Bernard Plossu Revisited

It has been a little over two years since I wrote about Monsieur Plossu and his photographs.  I was fortunate to purchase three of his photographs a few months ago.  I immediately had them framed and hung them in my livingroom.  I sort of forgot about them, in the way that you can do when something fits and becomes part of your environment.  Your atmosphere. 

When I was in Paris last, I saw a book.  Plossu Paris (Textes d’Isabelle Huppert et Brigitte Ollier Éditions Marval, 448 pages, 29,90€).  In French only, unfortunately, but photographs speak.  And in this case, loudly.   I particularly noticed the book, because the front cover was one of the images that I bought last year.  And this combined with a quote by Plossu that I made a note of, compelled me think about his images in a different way.

Plossu, Bernard – Paris

I have always thought of Plossu as a ‘from the hip’ sort of photographer.  Someone who is not too uptight about horizon lines being level, perfect focus and so forth.  A little accidental almost.  But then I read this, and it made me think:

“less good photos of Frank bring more poetry than perfect pictures by Henri Cartier-Bresson.”

– Bernard Plossu

You have to think about this a little bit.  On the face of it, coming from a fellow photographer, this is almost heresy.  But does he have a point?  When composition is perfect, lighting perfect, triangles perfect, framing perfect, what else is there?  You look at the image in admiration, but the story is complete and there it is.  Well, I think this is where Plossu has a point.  If you look at Robert Frank’s work, there is a play, or whimsy about it that is perhaps poetic.  If you believe the stories, his seminal book “The Americans” contained not his best photographs from his 10000 mile journey across North America, but those that he felt worked.  Which means that like Plossu – in perhaps not quite as exteme a way, but still – Frank has a few that are slightly out of focus, perhaps not the greatest composition, or should I say not conforming to the accepted rules of the game.  There is the odd one that is askew.  But Frank’s work has poetry.  I think that is what made “The Americans” such a hit, both with photographers, and-non photographers alike.

Poetry to me is a language onto itself.  As much said, as left unsaid.  A collection of words carefully selected to communicate something, which is usually an emotion or feeling, often atmospheric.  But importantly, the carefully selected words and what you make of them is founded in the economy of the words.  The few that say the most. 

In so many ways, a well executed photograph does the same thing.  I think often about discussions I have had with other photographers as to whether photographs that you make should have a title, or description.

The argument for no title: I don’t want to push what I saw onto the viewer.  Just because I see something, doesn’t mean that everyone else sees the same thing, and indeed a title will perhaps rob the viewer of the opportunity to make their own story, seeing something entirely different.  

The argument for title:  I have an intent with my photographs and they form part of a narrative, or say something specific that I want to convey.  A title helps set the stage, location, time, date, etc. 

Either is of course fine, though I must say I fall in the first category.

In a photograph what you exclude is often equally, or more important than what is in the frame.  Take my second Plossu.  To some it may simply be a few deck chairs in a rainstorm, or wet fog.  To someone else it could be a poem about the joy of being alone, at last, maybe on a ship, away from everyone.  A place to dream.  To me ironically, it is about a smell.  The smell of being on the water when it is misty and damp, but with hope, as there is enough sun form quite strong shadows of the chairs on the deck.  I can smell the salt water, the seaweed and the mist that only happens on the ocean.  I love this photograph for the permission it gives me to dream and make up my own story. 

Plossu, Bernard – Deck Chairs on the QEII

Now, the question of course…. Does it matter that Plossu titled it:  Deck Chairs on the QEII?  Well, not for me, because it affirms what I was already thinking, so no harm, no foul.  But, to someone else, I don’t know.

The cover shot of the book Plossu Paris is to me one of Plossu’s greatest photographs.  It is too simple.  Too easy.  Yet, he did it, and it has a quality that I think is both exceptional and bold.  The photograph is exposed in such a way that the tablecloth is all you see.  The furniture all but disappears.  The press folds in the heavy white linen form gentle shadows.  It is the consummate black and white photograph.  But, not pretentious.  Not in your face.  It doesn’t show off.  It is gentle, elegant and egalitarian.  A café?  A fancy restaurant?  At home?  It doesn’t matter.  It could be everywhere and anywhere.  But it is so beautifully elegant.  It is delicious! And it let’s you make your own story. Poetic.

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

 

The Gastronomy of the Eye

I have been asked to put together an exhibition on the theme of Paris and France for a brand new spot in Copenhagen, Denmark. Having spent extended periods of my life in the City of Lights, this is a very welcome challenge.

Location is not usually a way I think about my photographs, and putting together the show presented an interesting challenge. I started to think about the idea of the flâneur. A flâneur is a uniquely Parisian term, rooted in Old Norse, where a verb flana meant to ‘wander with no purpose’. In sixteenth century French the verb flânerie evolved and took on the meaning of “idly strolling with no particular urgency or destination”. In the nineteenth century someone engaging in flânerie became a flâneur. A person widely romanticized in the second half of the 19th century by the likes of Baudelaire, who referred to the flâneur as one who engages in the ‘botany of the sidewalk’, and Balzac – who gave me the title for this show – referred to the flâneur as someone engaged in ‘the gastronomy of the eye’.

What can one say about Paris? She is in your blood. Nowhere else does a river, acres of cut stone, and uncompromising nineteenth century urban planning come together to successfully form a city that dreams are made of. A city of light, of enlightenment, philosophy, and fifty years ago, where the spirit of ’68 erupted to echo around the world, so very apropos.

People who live in Paris have found a way to coexist and share their good fortune with millions and millions of visitors each year. Parisians get on with their lives, enjoy their croissant, their café-au-lait, their petit verre and slices of saucisson sec. More often than not, they do so on the sidewalk, protected by an awning, sitting at tables that are impossibly small, on chairs that are comfortable, but not too comfortable.

Paris is a tempting mistress. A place where you can disappear and be the photographing flâneur. I wander the streets of Paris, soaking up the atmosphere, taking in the smells, merging with the pavement and the walls to see, but not be seen. I see, compose and photograph, only to once again fade into the background.

If you happen to be in Copenhagen, please visit the exhibition anytime after April 19th, 2018 at: Frenchy, Store Kongensgade 69.  Frenchy serves a mean coffee and the brunch is legendary.

Harbel

For more information, visit harbel.com

 

 


 

The Photograph – Art Versus Craft

The Photograph – Art Versus Craft

The case for a photograph being art, or craft has been argued at great length by critics, thinkers and collectors. Of course you will never get an argument from me or any other photographer, or collector. But you may still get an argument from the high-brow collector of painting and sculpture.

The crux of the argument usually centers around mechanical intervention (the camera) reducing the value of the photograph when compared to the other fine arts. I tend to take a view that is somewhat different.

The camera is an instrument that fixes an image to a piece of film or in a data file. The creation of this image is a subjective process. The photographer composes his or her photograph, decides what goes inside the frame and what stays out. This is no different than an artist sitting with a pencil sketching a scene and deciding what to include and what not to include. In fact it could be argued that the ability of the sketch artist to omit elements, such as street signs, power lines, or maybe a red Toyota, is more subjective than the photographer. The photographer presses the button on the camera and if it is in the frame area, it will show up in the picture, or at least it did until digital photography and Photoshop.

For me the camera is no more than the brush to the painter, or the hammer and chisel to the sculptor. I have deliberately stripped down my equipment to the minimum. I don’t use filters, tripods, or other tools. I don’t own a flash. I use the same film all the time, one speed, analog, one lens and one camera body. I print in silver gelatin, directly from the negative. No digital manipulation at all. I subscribe to Berengo Gardin’s statement of ‘Vera Fotografia’ (see my website and previous blogs on this). For me, my stripped down camera is my simple tool to compose and capture something that I see in front of me.

As an analog photographer I make my photograph, develop the negative and print my image. The painter, on the other hand, can add and take away at will. I ask you, which artist is more true to his or her original idea?

As Peter Adams said:  “A great camera can’t make a great photograph, anymore than a great typewriter can write a great novel”.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Harbel,
Madrid

See more on my website: harbel.com

The Sacred Nature of a Great Photograph

The world is a mess. Everywhere you look there is disappointment in leadership, pending scandals, international conflicts simmering, or on the full boil. Something that should be as simple as a conversation among fellow citizens around an independent Catalonia either inside Spain or on its own seems to be drawing out the worst in people with the potential to turn into 1937 all over again. It cannot be, and we cannot let it happen.

Barcelona is one of the great cities in the world. The only Olympic city that has managed to turn a 17 day party in 1992 into a lasting legacy with incredible staying power, great architecture, culture, food and above all else, people.

These same people, who make the city so special, are the people that remind me of a fun story that led to one of my better efforts with the camera. I was in Barcelona. It was April, late April, and the weather forecast was not great. I got in a taxi to go to my hotel and it started to snow. Big fluffy flakes. The roads quickly turned sloppy and wet, with traction starting to get difficult for the driver. On his dash, the cell phone that was doubling as a GPS rang. The driver’s wife told him to come home immediately and forget about driving anymore today, because of the terrible snowstorm. I convinced the driver to take me to my hotel, although he complained he would get in trouble with his wife. At my hotel, he dropped me at the curb and promptly turned the taxi sign on top of his car off, and probably made his way home.

I went to my hotel room, on the first floor of a mostly residential street. I was in a corner room at a typical wide open Barcelona intersection. I stood in the window with my camera, looking down at the street, where the local residents came out in their sandals with umbrellas to enjoy the freak April snow. It did not last long, but while it was still accumulating on the ground, there were a few choice moments. You can see the resulting photograph in my gallery ‘The Ones’.

Good photographs are memories. They represent time capsules and I often say that they allow you to forget, because the minute you revisit them, the location, situation and the entire scene comes back to life, as though you are right there, in the moment.

Diane Arbus wrote in a 1972 letter: “They are the proof that something was there and no longer is. Like a stain. And the stillness of them is boggling. You can turn away but when you come back they’ll still be there looking at you.”

Leaf through a photo-album and you go on a trip that carries all kinds of emotions. Joy, happiness, sadness, despair, it’s all right there on the small pieces of paper.

When you make photographs for a broader audience – for other people – you try to take these moments in time and make them not only your own, but when successful, they are universal.

In the best case, a great photograph allows you, the viewer, to project your own memory or your own story onto the photograph. You make new memories or restores memories that you had otherwise parked, somewhere far back, way back in that seldom accessed lobe of your brain.

Harbel

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.

 

Vera Fotografia – Photography As It Should Be

On the back of each of Gianni Berengo Gardin’s photographs there is a green stamp. It reads: “Vera Fotografia”, his way of saying that what you see in his print is what was in front of him when he made the photograph. It has not been manipulated, changed or enhanced with Photoshop or other digital editing software.

But does a simple green rubber stamp really change anything or prove anything. In an email exchange with the editor of Black and White Magazine in the UK, it was yet again pointed out to me that we photographers have been manipulating our images in the darkroom since the very beginning. We crop, dodge, burn and tone our prints and so, it should be OK for the ‘contemporary’ photographer to use digital tools to achieve a desired outcome.…. Indeed.

I take the point, but perhaps there is a test that we could all employ, that being: Could the photograph in front of you, digital or analog have been made under optimal conditions with a camera and film; printed in a darkroom using an enlarger and standard chemistry? If so, it is worthy of the coveted green stamp: “Vera Fotografia”.

I am not here to criticize, merely to point out that I make photographs with an old leica M6, 100 ASA film, a 50 mm lens. No tripod, filters, flash or reflectors. Just me, my camera and what is in front of me. My negatives are printed full frame, with the black outline of the negative. To me that is: “Vera Fotografia”.

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com