M. Plossu, you have opened my eyes yet again and I like what I see!
Paris is bringing us Mois de la Photo (Photo Month) this April. Since 1980, the event has drawn interest from professionals, amateurs and collectors alike, and while it used to be in November, the event has moved to April and expanded to include greater Paris, hence renamed Mois de la Photo Grand Paris.
How can you not visit Paris in April and enjoy some fantastic photography at the same time? Didn’t Count Basie’s recording of April in Paris end with a call by the man himself; “one more time”, only to be followed by “one more once” and a second encore! Great stuff. Mois de la Photo is like that, you just want to come back and then do it again and again.
Organized by the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and primarily paid for by the City of Paris, this is a month of great shows in public and private galleries, as well as places where photography is normally never shown.
In due course, the entire program will be up on the website: moisdelaphotodugrandparis.com. The press release listed 92 participating galleries and institutions, but surely that number will increase. Right now, the website has a useful map with dots that link to a short description of the exhibition that is on there, along with an exact address. Unfortunately no opening hours, nor phone number are listed, and the information is only in French, but when the list is finally published, I am sure it will be available in English also.
A few quick highlights that I will be looking forward to:
The Henri Cartier Bresson Foundation is celebrating the master’s 1952 publication of ‘Images à la Sauvette’, which in English became the now infamous ‘The Decisive Moment’ (instead of the direct translation, which would have been something like ‘Images on the Run’). The American title was taken from Cardinal Retz, who is quoted in the introduction: “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” I still consider the book far ahead of its time and a seminal monograph. But I digress, the HCB Foundation has a show of the photographs from the famous book.
The Centre Pompidou is showing Walker Evans and Josef Koudelka. The Jeu de Paume is showing work by Eli Lother, a surrealist and evocative photographer with great vintage material on display. Also around town; color work by Erwin Blumenfeld, haunting shadows by Ray Metzker, the French by Robert Doisneau, never before seen work by Roger Schall, famous for his undercover photographs of the German occupation of Paris during WWII, and a retrospective of the great career of Harold Feinstein, and too many more to mention. There are many names I am familiar with, but equally many that I have never heard of and look forward to discovering!
The great thing about Mois de la Photo is that the whole city takes on the theme of photography for the month, and even non-participating galleries often show photography during the month of April. There truly is photography on show around every corner.
Paris is a walking city and no more so than during the Mois de la Photo. Both public and private galleries are scattered all over the city, so bring your walking shoes and some change for the Metro.
With all the negative press that Europe has received over the past few weeks, and with a French election in the near future that has proven to be nothing, if not diabolical, with two of the three leading candidates under investigation for misappropriation of public funds, it is nice to look forward to trees with fresh green leaves, flowers in the parks, cafés busy pouring glasses of white wine, and of course the splendors of yet another season of great photography.
I am not sure how they knew, but the inspired people at the City of Paris and the MEP have done the city a great service, following lots of negative publicity and some very tragic events over the past year and a half. Moving Mois de la Photo from a dark and cold November to April is pure genius!
Here is to everyone coming to Paris and demonstrating that photography matters!
Long before the photograph was invented, painters had figured out that if they had a tent, or box with a small hole in it, whatever was outside would appear on the opposite wall inverted. By the early 18th century, a small lens had been inserted in the hole to concentrate the light and make the image clearer. In a compact size, this became a tool for painters to trace with a pencil or pen the inverted image, providing the perfect sketch. Some great realist painters are suspected of using this method – think Canaletto….
A number of individuals tried to make what was seen inside the box permanent. During the 1820s and 1830s this took on a common urgency and particularly two methods were devised within a few years of one another. Much has been written about who came first… By the end of the 1830s, we had the words ‘negative’, ‘positive’ and ‘photograph’ coined and we could fix photographs to metal, as well as make paper negatives and positives.
The next challenge was to obtain progressively higher quality photographs. In the late 1840s glass negatives were created and in the 1870s silver gelatin was a reality. In a few years, silver gelatin was adhered to celluloid. In 1883 the first roll film was on the market, and in 1888 a fellow called Eastman created the first consumer camera. You took your camera, exposed some film, returned the camera to Kodak and they would send you your prints, as well as your reloaded camera. Under the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest”, the world as we saw it changed.
Cameras kept improving and in 1924 the first Leica camera came to market, marking the beginning of the serious hand-held cameras that used 35mm roll film and the best lenses available. Kodak had another first in 1936, introducing color film, Kodachrome, and in 1963 the first instant color photograph was developed by Polaroid.
Next, in the 1970s, the single-lens-reflex (SLR) brought the camera close to what most serious amateurs recognize as standard equipment. In 1980 the first auto-focus camera came to market, followed by the first steps in digital photography. In 1990, the first professional digital system entered the market. In 2007 Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones and by 2016, sales exceeded 211 million units.
For many years, I have sought that elusive moment, when something comes together in a frame that is both funny and serious at the same time. We should not well in other people’s misfortune, nor should we create so much laughter that the entire photograph becomes a joke. It is all about balance. The balance between the serious and the funny, in a well made photograph.
Elliott Erwitt, who in his long career has made many such photographs, and who himself will admit it is difficult, extremely difficult, said: ““Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make them laugh and cry, alternately, like Chaplin does, now that’s the highest of all possible achievements. I don’t know that I aim for it, but I recognize it as the supreme goal.”
There are few, very few that on a consistent basis can make photographs that on the one hand make us stop and think, and on the other draws that elusive smile with the little wrinkles around the eyes. Many photographers have one, or maybe two photograph in their entire body of work that manage to hit both serious and funny at the same time in a fantastic composition, that is well lit, balanced and, as my wife would say; delicious.
Often the well made humorous photograph represents a mere split second, and there is little time to ensure that all the compositional elements are optimal and just the way you want them, have the right lighting and balance between light and shadow. More often than not, it is one of those photographs, were you see it, lift your camera, as you spin round and press the shutter, all the while praying that you have the settings right. It is only in the darkroom, or on the light table that you see what else is in the frame!
Occasionally, you get a subject that stays put long enough that you can actually take your time to move around, get the context and composition right, before you make the photograph. But, alas, this is very, very rare!
Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr both have a terrific ability to see the quirky side of life, sometimes even creating the opportunity to make a great photograph. I am not much for staging, but I think some people are simply wired to see the bright side of life, the humour in it all! Bless them, because I enjoy their work tremendously and am always on the lookout for the elusive moment, when it all comes together.
If Elliott Erwitt was known for his serious political commentary (of which he has done lots), his documentation of major global events (he has done a lot of those too), and gorgeously composed landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, etc. (of which he has made many), would he be even more famous? Could he command higher prices for his work? I would venture that unfortunately, while humour in a photograph is perhaps the ultimate challenge, it is mostly dismissed as not serious.
Like Erwitt, Martin Parr is a great, great photographer, he has a fantastic eye for colour, composition and has the nerve to get in real close in an anonymous, flaneur kind of way, which is both revealing of the subject, yet like he was never there. His work truly captures a particular moment, an irony, a fraction of a second that can stand for all eternity, as a validation of just how terrible hair was in the 80s, and how class structures are alive and well, with big hats and chipped nail polish.
Will Martin Parr and Elliott Erwitt continue to be seen as some kind of side-show to the more serious main event? I don’t know, but it is cruel, and unfair. The work of the photographer, who manages to consistently find the fun in our daily lives, in an unencumbered way, must surely be cherished.
The dreamer. By Harbel
There will only ever be one Chaplin. 100 years on, we still view the old films with amazement, and a mixture of tears and laughter! Now, if only I could put that in a single frame….
When I make a photograph, several things happen at once: I see something and start to frame the subject in my minds eye. I use my experience and my history. I reference the massive archive of photographs that I have seen during my formation as a photographer, I judge my camera settings, frame, focus and press the shutter.
On a technical level, I consider the light. The shadows. I consider what I am capable of achieving, and whether I can make an interesting image. Over time, I have simplified this component of image making considerably. I choose to work with a Leica M6, a 50mm lens, 100 ASA film and that’s it. I don’t use a filter, a tripod, a reflector, or any other tools or accessories. Minimal equipment. Minimal mechanical intervention.
When I make a photograph, I have to move around until my subject matter is framed, as I want it. I use a 50mm fixed lens, so I can’t zoom, or grab a wide-angle lens and crop my way to what I want to have in my photograph. I deliberately have taken the camera and made it a constant. The camera is a necessity to crate my work.
I respect tools, but they are tools, like a paint-brush or hammer and chisel. I don’t drag around a big back-pack stuffed with several camera bodies, multiple lenses, different film speeds, colour film, black-and-white film, nor digital cameras with different lenses. I don’t go home to a 27-inch monitor, take my raw files and slice and dice until I am happy with my result. The camera is simply a way for me to fix what I see on a piece of paper.
What I find incredible disruptive to my creative process, is letting equipment and computers add strings of variables that are more about the edges of what sciences and equipment can do, than what is really there, in front of me.
Edward Steichen said: ‘Once you really commence to see things, then you really commence to feel things.’ I find that when you are true to what you see, and are true to how you represent it, then you have managed to express yourself, and have done everything you can to feel, and silence the tools.
When you have had a camera a long time, and work with few variables, you can better predict an outcome and you can walk away, when you are beyond the limits of your capabilities, and I am very comfortable with that!
Much has been written about how photography has changed. How digital cameras and cell phones have changed how we see and observe, how we remember, and how we create photographs and memories.
When the objective is to show your friends, post photos and perhaps brag a little about where you are, and what you are doing, the selfie is now replacing the experience of being in the moment. When your back is turned to the Mona Lisa to take a selfie, why bother going to Paris and the Louvre in the first place?
The world has flipped on it’s head, or rather it has turned it’s back. In Porto I passed a bit of street art, below. Thought provoking? It is true: Selfies can kill you! Or at least, it can kill your feelings and the experience of seeing.
As walker Evans famously said: Stare. It’s the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. But, if you are merely pointing your phone, or worse turning your back and pointing the phone in the best narcissist fashion towards yourself, then what are you really seeing? You are dying inside, because you are not truly seeing anything at all!
Photography intellectuals are starting to muse about how digital and phone shooters should start pretending that they are using analog equipment. Yes, film! For the simple reason that they worry about how shooters of selfies and rapid-fire digital equipment no longer see, or think before they shoot! After all, the analog photographer has at most 36 frames, before the moment is lost. Forever.
It is the end of January, and we have seen the dawn of a new era in the United States. There is a new term added to the lingua franca, the alternative fact. Perhaps the digitally modified photograph is an alternative fact?
I recently got an email message from a reputable interior design magazine that I subscribe to. Under the title: “20 reasons to travel to the Greek Islands”, the photo below was number 1 of 20. Someone was clearly not paying attention. The interior of the Pantheon in Rome and a beach somewhere, fused together to make it look like you can swim off the edge of an old Greek temple?
The coffered, domed ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon is quite particular and, if you have been there, you don’t forget. So, yes, I recognized the fraud and who really cares? But had I not, and was I looking forward to my next summer vacation, I could have spent hours searching high and low for the beach with the ruin. Who is responsible? The Magazine? the person who created the fraud?
I grew up believing in what I saw on the printed page, or on TV. But, times change. I cannot imagine that I am the only one to become so jaded, that I immediately question every image I see. So, so sad!
The Canadian photographer Ted Grant famously said: “When you photograph people in colour, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in Black and white, you photograph their souls!”, I have modified this slightly to fit my view on the eternal debate over colour versus black and white photography.
I think it should read: “Colour is for clothes, black and white is for the soul….” While the difference may be subtle, I think limiting this great insight to photographing people only, is a dis-service. In the abstract sense, if you look around you and strip away colour in your mind’s eye, instead looking at shapes, forms, shadows, planes, texture and reduce this to two dimensions, you have the ingredients for making a black and white photograph, regardless of subject matter.
When you do this, you are in a sense simplifying your surroundings to planes, textures, light and shadow in shades of grey. I find this stripping away to essential elements that can be observed, not distracted by the influence of colour most serene. It is no longer reality, but an essence, a distillation.
I make photographs in black and white, using an analog Leica camera, printing full frame from the original negative, without any kind of digital manipulation. I use the same lens all the time, the same film all the time, and don’t own a tripod, or flash. I do this by choice. I try to keep the tool side of my photographs constant, so that I can focus on looking at what is in front of me and knowing – most of the time – what I can hope to capture in a photograph.
I find that when you spend a lot of time making photographs, you tend to start seeing the world around you in stills, almost like looking at a film one frame at a time. You find yourself constantly framing your surroundings, looking at the light, and sometimes making the photograph, should you have remembered to strap on the camera that day.
It brings to mind the painter Modigliani, who in abject poverty, unable to afford canvas and paint, was asked how his painting was going? He answered that he had already painted several paintings that day, in his mind. This is how I feel about photographs. Whether you actually make a photograph, or simply construct one in your mind’s eye, the result is a constant state-of-mind that encourages the creative mind to keep searching and looking for the elusive perfection, which comes together ever so rarely.
Others may be able to keep colour in the context of how they construct their images, but I find that colour interferes with my particular esthetic. Not to say that there are not great colour photographs present and past, but it is not for me.
It is rare that you get to meet someone quite as enthusiastic as Alessia Paladini. She is the Director of the Contrasto Galleria in Milan, where I spent a couple of very engaging hours initially looking at the show currently hanging, which is a great mix of vintage and modern prints by Herbert List. The vintage prints have that something, which sadly no modern paper seems able to give us. There is a warmth and tonal range that we can only dream of today. Not sure if the slower film in the 1950s helped, but at any rate, the small 6×6 inch vintage prints were enough to make a grown man do a second take. We then got into the boxes, where I wanted to see some of the vintage material of one of my great heroes Gianni Berengo Gardin.
Berengo Gardin is a photographer who in addition to making great photographs has has an incredible record of more than 250 book projects, is well into his 80s and is still going strong, having just finished the 2017 calendar for the Italian Police Force. We looked at great photographs, some not much more than postcard size, all the way up to quite large modern prints. The vintage photographs, like the List photographs, had a wonderful feel to them and with only a couple of exceptions were of Italian scenes.
Gardin does not like being referred to as the HCB of Italy, he prefers being compared to his friend Willy Ronis. But if HCB is not the right comparison, then Ronis is not entirely bad company!
If you are ever in Milan, take a look at the shows at Contrasto Galleria, they are in a beautiful gallery space, off the beaten path a bit, but well worth the walk or metro ride. You will not regret it!
And NO, I derive no gain from mentioning or proposing you visit Contrasto. I am merely providing a service announcement for like-minded photographers and collectors!
A few years ago, the photographer Cindy Sherman, was written up in The Wall Street Journal as being the best investment in art over the past 25 years.
Cindy Sherman does not sell at photography galleries as a general rule. Her work is sold with contemporary art, i.e. graphic art, painting, sculpture and mixed media work. Andreas Gursky, the German photographer, I understand, refuses to sell his work through photography galleries and sells only through art galleries that carry a multitude of art forms. Why is that?
Meet Mr. Jones, a wealthy investment banker (fictional of course). When Mr. Jones goes to his dealer and gets ready to drop his annual art budget of a couple of million dollars, he does not even give photographs a second thought. That is because the galleries that he would typically frequent do not carry photographs. He will stand in front of a Basquiat graffiti-esque canvas and will study it, look at the $2.5 million price tag and think that this is quite the work and quite the steal. After all, the dealer assures him that Basquiat has sold for much more than that at recent auctions.
If Mr. Jones were to walk down the street to a photography gallery, he would walk in the door and see prices that are usually only a few thousand dollars. Typically, contemporary work is in the low four to five figures. He looks around, goes into doubt-mode and wonders if anything this cheap can possibly be good art. More importantly, at this low price point, it cannot possibly be appropriate for his next dinner party, when he will proudly show off his new Basquiat.
This is precisely why Sherman, Gursky and a handful of others sell in a mixed gallery where their work is displayed side-by-side with painting and sculpture. Going this route the artists have broken the price barrier that photography has imposed on itself.
When I speak with dealers, they acknowledge the problem. Often the photography collector will walk into the gallery with a certain price expectation. After all, he believes he knows what photographs are worth, or at least what he used to be able to buy them for. Beads of sweat emerge when he sees the sticker price of $45,000 for a 30×60-inch photograph by a contemporary ‘rising star’.
If we now go back to our first shopper, Mr. Jones, he goes to his regular dealer and is confronted by a Cindy Sherman hanging next to his Basquiat and the dealer goes on and on about how important the work is and how it will go up in value and how his friends will admire his sublime taste in contemporary art. The dealer will tell him that photography is all the rage.
He doesn’t even blink at the price. It is cheaper than the Basquiat, but it has more conversation value, shows his open mind toward contemporary art – Basquiat is so last year he thinks, while slowly drawing on the Cohiba and sipping his vintage port.
The issue here is one of expectations and of the nature of the photography collectors. No more than 35 years ago you could pick up major photographs by major artists for under $100. Therefore the leap to $50,000 or more is a difficult one. But if you have not grown up in the photography world, or taken it upon yourself to learn a bit of the history, then in comparison to other modern and contemporary art, photography is cheap — dirt cheap.
It will take some time and effort to move off some of the prices that have dominated photography over the years, but it will happen, and when it does, if you started collecting today, you might just be the one with the Cohiba saying, “I told you so!” It is not a matter of if, but when.
I have always thought of Harry Callahan as a cool photographer. Cool in the sense that he is cool in the way we talk about a great garment or a spectacular bit of design. But more important, he is cool in terms of how his images are composed. Unemotional and somehow distant. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone in a Callahan photograph smiling, nor any photographs that display a sense of humour. Some of my friends say it is because he trained as an engineer!
I have looked at Callahan books. Many books. I have seen individual prints in galleries, museums and at exhibitions, and at auction. My first experience with a full show was at La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris. Yesterday.
The show blew me away. By way of background, Callahan received a grant and took a sabbatical. At the encouragement of Steichen, he left his comfort-zone in the northern US and departed for Europe. He spent the majority of this time in Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. He stayed there for 10 months with his wife and son. The show comprises a selection of the photographs he made during that stay.
All the prints are small in size, the majority of the prints are perhaps 15 cm or 18 cm square (6 or 7 inches) or 16 cm x 24 cm (6 x 9 inches) for the 35mm. This is a size that I truly enjoy. You have to get your nose almost to the glass, often attracting great concern and nasty looks from the custodians, but I digress.
Firstly, the printing is what my wife would call delicious. Callahan printed these images in the early 1990s. His vibrant blacks and great tonal range almost invoke the papers that are sadly long gone. Secondly, there is a patience in these photographs. Each is composed perfectly, with nothing out of place. Perfect balance. Perfect texture. Perfect light.
Callahan has used the narrow streets of the medieval city to great advantage, looking for the sun low on the horizon in winter, causing wonderful intense shadows and capturing, usually a single figure, in the bright rays. This is Ray Metzker, but somehow more real and less about effect and more about the moment.
His landscapes are from the area around the old city, and his architectural photographs are not the elegant villas, chateaux or even the wonderful cathedral, but rather the simple straight lines of houses in the side streets, with no ornamentation, save the odd drainpipe, fitted tightly into each frame.
Eleanor is of course also there, but mostly in double exposures with various landscapes. I am not a big fan of double or multiple exposures, but that does not take away from my overall experience.
You can do this show in a matter of minutes. It is basically a single room. But you can also linger, as I did, and get your nose real close. This is a true master at work.
For those in Paris: Go see the show. For those that are not: Get the book: Harry Callahan: French Archives.
On the back of each of Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographs there is a green stamp. It reads: “Vera Fotografia”, his way of saying that what you see in his print is what was in front of him when he made the photograph. It has not been manipulated, changed or enhanced with Photoshop or other digital editing software.
But does a simple green rubber stamp really change anything or prove anything. In an email exchange with the editor of Black and White Magazine in the UK, it was yet again pointed out to me that we photographers have been manipulating our images in the darkroom since the very beginning. We crop, dodge, burn and tone our prints and so, it should be OK for the ‘contemporary’ photographer to use digital tools to achieve a desired outcome.…. Indeed.
I take the point, but perhaps there is a test that we could all employ, that being: Could the photograph in front of you, digital or analog have been made under optimal conditions with a camera and film; printed in a darkroom using an enlarger and standard chemistry? If so, it is worthy of the coveted green stamp: “Vera Fotografia”.
I am not here to criticize, merely to point out that I make photographs with an old leica M6, 100 ASA film, a 50 mm lens. No tripod, filters, flash or reflectors. Just me, my camera and what is in front of me. My negatives are printed full frame, with the black outline of the negative. To me that is: “Vera Fotografia”.