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