Author Archives: Leicaphila

“Mise en Abyme”: The Image Within the Image

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, 1937

I love the photo above, taken by Surrealist ‘Art Photographer’ and photojournalist Lee Miller. There’s something dislocating about it, something difficult to read at first glance, something disorienting about the reality on which you as the viewer stand, a function of the questionable dimensionality of the photo itself. Produced by the indexical process of analog photography, it’s something more than an indexical account of the real, a view turned to a subjective vision by what appears to be an interplay of literal and fictive frames.

Portrait of Space is a “mise en abyme” or an image-within-an-image. It’s a visual puzzle, a play on ambiguity and the permeability of boundaries. The title itself is part of the puzzle. What’s the subject of this ‘portrait?’ Given the multiple frames, it’s up to you to identify what space is the subject. Is it all of it, or some part of it? What can be considered inside and what outside?

Pretty cool that all of that can be summoned up via an indexical photograph that, in the words of Susan Sontag, “stencils off the real”. It’s testament to the infinite creative possibilities inherent in our simple ‘documentary’ medium.

In actuality, the photo is taken within a tent in Egypt. The viewer looks out onto a desert, through a window with a torn mosquito net, the tear itself serving as a frame. A wooden picture frame hangs from the net above the tear, creating a second frame nested with the window frame which itself is nested within the frame of the photo. The appears to be a stone border demarcating the landscape within the netting tear and the window frame. Beyond lies desert. Above, occupying various ratios of different frames, and about 2/3 of the image, is sky with wispy clouds.

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I realize, in reviewing my work over the years, the “mise en abyme” trope is something I’ve been intuitively drawn to since I started photographing things. Maybe it has something to do with having an early education in the arts, where one learns to think of visual art, whether painting or photography, as layered abstraction, although I find that I was doing things like shooting out car windows or using windows as frames within photos since I was 12. So who knows?

Of course, it’s at the root of whatever is inspiring me to publish a book like Car Sick, and hopefully it’s part of the reason many of you good folks have reserved a copy. In any event, the photo above is something more than some funky statues in some god-forsaken place somewhere; it’s the view out a car window of those statues, which introduces a layer of complexity absent in the straight shot. Now the photo infers a viewer of those statues, a viewer in a vehicle, the vehicle itself in a certain relationship to the statuary, the viewer in a certain relationship to both the statues and the vehicle. The interpretive possibilities of the photo have expanded exponentially, all with the inclusion of the sense of a car window that brackets the view.

So that’s the idea I’m selling you in Car Sick. Think of it not as a collection of marginally interesting, semi-competent views out of car windows – think of it rather as a brilliant collective “mise en abyme“, a celebration of image-within-image, “in which notions of inside and outside, are endlessly placed and displaced”, as critic Patricia Allmer noted of Miller’s work, challenging you the viewer with its layered details, made possible by the artist’s [that’s me!] “unique sense for presenting a slice of dislocated reality. “

Color and Photography

I’ve never cared much for color photography. Never shot it in the film era, don’t pay any attention to it in the digital era. Not that I’d be so militant as to buy a Monochrome; it’s much easier to simply chimp, edit and print RAW files in B&W. It’s partially a function of when I came of age photographically – the early 1970s, when B&W constituted the majority of both journalistic photography and whatever photography aspired to personal expression. Color photography was the product of the inconsequential snap-shot, the throw-away photo taken with the Instamatic. Color photographs were thin and transparent, lacking the visual ‘heft’ of B&W. They valued the superficial – color! – at the expense of the visually complex – form. I’ve carried these prejudices with me into the present.

Of course, that’s ancient history, certainly by the 80’s with the introduction of ‘professional’ color films, which was itself the result of larger trends in visual media – the rise of color television as the common visual medium, replacing print media like LIfe and Vu and Look as defining the visually normative. You see the change most obviously in the transformation of photojournalist imagery from the 60s to the late 70s and onward. Compare Larry Burrow’s B&W Viet Nam photos – while thematically distinct from the WW2 photographs of Capa etc, still sharing a common B&W visual language – with the late 70’s color work of Susan Meiselas in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Both are exceptionally skilled and thoughtful photographers; what differentiates their work is the medium they used. To my eye, Burrow’s work has an emotional impact that Meiselas lacks; it’s almost impossible for me not to aestheticize Meiselas’s work, even though some of it is remarkably gruesome. It’s the color, which seems to connote two things to me: banality, and cheap beautification. Understand, I’m not accusing Meisalas of cheapening what she photographs, rather, I’m reflecting on my own inherent biases and using them as an example of how each of us constructs meaning from photos.

Susan Meisalas, “Cuesta del Plomo”, showing a half-devoured body on a hillside outside Managua. Gross…but I can’t help thinking of how beautiful Managua’s landscape must be. Need to put that on my “to visit” list.

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Above is a photo that will probably find its way into Car Sick, the book I’ve been shilling for the last few weeks. While it looks like a B&W film photo (nice Tri-X contrast and grain) it’s from a RAW file taken with a Ricoh GXR (10 years old now, and “obsolete” or so I’m told, it remains a remarkable camera, especially when using the M-Mount mated with an older LTM optic; why anyone shooting “leica style” would need anything else is completely beyond me). The “original” leads off the post; a banal color snap of no visual interest. But monochromed, with some pronounced grain added, a hint of light fall-off at the edges of the frame, now, to my eye, it’s just right, the perfect confluence of B&W contrast and grain and film era optics to produce my idea of what a photo out a car window should look like. 5 years ago I’d have a vague sense that I was ‘cheating’; now I couldn’t care less. I’m tired of arguments about media and technique. It’s the image that counts; who cares how you get there (up to a point: see below for the usual qualifications). The point is the aesthetic. I understand and have internalized the B&W aesthetic, maybe in a way that photographers born after 1980 can’t. I ‘see’ in grainy B&W. Luckily for me, there’s seemingly no Instagram ‘filter’ for my look, so I get to claim it legitimately. Instead of selecting a random ‘filter’ on a photo app or social media site, I learned it the hard way. I earned it; it’s been incorporated into my vision. It’s how I see, not some pre-selected veneer I’ve made an arbitrary decision to paste over my subject. My style is, in some way, my subject.

What’s remarkable to me is how foreign this is to today’s photographers. Raised with the easy color capture of digital – but also raised in the visual language of color TV and the ubiquity of public advertising – color is their normative way of seeing, which it should be, right? Talk to them of B&W and they’ll reply, “The world is color. We should reproduce it as such. It’s B&W which is artificial, necessary only for so long as the technology hadn’t matured to the point to transcend it as a limitation. It’s no longer needed. we’ve moved past it.”

Except that, ironically, one can argue that this new visual language- the language of color that’s become synonymous with photography since the 1980s – is the ultimate artificiality now at the core of photography. It is so because it further obfuscates for us the inherent artificiality of photography as a medium. We hold a 3×5 piece of paper with 2D colored ink (or silver halide) representations engraved on its surface and consider it a transparent slice of the real. Its color is one more means of obscuring the fact of its artificiality, of its inherently constructed nature. It seduces us, the viewer, into thinking we’re seeing an objective representation of something real out there, when what we’re really looking at is a piece of paper of abstracted signs in our hand.

What we’re viewing on that piece of paper (or screen) is someone’s coded representation of their subjective interpretation of the real, subjective in the same sense that Cezanne’s paintings of late 19th Century French life were subjective takes on that life. And just like paintings, some photographs are more compelling than others, they being so not because they more accurately reproduce reality than that they create a coded reality that compels us as viewers. It’s why we venerate Robert Frank while laughing at the junk that gets posted on enthusiast websites. And it’s why some people – myself included – continue to shoot in B&W. It’s how we see.

Up and Running

Sorry about the blackout. It couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, having just asked everyone to fund my book…and then disappeared after taking in a quick two grand. Fortunately, it was just a ‘scheduled update’ that went wrong, and I’m lucky to have a friend with the knowledge to fix things.

I’ll be back to posting in a few days at most. For those who’ve contributed to my gofundme page, Thank you. I owe you a book. It’s coming, I promise. I’ll keep you updated as it progresses. I’m still taking donations. I’ll leave it up for another week or two, and how much I take in will determine the print run. I assume it’ll be +/- 80. I’m excited about it. Thanks for your support.

In the meantime, I’m reading RJ Smith’s bio of Robert Frank, American Witness, and following it up with Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous by Christopher Bonanos.

Help a Brother Out, Part Deux

A few days ago I asked whether anyone would be interested in buying a book of pictures taken out of my car window. I figured I could guilt-trip a few of you into buying one. Surprisingly, between reader’s comments and private emails I’ve had over 70 readers request a copy and numerous folks asking for more than one. That’s really nice of you, and I truly appreciate it.

I’m not in this to make money. I’m good, thank you. What I am interested in is getting my work out there to people who might enjoy it, or learn something from it, or teach me something about it. My sole criterion in putting together the book is quality; quality of the photography and quality of the physical book itself – not some shitty POD book but a professionally done work that highlights the best of almost 50 years of snapping photos from the car. No throw-away images to pad out the work – I started with over 200 photos and edited down to +/- 80 final images. The criteria for inclusion of a given photo were three-fold: 1) does it work standing on its own; and, if so, 2) does it work as part of a larger narrative; and, if so, 3) is there a logical place within the sequencing where it maintains these two strengths? If I could answer Yes to all three questions, it’s in the book; if not, even if it’s a great single image, I tossed it. I tossed a lot, under the theory that usually less is more.

Much of it is film photography, much of it taken with a Leica of some sort, but that’s not the point. The point is to present traditional B&W photography that depends not on technical gimmickry but rather on the strength of the images themselves and what they both denote and connote, both as stand-alone works and as they’re sequenced into a loose narrative. I say ‘loose’ because photo books that focus too tightly tend not to interest me past a cursory viewing. The photobooks I keep coming back to – masterpieces like Mike Brodie’s A Period of Juvenile Prosperity – respect the viewer enough to allow him/her to create the narrative. For the same reason, there won’t be much text. You get enough of that here. In this sense, it aspires to be “Leica photography” in the best sense – quick shots caught on the run that say something, less dependent on technique than the photographer’s vision. If you’re looking for a photobook pimping for Leica or purporting to highlight the strengths of the Leica camera or optics, go elsewhere; this ain’t it. It’s not about the camera; it’s about the images.

Trim size will be 10×8 inches (width 10 inches, height 8 inches), paper heavyweight photo stock quality, sewn bindings, linen hardcover, +/- 120 pages with +/- 80 Black and White photos reproduced via CMYK printing. I’m making a limited edition run of 80 copies.

Price of the book will be $35/shipped within the US, $45/shipped worldwide.

I’ve started a “GoFundMe” site here, where you can contribute. Your contribution there will serve as your payment for the book itself. Of course, if you want to contribute less than $35, you’re welcome as well, but that would be sort of stupid because you wouldn’t be getting the book. Of course, you’re welcome to contribute as much as you want, but I don’t expect it and, if you’re feeling remarkably generous and contribute, say, $350, I’m sending you ten books.

I’ve seen proofs of a mock-up, and, it’s pretty good, not to blow my own horn or anything. It works. The last thing I’m going to do is send out bad work. Who knew photos out car windows could be so cool?

Help a Brother Out

Above is a dummy copy of the cover of a book of b&w photographs I’m intending to publish. The tentative title of the book is Car Sick. The book’s premise is simple: it will contain photographs I’ve either 1) taken from my car, or 2) got out of the car to take i.e. it’s a view from the car. Specifically, it’s a view of America from the car.

While containing an introduction written by a third party, it will be minimal. There will be minimal text throughout, as I find photo books that tackle and pin their subjects via forced explanation to be of minimal interest. The photos will be sequenced and presented in a manner that suggests a narrative, with appropriate design and production to allow the message to be accessible to the viewer…but you’ll have to work too. My intent is to engage the viewer visually, emotionally and intellectually with a mixture of beauty, banality, sentiment, and formal abstraction.

  • The book will be +/- 140 pages with +/- 80 photographs.
  • Trim size will be 10 inches (width) x 8 inches (height, spine)
  • Photo printing: 4-color on 80# matte Titan white, 510 PPI.
  • Pages: 10 pt C1S/heavy white stock (120gms) with matte layflat lamination, bleeds, prints one side only.
  • Cover: Hardcover linen with jacket
  • Spine width: 0.2901 inches
  • Binding: PUR perfect section sown bind.

I’m not thinking of the work as a ‘book of photos;’ rather the book, the physical, three-dimensional object, is the work. Physical quality – how the book itself appears and feels – will be of paramount importance. This won’t be a POD (“print on demand”) or standardized ‘Blurb’ book; the type of book cannot be arbitrarily chosen and then the content stuck into it. The book will be a thoroughly considered production – content (editing and sequence), the mise-en-page, choice of paper stock, reproduction quality, text, typeface, binding and jacket design all considered in how such choices interact to produce the finished work.

After much back and forth, I’ve decided to self-publish i.e. I’m not going to hire a book agent to solicit a Publisher and jump through their editorial hoops for a limited production run when the internet offers me considerable resources as a self-publisher.

It will be produced by Bookmobile Printing in Minneapolis, which produces fine-art books for museums and galleries among others. I chose them for the following reasons: First, books are their only business. They are artists immersed in the world of books, and every single step of the process (with the exception of the manufacturing of the metal dies for foil stamping and larger hardcover runs) is done in house. As such, they are able to carefully oversee each element of book production and constantly maintain the highest quality standards.

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Defining the audience for a photo book is incredibly important when soliciting potential publishers. In fact, it may be the most important factor. I’ve got a built-in potential audience for the work, a function of cranking out this blog for 6 years. As such, self-publishing makes sense. Most aspiring photographers make the mistake of assuming their potential audience much larger than it in fact is. In truth, small fine-art publishers often print runs of 500 copies or less, with recognized masters selling, at best, 3000 copies. This is especially true of idiosyncratic subject matter like photos out of car windows.

Who is the book’s audience? You. Readers of Leicaphilia.

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Give me this much: I’ve written over 400 posts for you, some of it marginally thought-provoking, all of it ad-free. I’ve never begged for your money. I’ve deliberately chosen not to monetize this website so as not to insult your intelligence or to guilt-trip you into a “donation.” That’s tacky and demeaning, both of me and you; we’re better than that. I write Leicaphilia as a labor of love. No remuneration needed or required. And I’m grateful for the readership I have.

So, my question is this: Let’s assume I do enough of a print run to justify selling individual copies for $30 US. Hell, I’ll probably lose money at that price, but that’s OK. Add $5 US shipping within the US, $15 US shipping to Europe/Asia. How many of you would buy Car Sick?

Leica’s “Limited Edition” Wicker Basket

Editor’s Note: This is an actual Press Release, dated July 8, 2019, for an actual “long-awaited” Leica product:

Express yourself and capture life with Leica’s brand new accessories for women Wetzlar, 8 July 2019.

This summer Leica launches its long-awaited accessory collection dedicated to women who care about their image and the ones they create. The leather accessory collection consists of a limited-edition wicker basket and shopping tote, and two chic protectors for the new Leica Q2. The accessories are designed and handcrafted in Europe, and made from the finest Italian and Spanish leather.

The collection is designed not just to keep the camera at hand but to bring Leica’s signature style to the discerning photographer on the move. Synonymous with the best design, Leica looked for inspiration from the archives which include accessories for female photographers throughout the pioneering ages of photography. The design hints for the limited edition baby blue leather shopping tote bag and pale lilac wicker basket came from a vintage ladies’ leather case made by Leica in the 1930s. For the style conscious photographer, Leica has designed a wicker with an inside pocket perfectly-sized for a Leica compact camera, limited to only 150 pieces. The body of the basket is hand-crafted from woven osier wicker. The top handle and edging are made from the finest cowhide leather in a pale lilac shade with a Leica logo embossed on the front. A further touch of style is added with the ‘I love Leica’ charm.

The elegant yet practical shopping tote was designed in collaboration with the designer atelier SAGAN Vienna and is limited to 250 pieces worldwide. This emerging Viennese brand is renowned for its Bauhaus inspired designs and carefully crafted leather hand bags.

Leica is renowned for recognising emerging photographic talent through its annual Leica Oskar Barnack Newcomer Award and the collaboration with SAGAN is another example of supporting creative talents. The baby blue Leica shopping tote is handmade in Spain from Italian soft calf leather. The bag comes with a stylish hand braided leather handle, that also doubles up as a fastener. The outside pocket has been perfectly designed to give easy access to a Leica D-Lux or Q2. With already so many reasons to own the iconic Leica Q2, this collection adds two more. The light blue and bubblegum pink protectors are made of the finest quality cow hide leather with an elegant diamond patterned embossing. This embossing mirrors the Q2 leather and gives easy access to all controls. The protectors come with matching shoulder straps.

The accessories will be sold exclusively in Leica Stores around the world. SRP, incl. VAT, for the accessories are as follows: • Wicker basket – EUR 180 • Shopping Tote – EUR 385 • Light blue and bubblegum pink protector – EUR 175 • Light blue and bubblegum pink carrying strap EUR 85

Car Sick

I love taking photos from car windows. They’re the sort of views people don’t give much thought to and so rarely think to photograph. Yet, many of us are in our cars for a substantial part of our day, and much of what we see is mediated through the car window.

I’m intending to publish a book of photographs out of car windows. I’ve begun the process of winnowing down what works and what doesn’t. Like all photography grouping, much of it is dependent on context and sequencing. Narrative focus is what separates good work from bad.

The initial question, before questions of context, is the innate quality of the photo itself – does it stand on its own in terms of form and/or content? This leads to issues of the larger connective theme of the work – is it content i.e. all photos taken out of car windows, or is it formal similarity i.e. a certain ‘look,’ or aesthetic? My sense is it should be both.

With that in mind, here are a few in no specific order or context. I see them as having the potential to anchor a large narrative that extends the subject both in content and formal coherence.

Erwin Puts has Massive Hissy-Fit and Quits Leica World

20/10/19 18:07
For more than 35 years I have been intimately involved in the Leica world, encompassing the history of the company, the analysis of the products and the use of the products, all under the umbrella concept of the Leica World.
I have experienced and discussed in detail with relevant persons in Wetzlar (old), Solms and Wetzlar (again, new) the digital turn and how the company evolved and changed while adopting the digitalization of the photographic process and the changing world of the internet based photography. The most recent event is the evolution from a manufacturing company to a software-based company. While a commercial success, this change of heart has accomplished a, perhaps not intended, impact: the soul of Leica products has been eradicated. A renewed interest in classical products is the result. The SL and Q are currently the hopeful products for the future. The ghosts of Huawei and Panasonic can be seen all over the campus and while the M-system is still being promoted as the true heir of the Leica lineage, it is now sidelined. Once upon a time, Leica followed its own path, guided by gifted and pioneering engineers and keen marketeers. Nowadays its products are as mainstream as every other camera manufacture.
The company has sketched a future and follows a path that I am no longer willing to go.

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Next up: Thorsten “von” Overgaard threatens to stop production of Leica inspired Elephant skin leather bags due to “soulless” bokeh of recent Leica optics.

Josef Koudelka’s Wristwatch

Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM

The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.

Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.

Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.

Determining anything more from within the four corners of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we need context.

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On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.

Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.

The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?  

At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells you as much.

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There are two aspects of ethics implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?

The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it.  This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable.  The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.

Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’

Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.

Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”

As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas  – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.

In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.

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I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.

Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.

The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.

Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.

 Superficially, the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context within which the photo exists.

The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.

The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.

Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.

Holy Week, Part 2

Consider this the second part of my previous Holy Week post [I’d link to it but the “new, improved” WordPress software doesn’t allow me to do even basic things without incredible hassles. Suffice it to say that it totally sucks, and explains, why, among other things, I’ve been unable to give many of my posts ‘Catagory’ tags]. Go back a few posts and you’ll find it. There, I had posted a series of photos taken with a medium format film camera, a Fuji GS690. The photos had subsequently been tweaked to get them to look like I wanted them to look.

The bulk of the photos I’d taken that week were taken with a Leica M4 loaded with HP5 and pushed to 1600 ISO. I subsequently found a number of scans I’d done from those 35mm negatives – straight scans without much manipulation. Of course, the scanned files of the best 3 or 4 of the entire series were corrupted, so I’m unable to post them. I do, however, have the negatives, So I can go back and re-scan them, which is something I couldn’t do if I was dealing with native digital files.

The point of posting these photos is to note the difference one’s choice of format can make for a given subject. The 6×9 negatives are huge and produce beautifully detailed prints with subtle tones and gradations. The 35mm negatives obviously produce a much rawer look, grainy and indistinct. My intent was to use those specific characteristics to my benefit. I chose to shoot night scenes in available light with the M4, all handheld at very low shutter speeds. That’s how I envisioned the subject, sort of mysterious and furtive. At the risk of showing you my failures, this is what I came up with.

While I love the photo that leads off the piece, the rest is, at best, hit and miss, or, to put it bluntly, they don’t work. In retrospect, the day-time medium format photos are far superior insofar as they allowed me to document what I saw in the manner I saw it, albeit with the posthumous aide of digital software manipulation. Same subject, same photographer, different film format and camera, remarkably different output. The camera sometimes does matter.