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

On Lions Sun and Shadow

One can reasonably argue that National Geographic Magazine is the most influential magazine focused on photography, since the untimely demise of Life Magazine. One can also argue that being the most influential comes with the most responsibility.

When the photo editor(s) at National Geographic select the one photograph per month from all the submissions to their ‘Your Shot’ community, they have awarded the photographer great honour and respect. I am sure it is an incredibly tough decision for the editors making the decision to publish one particular image over 1000s of others.

I sat on a couch in the lobby of a hotel this week, waiting for my room to be ready. I was leafing through the latest National Geographic Magazine. The May 2018 issue. Following stories about Picasso, birds flourishing following the catastrophic meteoric event that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and stunning underwater photographs of grouper and sharks, I came to the last photograph. The selection by the Photo Editors from the thousands that submit their work to the website organized by National Geographic under the banner Your Shot….

National Geograhic Magazine last page, May 2018

The photograph, which shows three male lions in and around a tree. One lion is in the tree sitting in what looks like a very uncomfortable position in a split of the trunk some 4 meters above the grass floor. A second lion is standing on its hind legs with its front legs gripping the trunk and the third lion is resting in a very regal position, suitable for the front staircase of any large bank, or around the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

The composition is nice. There is great balance, a single tree on the right sits near the horizon line and breaks the horizontal line that separates the plain from the sky. Right at the golden section. A nicely composed photographs.

So, I think to myself, why doesn’t it look right? Why does it look like a painting and not a photograph? What is wrong with this picture?

The more I look, the more I am bothered by something not quite right. And then I get it. The lion on the left, on his hind legs and the lion lying majestically in the shadow of the tree have the exact same colour palate. The same tonal range. And why is this important? Well, the lion on the left is in the sunshine. The sun on his back. The lion on the right is in the shadow of the tree. Yet, the two lions are exactly the same colour. How can a lion in the sun be the same colour as one in the shade?

It can because it is not real. It is impossible. This then begs the question; is the perfectly placed tree in the background fake too? Is the grass really that green? Are the lions real? Is there a tree? Was any of it really there?

I don’t know Jay Rush. I don’t know anything about his work, but I do know that nature does not create the same amount of colour saturation in sun and shade and no camera that I have come across exists that can make it so. But computers, ah well, that is a whole other story. They can do anything.

If a tree falls in the forest, was it really there?

Harbel

PS:  To the Photo Editors at National Geographic: Shame on you!

 

In Support of the Vintage Photograph

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.

Harbel

 

Manipulated Photograph, Disgraced ‘Photographer’ and Another Soiled Competition

Here we go again!

Another famous – and now infamous – photography competition presented by London’s National History Museum admits having awarded a prize to a photograph, which is more than likely fake.

The 2017 edition saw Brazilian Marcio Cabral’s photograph titled ‘The Night Raider’ win the best ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ competition.

Marcio Cabral:  The Night Raider

Stuffed Anteater at the Emas National Park

Thanks to an anonymous tip and a snapshot of a stuffed anteater – see above – we have the elements that led to the embarrassed National History Museum making a press statement, which reads, in part:  “After a careful and thorough investigation into the image ‘The Night Raider’, taken by Marcio Cabral, the Natural History Museum, owner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, has disqualified the photograph.” It goes on, “the investigation comprised of two mammals experts and a taxidermy specialist at the Museum, plus two external experts; a South American mammals expert and an expert anteater researcher.”

I see before me a sketch with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin as anteater and taxidermy experts.  A cartoon introduction of an anteater attacking a termite hill, courtesy of Terry Gilliam.  It would bring tears to the eye of any fan.  But I digress… 

Back to the Press Statement:  “Evidence examined included high resolution photographs of a taxidermy anteater that is kept on open display in the educational collection at …. the Emas National Park – the large park where ‘The night raider’ was taken.” and continues: “….there are elements in overall posture, morphology, the position of raised tufts of fur and in the patterning on the neck and the top of the head that are too similar for the images to depict two different animals. The experts would have expected some variation between two individuals of the same species.”

When questioned Marcio Cabral, the ‘photographer’, apparently supplied RAW image files from ‘before’ and ‘after’ the winning shot, but none included the anteater.  He did however, provide a ‘witness’, who claims he saw the live anteater.

Friends, you just can’t make this stuff up!

Some advice to those that run competitions for photography (and not digital art or manipugraphs):  Demand the raw file, or the negative from those about to be declared winners. Compare the finished photograph to the raw file or negative.  Ensure the image is representative of what was before the photographer at the time the photograph was taken.  It is more work, but it saves the competition, catches out the cheats and bad apples, and makes the world a better place!

If serious photographers, serious photography editors, serious publishers, serious judges, serious museum goers, serious collectors and serious audiences don’t take a stand, competitions will continue to be put in disrepute, people will stop believing, and the few will continue to ruin it for the many.

For someone like me who still shoots film, prints in a darkroom, and likes silver gelatin photographs, this is nothing new, just another nail.

Harbel

Note: To read the entire press statement from the National History Museum, please see: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/press-office/Wildlife-Photographer-of-the-Year/wildlife-photographer-of-the-year-image-disqualified.html

For more visit:  www.Harbel.com

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harbel

 

Provenance – the importance of a little paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harbel

Digital Photographs: Digital Media, Digigraph, Compugraph or Manipugraph?

Most of my friends and fellow analog photographers (those that use film and manually develop the film and print by hand in a darkroom) have been speculating, whether the reason a digitally modified image is sold as a photograph, as opposed to digital art (a digigraph? compugraph? manipugraph?) is simply fear.  The fear of facing a collector with the reality that the ‘photograph’ they have just sold is more computer than photograph. Fear….

I propose that what drives this fear is the vanity of the art market.  Let me explain.  Many looking to buy art – more and more often with one eye investment value – have dived into photography.  Art advisors and many art-value indexes suggest that photography may be the place to invest, better than almost any other area of collecting.  

The art market has in many ways been reduced to just another index ruled by nouveaux riches collectors shaping it with large amounts of money, which otherwise would sit idly in the bank making little or no interest.  Massive bonuses prop up an overheated art market, reaching levels that are difficult even to contemplate.

If these new collectors had to think in terms of what a photograph represents, versus a work of art created from one or more computer files, manipulated by software programs, and printed by a machine, would he or she still pay the prices that photography commands?

Can a contemporary computer manipulated image by an artist that has barely arrived on the scene reasonably command the same amount of money as a hand printed silver gelatin photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan or Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Perhaps it is time to embrace the digigraph, or the compugraph?  Let the family tree of art sprout a new branch.  A new discipline that can stand on its own, command its own attention, on its own terms.

Let the traditional darkroom photograph be.  Stop the confusion.  Stop the insanity.

Harbel,
Donostia

See more on my website: harbel.com

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

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.

 

What Makes a Great Photograph?

What makes a great photograph?  It is very, very personal.  Books have been written, conferences held….  For me, I have learned that it can be a moving definition. It can change with time,  but it is worthwhile to have a look at the process of becoming great.

I am going to turn to the French philosopher Roland Barthes. He wrote a book called “Camera Lucida.” It is a small book with a long philosophical discussion of the photograph. Barthes coins two terms that are worth remembering: ‘studium’ and ‘punktum.’

Pictures or images with studium are images that you notice. Think of all the photographs you are exposed to every day, ads on your phone, computer, television, billboards, photographs in newspapers, magazines, and so forth. Now, of all these impressions, which some now count as more than 3,000-5,000 a day, there is maybe one that you really notice. That image has studium.

A photograph with studium has the ability to capture your attention. It draws you in. It may play on your heart-strings, it may remind you of something, it may fill you with guilt, play with your mind. You may not like it; you may think it is horrible. Image creators know what works and what doesn’t (most of the time). Think babies, puppies, humour, sex, and so on. Studium you notice.

Punktum is when one of your studium images stays with you over time. These are quite rare. It is an image that comes back to you under certain circumstances, given certain stimuli. 

You can probably think of images that you saw today that had studium, but probably not the ones from yesterday or last week. More importantly, you can likely think of images that have stayed with you and surfaced over and over again in your mind’s eye. They have punktum.

Let me give you some universal examples:

The dead migrant child on the beach in Greece; the Vietnam War photograph of the young girl running naked towards the camera following a napalm attack; the first man on the moon; the plumes of smoke on 9/11, etc. These are universal. I don’t have to show you any of these photographs; you have them stored in your mind, in full detail.

In addition to the universal images, there are punktum images that are particular to you. You know what they are. You may not be able to command them to appear before your inner eye, but given the right stimuli, they will show up, time and again.

Among my personal punktum images, none are news photographs.  This may be because I look for a particular skill in the photographer.  In the simplicity or minimalism of the photographs, which has a particular appeal to me.  No accounting for personal taste. 

Both my examples are of a single figure, a portrait of sorts.  The Horst P. Horst Mainbocher Corset was one of the first photographs I scraped together enough money to purchase.  Made in 1939, it represents to me a daring, superbly lit figure from a time in photography, which was starting to move from recording fact, through early experimentation and surrealism to the mainstream.  Made by the master of studio lighting, Horst, the photograph represents a very sensual rear-view of a corseted woman, with the ribbon loose and laying across a marble surface and in part hanging over the edge, where it catches the light beautifully.  Revolutionary for the time, the model is photographed from behind and skirting, if not crossing, the line of what was permissible in print media at the time.  An incredible image, which has remained with me since I first saw it in an art history class.  I look at it every day and continue to be in awe.

My second punktum image, is one that I call Boots.  I am not sure what the proper title is.  The photograph by Chris Killip, I first saw at the Rose Gallery in Los Angeles.  It hit me as being an incredibly composed and lit photograph, but emotionally charged with what I believe is anguish and maybe desperation.  To me, what hits home are the disproportionately big boots.  I remember as a kid getting a shirt and jacket that were ‘to grow into’.  These boots look like they are several sizes too big, maybe from a military surplus store.  It is a photograph of desperation.  I have seen many photographs of people that are down and out, but this boy, or young man is just too young to be this desperate.  Every time I look at this photograph, my toes tighten in my shoes, I get goose bumps.  I have had it hanging on my wall for several years now, and it still feels like a punch in the stomach every time I look at it.  Punktum.

To address the idea that your personal punktum may change over time, I can say that Diane Arbus’ Boy with a Toy Hand Granade was the photograph that made me change my focus at university to Photography from Renaissance Art.  The photograph had huge punktum for me, but has since lost its charge.  Why?  I saw the contact sheet from the shoot, and later read an interview with the boy in the photograph.  In the Arbus photograph the boy looks like he is a person with a mental disability, which is very consistent with the outsiders that appear again and again in Arbus’ work.  However, on the contact sheet, the boy looks like any other little boy playing in the park, and I do not like the fact that the photograph that Arbus selected from the roll, somehow misrepresents what was in front of her.  It no longer resonates.  It is like the Robert Doisneau photograph of the couple kissing at the Hotel de Ville in Paris, which I loved as the epitome of Parisian street photography, until I learned that it was staged with two actors…., but that is another story.

I must have seen millions of photographs in my time as a photographer and collector, and if you asked me to draw up a list of photographs that had punktum for me, I might get to 25 or 30. Some of these I have on my wall.  Some I would dearly love to hang on my wall. Some I will never have, because they are either sitting in a museum and not available on the open market, or I simply cannot afford them. Others, despite their punktum, I don’t want. They might be gruesome, or too difficult to look at and live with. I am fortunate to have a few punktum images in my collection that I love and would never part with. This is the power of punktum

Harbel,
Copenhagen

See more on my website: harbel.com

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

 

The Trouble at Magnum Photos, Manipulated Digital Photographs, and New Investors

• Last year the famous photographer Steve McCurry was caught having digitally manipulated a number of his photographs. He blamed his ‘team’ (Petapixel.com, May 6th, 2016). But what about his other family, his Magnum family?

• Only a few weeks ago, Peter Vik announced he was leaving Magnum Photos, because he refused to sign a new contract with an outside investment group. He left Magnum to protect his freedom, as a photographer (British Journal of Photography, June 15th, 2017).

These two news items may have nothing in common at first glance, but they may be symptomatic of trouble at Magnum Photos and perhaps a warning of things to come.

I have for many, many years been a strong supporter of the legacy that has led Magnum Photos to be a place for photographic independence, where photographers retain control of their photographs, sold for single use only to media far and wide.

When the founders of Magnum came up with the single use policy, it laid the foundation for the livelihoods of many of the best photographers of the past 70 years. The price for this success was of course a certain set of iron-fisted leaders that forced photography in a particular direction.

One of the early drivers was Henri Cartier Bresson (HCB). A fiercely independent photographer, who with a substantial family fortune behind him could afford to be selective in his assignments, and who as luck would have it with his first self-assigned project for Magnum Photos struck gold. HCB was in India to photograph Gandhi. As it happened, this was the day before Gandhi was murdered. HCB went on to cover the funeral leaving the world with some very iconic photographs that were sold to newspapers and magazines far and wide. In some ways, this single assignment cemented the name of Magnum Photos and made it what it has been for the past seven decades.

HCB was the backbone of Magnum Photos for many, many years. He worked hard at critiquing and schooling superb young photographers like Marc Riboud until he was satisfied that they had mastered the HCB esthetic. Shooting in his image, one might say. But strong personalities have their own challenges.

When Kryn Taconis an early Dutch member of Magnum came to Paris after having returned from Algeria, where he had been photographing on the side of independence (and therefore against the French, in the eyes of HCB), Magnum Photos on the specific orders of HCB refused to circulate his photographs through their usual channels, effectively muzzling Taconis. Taconis soon left the collective.

I met Kryn Taconis’ widow a few years ago, around 2002, I think. By then she was in her 90s. She showed me a photograph by HCB. A modest size print of Kashmir, from 1947. The inscribed photograph was HCB’s gesture of contrition for having effectively censored Kryn Taconis out of Magnum. He had come to visit, in person, admitting he was wrong to block Taconis’ work, by letting his own personal politics get in the way. He was a dollar short and a couple of decades late. Kryn Taconis had passed away in 1979.

In modern times, when Steve McCurry was found to have manipulated his photographs to perfection, he blamed his ‘team’. McCurry made a lame argument that he was not shooting on assignment, and had not supervised sufficiently, etc. Had there been only one of these manipulated photographs, it might have been OK. Write it off to assistant enthusiasm, perhaps? But there are several internet-sleuths, who have uncovered further examples by simply comparing photographs by McCurry that are in circulation on the web. Does this taint all of McCurry’s work?  You decide….

The final product

The original image

Reuters and AP and several other agencies, including National Geographic, all seem to endorse and enforce a code of conduct: Mr. Gerry Hershorn, who until 2014 was Photo Editor for Reuters, put it this way: “Well, there are … some very accepted practices. If you take a picture and somebody’s skin tone is purple by mistake, it’s very common for a photographer to bring the skin tone back to a proper skin tone color. A photographer is never allowed to change content. You can’t add information, you can’t take away things.”

Not long ago, AP severed all ties to Narciso Contreras. He had digitally removed another photographer’s camera from one of his photographs, taken in Syria. AP acted swiftly and scrubbed their website of all Contreras photographs. Santiago Lyon, VP and Director of Photography said in a statement: “AP’s reputation is paramount and we react decisively and vigorously when it is tarnished by actions in violation of our ethics code. Deliberately removing elements from our photographs is completely unacceptable.”

Don McCullin, one of the last greats of photojournalism – and not a member of Magnum – put it this way: “Digital manipulation of photographs is ‘hideous’ and has left photographers able to ‘lie’ to the public by doctoring images. Pictures have been ‘hijacked’ by digital, with old-fashioned skills of the dark room eclipsed by computer generated colour.”

When it comes to Steve McCurry, Magnum Photos has chosen to remain virtually silent.

It seems that when the big names in photography make mistakes, like HCB with his politics, or Steve McCurry with his digitally perfected colour photographs, there are different rules. HCB may be dead, but I do not think he would be happy about Magnum Photos taking on outside investors, and starting to lose control of the collective he founded. Likewise, had he been alive, I am pretty sure he would have asked Steve McCurry to leave Magnum Photos.

But, if Steve McCurry were asked to leave Magnum Photos, what would the new investors say? What would losing a revenue stream from work by what used to be one of the great photojournalists of his time? This may explain the silence from a usually outspoken Martin Parr, who just stepped down as President of Magnum.

For all its faults, Magnum Photos may be the last refuge for some of the best photographers in the world, who might otherwise have had to shoot weddings and corporate annual reports to survive. In a world where a cell phone video by an anonymous witness, has replaced professional photojournalism in most media outlets, it is tough to be a photojournalist.

I worry…. If books are anything to go by, Magnum Photos is doing everything it can to invent new revenue streams. There is a TV series in development, and I understand that there are discussions about how best to leverage the brand. With the new investors in place, who will be looking for a return on their investment, can coasters and coffee mugs be far behind? AND in refusing to tackle the McCurry issue, has Magnum opened the door to doubt about authenticity, and legitimacy of itself, and its collective of great photographers?

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

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

The Pursuit of an Imperial Past – Roman Rationalist Sculpture

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.

Harbel
Rome

See more on my website: harbel.com

All images on this website are subject to copyright of the photographer

The Photographer and the Bowler Hat – Shoji Ueda

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.

Harbel,
Paris

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.

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

Bathing at the Temple of Lysistrata – pure fabrication! Vera Fotografia take II

It is the end of January, and we have seen the dawn of a new era in the United States. There is a new term added to the lingua franca, the alternative fact. Perhaps the digitally modified photograph is an alternative fact?

I recently got an email message from a reputable interior design magazine that I subscribe to. Under the title: “20 reasons to travel to the Greek Islands”, the photo below was number 1 of 20. Someone was clearly not paying attention. The interior of the Pantheon in Rome and a beach somewhere, fused together to make it look like you can swim off the edge of an old Greek temple?

The coffered, domed ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon is quite particular and, if you have been there, you don’t forget. So, yes, I recognized the fraud and who really cares? But had I not, and was I looking forward to my next summer vacation, I could have spent hours searching high and low for the beach with the ruin. Who is responsible? The Magazine? the person who created the fraud?

Forgotten Temple of Lysistrata, Greece copy

I grew up believing in what I saw on the printed page, or on TV. But, times change. I cannot imagine that I am the only one to become so jaded, that I immediately question every image I see. So, so sad!

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

Vera Fotografia – Photography As It Should Be

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”.

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com