A Conspiracy of Ravens

You travel the world, and while it is different everywhere you go, certain things seem to remain the same.  Take for instance the presence of certain birds.  It seems that wherever you go there are pigeons, crows, seagulls – at least where there is water nearby – and of-course the humble house sparrow. 

In photography, there are a number of people that have focused on birds, as do I when I see the opportunity.  At the moment there seems to be a bit of a wave happening.  For instance, there is a French publisher, that has gone to a number of well-, or lesser known photographers and asked them to put together a book of photographs with birds. 

The books are small collections of maybe up to 50 photographs, put together and sequenced by the photographer.  Different photographers feature birds, others simply have birds as an accessory.  All are photographs, where birds take on great importance, either by design, or accidentally, adding a certain instantaneous urgency to the photograph. 

The sudden flight of a bird, or something as transient as a bird temporarily sitting on a branch, or on the head of a statue, or flying through the air just so, might make the difference between something wonderful, or something very ordinary.

Cases in point are two photographs, which I judge to be the best of their kind.  The first by Pentti Sammallathi, is a purely serendipitous composition, which in a photographer that does great work, time after time after time, is perhaps not a coincidence, but rather extremely observant.  Or perhaps just plain lucky.  

A tree devoid of leaves and looking like either the dead of winter, or death itself, comes back to life for an instant, when the plumage of leaves may be seen for no more than a fraction of a second, created by a passing flock of birds.  The scale of each leaf, or in this case each bird, relative to the tree, lets the viewer contemplate for a brief second the splendor of a tree fully in its glory, at a time when in fact, it is either dead, or dormant.  It is perhaps a metaphor for life itself.

Sammallathi, Pentti – Delhi

The second, and equally as incredible photograph, is a much, much darker master-piece by Masahisa Fukase.  A Japanese photographer, I will confess that I did not know well, until I saw a show of his in Amsterdam.  He had a strange, photography obsessed life, where at the height of his career, where so many wonderful things could have happened, he fell down the stairs and spent the last 20 plus years of his life in a coma, on life-support, never regaining consciousness.  The photograph may or may not say something about a photographic career, or it may say everything.  Fukase worked on a project in the unforgiving winter of the north of Japan, where he made photographs, which resulted in a book that has achieved cult status, and fortunately was recently re-issued, called Raven.

Fukase, Masahisa – Ravens

This particular photograph is of a tree, where a large number of crows, or ravens have taken shelter for the night.  The scene is dark, yet because the photographer used a flash to make the photograph, the eyes of the birds reflect the light and this is captured on the film, as white dots.  It is as though the birds are all watching the photographer.  There is something incredibly ominous about this photograph.  Something very Hitchcock.  I am usually not a great fan of flash photography, and never use one myself, but in this case, it works.  The result is both scary and magnificent, all at the same time.  The Murder of Crows, or the Conspiracy of Ravens.

Birds animate a photograph in ways very little else does.  Maybe that is why many photographers like them in their photographs.  A simple fly-by can change the mundane to the inspired.

Harbel

The Humble Homage

I recently wrote about plagiarism.   About the need to pay tribute.  About paying homage to those that inspire us.

I know when you see a lot of photographs, you are likely to borrow, or at least recall certain composition elements, or particular subject matter.   This is as old as time.  Romans copied Greek statues, and basically, it has not changed much since.

Picasso is said to have stolen liberally from his peers and borrowed even more from those he called his friends.  Books have been written about his rivalry with Henri Matisse, and when you see a Juan Gris cubist painting and one nearby by Picasso, you would be fully in your right to think one is the other, and the other the one. 

In photography plagiarism has been discussed widely, and this blog is not so much about that, as it is about how we pay tribute, and are inspired by great photographers.

I had a chance to walk a Marc Riboud retrospective, maybe 10 years ago.  Marc Riboud was a Cartier-Bresson protégée, who broke free from the Master and Magnum, the agency that he founded, to follow his own path.  Riboud spent a lot of time in China around the time of the Cultural Revolution and is responsible for some of the most iconic photographs of China at the time.

Riboud, Marc: Le Petit Lapin
– Shanghai 2002

One of the most unassuming, but genius photographs that he took was indeed in China.  It is titled: Le Petit Lapin – Shanghai 2002 (The Little Rabbit).  As you can see above, it shows a simple white plastic bag, with its handles knotted.  With a little imagination, it is a small rabbit sitting on a table in a Chinese classic garden. 

When I left the show, aside from his most famous photographs, such as the Painter on the Eiffel Tower, or Washington DC 1967, the photograph that stayed with me to this day was the simple plastic bag.

For years after, I kept seeing tied white plastic bags, and I kept thinking that I too could take a photograph that would perhaps be my version of the white rabbit.  I have been at this for years.  Then one day, I was in Aix-en-Provence, and saw what I think is a fair homage to the master.  I don’t place objects, nor do I move things to create composition, I merely observe, focus and press the shutter. Did I get a monkey off my back. Not really. I still see knotted white plastic bags as rabbits.

Harbel: The White Rabbit – Homage to Marc Riboud

So, for what it is worth.  Here is my homage to the great Master, Marc Riboud, who will be an inspiration for the rest of my photographing years.

Mr. Riboud, you may have passed, but your legacy lives on.

Harbel

Plagiarism – Letter to Simon Baker, Director MEP

Dear Mr. Baker,

I have for the past few hours looked for a contact email address for the La maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.  I have given up.  I was in your museum this past Friday and I walked the Coco Capitán show.  Might be a little early for a young photographer to have her first museum show, but I am sure she is very grateful.  There are some original ideas, particularly in the texts, however, I lost interest when I saw the this:

Coco Capitán: Funeral Car

Please forgive my horrible photograph, it is obviously from my phone and in trying to eliminate glare and reflections, it is taken from the side, as you can see.

What troubles me is that you, Mr. Simon Baker, the recently appointed Director of MEP by way of the Tate would choose, or allow the photograph to hang with no credit to Robert Frank, one of the greatest living photographers. Not any reference that I could see. 

For the readers here, I have found a reasonable representation of Robert Frank’s image online, which I have pasted here.  Mr. Baker, I am sure you need no introduction to this image.

Robert Frank: Covered Car, Long Beach 1956

I have over the years enjoyed the shows/exhibitions at MEP.  And while some is not to my taste, other work has been exceptional, and that is what a good museum should do.  Inform, challenge and enlighten.

However, it saddens me that in a time of easy plagiarism checks, with software solutions abound, you would let Coco Capitán’s ‘Funeral Car’ hang on your walls.  I find this extremely troubling.  There is no credit given to Robert Frank, as there should have been at an absolute minimum. For a person of your pedigree, there is no excuse. 

The notion that art may be ‘repurposed’ is often used as an excuse, however, the way in which a similar size black and white photograph with an identical composition, even tonal range is presented crosses the line. Diptych or not, the framing lets the photograph stand alone. This is plagiarism, pure and simple.

While I may find the work of Cortis and Sonderegger fun, as they recreate iconic photographs in their Swiss studio, at least they show enough of their handy-work to make sure there is no way a viewer would see an image as the original work.  Further, in their descriptions, they give full credit and actually explain the context of the original work.

Other photographers will copy the style, or content of a photograph, however, I would like to think that they do so while honouring the original photographer by way of declaring their photograph an homage.

As for Coco Capitán, there are no redeeming factors that I can see. Sure, she might not have known, she may not have studied the history of the medium, but for you, the Director of the Museum, there is no excuse. You failed to do the right thing.

Kind regards,

Harbel

Places on the List – Matheus Rose

In the late 1970s, when the birds flew the nest, the first few of my friends begged and borrowed and in some cases managed to get a pad of their own. Among the wooden crates that doubled as both tables and chairs, were thrown the first very adult wine and cheese parties. At a time when young people would find the oldest looking one, send him or her to the shop and pick up a bottle or two of inexpensive wine, the adventure began.

The short, dark, bulbous bottle, with the distinct shape, with the light pearling on the tongue, blush hue, and the semi-sweet palate was the favorite. Many bottles were consumed with much enthusiasm.

The Portuguese global success that for many decades now has been the choice beginner-wine has changed little. Made not far from Porto, the wine is as distinct as it is pink, and as unique as the pearly bubbles captured in the bottle, which for several generations has doubled as a candle stick, along side the straw wrapped bottle from Chianti.

In the mid-80s I was in Hong Kong in my first job, and Matheus Rose was one of the products that the old trading house that I worked for represented. It sold well in Asia, where wine was just starting, and a heavy drinker was one who consumed one or two glasses per week….  Not per meal. I reacquainted myself with the great looking label and unique bottle, and promised myself that one day I would go look at this building, which had such a profound influence on so many.

Reflecting on a Small Chateau – Matheus Rose

I finally got around to finding the rather elusive estate, particularly well hidden behind a big fence down a rather non-descript road. As I drove up, I saw the label. True in every detail. A particular Portuguese baroque style, two mirrored wings and a curious staircase leading to the front door. A door one cannot access directly, having to either make a sweep to the left, or the right up a rather modest set of steps. The building felt smaller than I expected.  The chateau is as you might expect big on first impression and much more modest inside. At least, I thought it showed a lot better at first sight when entering the property, than it did when you walked through some rather simple rooms.  I guess my many years of accumulated expectations fell a little flat.  But the first impression.  Splendid.

The setting and the gardens are quite wonderful, the building perfectly positioned among the formal and less formal elements and water features, but at the end of it all, it was that first look, so true to the label on the bottle that brought back the memories of candlelight, a baguette, a few cheeses and the obligatory glass of rose.

One more crossed off the list, leaving only a couple of hundred to go!

Harbel

Remembering Ara Güler – The King of Istanbul

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.

 

Harbel

  

At MAST in Bologna – Eugene Smith – Pittsburgh

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…..

Harbel

 

Provenance – the importance of a little paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harbel

The Ones – Another kind of portrait

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.

Harbel:  Slaglining

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.

Harbel,
Donostia

Vera Fotografia – A Mark of Honor

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…

Harbel,
Donostia

Colour Photographs and the Collector – it is all about trust!

It used to be simple; photographs had a colour palette that went from black through the grays to white. Variations, such as the albumen photograph ranged from dark brown to light cream, and cyano-types went from an almost black marine blue to the palest of blue/white. However, throughout the history of the medium, most photographs were what we would call black and white.

Experimentation with colour started almost as early as photographs were stabilized on paper or metal. In the beginning, colour was simply applied with a brush to the black and white image. Early portraits got a healthy complexion with pink lips and rouged cheeks at the hands of the skilled touch-up artist. Later, a variety of methods were developed to show colour in photographs.

Unfortunately, most colour methods have not stood up well to the passing of time. Most have faded, colour-shifted, so that faces have turned from healthy to very sickly, and clothes, grass and trees turned to colours that are brown and muddy. Most older, colour photographs have simply lost their brightness and sharpness. Just have a look at your own family albums…. they look a little muddy and have that ‘old’ look to them, right?

I know of only two methods that are truly stable. One, the dye-transfer process, is no longer used because it became too expensive. Some great photographs were made using this method, but sadly no more. Ernest Hass was maybe the most consistent user of this technology. The second, is the Fresson process. Fresson printing a multi-step laying down of individual colour layers and is still done today at a single family owned lab in France. The closely guarded secret process has not changed in nearly a century. Sheila Metzner is a strong proponent of this printing method, as is the interesting French photographer Bernard Plossu.

Every so many months new inks are developed for new generations of digital printers, new and improved papers are developed. For many years, dating back to the 1940s, Kodak and Fuji went through many, many generations of ‘new and improved’, as have the print, ink and paper manufacturers that produce both the high-end commercial jobs, and the home-use printer you have sitting on the corner of your desk. But is it stable?

A 740 page whopper of a book, still regarded as something of a bible in colour photography, “The Permanence and Care of Colour Photographs” by Henry Wilhelm, is now more than 20 years old. But, it is still often referred to by those that are interested in colour photography. The book dives deep into 20 years of extensive research into the colour medium in photography and how it ages.

Published in 1993, this book describes in great detail all that has gone wrong over the years in colour photography, promises that were broken by suppliers of film and paper, only to be renewed with the next generation of printing technology. Perhaps a little surprising, Wilhelm, ever the optimist, too concludes that nirvana is imminent with new processes being proposed and new in-organic inks arriving on the scene that will change everything.

I am not sure what to believe. I have 5 colour photographs in my collection; One Fresson, two dye-transfer prints, two prints by the Saul Leiter of Canada, Fred Herzog. The latter two are modern digital prints. Don’t ask me what inks are used, or even what paper, but I have a document from the gallery that guarantees the images. The photographer, Fred Herzog is more than 90 years old and the gallery almost acts for him, so I am comfortable with my ability to replace my two images.

But, what if you are considering buying a terrific colour photograph? If it feels right, looks right and meets all the critical considerations that are important to you, as a collector, the obvious answer is to recommend that you buy the photograph. Love it. Enjoy it, but be aware…

Photography collectors have long suffered from chromophobia – the fear of colour. Many have seen fabulous work simply fade, colour shift, or virtually disappear in front of their eyes and are understandably cautious. But that may be the past. You, the modern day collector with no baggage, no prior catastrophes, may fell ready to take on the endless possibilities that colour represents.

Personally, I would make sure that when you buy colour work, the artist (even if you buy through a gallery) guarantees the work and will offer nothing less than a full refund or a replacement print, in the event of a small or epic failure. And do get this in writing signed by the artist, in the event the gallery where you bought the work should fall on hard times and disappear.

I only make black and white photographs, so thankfully have much less to worry about!

Harbel,
Bordeaux

See more on my website: harbel.com

The Sacred Nature of a Great Photograph

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.

Harbel

The Photograph versus other Fine Art – Everyone is a Critic

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.”

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

Hating Alfred Stieglitz

Alfred Stieglitz is one of the key names in the history of photography. Alfred Stieglitz set art photography back 100 years!

Alfred Stieglitz opened a gallery in New York called Gallery 291 in 1905. In his gallery, Mr. Stieglitz showed primarily photographs. He also published a magazine, Camera Work. An expensive, subscription only, publication dedicated to the art of photography. With these tools he managed to control and I would argue stall the development of fine art photography around the world. In Camera Work’s prime, photographers from across North America and Europe, mainly in the United Kingdom, would take out expensive subscriptions to Camera Work and would submit their amateur photographs to Stieglitz for approval and perhaps even inclusion in Camera Work. Stieglitz decided what was good and what was not. He was judge, jury, and executioner all in one.

Edward J. Steichen – Rodin

Stieglitz believed very strongly that two things needed to be present in a photograph to be an art photograph:

The first thing was a certain feel or mood, which for the majority of Stieglitz’ career meant a painterly feel, meaning that the photographer had to manipulate the negative using various chemicals, coatings, printing techniques, etc. to express a mood or feeling that imitated what one might expect to see in a late Victorian sofa painting, rather than a photograph.  A straight photograph showing what was in front of the photographer, and printed without manipulation, was not art. Not to Alfred Stieglitz.

The second, it was not acceptable for a fine art photographer to be professional, to do commercial work.  This meant that if you got paid, or made a living from photography, you were a lost soul. To belonging to the circle around Stieglitz you had to have independent means and do photography, because you thought it was a wonderful hobby and a suitable high-brow pass-time. (The irony here might be that for years Stieglitz struggled to make money with his gallery and his magazine, both poorly executed commercial disasters.)

Gertrude Kaesebier – le dejeuner sur l’herbe?

Many may disagree, but I believe the photography-world inherited two major problems from Stieglitz.  Problems we still very much struggle with today.  The first problem with Stieglitz, that took almost 60 years to fix, was that if you were shooting straight photography, meaning that you printed what you saw, no manipulation, but processed and printed with minimal correction or changes, this was not art. I would argue, that it was not until the legendary Harry Lunn started selling editioned photographs of Ansel Adams’ landscapes did this change. We are talking 1970s.

The second, some would argue has yet to be fixed, because many still very much believe that an art photographer cannot be a commercial/professional photographer, or have a job on the side. By way of an example, let me illustrate the mindset of a lot of gallerists: A photographer friend of mine recently returned from New York, where he presented his work to a dealer. The dealer liked his work, but did not consider him serious, because he had a job to support his photography. The dealer suggested he look at a photographer she represents, who has been shooting since he was 14. He shoots full time and is a serious art photographer…. 

Clearly, we have not passed the point where it is acceptable to be commercial in the sense that you support your art-photography with a full or part time job, or by shooting green peppers for the local super market chain to make ends meet. While there may be some hope on the horizon, as some fashion work and still life photographs are going mainstream as art, there is still work to do. Commercial photographers like Herb Ritts, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn have helped break the curse.

I hold Alfred Stieglitz responsible for holding back fine art-photography from its destiny for the better part of 100 years. From the infancy of photography in the 1830s, until the painterly direction in photography that Stieglitz promoted started to dominate in the 1880s, it was perfectly acceptable to have a photograph of Rome, Venice or Athens hanging on your wall next to a painting. It took a full century, until the 1980s before this was again something you might see other than in your local pizzeria or Greek restaurant.

Stieglitz found straight photography again towards the end of his career, and in some ways his gallery did matter, bringing photography to an albeit select group of visitors in New York.  But, he led photography down a blind alley, and the wonderful portraits of Georgia O’Keeffe, or his Equivalent photographs do not make up for the damage he did. As a photographer, there is every reason to hate Alfred Stieglitz!

Lee Friedlander – Montana 2008

Photography – straight photography – has a place in the pantheon of fine art, along side painting, sculpture and the other fine arts. This is a fact. Even the naysayers will get there eventually…..No thanks to Alfred Stieglitz.

 

Harbel,
Copenhagen

To see more visit my website: Harbel.com

Images are borrowed from the web and are attributed to the artists identified and are for illustration purposes only, no rights owned or implied.

 

Giuseppe Leone – The Great Sicilian

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/.

Harbel,
Sicily

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.

In the Company of Greatness The Sir Elton John Collection at the Tate Modern

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.

Harbel,
London

See more on my website: harbel.com

Ray Metzker – Light and Shadow – Black and White Photography at Its Best

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.
Harbel,
Paris
See more on my website: harbel.com

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Discovering New Talented Photographers

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!

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Warming up for April – Mois de la Photo in Paris

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!

Bienvenue à Paris!

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Photography – A Quick History – in 375 words

Long before the photograph was invented, painters had figured out that if they had a tent, or box with a small hole in it, whatever was outside would appear on the opposite wall inverted. By the early 18th century, a small lens had been inserted in the hole to concentrate the light and make the image clearer. In a compact size, this became a tool for painters to trace with a pencil or pen the inverted image, providing the perfect sketch. Some great realist painters are suspected of using this method – think Canaletto….

San Marco by Canaletto

A number of individuals tried to make what was seen inside the box permanent. During the 1820s and 1830s this took on a common urgency and particularly two methods were devised within a few years of one another. Much has been written about who came first… By the end of the 1830s, we had the words ‘negative’, ‘positive’ and ‘photograph’ coined and we could fix photographs to metal, as well as make paper negatives and positives.

The next challenge was to obtain progressively higher quality photographs. In the late 1840s glass negatives were created and in the 1870s silver gelatin was a reality. In a few years, silver gelatin was adhered to celluloid. In 1883 the first roll film was on the market, and in 1888 a fellow called Eastman created the first consumer camera. You took your camera, exposed some film, returned the camera to Kodak and they would send you your prints, as well as your reloaded camera. Under the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest”, the world as we saw it changed.

Cameras kept improving and in 1924 the first Leica camera came to market, marking the beginning of the serious hand-held cameras that used 35mm roll film and the best lenses available. Kodak had another first in 1936, introducing color film, Kodachrome, and in 1963 the first instant color photograph was developed by Polaroid.

Next, in the 1970s, the single-lens-reflex (SLR) brought the camera close to what most serious amateurs recognize as standard equipment. In 1980 the first auto-focus camera came to market, followed by the first steps in digital photography. In 1990, the first professional digital system entered the market. In 2007 Apple sold 1.4 million iPhones and by 2016, sales exceeded 211 million units.

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

Humor in Photographs – the final frontier…. or not serious?

For many years, I have sought that elusive moment, when something comes together in a frame that is both funny and serious at the same time. We should not well in other people’s misfortune, nor should we create so much laughter that the entire photograph becomes a joke. It is all about balance. The balance between the serious and the funny, in a well made photograph.

Elliott Erwitt, who in his long career has made many such photographs, and who himself will admit it is difficult, extremely difficult, said: ““Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make them laugh and cry, alternately, like Chaplin does, now that’s the highest of all possible achievements. I don’t know that I aim for it, but I recognize it as the supreme goal.”

There are few, very few that on a consistent basis can make photographs that on the one hand make us stop and think, and on the other draws that elusive smile with the little wrinkles around the eyes. Many photographers have one, or maybe two photograph in their entire body of work that manage to hit both serious and funny at the same time in a fantastic composition, that is well lit, balanced and, as my wife would say; delicious.

Often the well made humorous photograph represents a mere split second, and there is little time to ensure that all the compositional elements are optimal and just the way you want them, have the right lighting and balance between light and shadow. More often than not, it is one of those photographs, were you see it, lift your camera, as you spin round and press the shutter, all the while praying that you have the settings right. It is only in the darkroom, or on the light table that you see what else is in the frame!

Occasionally, you get a subject that stays put long enough that you can actually take your time to move around, get the context and composition right, before you make the photograph. But, alas, this is very, very rare!

Elliott Erwitt and Martin Parr both have a terrific ability to see the quirky side of life, sometimes even creating the opportunity to make a great photograph. I am not much for staging, but I think some people are simply wired to see the bright side of life, the humour in it all! Bless them, because I enjoy their work tremendously and am always on the lookout for the elusive moment, when it all comes together.

If Elliott Erwitt was known for his serious political commentary (of which he has done lots), his documentation of major global events (he has done a lot of those too), and gorgeously composed landscapes, cityscapes, portraits, etc. (of which he has made many), would he be even more famous? Could he command higher prices for his work? I would venture that unfortunately, while humour in a photograph is perhaps the ultimate challenge, it is mostly dismissed as not serious.

Like Erwitt, Martin Parr is a great, great photographer, he has a fantastic eye for colour, composition and has the nerve to get in real close in an anonymous, flaneur kind of way, which is both revealing of the subject, yet like he was never there. His work truly captures a particular moment, an irony, a fraction of a second that can stand for all eternity, as a validation of just how terrible hair was in the 80s, and how class structures are alive and well, with big hats and chipped nail polish.

Will Martin Parr and Elliott Erwitt continue to be seen as some kind of side-show to the more serious main event? I don’t know, but it is cruel, and unfair. The work of the photographer, who manages to consistently find the fun in our daily lives, in an unencumbered way, must surely be cherished.

                                                 The dreamer. By Harbel

There will only ever be one Chaplin. 100 years on, we still view the old films with amazement, and a mixture of tears and laughter! Now, if only I could put that in a single frame….

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

Making my Photographs – Simplify, Simplify, Simplify….

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!

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Death by Selfie – On Seeing and Making Photographs

Much has been written about how photography has changed. How digital cameras and cell phones have changed how we see and observe, how we remember, and how we create photographs and memories.

When the objective is to show your friends, post photos and perhaps brag a little about where you are, and what you are doing, the selfie is now replacing the experience of being in the moment. When your back is turned to the Mona Lisa to take a selfie, why bother going to Paris and the Louvre in the first place?

The world has flipped on it’s head, or rather it has turned it’s back. In Porto I passed a bit of street art, below. Thought provoking? It is true: Selfies can kill you! Or at least, it can kill your feelings and the experience of seeing.

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As walker Evans famously said: Stare. It’s the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. But, if you are merely pointing your phone, or worse turning your back and pointing the phone in the best narcissist fashion towards yourself, then what are you really seeing? You are dying inside, because you are not truly seeing anything at all!

Photography intellectuals are starting to muse about how digital and phone shooters should start pretending that they are using analog equipment. Yes, film! For the simple reason that they worry about how shooters of selfies and rapid-fire digital equipment no longer see, or think before they shoot! After all, the analog photographer has at most 36 frames, before the moment is lost. Forever.

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com

Colour is for clothes, black and white is for the soul!

On Black and White versus Colour photography

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.

Happy New Year!

Harbel,
Rome

See more on my website: harbel.com

Gallery visit Milan – Herbert List and more

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!

Harbel,
Milan

See more on my website: harbel.com

Buying Photographs now!

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.

Harbel,
London

See more on my website: harbel.com

Visiting with Harry Callahan

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.

Harbel, Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com