Plagiarism – Letter to Simon Baker, Director MEP

Dear Mr. Baker,

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

Coco Capitán: Funeral Car

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

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

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

Robert Frank: Covered Car, Long Beach 1956

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kind regards,

Harbel

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.

 

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

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

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