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 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.
Robert and Fred died within a day of one another. Both hugely significant in their own right, and while one will always overshadow the other, it would be a great shame for one to be lost and not given the proper attention that he deserves…..
On Tuesday the September 10th, it happened. What everyone had been expecting and nobody wanted. Robert Frank, perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century passed. I have a great passion for the type of photographs that Robert Frank made. Frank’s timing was not always perfect, his focus sometimes a little off, even his lighting was sometimes a little too hard, or too soft, but he captured images that forever changed photography and gave him almost mythical status. Among those of us who like to think we make photographs in a certain tradition that for all intents and purposes link directly back to him, he is a god.
Robert Frank had an uncanny ability to see things that captured the essence of our existence. I doesn’t matter if you look at his later work, which was more cerebral, or if you look at his break-through portfolio ‘The Americans’, it was always about capturing an honest, unembellished truth. The essence of an American town, a rodeo, a road leading to eternity, or a tuba. His images were not all individually outstanding, though many were, but they have an honesty and a virtual time-stamp that bring out the best in time, place and circumstance.
Robert Frank was Swiss, he
captured America with an open mind and an open heart, as only one from ‘away’
can, which leads me to the second thing that happened that week……
The day before, on the 9th of September, in Vancouver, a city known in photography circles mostly for contemporary work – some in large light boxes – the passing of Fred Herzog went largely unnoticed, except by those who either knew him, or admired his visionary approach to colour photography.
Vancouver in the 1950s was a backwater, a pacific port with lots of warehouses, ships coming and going and a departure point for those engaged in the mining- and logging industries. Not particularly refined, nor particularly pretty. With a setting between ocean and mountains it had a great canvas. But as only we humans can, it was a lot of front row industry, a busy, dirty and noisy port, lots of really bad neon, bars, wooden houses that looked ever so temporary, surrounding a couple of monumental stone buildings, that would eventually come to anchor what most will now agree is a world city.
Transience was the nature of the old wood houses that were usually no more than a couple of stories high, set in a tight geographical setting that over time would require much densification and endless high-rises. As such, much of what was around in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased. Virtually no evidence of the frontier town by the water remains. Thank goodness for Fred! At a time when colour film was slow as frozen molasses, and people still moved as quickly as they do today, Fred captured Vancouver in a way that is both local and global. He found qualities in simple new cars in an alley, a sea of neon lights, the interior of a barbershop, a window at the hardware store, and in people who look like they are from everywhere.
For most people these scenes are difficult to place geographically, other than it being somewhere in North America, but that is what makes them great. Herzog doesn’t dwell on the incredibly beautiful Vancouver setting with mountains, sea and sky, but on the urban. Often the slightly gritty urban. His head-on elegant use of colour and composition with people peppered in for good measure, always in just the right number and somehow perfectly placed, gives rise to his great eye and masterly skill, using tools that today seem almost impossible to handle well.
The Equinox Gallery in
Vancouver still has a great selection of Fred Herzog’s work. It is still attainable and exquisitely
printed from the original Kodachrome slides that in miraculous fashion have
survived less than optimal circumstances.
Fred’s work found its way to
Paris Photo a few years ago, the annual mecca for those, like myself who are
consumed by great photography. A bold
show of only Fred’s work took up an entire, large booth at the seminal event of
the year. It was a popular stop for
collectors, who found something new, exciting and rooted in photographic
Fred worked for the University of British Columbia for almost as long as I have been alive. He started the year I was born. He photographed in the name of science and in his spare time out of personal obsession the city he came to love from a very early age. Anecdotally, he came to Vancouver based on a single photograph in a geography textbook at school back in Germany, where he was born, during a time of great upheaval.
Fred came to Canada in 1952. He leaves a legacy, having captured a vanished time, but while geographically specific and significant, also of great universal appeal.
Ulrich Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart, Germany, September 21st, 1930 and passed away in Vancouver on September 9th, 2019. He was 88.
Both Herzog and Frank were not from where their most famous work is made. Is this significant? Does the outsider see differently…? Save that for another day.
Paul Hoeffler was my friend.
We spent many a night discussing great Jazz musicians and his
photographs over bottles of single malt whisky.
Always Jazz music playing in the background, softly, as often Claire,
his wife, would be giving piano lessons in the next room. Paul is virtually unknown outside a small
circle of committed admirers, yet, he deserves so much more…..
I think back on the man that didn’t take the obvious
photograph, but was more in tune than any other musician photographer, that I can
think of. Paul knew music. He knew Jazz.
His office and studio took up the
entire living room in his traditional red brick house in Toronto’s Roncesvalles
area. And unlike any other photographer
that I have visited, Paul’s place was equally full of records, discs, reel
tapes and recordings of every kind, and the boxes, and boxes of photographs and
negatives that made you careful where you sat and vigilant about where you put
down your whisky glass.
But first things first. I was introduced by my bank manager, who thought I knew something about marketing and perhaps could help one of his customers figure out what to do with a room full of prints and negatives. We met and I would say that had Paul been a sailor, I would have called him salty. He was in his early 60s when we met. Paul was born in 1937. And he was surrounded by a very large amount of stuff, which I think only he knew his way around. When we met, he had had a long career in places like Rochester, NY; New York City; Providence, RI, before moving to Toronto and settling down for keeps. I got the impression that he was sad at the state of the art of photography, in the sense that he felt that he no longer could get the access he needed to make the photographs that mattered. Too many managers, handlers, agents, security guards, fences and locked doors. He would often say things like: “those times are gone”, or “it is not like that anymore”. A little bitter perhaps. I don’t know, but a master of the highest order.
Paul studied photography at RIT, the famous Rochester Institute of Technology. Names like Minor White and passers by like Ansel Adams were the cast of characters that gave courses and instructed the young Hoeffler. RIT is of course located in the legendary city that spawned Kodak, and therefore seemed like a logical place to study photography. He started to shoot at virtually the same time as Tri-X film became the film of choice for consistent black and white photographs. As a young student one of his first assignments was a Jazz concert. And as they say, the rest is history.
Paul knew the music, almost as well as those playing it and
he therefore knew where to be and where to focus during a performance. I was fortunate to work endless nights with
Paul on a catalogue for an exhibition. A
humble 24 page booklet, yet, I heard and re-heard stories that eventually got
transcribed by me and became part of the catalogue.
I don’t think anyone will be able to find a copy of the
catalogue today, so I will take the liberty of recounting a couple of the
stories. Ones that have stuck with
Let me start with the 1955 meeting with Louis Armstrong. During a break in the concert at Rochester, Paul Hoeffler went back-stage and went into the dressing-room where Armstrong was holding court. I will leave the words to Paul, as I recorded them:
“Armstrong was there with a lot of fans and admirers. People would come up and say: ‘Louis, I am a little short, can you help out?’ He had his big roll of bills, and he would peel off a $5, a $10 or a $20. The place cleared out a bit and I was shooting some pictures. He had a bandanna around his head and he looked at me and said ’Oh, you might want to have a picture like this.’ He put his horn up to his lips and posed for me for several pictures. I had enough sense to shoot a few frames and stop and say: ‘Thank you, very much.’ I added; ‘Incidentally, in the movie last year, you played a tune called Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya. Would there be any chance of you doing that in the second half?’ Trummy Young the trombonist, was with him and Louis nudged to him and said: ‘Remember the movie we made about the white trombone player, Miller?’ Trummy smiled. ‘Remember the tune we played, Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya? Our friend here would like to hear that in the second half. Think we can do it?’ Trummy nodded. I thanked him very much and went out. For the second half of the program, I went into the pit right in font of the stage. The band came out. Armstrong played a tune and then spotted me. He nudged Trummy, looked at me and announced to the audience: ‘Last year we made a film about Glen Miller. And in that we played a tune called Otchi-Tchor-Ni-Ya. We have a special friend here tonight, who made a request to hear that tune, and right now we would like to play that and dedicate it to our friend.’ I was 17. I was floating.”
Paul was full of stories like this. He would tell me he was on stage with Erskine Hawkins and his band taking pictures, under the watchful eye of Julian Dash, the tenor sax player, who had suggested he stay close. He was the only white boy in the entire roller skating rink, and following a disgruntled girlfriend shooting a couple of rounds, apparently upset that her boyfriend had taken another girl to the dance, Paul understood and stayed close. Nobody was hurt. I don’t know if this explains how Paul had access, but he took photographs from under keyboards, behind drums…. That night, Paul shot the audience from the stage and produced what he often referred to as his Dream Dancing photographs. A little fuzzy, very moody, they show outlines of bodies moving around the dance floor. You can almost hear the music.
Finally, the one shot that I think says it all about how Paul worked. He was at a show with Count Basie and his Orchestra. He was, as usual in prime position, but he didn’t do the obvious, he photographed the wives and girlfriends waiting in the wings. Desperate for the show to end and their lives to begin again. It is a photograph with so much atmosphere and so much feeling, and at the same time an eye for what it was like being on the road, night after night putting on a great show.
I am often reminded of how Herman Leonard, or William
Claxton photographed Jazz, and while Paul was in contact with many other jazz photographers,
he was in my mind better. Unlike
Leonard, who seems to desperately cling to a steady supply of cigarette smoke emanating
from conveniently placed ashtrays, Paul didn’t need these tricks to make magic. He felt photographs.
I will probably write a couple more entries about Paul and his photographs. He passed away from cancer some years ago. Never a dull moment around Paul. He was full of stories, full of life and had a deep, very deep knowledge of the music and the musicians that he photographed. Paul Hoeffler, the Greatest Of All Time. I miss him.
I met him once. He sat in his café-cum-bar at a corner table by the window. He was the belle of the ball, the one that everyone in the know was looking at discreetly, or in some cases staring at wildly. A legend. A celebrity. A man who managed to capture the essence of Istanbul.
Sure, he claimed he was much more than that, when asked. He would talk about all his travels, where he had visited and photographed, how he was hand picked by Henri Cartier-Bresson to join Magnum, but the legacy persists: He was the king of Istanbul, the pride and the living visual memory of the great city.
His photographs are atmospheric and truly sensitive to what it means to see Istanbul for what it is and what it was. The cross-roads, the cradle and the mystery that is the front door to Asia, the legendary city of sultans, the gateway, mysterious and wonderful. Any photographer would have given their eyetooth to make some of the photographs that Ara Güler so amazingly did over and over again, day after day. Orhan Pamuk’s words and Ara Güler’s photographs in many ways define Istanbul.
Ara Güler had a great eye and was an early riser. His photographs reflect some of the things you could only possibly experience when rising at dawn and making your way to the port, where your friends and people that you could relate to, allowed you to travel with them on their boats and make photographs of tough lives well lived, witnessed by someone who was there, but was also himself one with them. It seems to me he photographed like the invisible man, making photographs that bear witness and simply shows what daily life was like only a few decades ago in a city that has changed so much.
It always impresses me when photographers have a body of work they are famous for, as opposed to a single image or two. Ara Güler doesn’t have a signature image, at least not one that I would willingly identify as such. I recognize a lot of his images that I saw in his little gallery upstairs from the café in Istanbul, or in his several books. But unlike many of his peers, he created a feeling and an atmosphere with his photographs, which nobody else seems to be able to capture. Many have tried photographing Istanbul at various times over the past 100 or so years, but I always end up comparing them to Ara Güler and I always conclude that they are good, but not quite as good as those made by the King of Istanbul.
He who wanted to be remembered for so much more, will always be the one who photographed Istanbul: Ara Güler, the one who did it better than anyone else.
Ara Güler (August 16, 1928 – October 17, 2018) was fittingly born in Istanbul, and passed away in Istanbul, may he rest in Peace.
Unless you have been living under a rock – in photography terms – you will know that one of the great 20th century masters of the art is William Eugene Smith. The pained and often challenging character that has given us some of the greatest photographic records of all time. His work on display in a fantastic new show in Bologna, Italy. At La Fondazione MAST. MAST for short.
Should you find your way to this culinary paradise of a porticoed city, where food, learning and politics are always near, you must go to MAST. Located on the outskirts of town, an easy cab ride away, no more than 12 EURO from almost anywhere in the city center. Given that admission is free, think of the cab fare as your admission ticket. (they are happy to call you a taxi for your return, if you ask nicely at the gate).
The space inside is as though made for a walk through a collection of photographs. If you know anything about WES, you will know that his Pittsburgh project went from a short assignment to a near nightmare of 20,000 negatives and more than 2,000 prints. It is a documentation of a city in time and place like no other and remains to this day one of the greatest works of documentary photography.
Eugene Smith is one of the great printers of his time, he liked shooting in low light and at a time when film was slower than it is today. This was challenging, yet executed with such skill -both in the composition of the photograph and in the printing – that you simply have to applaud every single print. They are small jewels.
But it is also the space. The gallery. The Museum. The prints are hung up hill. Placed in a space, where white walls and ramps and small stairs move you through and up an exhibition. I cannot say that I have seen or experienced anything similar anywhere else. It is as though you are on a pilgrimage, working your way up ramps and stairs with each corner you turn and every simple wood frame you view, containing another revelation of skill and mastery.
I have been to many, many museums and galleries in my time. Nothing quite like this.
I hope to see many more exhibitions in this space. The setting is fantastic, and partnered with the right photographer, simple frames and white walls with well chosen quotes in English and Italian stenciled here and there, giving the photographs plenty of room to breathe, there is no better place to visit.
You should visit this great show, or at least keep an eye on what comes next. The space is fantastic and the food and wine in Bologna is not bad either…..
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.
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.
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.
The case for a photograph being art, or craft has been argued at great length by critics, thinkers and collectors. Of course you will never get an argument from me or any other photographer, or collector. But you may still get an argument from the high-brow collector of painting and sculpture.
The crux of the argument usually centers around mechanical intervention (the camera) reducing the value of the photograph when compared to the other fine arts. I tend to take a view that is somewhat different.
The camera is an instrument that fixes an image to a piece of film or in a data file. The creation of this image is a subjective process. The photographer composes his or her photograph, decides what goes inside the frame and what stays out. This is no different than an artist sitting with a pencil sketching a scene and deciding what to include and what not to include. In fact it could be argued that the ability of the sketch artist to omit elements, such as street signs, power lines, or maybe a red Toyota, is more subjective than the photographer. The photographer presses the button on the camera and if it is in the frame area, it will show up in the picture, or at least it did until digital photography and Photoshop.
For me the camera is no more than the brush to the painter, or the hammer and chisel to the sculptor. I have deliberately stripped down my equipment to the minimum. I don’t use filters, tripods, or other tools. I don’t own a flash. I use the same film all the time, one speed, analog, one lens and one camera body. I print in silver gelatin, directly from the negative. No digital manipulation at all. I subscribe to Berengo Gardin’s statement of ‘Vera Fotografia’ (see my website and previous blogs on this). For me, my stripped down camera is my simple tool to compose and capture something that I see in front of me.
As an analog photographer I make my photograph, develop the negative and print my image. The painter, on the other hand, can add and take away at will. I ask you, which artist is more true to his or her original idea?
As Peter Adams said: “A great camera can’t make a great photograph, anymore than a great typewriter can write a great novel”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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…
The world is a mess. Everywhere you look there is disappointment in leadership, pending scandals, international conflicts simmering, or on the full boil. Something that should be as simple as a conversation among fellow citizens around an independent Catalonia either inside Spain or on its own seems to be drawing out the worst in people with the potential to turn into 1937 all over again. It cannot be, and we cannot let it happen.
Barcelona is one of the great cities in the world. The only Olympic city that has managed to turn a 17 day party in 1992 into a lasting legacy with incredible staying power, great architecture, culture, food and above all else, people.
These same people, who make the city so special, are the people that remind me of a fun story that led to one of my better efforts with the camera. I was in Barcelona. It was April, late April, and the weather forecast was not great. I got in a taxi to go to my hotel and it started to snow. Big fluffy flakes. The roads quickly turned sloppy and wet, with traction starting to get difficult for the driver. On his dash, the cell phone that was doubling as a GPS rang. The driver’s wife told him to come home immediately and forget about driving anymore today, because of the terrible snowstorm. I convinced the driver to take me to my hotel, although he complained he would get in trouble with his wife. At my hotel, he dropped me at the curb and promptly turned the taxi sign on top of his car off, and probably made his way home.
I went to my hotel room, on the first floor of a mostly residential street. I was in a corner room at a typical wide open Barcelona intersection. I stood in the window with my camera, looking down at the street, where the local residents came out in their sandals with umbrellas to enjoy the freak April snow. It did not last long, but while it was still accumulating on the ground, there were a few choice moments. You can see the resulting photograph in my gallery ‘The Ones’.
Good photographs are memories. They represent time capsules and I often say that they allow you to forget, because the minute you revisit them, the location, situation and the entire scene comes back to life, as though you are right there, in the moment.
Diane Arbus wrote in a 1972 letter: “They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”
Leaf through a photo-album and you go on a trip that carries all kinds of emotions. Joy, happiness, sadness, despair, it’s all right there on the small pieces of paper.
When you make photographs for a broader audience – for other people – you try to take these moments in time and make them not only your own, but when successful, they are universal.
In the best case, a great photograph allows you, the viewer, to project your own memory or your own story onto the photograph. You make new memories or restores memories that you had otherwise parked, somewhere far back, way back in that seldom accessed lobe of your brain.
A few years ago, I was sitting on a plane en route to Madrid. I was reading what was then the International Herald Tribune. I tore out a review of a photography exhibition taking place at the time. I have had this review burning a hole in my desk drawer and it is time to discuss! Obviously, the review was written by an art critic that was not an expert on photography, as you will see from the quote below:
“The issue of whether photography can be art is an old one that dates back to the origins of the activity itself. Ever since the pictorialist photographers of the 1870s attempted to compete with painters, borrowing from their compositions and subject matter, photographers have never ceased measuring their own work against that of plastic artists. They have come up with chemical and lighting tricks, they have used collage and montages, superpositions and hybrids….”, etc., etc.
It is quite clear that some critics until this day consider the plastic arts — that would be your painting, sculpture, and so forth — far superior. To them photography is beneath them and more of a craft or a technical skill. This may be in part because not all university art history degrees incorporate photography? Mine did, but you could easily have avoided photography all together, as all the photography courses were electives and the introductory Art History courses mentioned virtually no photography or photographers at all. As such, the critic above is not equipped to have an opinion, other than one based in personal taste, rather than foundational knowledge (it is common knowledge, and generally agreed, among photography art historians that Pictorialist photography did not start until 1885 or 1889, and was very dead by 1920).
But, all this aside, what is it that makes the critic frown upon the photographer and his work? Is it because it involves mechanical equipment? The chemicals in the processing? The ability to make multiple images? Each of these activities can be found in a number of the plastic arts, yet that does not seem to matter. A sculptor’s foundry, a painter’s lithographs, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, all have some form of tool kit, along with a base material, be it stone, metal, canvas or paper. So why is photography treated differently?
Perhaps the best thing is to ignore the critics all together. Or listen to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”
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…
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!
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!
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”.