The Art Critic – A Necessary Evil?

I have been thinking about this blog entry for a long time.  I know we need critics in all aspects of life.  Often they are journalists who keep our politicians, governments, corporations and yes, even artists in check.  There is no denying that critique is an important part of any reasonable conversation about a work of art.  There is a world of checks and balances out there and one probably does not exist in the proper form without the other.  But, what is the role of the art critic, and how does one make sure that whatever the critic writes – because they usually write and rarely comment directly to the artist in person, or in a public forum – is reasonable adds to the dialogue? 

I think here of Anton Ego, the caricature of a food critic in the cartoon Ratatouille.  He knows that he can end careers of chefs and close restaurants with the stroke of a pen, and likewise on rare occasions, if his distinct palette is satisfied, he may write a praising review that will give a restaurant, or a chef, reservations into next year, or the year after that.  He is ultimately turned to the light by a dish from his childhood that has him recall mother’s cooking.  Simplicity, much like a successful, great street photograph.

In the art world, careers are made, or indeed tanked, depending on the mood, opinion, and sometimes the personal history of a particular critic.  Off the top of my head, I cannot recall a critic in open dialogue with an artist, other than maybe including the odd quote from an artist’s statement at an exhibition.  I don’t know why this is the way it is?  Wouldn’t it be fair if the artist had a certain number of days to respond before a critic publishes a perspective on a body of work, or exhibition?

I clipped the following from an Irish critic, Sean Sheehan from the website https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/, a great source for an assortment of exhibitions, portfolios and stories all related to photography.  Mr. Sheehan’s bio, which I could only find on LensCulture.com describes him as: “… a writer, based in West Cork and London. He has written a number of books…, including Jack’s World,… about Irish farming life in the last century. He writes about photography for The Irish Times and other publications.”  There is no evidence that I can find that he would consider himself a photographer, which may suggest a limited understanding of what a street photographer considers when making a photograph.  Regardless, he has the following to say about one of the more iconic images of kids playing in New York, as seen through the lens of one of the greats of the 20th century (the image is shown at the end, but I encourage you to read the commentary first):  

“A good example is her photo of two boys handling glass fragments from a broken mirror. What transcends the whimsical happenstance of a boy on a bike looking down from within the frame of the broken mirror is the bigger semiotic picture of manual (the word comes from the Latin for ‘hand’) activity taking place around him. As well as the boy’s own hands holding his bicycle – and a hand on a second bicycle intrudes at one edge of the picture – there are hands holding the mirror’s frame, a child’s hand in his pocket, and, central to all of this, the handling of the broken glass by the two boys, their vulnerability arising from their task imitated in empathy by the two hands of the boy on the left looking down at them. The background provides other layers to the composition: lettering on the laundry’s window and other shop signs: a woman’s grasp of a pram; the gesturing of three girls and the man in the straw hat. The hand of the adult seen contingently glancing at the children is not actively deployed, she just happens to be walking past, but is at one with the others in owning the space of the street; it is their polis, contracted down to the space of a sidewalk.”

Now, if you haven’t already figured it out – don’t be embarrassed, because I couldn’t figure it out without the illustration – here it is:

Levitt, Helen – Boys playing with mirror frame

Those of you into street photography will know that there are milliseconds between the perfect shot, such as this, and the one that got away.  In my humble opinion, the kids are not looking at the camera, which suggests the shot was taken quickly.  Likewise, the boy on the tricycle in the frame of the broken mirror would only have been fully framed for a second, or two before being cut off by the frame.  The photographer would have had a split second to make the image.  No consideration of the placement of hands,or any other of the observations made above. 

When you photograph on the street there is a tendency to center the subject of your shot in the frame.  If there is time to compose, often the main subject will be placed off-centre, for a more classic composition and following the general rules of composition, but when on the street, there is often no time for this consideration.  The natural tendency is to make sure you get the shot by placing the main subject in the center of your frame.  All this suggests that Helen Levitt was in a hurry. 

As a photographer, one of the fun challenges that most everyone attempts at some point in their life is the frame-in-frame.  Finding a square through which one scene is visible, while the frame itself forms part of a greater whole.  It is hard to do well, but when successful can be a thing of beauty.  I would venture that Helen Levitt was focused entirely on the mirror frame and the boy on the tricycle.  The rest was good luck and a bonus.

The question I am trying to raise is whether the world has gained anything by Sean Sheehan’s writings about Levitt’s work. He writes an extended description, invoking Latin not once, but twice, to show his knowledge of art theory, leaving the purity and beauty of Levitt’s work not to the brilliant image, but something one might apply to a carefully constructed painting, completely ignoring why we love street photographs in the first place, namely the immediacy and skill it takes to execute a wonderful photograph in a fraction of a second.

I liken Sean Sheehan’s observations of Levitt’s masterpiece to the ruining of a great song when someone truly messed up licenses a song for a television commercial, forever ruining the song with a miserable association that your mind cannot dismiss, or forget.  Sometimes a critic is best off saying nothing and letting the photograph speak for itself.  Levitt famously was very short on comments, or any real discussion of her work.  She let her photographs do the talking.  Amen.

All I see now is hands and more hands.  Such a shame.

Harbel

The Portrait – Relaxed Yet Posed

When photographing people, we tend to distinguish between subjects that are posing – basically sitters fully aware they are being photographed – and those photographs that are taken of people not aware they are being photographed, often classified as street photography.  I am interested in how these issues play out in a particular situation. 

I have collected photographs by Shelby Lee Adams for a while.  In my mind one of the greatest, if not the greatest living American photographer.  Mr. Adams has been photographing in Eastern Kentucky for many, many years.  He has been making portraits of families and individuals in the settings where they live, using an 8 x 10 camera.

Adams, Shelby Lee – Lloyd Dean with Grandsons + Pool Table 2006

In the technique employed by Mr. Adams there is a long process of building confidence, sharing meals and eventually posing the subject(s) for a portrait in their environment.  Mr. Adams uses a large format camera with a Polaroid back.  He would use the Polaroid back to ensure that his lighting, which was often quite complicated, offered him the right support for his final photograph, as well as a tool to discuss with the subjects of his photograph, confirming that they like the setting of the image.  He would often present the Polaroid to the subject(s).

Adams, Shelby Lee – Polaroid

I have had several discussions around the use of Polaroid backs in portraiture, because it crosses between the sitter being unaware and the posed photograph.  This is because when you make a photograph using the Polaroid back, the sitter knows it is not yet ‘serious’ and therefore their pose and facial expression is often more relaxed.  I would call it more natural, more genuine.  More real.  As such, the Polaroid back crosses from the photograph where the sitter is unaware, and the final staged photograph using the 8×10 photograph.  The subject knows there is a photograph being taken…. later, but the Polaroid is just a step towards the final photograph, so no need to stress or worry what it looks like, just relax.

I have shown above the Polaroid, which is in my collection, as well as the final photograph.  I personally like the Polaroid, as I find that the subjects are more relaxed and perhaps project a more ‘true’ representation.  For example, I find that Grandpa has applied more of a ‘poker face’ in the actual, final photograph.  I find the young man, the grandson in the white t-shirt has a more relaxed expression in the Polaroid than in the final image. 

Lagerfeld, Karl – Glamour Magazine 1994 Polaroid
Lagerfeld, Karl – Glamour Magazine 1994

In a similar, but different comparison, here are two photographs by Karl Lagerfeld. The Polaroid is in my collection, the other image is what was ultimately published in Glamour Magazine in Italy in 1994. I know this is completely different, but the result is the same. At least in my opinion. I find the expression in the Polaroid much more relaxed and interesting than in the final shot, which was ultimately published.

There are of course countless discussions to be had on this topic, but perhaps these two examples are food for thought. Whether you agree, or disagree, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that we think about how a sitter poses and how we get the best result. The most authentic. The image that best represents the sitter.

Harbel

Paul Hoeffler’s Saturday Night at the Rollerskating Rink

Hoeffler, Paul – Hat and Two Dancers

One of the stories that Paul told was of the Friendly Shooting.  Paul was at a performance by Erskine Hawkins and his minimalist Tuxedo Junction band.  I have selected a few photographs from that evening below, but first, a word or two from Paul:

“The economics of touring with a 16-piece band forced Erskine Hawkins to bring only 6 musicians, including himself on trumpet and Gloria Lynne, vocalist, to play a dance in Rochester, NY.  The performance was held at a converted rollerskating rink.

Hoeffler, Paul – Lady X

Mr. Hawkins and the players were in good spirits, and supportive of my photographing the event.  The tenor player, Julian Dash, strongly suggested I stay with him on the bandstand, when a ‘friendly shooting’ took place.  A girl was most unhappy that her boyfriend had brought another girl to the dance and brought a gun and fired a couple of rounds – nobody was hurt.

Hoeffler, Paul – Dream Dancing

This was a typical evening at this all-black function.  At many of these events, I was one of the few, maybe the only white person there.  There was no hostility, and many people were interested in what I was photographing.  This is a time that no longer exists.  Like Atget’s images of Paris at the turn of the century, these images are a time capsule, a record of a period in our history and in our culture, which we cannot return to.”

Hoeffler, Paul – Gloria Lynne

What I particularly admire about this photography event is the lack of photographs of the band.  I find it infinitely intriguing that Paul spent most of his time on stage shooting the other way.  Out, out onto the dance floor.  It looks cold, along the walls, people are wearing overcoats.  Must have been freezing.  Those that worked the dance floor look a little more comfortable, for a time.  Gloria Lynne pulling a cigarette from a package, surrounded by paper cups of coffee, perhaps spiked with a bit of whisky to keep warm.  There is a wonderful mood in these photographs, a mood that is almost dreamy.  Paul would often refer to these photographs as the Dream Dancing series.  I got the impression that of all his work, these images rose to the top of his list.  He was proud of these images.  This was not Herman Leonard, or William Claxton.  No cigarette smoke to set the mood. This was something entirely different.  More real, more escapist perhaps, and definitely dreamy…..

Harbel

The World of Photography Knew it was Inevitable. Yet We Mourn.

Robert and Fred died within a day of one another.  Both hugely significant in their own right, and while one will always overshadow the other, it would be a great shame for one to be lost and not given the proper attention that he deserves…..

On Tuesday the September 10th, it happened.  What everyone had been expecting and nobody wanted.  Robert Frank, perhaps the most important photographer of the 20th century passed. I have a great passion for the type of photographs that Robert Frank made.  Frank’s timing was not always perfect, his focus sometimes a little off, even his lighting was sometimes a little too hard, or too soft, but he captured images that forever changed photography and gave him almost mythical status.  Among those of us who like to think we make photographs in a certain tradition that for all intents and purposes link directly back to him, he is a god.

Robert Frank had an uncanny ability to see things that captured the essence of our existence.  I doesn’t matter if you look at his later work, which was more cerebral, or if you look at his break-through portfolio ‘The Americans’, it was always about capturing an honest, unembellished truth.  The essence of an American town, a rodeo, a road leading to eternity, or a tuba.  His images were not all individually outstanding, though many were, but they have an honesty and a virtual time-stamp that bring out the best in time, place and circumstance.

Robert Frank was Swiss, he captured America with an open mind and an open heart, as only one from ‘away’ can, which leads me to the second thing that happened that week……

The day before, on the 9th of September, in Vancouver, a city known in photography circles mostly for contemporary work – some in large light boxes – the passing of Fred Herzog went largely unnoticed, except by those who either knew him, or admired his visionary approach to colour photography. 

Vancouver in the 1950s was a backwater, a pacific port with lots of warehouses, ships coming and going and a departure point for those engaged in the mining- and logging industries.  Not particularly refined, nor particularly pretty.  With a setting between ocean and mountains it had a great canvas. But as only we humans can, it was a lot of front row industry, a busy, dirty and noisy port, lots of really bad neon, bars, wooden houses that looked ever so temporary, surrounding a couple of monumental stone buildings, that would eventually come to anchor what most will now agree is a world city. 

Transience was the nature of the old wood houses that were usually no more than a couple of stories high, set in a tight geographical setting that over time would require much densification and endless high-rises.  As such, much of what was around in the 1950s and 1960s has been erased.  Virtually no evidence of the frontier town by the water remains.  Thank goodness for Fred!  At a time when colour film was slow as frozen molasses, and people still moved as quickly as they do today, Fred captured Vancouver in a way that is both local and global.  He found qualities in simple new cars in an alley, a sea of neon lights, the interior of a barbershop, a window at the hardware store, and in people who look like they are from everywhere. 

For most people these scenes are difficult to place geographically, other than it being somewhere in North America, but that is what makes them great.  Herzog doesn’t dwell on the incredibly beautiful Vancouver setting with mountains, sea and sky, but on the urban.  Often the slightly gritty urban.  His head-on elegant use of colour and composition with people peppered in for good measure, always in just the right number and somehow perfectly placed, gives rise to his great eye and masterly skill, using tools that today seem almost impossible to handle well.

The Equinox Gallery in Vancouver still has a great selection of Fred Herzog’s work.  It is still attainable and exquisitely printed from the original Kodachrome slides that in miraculous fashion have survived less than optimal circumstances.

Fred’s work found its way to Paris Photo a few years ago, the annual mecca for those, like myself who are consumed by great photography.  A bold show of only Fred’s work took up an entire, large booth at the seminal event of the year.  It was a popular stop for collectors, who found something new, exciting and rooted in photographic excellence.

Fred worked for the University of British Columbia for almost as long as I have been alive.  He started the year I was born.  He photographed in the name of science and in his spare time out of personal obsession the city he came to love from a very early age.  Anecdotally, he came to Vancouver based on a single photograph in a geography textbook at school back in Germany, where he was born, during a time of great upheaval. 

Fred came to Canada in 1952.  He leaves a legacy, having captured a vanished time, but while geographically specific and significant, also of great universal appeal.

Ulrich Fred Herzog was born in Stuttgart, Germany, September 21st, 1930 and passed away in Vancouver on September 9th, 2019. He was 88.

Both Herzog and Frank were not from where their most famous work is made.  Is this significant?  Does the outsider see differently…?  Save that for another day.

Harbel, Donostia

The Americans – the Book – Robert Frank’s Lessons for all Photographers

“I want to do a big project on America, and I’d like to apply for a Guggenheim grant.  You would need to sign a paper for me, agreeing to publish a book with my photographs.  I think that would allow me to get the grant.”

Robert Frank to Robert Dalpire, 1954, Artist and Publisher ‘The Americans’

Much has been written about the photography book that defines the genre; ‘The Americans’ by Robert Frank, published by Robert Dalpire.  I am interested in this book for three major reasons.  One; of course because it is a wonderful collection of photographs by a Swiss photographer seeing America for the first time.  Two; the building of a book of images, none of which dominate the others.  Three; the origin of the layout and how it came to be.

Let me address these three points in order. 

There is something wonderful about seeing a place for the first time.  There is something even more wonderful about being a photographer and seeing for the first time.  America in the 1950s was a place that experienced unprecedented growth.  Prosperity and the development of the suburbs, grilling on the barbeque, big – no massive – cars with fins and all manner of chrome and engines so big, a small village could run for a week on the gas alone.  There was advertising everywhere and progress looked like it would go on forever.  Optimism was the American way in the 1950s. 

Against this excitement of a new era, Robert Frank traveled to the United States and got in a car and drove, and drove, and drove and made pictures all along the way.  One could say he looked behind the veneer of what appeared to be endless happiness, freedom and hope.  He saw, as only an outsider can, which is what makes ‘The Americans’ such an incredible book.

On my second point, I have written before about how when you make a book you cannot have one or two home-run photographs, you need to have a balance of images that are complementary, without a single stand-out image dominating.  There is a fine art to acknowledging that you may not want to take your best photograph and put it on the cover of a book, because it has a tendency to dominate everything in the book, to the point that nobody sees anything but the incredible image on the cover.  In short, you need a different approach to making a book than making a photograph.  Robert Frank understood this.  He decided on one image per double-page-spread.  Letting each image speak for itself, without a context, or a story.  Just an image.  No image dominates the others, and no image stands out as being better, or more successful than the others.  There is an elegance and balance here, which every book-maker and photographer could learn from.

On the third point; In an interview Robert Dalpire, Frank’s publisher, says that he and Frank laid out the photographs on the floor, with no pre-determined number of photographs.  Dalpire is quoted as saying:  “….There was no problem in terms of the selection.  As for the sequence, we did it just like that, intuitively.” Dalpire and Frank ended up with 174 pages.  What they did that day changed how photography books are made and has set a standard rarely achieved since.

Finally, I would like to address the critic.  In ‘The Photobook; A History, Volume 1’ by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger (Phaidon, 2005), there is a description of how ‘The Americans’ is structured around four segments, or ‘chapters’, as Parr/Badger call them.  Each section introduced by the American flag.  Parr and Badger say the book has…“an internal logic, complexity and irresistible flow that moves from the relatively upbeat pictures at the beginning to a final image of tenderness….”.  To this Roger Dalpire responded: “I say it is non-sense. It is a very subjective remark that has no relationship to what we did.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat is quoted as saying: “I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”  Yet, we place great emphasis on what is good and what is bad, according to a few people, who in many cases are powerful influencers, who can make or break a career.  We cannot all be like Basquiat and not care, mostly because we all need to make a living doing whatever work we do.  Artists are no different, they may work for themselves, or in collaboration with a gallery, but there are still influencers out there that can make or break their career with the stroke of a pen.  A nasty review and the buyers and public stay home with their wallets tightly shut.

All this said, it is great to see now and again that the critic, who takes himself seriously and writes eloquently about photography, in this case photography books, is completely overthinking the work and is outright wrong, creating context that simply is not there.  Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Harbel

Just Because We Can Doesn’t Mean We Should – Photography as Conceptual Art

I read this morning that a body of work by Annie Leibovitz is being presented at Art Basel as a 200 cm x 100 cm composite of her Driving series from the 1970s and early 80s.  While this on its own is not great shakes, it goes to the continuing issue of bigger is better.  Instead of 63 images in a book, these have been assembled in a digital grid – 9 across and 7 down – unlike the original images, which were of course analog.  So, how do we read this.  Is it a means to an end, as in achieving a huge price point, for a work by Annie Leibovitz?  I don’t get it. 

Leibovitz’s gallery, Hauser and Wirth – a Gagosian Gallery in training – when announcing their exclusive representation of the photographer, said among other things:  “…through a poetic body of far-reaching work Leibovitz has become an avatar of the changing cultural role of photography as an artistic medium”.  I don’t even know what that means….. 

Hauser and Wirth is a global super gallery that represents few photographers, a lot of conceptual artists, and I guess, now Annie Leibovitz.

I have a lot of time for Leibovitz’s work in her days at Rolling Stone Magazine, but sadly, I think she lost it a bit over time going to large crews, huge production and lighting get-ups and sadly more and more digital manipulation.  The final straw for me was when I read that she shot Queen Elizabeth II for an official portrait and then decided it was better if she moved her outside, expect she only did that on the computer, so we have a photograph taken inside Buckingham Palace with perfect, controlled lighting and a completely fabricated background.  Maybe she was thinking of Renaissance portraits that often had highly imaginative landscapes in the background, like the Mona Lisa? 

Leibovitz, Annie – Queen Elizabeth II

All this to say that I am a great admirer of Leibovitz’s handheld, spontaneous and opportunistic photographs of artists and people driving cars, but she seems to have lost the plot and is now represented by a gallery that is playing with the price point of her work to create a new and different Annie Leibovitz, no longer a photographer, but some kind of conceptual artist.

Incidentally, Hauser and Wirth also represent August Sander, about whom they say “Sander is now viewed as a forefather of conceptual art…..”  Serieux?  The same August Sander that the gallery quotes on its homepage, just a few lines above, saying:  “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people”. I guess you will say anything to get your artists to fit within certain gallery parameters.

One has to wonder about the big global galleries (read super expensive) that are said to manage the careers of their stable of artists, and, I am told, unceremoniously dump them, if they cannot reach a particular price point within a certain period of time. These galleries usually will show a variety of artists; great masters of modern painting and sculpture, contemporary artists and the occasional photographer.  They will include the photographer, because the gallery’s clientele is the super wealthy that will pay top dollar for art recommended by these galleries, and at the moment, photography is cool.

But how do you solve the price point? Bigger is better, seems to be the answer. Gursky’s huge digitally manipulated plexiglass mounted images, or Jeff Wall’s equally huge digital tableau prints and light boxes, help justify the price. Now, you can add Leibovitz’s 9 x 7 grid of drivers in cars.

One has to wonder, if clients are actually buying art, or are buying a gallery provenance.  Do they say:  ‘I bought this at Hauser and Wirth’, or ‘I bought a photograph by Annie Leibovitz’.  A guess? …….Anyone?

Annie, the Avatar, as defined by Webster:  “An electronic image that represents and may be manipulated by a computer user”.  Appropriate?  I am sorry Ms. Leibovitz has chosen this path.  Her work deserves better.

Harbel

Remembering D-Day 1944

Harbel: Pointe du Hoc

For those that weren’t there, D-day will always be a concoction of movies like The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, Saving Private Ryan, etc. mixed with stories from books, and in my case the 11 photographs by Robert Capa, that in my mind are among the most mind blowing photographs ever taken. 

As we park our car and walk into the centre of Sainte-Mère-Église, on the 5th of June, we are immediately taken by the carnival atmosphere in the small town.  I don’t know what I expected, but what I clearly failed to understand was that for the French June 5th, 1944, and the many days that followed from town to town, was a celebration.  A party. 

Harbel: Sainte-Mère-Église

I am sure the local population thinks every year about all the sacrifices that were made to liberate their towns The locals were people that for the better part of 5 years had been under the thumb of the Germans.  Over the 5 years leading up to the 5th of June, the Germans were either preparing for invasion or laying out their coastal defenses.  The villages must have been crawling with Germans.  And then one night there was deliverance from the sky in the form of hundreds of parachutists that were to help hold the bridgehead, when on the 6th of June the main landing would take place.

The local people of Sainte-Mère-Église dress up in period costume, they wear fatigues, the women and girls wear dresses in the style of the 1940s, they set up stands selling anything and everything that could pass as a souvenir, or could be consumed in the form of food and drink. But don’t misunderstand. They honour the allied soldiers that came to their rescue and they mourn those that never made it off the beach.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

Canadians, British and Americans come here to mourn their dead and honour those that survived the greatest amphibious landing in history, ultimately leading to the downfall of yet another tyrant set on global domination.  Those that were there come to remember those that made the ultimate sacrifice, those same men who to this day cannot understand why they are still alive when their comrades fell by the hundreds and thousands.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

On the 5th of June we watched as the large Hercules aircraft dropped hundreds of parachutists in a field near Sainte-Mère-Église. A parachute jump organized across regiments and nations that participated on that fateful day 75 years ago.  As the parade passed along the streets to the main square, where the famous parachute still hangs each year from the top of the church with a dummy representing the famous parachute drop that was a little too close to town, so prominently part of the famous story that became The Longest Day.

Harbel – Sainte-Mère-Église
Penn, Bob – Contact Sheet – The Longest Day

We honour those that made it ashore and lived to fight another day, ultimately making it to Berlin and ending what was perhaps the greatest risk to the freedom and democracy, that we enjoy today.

Harbel: Colville sur Mer

On the 6th of June, we visited the beaches, walked through the cemeteries and at one point stood above a beach, where a single solitary figure stood hunched over, only a few feet from the water’s edge.  No, I didn’t take the photograph, nor did I go closer.  This was a veteran that needed to be alone and to remember his friends.  Those that did not survive the day.

Harbel: Beny sur Mer

This is neither the time, nor the place to play politics, or pontificate, however, it seems to me that we are standing at a time when democracy is at great risk in many places around the world and it behooves us to remember and to make sure that the men that landed on D-Day did not do so in vain. 

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

“I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. One of the world’s most expensive photographers, born of the German post-war tradition, Andreas Gursky (b. 1952) says with a straight face: “I only pursue one goal: The Encyclopedia of Life.”

Gursky is a child of the Bernd and Hilla Becher school, two masters who set out to show sameness and differences in buildings and industrial installations, cataloguing and recording them for posterity.  In short, the founders of what has become known as The Dusseldorf School. How is it possible that one who shoots with a digital camera and admits to manipulating the digital files, so as to make them more pleasing and interesting to the eye – adding a couple of bends to a race course, or removing a large and unsightly factory from the banks of the Rheine, as in Rheine II – can be the maker of The Encyclopedia of Life. How is it that curators and critics quote and agree with this pretense? How can this graphic artist – I refuse to call him a photographer – even contemplate calling himself the maker of an “Encyclopedia of Life”?

It seems to me that yet again, we are having to question everything we see, every image, every movie, every piece of news, because not a single conveyor of knowledge or imagery can be trusted? Is that really the legacy we want to leave for the next generation, or the ones after that, who will never know the truth, because we in the present day knowingly allow it to be altered.

Andreas Gursky: Rheine II

Anonymous photographer:  Rheine I

Is it photography when what is in the photograph does not exist in real life? Are we getting so accustomed to an alternative reality, where super heroes dominate the silver screen, zombies walk the streets and natural disasters are glorified though CGI, not because it is a great story, but simply because we can. When one can sit at home on the couch and virtually walk through a busy shopping area with a Kalashnikov and try to hit the bad guys, but if you take out an innocent civilian you lose three points. Is this to be our desensitized, pathetic legacy?

Do we have to check the raw file from every image printed to see if it is real? Do we have to physically travel to the banks of the Rheine to look across and see the ugly factory to know what is real and what is fake?

If Andreas Gursky gets to be the writer and illustrator of the “Encyclopedia of Life”, then it is nothing but a ruse, a badly written screenplay put to life in the form of a huge piece of brightly coloured paper, mounted, framed and carrying a million dollar price tag. One great big lie.

How sad.

Harbel,
Copenhagen

The Philosophy of the Complete Photographer

Ink and brush are the tools of the Japanese Zen monk, who hour after hour commits himself to the drawing of an enso. An enso is a circle painted in a single stroke, pen touching paper the entire time and lifted only once the circle is complete, or the ink is no more and ends in a feathered wisp.

Ensos are often considered to be of two styles, the one that is complete, and therefore a full circle, the other being left incomplete with the final wisp of ink not quite making it to where the circle was initiated.

The Zen monk, looks to the ink stone and the brush to achieve a physical manifestation of Buddhist practice. The circle, when perfect, round, and complete symbolizes the highest form of enlightenment, the achievement of true perfection, earth, the universe, nothingness, the void….. The incomplete circle, symbolizes the determination of the monk to strive towards enlightenment, through meditation, repetition and the minimalist expression of perfection.

Several years ago when I started making photographs, I was encouraged to read Zen in the Art of Archery. The book describes the art of perfection in shooting a bow and arrow through the eyes of German professor of philosophy, who studied archery in Japan in the 1920s.

In the book, Professor Eugen Herrigel speaks of achieving a state of mental calm and focus that allows the shooter to become one with the bow and arrow, as the arrow moves towards the target:

“…The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill…”

Achieving the technical knowledge, predicting the outcome and putting together all the elements perfectly, is of course the optimal execution of any task we set for ourselves. In photography, this is reflected in how well you know your camera, your film, lens, and all the right settings to achieve a particular outcome, when making a photograph.

I think all photographers know the feeling when they are close. When you have one of those moments, when the mind’s eye achieves perfect balance in composition, the lighting is just right, the shadows fall just so, there is a greater harmony. When the photographer then manages to intuitively get all the camera settings right, and depresses the shutter, there is a possibility that the circle may be complete. But we also recognize that when we look at the final print, there is always the little tweak, or the thought of what if….. The enso remains incomplete.

Whether you think of yourself as the bowman, or the monk with his brush, you must be content in your desire to grow, learn and improve.  You must be satisfied that you are on the path to enlightenment.

I believe in perfection.  I recognize that I am unlikely ever to achieve perfection. Like the monk and his incomplete enso – my photography is a work in progress. This is why I incorporated an enso in my logo and in my footer. It is a reminder to keep working, to keep striving…

Harbel,
Copenhagen

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