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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Hoeffler: Dream Dancing

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

Paul Hoeffler: Wives and Girlfriends

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

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

Harbel

Henri Cartier-Bresson and The Decisive Moment on the Run

In a recent article, Agnes Sire, the Director of the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson discussed the legendary photographer – by most collectors and enthusiasts of photography simply referred to as HCB – setting out to explain some of the magic that has surrounded the photographer for more than three quarters of a century.  Here is my contribution:

In HCB’s seminal book, in English called “The Decisive Moment” and in French “Images à la Sauvette” (1952), HCB assembled a selection of his photographs of various subjects, in a novel style that was made possible by a small, nimble hand-held camera, in the hands of a master, who had a great eye and a classical background in composition.  The book has come to be, perhaps, the most important book ever published in the field of photography.

The HCB paradox, in my mind is one of reconciling the idea behind the two titles of his book.  In English The Decisive Moment, in French translated into English Images on the Run.  Arguably HCB did both, he found the exact moment to take a photograph. He did so with great composition and great command of light and shadow.  However, the concept of the decisive moment is based on perfect composition and perfect content, but to make a photograph at the decisive moment, you have to wait for the decisive moment.  You have to be patient.  You compose your image in the view-finder, you set the graphic elements and ensure that the light and shadow elements will work in the final black and white print, and then you wait.  You wait for the right element to enter the photograph, usually this is people, a dog, a car or another moving object and you press the shutter when the moving element is in the perfect position in the composition you have prepared for it.  This is the Decisive Moment. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Hyères

A good example is the bicycle rider in the 1932 image from Hyères in the south of France.  The graphic elements of the staircase, the position of the photographer above the subject, and the stairs, walls and building all round, create the perfect setting.  The perfect light and shadow elements form the perfect frame for the lone bicycle rider that comes along the cobble stones on the road below. 

Images on the Run, on the other hand, suggests that you lift the camera, compose the image on the fly and capture the moving elements perfectly within the field of the viewfinder.  All in a fraction of a second.  This requires not only incredible luck and intuition when it comes to the compositional, or graphic elements, but also the moving elements have to be just perfect.  While I would argue that this happens, it does not happen often, and certainly not every time.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre

A prime example of this would be HCB’s Behind the Gare Saint Lazarre, which captures the jumping figure and his reflection in the standing, perfectly still water, with a poster in the background of a circus artist in a strikingly similar position as the jumper in the foreground.  There would have been only a second or two to anticipate this shot and certainly no time to prepare.  Lucky?  Perhaps, but it still takes a great eye to make this come together.

The contradiction in these two photographs is that in the first, the one from Hyères, it is 99% sure that the composition was created, and the shutter pushed down only when the bicycle appeared below.  Arguably, HCB might have seen a bicycle come across the field, followed by him setting up the shot and waiting for the next bicycle, however, unlike the Saint Lazarre image, where HCB could see in advance that the figure was going to come across the boards and would perhaps jump, giving him time to raise the camera and press the shutter at the perfect moment, the shot with the bicycle could not be anticipated, as the bicycle  would have come from behind the building to the right at some speed, and there simply would not have been time to even raise the camera.

This interpretation of the two book titles, perhaps illustrated with the two examples above, creates part of the mystique around HCB.  He nursed this mystique.  It is said that he buried a small box of negatives – individual negatives cut from whole rolls – in his garden before the outbreak of World War II.  The mystique is augmented, as some of these negatives are among his most celebrated.  They date from the 1920s and 30s and are in many cases iconic.  However, in saving individual negatives only, as opposed to entire rolls of film, you cannot see, if he took 30 photographs to get the one with the bicycle…. Perhaps there was one with a pedestrian, one with a pram, one with a car, and so forth, and he selected the one with the bicycle.  There is no way of knowing how the decisive moment was achieved.  How many shots it took before the  bicycle came along.  It is more than likely that there would have been several photographs from the same spot before the bicycle came along.  We will never know, and I am convinced that HCB liked it that way.  The box of individual negatives contributed greatly to the legend that he became and cemented in his followers his incredible ability to compose every frame perfectly every time.  We will never know how many photographs of the same scene would have appeared over and over again with variations in the key moving elements, until the right one came along and the decisive moment occurred.

Why is this important you ask?  Well, I think the majority of HCB’s iconic images are actually very carefully composed frames with moving elements captured just at the right time.  As opposed to simply lifting the camera at the right second and by magic shooting at the same time as designing the composition within the frame, as would be the case with the ‘photographer on the run’.

This is by no means a scientific analysis of the master’s work, nor is it a critique of the man’s incredible skill and his wonderful photographs, it is my interpretation of how he nursed his own legend and at the same time suggested that compositional, framing elements were everything, but that the fraction of a second when the decisive moment happened was also everything and somehow the compositional elements came together with the moving elements in a decisive moment, in a spontaneous, not pre-planned fashion.  This is pure fabrication.  Perfect composition, lighting and the moving elements do not just come together in the 1/125th of a second that one might shoot in today, or the 1/50th of a second that HCB would have shot at in the middle of the last century.  Yes, it can happen.  Yes, experience will help with the composition elements.  But it is not something that happens over and over again and just for HCB.

I am not suggesting that HCB’s photographs are not mind-blowing and that the sheer volume of his incredible photographs are not awe-inspiring for any photographer, what I am saying is that a great number of his photographs are carefully composed in advance and taken once the moving, critical element entered the frame in exactly the right position and the shutter was pushed.  Of course, lots of HCB’s photographs are absolutely taken on the run, but often the compositional elements are not quite as strong, and the action, or the moving elements, as I call them, tend to be a little more centered in the frame, as would be natural, if you see something happening, you raise and point your camera, and press the shutter, all in a matter of a split second.

In conclusion:  HCB did both the well-composed decisive moment photographs and the images on the run photographs.  So, perhaps it is appropriate that his collection of photographs published to such great effect in 1952, in a somewhat convoluted manner had both titles.  The result is a collection of both carefully composed images, where behind the scenes, an entire roll might have been committed to get just the right moving element, and images that were a result of a split second decision to shoot, where a roll might actually contain 36 completely different photographs.

HCB was superb at supporting his own legend, and had a reputation for harshly critiquing mentees who broke his rules for strict composition and perfect timing for the moving elements.  He was a great photographer, but the legend that all his photographs were split-second decisions, where he just happened to be exactly in the right place, in the exact right position, in the 1/50th of a second where the whole thing came together in his view-finder just so, is entirely the stuff of legend and a carefully nurtured legend at that, which HCB seems to have enjoyed thoroughly.  His writings, his quotations, his legendary privacy, hatred of having his picture taken, all have fed the reputation and formed the iconic legacy that he enjoyed during his lifetime, and beyond.

One of his more famous quotes reads:

“For me the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity, the master of the instant which, in visual terms, questions and decides simultaneously. In order to ‘give a meaning’ to the world, one has to feel oneself involved in what one frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry – it is by great economy of means that one arrives at simplicity of expression”.

 This is the stuff of legend, and for the average photographer the kind of stuff that makes the knees knock and the hands shake.  And while it can certainly happen, it is the exception rather than the rule, because as a rule with HCB, composition came first, and more often than not, the moving elements were the result of patience and multiple efforts before achieving the final result.  The quote is revisionist, and designed to further fuel the legend.

It doesn’t diminish the value or the incredible number of magnificent photographs that the master produced during his long career, but it does make him human.  At least a little more human than the legend might otherwise suggest.

Harbel             

Photography – The Emergence

Having spent a few days in the United Kingdom, I came away both troubled and encouraged. I got to photograph one of my bucket list locations; Castle Howard. Located just north of York, it is a castle, anchored in my mind from the time the lavish production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews aired in 1981.   Strawberries and Champagne….., need I say more. I had the grounds of Castle Howard all to myself for a full hour before the buses arrived, it was truly a magical time, despite the drizzle.

Having carried on to the great colleges of Cambridge, it was with some sadness that I saw galleries lining King’s Parade and Trinity Street, opposite King’s-, Trinity- and St. John’s colleges. None of them, not a single one offered photography. There was jewelry by local artists, sculpture in various media and paintings, even a couple of hyper-realist painting that could have passed for colour photographs. I say this because there was a time, when I thought that photography had rightfully taken its place along with the other fine arts. But alas, it seems there is a long way to go before the vox populi start to share in the enjoyment of a great photograph.

I figured that with design magazines and the occasional great photography museum show, it would be a matter of only a short time before everyone would want a great photographic image on their wall.

What does it all mean? Well, the half-full view would be that it is a great time to buy a photograph, the half-empty view that photography will never catch up and take it’s rightful place among the fine arts. But economics will tell you that it has been one of the greatest areas of investment over the past 20+ years, and there is no end in sight. When you compare what you can get for your money in photography versus in painting or sculpture, the choice is simple.

At the end of the day, you read this because you area interested in photography, and as such, I am preaching to the converted. However, there is no doubt in my mind that even compared to the stock market, photography is a great place to be.   Much better to look at than a stock certificate, or a bond.

I don’t think I am wrong in saying that a lot of museums around the world are waking up to the fact that they forgot to collect photography and should be adding to their collections. Much great work is being purchased by museums and institutional collectors, driving up prices in the auction market. Museums rarely speculate, they want the sure thing, unless it is specific to their region, country or national identity, but they do want a collection that reflects the masters of the medium. You as the private collector have an opportunity to help set the market and identify great photographers.

It is a great time to be a collector and a great time to be a photographer!

Harbel

LensCulture and the End of Straight Photography

There may be few of us left, but the straight photographer has to stand tall and be counted. Recently LensCulture fell out of grace with me. It was one of the websites that drew my attention as a photographer, due to their sometimes interesting competitions and interesting platform to show off a few photographs, as well as a place to read the occasional interesting article.

In a recent competition called the First LensCulture Art Photography 2018 Awards, there were the usual 1st, 2nd and 3rd Place Winners in Series and Individual Photographs. Two categories, six winners and runners-up. In addition, there was a single Judge’s Pick from each of the judges, who are all respected curators, editors and artists, such as the photographer Todd Hido and Corey Keller of SFMoMA and the man himself, Editor-in-Chief of LensCulture, Jim Casper.

In the Series and Individual Photographs categories there was not a single photograph. They were all photo-based art, of one form or another, but not a single straight photograph. Yet, the individual Judge’s personal picks were all straight photographs…. What happened?  I don’t know, but I do know that we are at a cross-roads. When the eyes of strong curators and photographers supposedly come together and pick work that is no longer actually even in the right medium, we have a problem. But worse, when they individually select work that is straight photography, yet this is not recognized, or reflected in the winners circle, does that mean we are all trying way too hard to make photography something that it is not?

Since when does a photograph have to be sent through mounds of software and ‘corrections’ to achieve greatness. Since when is a photograph not good enough, but requires the overlay of cut and paste wallpaper, shapes of different kinds in black, a flying saucer made from rings of fake light, etc., etc. I have nothing against digital art, some if it is great. Collages are great, painting is great, even the bad wallpaper in Grandma’s corridor, now cut to size and digitally pasted in place of a person in a photograph can probably be great. But one thing is for sure, it is no longer a photograph. It is no longer captured light and shadow, printed on a piece of paper. It is a computer generated digital something. Surely not a photograph!

I had a few of my photographs on the LensCulture website, in an account with a small description of who I am and what I do. I had some nice and not so nice feedback, but to be honest, I don’t really care if people like my work, that is not what this is about. What it is about is the loss of a medium. Robert Rauschenberg’s mixed media artwork is not painting, it is mixed media. Why is a photograph combined with a computer not mixed media? Digi-something? What happened?

I have closed my account at LensCulture. In part due to my lack of comprehension, as to where my medium is going, and in part as a protest by a straight photographer against way too much digital enhancement being passed off as photography.  I am fully aware of being a very small fish swimming against an enormously strong current, but be that as it may, there is a place and a time to take a stand, however small.

Harbel

The Near Death of PHOTO – a once essential medium

It is not long ago that the French magazine PHOTO celebrated a significant milestone, yet, it is profoundly interesting to see that what was anticipated each and every month by thousands and thousands of enthusiasts for decades, is about to end on the heap, as so many newspapers and magazines in recent years. For years, PHOTO was the go to publication for information about what was showing where, photographers portfolios, often done as only the French can with a gentle splashing of artful nudity without being vulgar, or offensive.

So, what happened? In a time when photography is everywhere, with billions of photographs being taken every day and everyone seemingly a photographer, how does one of the cornerstones of the art disappear? One would think that well printed photographs in an inexpensive format with a long tradition of having its finger on the pulse, would be attractive to all those taking photographs and all those aspiring to make better ones.

I am not sure that I have an answer, but perhaps photography has become so democratic and accessible that we no longer need the guidance and advice of others to succeed in taking the perfect photograph. With the right setting and the right technology….. As Chef Custeau said in Ratatuille: “Anyone can….”.

Those of you that read my blog from time-to-time will know that I hate above all else those that have their backs turned. Those like the 30-something lady in the horse carriage coming along a narrow street that spills into a stunning square upon which the façade of the Pantheon for 2000 years has offered a breathtaking salute to the architectural achievement of man. Yet, she entered the square sitting in a horse drawn carriage alone, with her back turned, capturing herself in the foreground and the Pantheon in the background, seemingly happy to experience one of the greatest visual sensations anywhere on the screen of an iPhone. No peer pressure here. No Facebook addiction. No sucked in dimpled cheeks and fake smile. Simply her arriving at one of the greatest human achievements ever. Experiencing a moment in time that cannot ever be repeated on a small 3-inch screen, particularly difficult to see in the bright sunshine.

Perhaps this in a small way explains why the magazine PHOTO is no more. Or maybe it doesn’t?

Harbel

 

At MAST in Bologna – Eugene Smith – Pittsburgh

Unless you have been living under a rock – in photography terms – you will know that one of the great 20th century masters of the art is William Eugene Smith. The pained and often challenging character that has given us some of the greatest photographic records of all time.  His work on display in a fantastic new show in Bologna, Italy.  At La Fondazione MAST.  MAST for short.

Should you find your way to this culinary paradise of a porticoed city, where food, learning and politics are always near, you must go to MAST.  Located on the outskirts of town, an easy cab ride away, no more than 12 EURO from almost anywhere in the city center.   Given that admission is free, think of the cab fare as your admission ticket. (they are happy to call you a taxi for your return, if you ask nicely at the gate).

The space inside is as though made for a walk through a collection of photographs. If you know anything about WES, you will know that his Pittsburgh project went from a short assignment to a near nightmare of 20,000 negatives and more than 2,000 prints. It is a documentation of a city in time and place like no other and remains to this day one of the greatest works of documentary photography.

Eugene Smith is one of the great printers of his time, he liked shooting in low light and at a time when film was slower than it is today. This was challenging, yet executed with such skill -both in the composition of the photograph and in the printing – that you simply have to applaud every single print.  They are small jewels.

But it is also the space. The gallery. The Museum. The prints are hung up hill. Placed in a space, where white walls and ramps and small stairs move you through and up an exhibition. I cannot say that I have seen or experienced anything similar anywhere else. It is as though you are on a pilgrimage, working your way up ramps and stairs with each corner you turn and every simple wood frame you view, containing another revelation of skill and mastery.

I have been to many, many museums and galleries in my time. Nothing quite like this.

I hope to see many more exhibitions in this space. The setting is fantastic, and partnered with the right photographer, simple frames and white walls with well chosen quotes in English and Italian stenciled here and there, giving the photographs plenty of room to breathe, there is no better place to visit.

You should visit this great show, or at least keep an eye on what comes next. The space is fantastic and the food and wine in Bologna is not bad either…..

Harbel

 

Provenance – the importance of a little paperwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harbel

The Photograph versus other Fine Art – Everyone is a Critic

A few years ago, I was sitting on a plane en route to Madrid. I was reading what was then the International Herald Tribune. I tore out a review of a photography exhibition taking place at the time. I have had this review burning a hole in my desk drawer and it is time to discuss! Obviously, the review was written by an art critic that was not an expert on photography, as you will see from the quote below:

“The issue of whether photography can be art is an old one that dates back to the origins of the activity itself. Ever since the pictorialist photographers of the 1870s attempted to compete with painters, borrowing from their compositions and subject matter, photographers have never ceased measuring their own work against that of plastic artists. They have come up with chemical and lighting tricks, they have used collage and montages, superpositions and hybrids….”, etc., etc.

It is quite clear that some critics until this day consider the plastic arts — that would be your painting, sculpture, and so forth — far superior. To them photography is beneath them and more of a craft or a technical skill. This may be in part because not all university art history degrees incorporate photography? Mine did, but you could easily have avoided photography all together, as all the photography courses were electives and the introductory Art History courses mentioned virtually no photography or photographers at all. As such, the critic above is not equipped to have an opinion, other than one based in personal taste, rather than foundational knowledge (it is common knowledge, and generally agreed, among photography art historians that Pictorialist photography did not start until 1885 or 1889, and was very dead by 1920).

But, all this aside, what is it that makes the critic frown upon the photographer and his work? Is it because it involves mechanical equipment? The chemicals in the processing? The ability to make multiple images? Each of these activities can be found in a number of the plastic arts, yet that does not seem to matter. A sculptor’s foundry, a painter’s lithographs, Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, all have some form of tool kit, along with a base material, be it stone, metal, canvas or paper. So why is photography treated differently?

Perhaps the best thing is to ignore the critics all together. Or listen to Jean-Michel Basquiat, who said: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

Harbel,
San Sebastian

See more on my website: harbel.com

Hating Alfred Stieglitz

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

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

Edward J. Steichen – Rodin

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

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

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

Gertrude Kaesebier – le dejeuner sur l’herbe?

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Friedlander – Montana 2008

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

 

Harbel,
Copenhagen

To see more visit my website: Harbel.com

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

 

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