The Danger of the Artist’s Statement

I recently purchased a photograph by a young Greek photographer.  I really enjoyed the feel of the image and the mystery that he has achieved with what could either be simple analogue tools, or some heavy computer intervention.  I prefer to think it is the first!  Of course.

I did what I always do, ignoring the context entirely.  The photograph was in a selection by the photographer that showed up this morning in one of my photography newsletters.  I figure that given all the shows and exhibitions around the world that are suffering either from COVID-closure, or a very restricted audiences, that we owe it to the photography community to buy a piece here and there to keep everyone committed to their art in bread and water, if not steak and Chateau Lafite.

I may have made the purchase as a reaction to the news that for the first time in 20 years, I will not be attending Paris Photo, which was cancelled yesterday.   The Paris Photo organizers hung on much longer than they should.  My gallery friends said months ago that they would not take booths this year… that 50% of sales go to the United States, and given what is going on in the US, it would be unlikely that many, or any Americans would attend, or even be allowed to attend, etc.  Long story short; Paris Photo finally bowed to the increasing number of COVID cases in France and elsewhere, as well the recently imposed restrictions on the size of crowds.

Feeling my growing depression over not going Paris Photo, I was so pleased to see something I liked in one of my newsletters and jumped on the chance to acquire a super photograph.

But, I digress… the reason for today’s blog entry is for me to perhaps suggest that there is great danger in the written word.  Personally, I don’t like artist’s statements, nor do I like curator’s commentary most of the time.  I like to let a photograph speak to me on it’s own terms and having that impression help form my interpretation of what is happening in the image, and my response to it. 

The danger to me comes when the artist sets out on some kind of verbose rampage and completely messes with my feeling, or interpretation of a work.  There is a degree of risk here.  Because, if I see it, love it and want it, but then read that my reaction to the image is completely off side, relative to what the photographer says she, or he intended, one of two things happen:  Worst case; I turn around, shake my head and walk away, or best case; I buy it anyway and spend the rest of my life trying to dispel from my mind the statement made by the artist.

Karabelas, Nasos – Woman #101

The image here I love.  Beautifully executed, the image allows my imagination to go wonder, while the other half of my brain goes on to an internal dialogue about the technical aspects of the execution – utterly hoping that it is not all about software.

Here is a portion of the artist’s statement:

“…..  Each photo is an entity, which includes a certain mental condition. So, we are dealing with a variety of emotional loads within a world that is equally ambiguous with ours. The forms obtain a dreamlike dimension. Sometimes you can not easily understand their contours. Τhe exploration of the forms inside the photographs gives us the opportunity to discover the various aspects of our psychosynthesis.

In this particular case, I went ahead and purchased the photograph, because I really think it is a great photograph, but it was close.  I almost walked away.

The lesson here is to not overthink the work, or at least let it speak for itself, because paraphrasing one of my favorite Japanese photographers: If I could write, I would not be a photographer.

Harbel

Photography IS Art

– It is sinking in…. even among non-photographers!

Early this morning, I was walking through the Milano Centrale railway station.  For the most part you could fire a cannon in the place and hit nothing.  For an average Wednesday, it was a little sad.  No, very sad. COVID19 is still very much in play here in Italy and people are playing it safe.  Doing what they now call ‘smartwork’ which is the new term for working from home.

I passed a bookshop that was open early, maybe dreaming of selling a newspaper or two, and much to my surprise it finally happened……  The photography monographs were mixed in with the painting and sculpture monographs.  First, I was irritated, because seriously, who wants to go through reams of books to find the photographers.  But then, it dawned on me.  This is probably the first time I have encountered an art section, and not an art section, a photography section and an architecture section.  I realized that this might just be the wave of the future – finally – where books on Rembrandt sit next to books on Marc Riboud.  Martine Franck next to Helen Frankenthaler.  You get the idea. 

Mario De Biasi – Milano Centrale 1950s

It is perhaps appropriate that I discovered this in Milan and not some other city, because this month kicks off the 15th Milan Photo Festival, which runs from the 7th of September to the 15th of November.  Milan has always had a great crop of artists, chief among them Gianni Berengo Gardin – my personal hero – who turns 90 this year!  Galleries work hard, alongside auction houses to educate and bring great exhibitions to the citizens of Milan and those that come to visit from elsewhere. 

The photograph above is one from my collection, a small vintage print from a platform at Milano Centrale in the 1950s. More people then, than now, but nice to see that Campari was still a great drink then, as it is today! Mario De Biasi was a great photographer, not well known outside Italy, but worth a look!

Sound the trumpets:  Photography is art! 

Hard to believe after just shy of 200 years!!

Harbel

Venice and the Cruise Ship

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

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

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

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

Harbel – St. Marks Square

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

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

Harbel – A cruise ship tourist

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

Harbel – Cruise Ship Venice

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

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

Harbel – Canaletto Umbrellas

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

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

Harbel    

 

Peter Beard – The End

Peter Beard
‘I Will Write when I Can’ (detail)

One of the reasons I got into photography, both as a shooter and as a collector was Peter Beard’s connection to Karen Blixen, or as she is known in large parts of the world, Isak Dinesen, her nom de plume.  Karen Blixen was still alive when I was young, she died in 1985. By 1991 her home, north of Copenhagen, had been made into a museum. I was on vacation in Denmark and went there soon after it opened. There were a couple of references to Peter Beard at the museum and I started looking into the connection.  I was interested in photography and had read Out of Africa as a young man. The combination was irresistible.   

As often happens to me, I went from one fascination to another.  Blixen led me to Beard, which in turn led me to read and collect first books and then through a stroke of pure serendipity a few prints by the great photographer.  I will not bore you with a biography of Beard, there are lots of obituaries around these days, and no doubt there will be lots of features in magazines and future retrospectives to come at museums and galleries around the world.  But, suffice it to say that he was so enamoured with Blixen that he made his way to Africa by way of Denmark, eventually using some of his vast inheritance to acquire land next to the property, where Blixen so desperately had tried to grow coffee.  He named it Hog Ranch.

In Kenya, it seems, Beard found his proper identity.  He photographed, lived an explorer’s life, shooting mostly with a camera, as opposed to a gun, and capturing wildlife and the people that co-exist with them.  He famously worked on a book, which he in 1965 presented to the White House as his last call for the protection of wildlife in Africa.  Particularly East Africa.  Beard seems to have been on a mission, I suspect one that he only realized was there once he got to Kenya in pursuit of the exotic and dream like qualities he had read about and had seen pictures of.  With a healthy trust fund in his back, he could afford to live a lifestyle that most can only dream about.  Though coming from near NY royalty, he seems to have been more comfortable living in a tent and walking around in a worn pair of shorts with a camera around his neck in the hills above Nairobi. 

An explorer by nature, I think, he probably thought of himself as being born too late.  Longing for a time when the Empire was in full bloom and Kenya an outpost of the British.  He probably identified with Finch-Hatton and all the other characters that would work their way through the hills from trophy to trophy, once in a while coming back to Nairobi to drink at the club and share war stories of what they had felled with a single bullet, and what got away. 

Beard’s work is interesting in that he really has only one body of work that anyone takes seriously, that being made prior to the publishing of the 1965 book.  There were the odd commercial projects to follow, but he kept going back to what he was known for.  Reworking and rethinking and retouching and adding to the East Africa animal photographs that we have all come to love and appreciate.

Beard, Peter – I Will Write when I Can – A

A close family member told me that there were two major tragedies in Peter Beard’s photographic life.  The first when his house in Manouk burned down with a lot of his prints and negs lost forever.  This is well publicised. The second episode is not so well known….  Beard had been married to Cheryl Tiegs for a while and had apparently been given many, many warnings, but Peter was hard to tame and got home at dawn one day to find a smouldering pile of negatives on the front lawn.

Beard, Peter – I Will Write when I Can – B

One theory for why Peter Beard took to making his colourful collages and adding to the beautiful photographs that he had made in the early 1960s was that he needed to camouflage the fact that his photographs were copy prints from old photographs, because the negatives no longer existed.  You can as a purist of course lament this, but you have to give credit to the creative and often beautiful way in which Peter Beard decorated his images.  Using found objects, cut-outs from magazines, Polaroids, blood, sometimes from the butcher and sometimes his own, hand prints, foot prints, and so forth.  He would draw little figures of animals and men, colourful images drawn from a creative mind that had been making collages and had kept diaries with cut-outs from an early age. 

Beard, Peter – I Will Write when I Can – C

I only met Peter Beard once.  In Toronto.  He was there for an opening of a gallery show and had been given free reign on the normally white walls.  I was the last visitor through the door the day after the opening and he happened to still be there.  I said ‘hi’ and asked if he would sign a book for me.  Peter was as usual in bare feet and covered in indigo ink.  His feet were somewhere between black and blue.  The black from walking around barefoot, the blue from ink.  He decorated surfaces normally white with prints of feet and hands and little scribbles.  Funny figures that reminded me of a children’s drawings.  Colourful and cartoon like.  He not only signed a book for me, he decorated the first couple of pages with hand prints, a drawing of an alligator, a speech bubble by the fetus of the elephant that he had photographed that was on the title page.  A personalized greeting to a guy he had no idea who was, whom he took the time to create a little work of art for.  He was kind, friendly and very comfortable in his own skin.  Notoriety and fame did not seem to change him.  He was focused on you, and while he had done his little show countless times over the days and weeks of exhibitions he had had in various places, he took the time to make the experience personal for me.  I never forgot that.

Beard, Peter – I Will Write when I Can – D

Some time in the early 90s, I bought an 11×14 print of ‘I will write when I can’ Lake Rudolf 1965.  It is the classic Beard photograph that we have all seen of him lying in the mouth of a huge crocodile writing in his diary, looking all serious.  There is a hand drawn ink line – indigo of course – drawn to the open area below the crocodile, where he wrote the title, signed it and dated it.  It has been among my most treasured photographs for a very long time.  I have shown 4 versions of this image in this entry, to give you an idea of the versatility and creativity of Peter Beard.

Peter was 82, when a couple of weeks ago he walked away from his home in Long Island.  He was found 16 days later a mile away in a forested area.  Those that knew him had been speculating and hoping – despite the odds – that he had gone on one last expedition.  And maybe he did.  Rest in Peace, Peter Beard. King of the Jungle.

Harbel,

April 20, 2020

Paul Hoeffler – Lee Morgan

No Outlet

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

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

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

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

Paul Hoeffler, – Lee Morgan No Outlet

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

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

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

The joint was appropriately called:  Slugs. 

Lee Morgan was 33.

No Outlet.

Harbel

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

Collecting Photographs – with Passion!

We all have our own reason for collecting, whatever it is we collect:  Coffee spoons, paintings, fridge magnets, photographs, teddy bears, sculpture.  Collecting is about passion.  Sometimes about obsession.  Remember that.  If it talks to you, then don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t worth having.  Buy with your heart, not for investment.  A rule that I have always lived by.

Killip, Chris – Saw it, felt it – 3 years later, found it and bought it.

I adore this quote:

 “She taught me that I shouldn’t buy a photograph unless it made the hair on my arm stand up.”

– Susie Tompkins Buell, talking about curator Merrily Page

I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Harbel

Japanese Post War Photographers

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

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

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

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

Shin Yanagisawa – Untitled

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

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

Harbel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Hoeffler: Dream Dancing

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

Paul Hoeffler: Wives and Girlfriends

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

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

Harbel

Places on the List – Matheus Rose

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!

Harbel

The Vintage Print – What is it? – Why should I care?

The much abused and maligned term Vintage Print is perhaps the most hotly debated attribution of all. But what does it mean? And perhaps more importantly, why does it matter?

My definition, which I think is probably accepted by most dealers and galleries is a photograph printed by the artist within 12 months of the photograph having been taken and the film developed.

But why does it matter? The argument goes along the following lines: A photographer makes a photograph, develops the film and makes a print, all immediately following each other without any real lapse of time. The hard core collector will argue that this represents the most authentic version of the photograph, as it is perhaps the best representation of what the photographer had in mind when the shutter was pressed and the image made.

The debate about the significance of vintage the vintage photograph will go on forever, but it is very much part of the vocabulary among collectors and dealers. Two collectors chatting will refer to a photograph as a ‘vintage Brassai’, as opposed to a ‘nice Brassai’ or a ‘great Brassai.’ Collectors value the term ‘vintage’ as part of their code and use it frequently, sometimes loosely. Think of it as a type of insider lingo that confirms that you know of which you speak.

The generally accepted rule seems to be as I have stated above, but what if a photograph is printed within two years of being taken, or maybe three? History has a way of compressing itself.

In historical terms, the Hundred Years War between France and Germany was actually not a war that lasted 100 years, but a series of wars that in combination took about a hundred years. In the same way, when our descendants sit in the classroom in a couple of hundred years’ time, the First World War and the Second World War will have become simply the World War.

Using the same logic, the definition of what is a vintage photograph becomes more fluid in the eyes of some dealers and collectors. If a photograph was taken in March of 1930, developed in March of 1930 and printed in April of 1930, everyone agrees that it is a vintage photograph. If it was taken in 1930, developed in 1930 and printed in 1933, the definition no longer applies, but the further we get away from the 1930s, the more compressed time becomes and the more tempting it is to regard the 1933 photograph as being ‘close enough’ to vintage that it enters the gray area that is termed ‘vintage’ by some.

Of course, another factor in dating photographs is that barely any photograph is stamped with a date, or dated by hand. As such, a lot of decisions become somewhat subjective and the materials and the visual inspection by experts starts to determine ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later.’

Experts use a number of variables to judge whether they will call a photograph vintage or not. Provenance is of course a major factor. Provenance, as you will recall from my previous blog, is when you can prove by documentation the history of the photograph. This includes letters, receipts and other documents that show where and when you acquired the photograph and where it was prior to that. In the case of a weak provenance, other factors will help determine the classification of a given photograph.

In 20th century photography, the determination of ‘vintage’ versus ‘printed later’ can hinge on things like the paper the photograph is printed on and the appearance of a photograph in comparison to other work from the time by the same photographer, already known to be vintage.

It is a generally accepted fact that up to 75 per cent of the world’s Rembrandts are by other artists, contemporary to Rembrandt. There is a society that spends all its time and energy authenticating paintings by the Dutch master. On a much smaller scale, there are connoisseurs of photography that specialize and are regarded as experts on specific periods in photography, or specific photographers. In the case of Rembrandt, the sciences determine the age of the canvas, the pigments used, the solvents, the varnishes used, etc. X-rays will determine underpainting, sketches and other invisible secrets. But science can only go so far. The Rembrandt expert will look at brushstrokes, the particular way in which an eye is painted or a shadow laid down and from experience will look for all the secret identifiers that determine whether a work is by Rembrandt or one of his associates, or even someone completely outside the circle of the master.

In photography determination of authenticity and age is similar. Certain photographic papers were only made for a short time and analysis of the fibres in a photograph can often determine the age of a print within a range of a few years. In the same way as the Rembrandt expert looks for tell-tale signature traits of the master, the expert on a given photographer looks for specific things in a photograph.

A photographer will during a lifetime likely change the way he or she prints, but during a relatively short period, the printing method and appearance of the finished print is likely to be fairly consistent. The expert will look at similar prints in various collections, private and public, and will through comparison and experience lend his name and reputation to whether a particular print is vintage or not. Of course this is not an exact science, but the collectors give certain experts a lot of respect, and their say-so is good enough for most to accept that a work is indeed vintage.

There are some interesting variations on vintage. What, for instance do you do with a photographer who does not print his or her own work? But that is for another blog.

Harbel

 

Provenance – the importance of a little paperwork

When looking to buy a photograph, there are a few things to consider and be comfortable with. In photographs, like most other arts, perhaps the term Provenance is the most important of all.

Provenance is the collective term for the chronology of ownership from creation to the present day of a work of art. In other words: Who made it, where has it been since it was made and, who has owned it along the way.

The ultimate provenance is a photograph obtained by you, directly from the artist. This is asserted by a receipt made out to you that says you own the photograph. The receipt must be signed, made out to you, dated and it should include a very specific description of what you have acquired. This might include a description or title, the image size, paper size, the print number, if it is part of an edition, and any other pertinent information. It should be a proper receipt, consistent with other receipts from the artist – preferably not written on a scrap of paper, or the corner of a napkin. The receipt together with the photograph itself is the ultimate provenance, confirming that the photograph came to you directly from the photographer.

If you know the photographer, or perhaps have enough presence of mind to ask while in the glow of the halo of the master, you can ask for the photograph to be dedicated to you. The dedication might read: “For Mary Smith, best wishes, Lee Friedlander, June 5, 2010.”

You should know that some collectors find a personal dedication a negative factor when buying a photograph.  Some people don’t like showing off their photograph collection with dedications to people other than themselves, while others find any writing on a photograph, aside from a stamp and signature of the artist, to be undesirable. This is of course very subjective, but just be aware that some collectors will take issue with a dedication.

On a personal note; I have a photograph by one of my heroes, Marc Riboud. It hangs above me as I write this. It reads: “For Harbel, new best friends forever, Marc Riboud”. I asked that he write below the image, right across the front. I have framed it so that you can read the inscription. Of my entire collection, it is the only photograph that I have framed where the mat does not cover the signature. Usually, I find a signature distracting, but in the case of Riboud, I smile every time I look at it and read the inscription.  However, I do acknowledge that it has probably deducted a few bucks from the value of the photograph. Not everyone likes a photograph dedicated to someone else. But I digress…..

Failing this direct provenance, we now move into progressively more gray areas. The best in a retail environment is a receipt from the dealer, or gallery representing the artist. A receipt from the dealer accompanying the photograph is usually good provenance, particularly if it is a respected dealer in the photography community.

If you are buying from a fellow collector, and that person can present a credible receipt together with the photograph, that is pretty good provenance.

But as the string grows longer – more owners, more galleries between you and the artist – the facts become harder to check.  Auction houses, even the best ones, will have a long list of words that they use to cover themselves, like: “believed to be…”, “from the period…”, “property of a relative…”, “school of….”, etc. The bottom line here is that the more credible you think the paper-trail is, the better.

All rules have exceptions. Sometimes the provenance is less important. This sometimes happens when the previous owner was famous or had particular significance to the world of photography or art in general. This can change everything. An example would be a photograph that was owned by, let’s say Picasso.

Likewise, sometimes a photograph comes from the estate of a famous person, logic and even common sense, often goes out the window in this case. In the auction of Andre Breton’s estate, photographs sold for 10 times their high estimate, because they had belonged to Andre Breton, which begs the question whether it is still about the photograph at all, or about owning a little piece of Andre Breton.

Your tolerance for risk determines how you might feel about a photograph that you wish to acquire. But, always remember, if you love the photograph and know what you are buying, or at least are aware of any downside, should you wish to resell it at a later date, then by all means, go for it and enjoy! Sometimes passion is all that really counts.

Harbel

The Gastronomy of the Eye

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.

Harbel

For more information, visit harbel.com

 

 


 

“I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”

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.

How sad.

Harbel,
Copenhagen