On Lions Sun and Shadow

One can reasonably argue that National Geographic Magazine is the most influential magazine focused on photography, since the untimely demise of Life Magazine. One can also argue that being the most influential comes with the most responsibility.

When the photo editor(s) at National Geographic select the one photograph per month from all the submissions to their ‘Your Shot’ community, they have awarded the photographer great honour and respect. I am sure it is an incredibly tough decision for the editors making the decision to publish one particular image over 1000s of others.

I sat on a couch in the lobby of a hotel this week, waiting for my room to be ready. I was leafing through the latest National Geographic Magazine. The May 2018 issue. Following stories about Picasso, birds flourishing following the catastrophic meteoric event that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and stunning underwater photographs of grouper and sharks, I came to the last photograph. The selection by the Photo Editors from the thousands that submit their work to the website organized by National Geographic under the banner Your Shot….

National Geograhic Magazine last page, May 2018

The photograph, which shows three male lions in and around a tree. One lion is in the tree sitting in what looks like a very uncomfortable position in a split of the trunk some 4 meters above the grass floor. A second lion is standing on its hind legs with its front legs gripping the trunk and the third lion is resting in a very regal position, suitable for the front staircase of any large bank, or around the base of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

The composition is nice. There is great balance, a single tree on the right sits near the horizon line and breaks the horizontal line that separates the plain from the sky. Right at the golden section. A nicely composed photographs.

So, I think to myself, why doesn’t it look right? Why does it look like a painting and not a photograph? What is wrong with this picture?

The more I look, the more I am bothered by something not quite right. And then I get it. The lion on the left, on his hind legs and the lion lying majestically in the shadow of the tree have the exact same colour palate. The same tonal range. And why is this important? Well, the lion on the left is in the sunshine. The sun on his back. The lion on the right is in the shadow of the tree. Yet, the two lions are exactly the same colour. How can a lion in the sun be the same colour as one in the shade?

It can because it is not real. It is impossible. This then begs the question; is the perfectly placed tree in the background fake too? Is the grass really that green? Are the lions real? Is there a tree? Was any of it really there?

I don’t know Jay Rush. I don’t know anything about his work, but I do know that nature does not create the same amount of colour saturation in sun and shade and no camera that I have come across exists that can make it so. But computers, ah well, that is a whole other story. They can do anything.

If a tree falls in the forest, was it really there?

Harbel

PS:  To the Photo Editors at National Geographic: Shame on you!

 

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

Digital Photographs: Digital Media, Digigraph, Compugraph or Manipugraph?

Most of my friends and fellow analog photographers (those that use film and manually develop the film and print by hand in a darkroom) have been speculating, whether the reason a digitally modified image is sold as a photograph, as opposed to digital art (a digigraph? compugraph? manipugraph?) is simply fear.  The fear of facing a collector with the reality that the ‘photograph’ they have just sold is more computer than photograph. Fear….

I propose that what drives this fear is the vanity of the art market.  Let me explain.  Many looking to buy art – more and more often with one eye investment value – have dived into photography.  Art advisors and many art-value indexes suggest that photography may be the place to invest, better than almost any other area of collecting.  

The art market has in many ways been reduced to just another index ruled by nouveaux riches collectors shaping it with large amounts of money, which otherwise would sit idly in the bank making little or no interest.  Massive bonuses prop up an overheated art market, reaching levels that are difficult even to contemplate.

If these new collectors had to think in terms of what a photograph represents, versus a work of art created from one or more computer files, manipulated by software programs, and printed by a machine, would he or she still pay the prices that photography commands?

Can a contemporary computer manipulated image by an artist that has barely arrived on the scene reasonably command the same amount of money as a hand printed silver gelatin photograph by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Andre Kertesz, Harry Callahan or Henri Cartier-Bresson?

Perhaps it is time to embrace the digigraph, or the compugraph?  Let the family tree of art sprout a new branch.  A new discipline that can stand on its own, command its own attention, on its own terms.

Let the traditional darkroom photograph be.  Stop the confusion.  Stop the insanity.

Harbel,
Donostia

See more on my website: harbel.com

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.

 

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

Death by Selfie – On Seeing and Making Photographs

Much has been written about how photography has changed. How digital cameras and cell phones have changed how we see and observe, how we remember, and how we create photographs and memories.

When the objective is to show your friends, post photos and perhaps brag a little about where you are, and what you are doing, the selfie is now replacing the experience of being in the moment. When your back is turned to the Mona Lisa to take a selfie, why bother going to Paris and the Louvre in the first place?

The world has flipped on it’s head, or rather it has turned it’s back. In Porto I passed a bit of street art, below. Thought provoking? It is true: Selfies can kill you! Or at least, it can kill your feelings and the experience of seeing.

IMG_1600

As walker Evans famously said: Stare. It’s the way to educate your eyes. Stare. Pry, listen eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long. But, if you are merely pointing your phone, or worse turning your back and pointing the phone in the best narcissist fashion towards yourself, then what are you really seeing? You are dying inside, because you are not truly seeing anything at all!

Photography intellectuals are starting to muse about how digital and phone shooters should start pretending that they are using analog equipment. Yes, film! For the simple reason that they worry about how shooters of selfies and rapid-fire digital equipment no longer see, or think before they shoot! After all, the analog photographer has at most 36 frames, before the moment is lost. Forever.

Harbel,
Paris

See more on my website: harbel.com