Category Archives: Documentary Photography

Basquiat in 35mm

The photos above are from Basquiat Before Basquiat: East 12th Street, 1979-1980, currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver The exhibition includes black and white 35mm photographs by his roommate Alexis Adler and works made by Jean-Michel Basquiat during the year he lived with Adler in a flat in the East Village, before he became widely recognized in the 80’s. While living with Adler, Basquiat moved from his SAMO tags on the surrounding streets and neighborhood into more permanent media in their shared flat. Adler’s photographs nicely illustrate the developing artist and how the context of life in New York informed Basquiat’s art.

Adler recalled how she, a Jewish girl from Seattle, a Barnard grad with a biology degree — met the Haitian-American high school dropout. Basquiat was homeless at the time. He’d just been kicked out of his high school and was crashing at her friend’s apartment. Adler, then 22, saw in Basquiat someone “deep and introspective,” in a mohawk and an “old man’s overcoat” he bought at a thrift shop.

Before he attained art-world superstardom, 18-year-old  Jean-Michel Basquiat covered the walls, furniture and floors of their East Village apartment with his creations. According to Adler, his roommate and lover at the time, “from mid-1979 to mid-1980, I lived with Jean in three different apartments, but for most of that time in an apartment that we moved into and shared on East 12th St. This was a time before Jean had canvases to work with, so he used whatever he could get his hands on, as he was constantly creating. The derelict streets of the East Village provided his raw materials and he would bring his finds up the six flights of stairs to incorporate into his art. Jean was able to make money for paint and his share of the rent, which was $80 a month, by selling sweatshirts on the street.”

In time, his paintings would sell for stupid sums; in 2012, Christie’s sold one of his paintings, “Dustheads,” for $48.8 million. He was at the height of his powers when he died in 1988 of heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.

Adler never left the East Village flat she and Basquiat shared from 1979 to 1980. Nor did she erase anything he’d left behind — the “Olive Oyl” he painted on the living-room wall, the “Famous Negro Athletes” he inked on a door. in 2014, 35 years after they parted, Adler put it all up for auction. “It became a burden. I couldn’t hold onto everything, or leave it in a safe-deposit box. It wasn’t fair to Jean. It needed to get out into the world.”

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The MCA Denver exhibition and book presents New York City in the late 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art and the lens of Alexis Adler, documenting the fertile period from which the mature Basquiat emerged. Adler’s simple photographs show him at a vital, yet mostly unknown moment of his career. I have no idea what camera she used – frankly it doesn’t matter. What matters is that she found the time to document the mundane daily activities of her life with a then unknown friend and lover, photos that only in retrospect acquired the importance they now have, and the technological necessities of the time dictated that those photographs were analogue, giving to posterity something physical that could be preserved and passed along. Plus, they’re cool photographs – great examples of the imperfect perfection of 35mm film photography at its simplest, where content trumps technical concerns and the power of the image lies in its emotional and historical connotations.

My guess is that we’ll see less and less of this in the future. Today’s Basquiat’s, laboring anonymously somewhere, photos of whom are now subject to the ephemerality of in-substantiated 1’s and 0’s and digital rot, probably won’t have the benefit of these sorts of photo retrospectives. All the more reason we need to keep shooting film.

Don McCullin: War and Peace

Early Morning at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India, 1989. © Don McCullin, courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery


Don McCullin tells Jonathan Bastable how his present work helps him manage memories of his past. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2015 edition of Christie’s Magazine


At the back of his sunlit, peaceful house in Somerset, Don McCullin has a tiny workroom where he keeps his prints. There are boxes upon flat boxes, stacked on broad shelves like pizzas awaiting collection.

McCullin, who recently celebrated his 80th birthday, stands at a wooden plan chest, sorting through some large format ‘platinums’. ‘The print is made of platinum dust on thick watercolour paper,’ he explains, carefully laying aside the sheets of tissue between each one. ‘This batch is for a collector. They are produced by a specialist I know in Gloucester; Bailey uses him too.’

The images are breathtaking. The first one out of the box is a still life of dark mushrooms lying on a slab of chipped concrete, a shiny wine jug behind them; it is an essay in textures and surfaces. Then there is a group portrait of Indian pilgrims outside their tents at the Kumbh Mela: wrapped in their shawls and blankets, they look like Hebrew wanderers waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.

There is a bleak and snowy view of the valley beyond McCullin’s house. ‘I love the nakedness of the countryside in winter,’ he says. ‘When leaves cover the trees they are deceiving — you don’t know the core of them.’

Perhaps the most stunning photograph in the set is a statue of Aphrodite from Leptis Magna, now an exhibit in Tripoli’s Red Castle Museum. It is a wonderful shape, the pitted torso illuminated by a single unseen bulb (‘No tripod: I had to stand stock-still for a fifteenth of a second at wide-open’). That battered goddess says a great deal about McCullin’s preoccupations: history, humanity, and the damage that humans do.

Don McCullin was born in 1935 in Finsbury Park, at that time one of London’s rougher bailiwicks. When war broke out, he — like thousands of other small children — was packed off to the countryside, where he was separated from his older sister. His experiences as an evacuee were rough, and would now certainly be classified as neglect or cruelty. But it was the dislocation that left the deeper mark. ‘I have been on the move since my mother sent me away as an evacuee,’ he says. ‘I haven’t stopped running.’

As a teenager, McCullin did his national service in the Royal Air Force, where he was given the job of processing aerial photo-reconnaissance. ‘Photography came to me accidentally. I didn’t know that was what I wanted to be. In the RAF I even failed my photography trade test.’ On a whim, during his last weeks in the forces, he spent £30 on a Rolleicord — the twin-lens-reflex camera beloved of Brassaï and Brandt: ‘I came out of the Air Force with this beautiful camera, but I didn’t know how to use it.’

Don McCullin’s Nikon F. “I only use a camera like I use a toothbrush. It does a job.”

It took a perverse stroke of luck to turn that impulse buy into the beginnings of a career. One night, back in Finsbury Park, a policeman was killed in a scuffle between gangs. McCullin, who had been experimenting with his Rolleicord, took some pictures of the lads he had grown up with — though they had nothing to do with the murder.

He took his portfolio to the Observer, where the picture editor immediately saw that it said something newsworthy and worthwhile. One shot of those North London lads posing on a bombsite became McCullin’s first published photograph. ‘So my career in photography was built on violence and death from the start.’

Now he had a foot in the door of a newspaper, McCullin looked around for stories that he could pitch. It was 1961, and a political crisis was looming in Berlin, then under the military occupation of four armies — British, American, French, Soviet. McCullin told the paper that he wanted to go to Germany to cover it. Incredibly, the Observer was not interested, so McCullin went at his own expense, and shot the first days of the construction of the Berlin Wall. The pictures — which, needless to say, the paper was more than happy to print — won him a British Press Award and a regular contract.

‘That’s how life has been,’ says McCullin, ‘a series of episodes where I thought: I must go here, I must go there.’ He has a firm belief that his hunches always turn out to be right. Throughout his life, he has had the good journalist’s knack of turning up in the right spot at the right time.


‘In Biafra I took pictures of starving children. I was riddled with guilt for being there, troubled by the knowledge that they hoped I had food, when all I had was two Nikon cameras’


In 1967, during the Six-Day War, he headed for Jerusalem when the press pack went south to Sinai, and so was the only photographer present when the Israeli army took the Wailing Wall. In the 1970s — during what he calls his Hogarthian period — he shot the lost souls of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, somehow sensing that gentrification was on its way. More recently he published a beautiful book, Southern Frontiers, that explores the Roman remains strewn around the Maghreb and the Middle East — among them the very temples in Palmyra that have just been obliterated by ISIS.

The same irresistible intuition is taking McCullin to Iraq this autumn. ‘I will not be able to run any more,’ he says. ‘But you can’t outrun a bullet anyway.’ War is, of course, what McCullin is best known for. From Cyprus to El Salvador, Vietnam to the Bogside, he has probably been exposed to more armed conflict than any photojournalist of his generation — more, come to that, than most professional soldiers. But he doesn’t like to be termed a war photographer. ‘It’s like saying I work in an abattoir; it’s like being called a criminal.’

Those seem harsh self-judgments: to be present at a crime — even a war crime — is not to be complicit. But McCullin is adamant. ‘I found wars exciting when I first went to photograph them. I thought this is fun, the bullets are flying, it’s a bit Hollywood. Then I started going to wars where the civilian population was suffering the most, and that brought about a change in me.

‘In Biafra I took pictures of starving children. I was riddled with guilt for being there, troubled by the knowledge that they hoped I had food, when all I had was two Nikon cameras around my neck. I have flagellated myself over the years with conscience and uncomfortable memories — but that hasn’t helped those children. None of my pictures have saved lives.’

What are documentary photographs of human misery for, then? What can they achieve? If — as seems reasonable to suggest — their function is to bear historical witness, then to take pictures of other people’s suffering is an entirely proper thing to do.

Don McCullin, Palestinian Woman returning to ruins of her house, Beirut. © Don McCullin, courtesy of Hamiltons Gallery

As for the deep unease that McCullin feels, it surely derives from the fact that — however harrowing the events of the moment — part of his attention is on broadly artistic matters: composition, light, narrative, visual impact. McCullin pauses before he responds to this idea. ‘I was once in a stairwell in Beirut,’ he says. ‘Some Palestinians had been dragged out of their rooms — they were going to be shot. And as the shooting began, the men looked up and raised their hands like this…’ He lifts his own hands in a gesture of supplication, the five fingertips oriented upwards and almost touching, so that they make a shape like the head of a tulip. ‘They were calling to their God,’ he says.

So the photojournalist in him saw these men at the moment of their death, and what stuck his in his mind was their pose — and with it, the instinctive knowledge that this could be a good picture? ‘Yes, but I wasn’t looking for a good picture; I was looking for truth. There is nothing good about photographing a man being murdered, nothing at all. I am not an artist, and I don’t call my work art, I call it photography. When people say my pictures are “iconic”, that doesn’t mean to say it is art. I would rather people said that my pictures were memorable, or even that they can’t bear to look. Though of course I do want people to look, to have the eye contact, to have the connection with suffering that any decent person should have.’


‘One of the most stupid things people ask me is: do you have a death wish? I feel like saying, why don’t you go to hell?’


That eye contact is central to McCullin’s work, so much of which is portraiture — albeit portraits of people in distress or in extremis. He has never used a long lens: proximity is for him an essential part of the transaction, as if the subject were co-creator of the finished picture, or at least a collaborator in it.

That is certainly true of his best-known portrait, a close-up of the blank, drained face of a shell-shocked GI in Vietnam. ‘I am slightly sick of that one. But yes, everything is in the eyes of people. The truth of pain is in the eyes. I try to hold the eyes, to get them to look into the camera and trust me. So I need to be close enough to be trusted. That’s what makes it powerful, because the eyes become accusing.’

McCullin says that his platinums are an attempt to bring some balance to his work, and maybe to his memories. After all, a landscape cannot cry or bleed. ‘This work is therapeutic,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t be happier than when I am standing in the cold on Hadrian’s Wall, waiting for the right light. The platinums are the essence. They are as far as you can go with what I am trying to do and say.’

Dew Pond, Somerset, 1988. Gelatin Silver Print. Dimensions variable © Don McCullin / Contact Press Images.

So can these pictures, at least, be called art? ‘No, I call them photographs. There are photographers in America whose prints fetch $100,000 a time, and they all call themselves artists. Why can’t they be content with the word “photographer”?’

He puts away the platinum prints, then goes out into the garden to look at the view down the sloping dell to the trout stream and his orchard. ‘One of the most stupid things people ask me is: do you have a death wish? I feel like saying, why don’t you go to hell? My father died when I was 13, and that left me really angry. I have kept that anger about death. When I see children dying, I think: who can I blame? Who can I punch?’ He pauses again. ‘I am coming to the edge of the crater, and I think about life quite a lot. The other day I was wandering around out here and I thought, you know what, this is rather nice. I want to live as long as anybody. And having seen so much death, I want to live twice as long.’

Out and About in New York and LA

By Philip Wright

Boston, Massachusetts is a looooong way from Melbourne, Australia. Thirty-two hours long, if you take layovers into account (and you should!). So when I lucked on the job of accompanying my son Alex there earlier this year to help him with his transition to college, my wife Sue very kindly suggested I might like to take a bit of time on the return leg, perhaps visit New York and Los Angeles, maybe catch some exhibitions and take some photographs.

Say what?

After giving the proposition much serious consideration (for two seconds) I was on the booking websites, and eventually four days were allocated to each city. To state it clearly – that’s four days in New York, then four days in Los Angeles, with nothing to do but take photos. I still pinch myself. Gigs don’t come much better than that.

So, next thing to decide was, what camera or cameras to take, with what lenses and what film. I was attracted to the minimalist idea for a while (one of each), but then reasoned that I had the capacity to take more, and foresaw that I’d want to cover a fair bit of territory photographically, and therefore could make use of various combinations. So in the end I settled on my two M6TTLs, 28mm, 35mm, 50mm and 90mm lenses, Tri-X and Portra 160, plus I had a few rolls of Adox Silvermax that I threw in as well. So much for minimalist.

Why this gear in particular? Well, my M6TTLs have different viewfinder magnifications – my silver one has a 0.58 viewfinder, the black one a 0.85. So one camera to handle 28mm and 35mm, the other perfectly suited to 50mm and 90mm. Check. The lens choice is easy because it’s basically what I generally use. I figured I’d use the 35mm most of the time, with the others in lesser proportion spread around fairly equally. I really wanted the 90mm because I envisaged some nice cityscapes in evening light, and the others are what I use mainly for people and street shooting. The film was basically dictated by what I had, and as it turned out I also had to buy some more in New York. I didn’t really anticipate that I’d use any colour in New York, but wanted some for the few pictures I thought I’d get the opportunity to take in Boston, and I figured that perhaps in LA I’d take some. So again, check.

Why Leica? Very simply because I figured I’d be spending whole days in these incredible places with nothing to do but think about and pursue photography, so I wanted to take the cameras I have most fun with. No contest there – the Leicas win hands down. And with those beautiful lenses, which I often feel I don’t use enough, there really was no argument – even overcoming my initial concerns of “what if I lose some gear, or get robbed” or whatever. Plus I found I could pack that amount of gear fairly compactly into my ThinkTank Streetwalker backpack as cabin baggage, which would also enable me to get the film hand-inspected, rather than it going through x-ray machines.

So, that’s the way it went down.

The upshot of the trip is that, most importantly, Alex settled incredibly well into student life in Boston and loves it there (well, OK, not so much the winter weather, but still).  

And what of my eight glorious days in New York and Los Angeles? They went by in a blur of walking, subways, freeways (LA), visiting exhibitions (Danny Lyon and Diane Arbus and MOMA in New York, various architectural sites in LA) and of course, taking photographs. As an example, one morning I got to walk through Central Park to the Arbus exhibition at the Met Breuer, and that very afternoon found me, Leica in hand, at Coney Island where she and countless others of the greats had taken such wonderful, iconic pictures. I can’t tell you how much it meant to finally, after seeing it in great pictures my whole life, walk along that boardwalk.

Overall, the pace was frenetic, and the experience was magical. At the end of each jam-packed day I was exhausted, but energized as well, and keen to be up at 5am the next day to start all over again. I was as happy as… well as a bloke who can’t think of an idiomatic expression clever enough to express it; and I think – no, I know – that I came away a better photographer because of my total immersion into it.

Oh, and on my return I even sold a bunch of my other (non-Leica) gear and bought a third M6TTL, this time with a 0.72 finder, because afterwards I realized I could have gotten away with just the one camera body, and the 0.72 finder fits the bill perfectly.

Now, back here in Melbourne, the thought occurs to me that Alex’s music course will take him four years to complete. Which leaves plenty of scope for Sue and I to go over and visit him. Hmmm…

Renouncing the Digital Feedback Loop (Reclaiming Your Autonomy from Technology)

A sloppy, irresolute photo taken with a film camera

Photographs are everywhere, and it’s easy to lose sight, or not even see, their reality as things in themselves. Most people have a simple way of understanding photographs, as reflections of existing  states of things. The belief is this: photos represent the world itself, even if they are windows from a particular point of view; the photographic world and the world out there are essentially the same. I call this the ‘naïve’ view of photography.

This naïve view begs the question, of course, of what to do about black and white photography. Most things “out there in the world” are not exclusively black and white or tones thereof. So, black and white photography, even within a naïve view, is an abstraction.

What of color? Well, we can agree that the color of the scene presented doesn’t miraculously transfer itself onto a roll of film or a sensor. The process of “reproducing” color photographically is a transcription, the same as any other image making process, an attempt to ‘re- create’ a state of things via an abstraction. Like any abstraction, what is transcribed and the transcription itself will always vary to some extent even when the intent is to be as “accurate” as possible. How its ‘re-created’ is a function of two things – the choices and skill of the photographer and the potential offered by the tools one uses.

So, if photos are abstractions, we have to, in the jargon of semiotics, ‘decode’ them (make the intention behind them understandable), because ultimately photographs are about communicating something. How do we do that? As a photographer and not a philosopher, I’d suggest that a successful photograph is one where the photographer’s intention has been realized, where a human’s intention overrides any intentions inherent in the camera itself.

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Vilém Flusser was a Czech born philosopher of language and communication who wrote verbose philosophical tomes no one reads anymore, assuming they ever did (that’s him, above). In 1983, prior to the digital age, Flusser wrote Fur Eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography) in which he argues that cameras themselves have intentions (I presume, were you to cut through the ponderous academic jargon, he’s really talking about camera manufacturers driven by profit motives). He lists them as follows:

  •  to place the camera’s inherent capabilities into a photograph;
  • to make use of a photographer;
  • to create a feedback relationship between photographers and the camera and its products which creates progressive technological improvement so as to produce “better” photographs;
  • to produce “better” photographs.

All of which is to say, in common parlance, that the photographic tools you use and the capabilities they offer you will tend to structure the types of photographs you produce with them, by naturally pushing you in the direction of utilizing what they (the photographic tool), not you, might do best.  Examples of this phenomenon would be the “bokeh” craze currently all the rage with a certain type of gearhead, or the current fetish for sharpness, where the benchmark of the “quality” of a photograph is determined by how resolute your corners are.

Maybe it’s just me, but photographic aesthetics seem to have changed markedly since the inception of digital photography, to my mind for the worse. Optical characteristics have increasingly replaced emotional resonance as the criterion of a “good” photograph, the result of a repressive stranglehold of sharpness and resolution on the photographic imagination which is itself driven by the particular characteristics of digital capture. Flusser would say that the camera has made use of the photographer, its intentions having triumphed over the potential intentions of the human, the result of the inevitable feedback loop between tool and user. I would add that, as far as creative possibilities are concerned, this is a step back rather than a step forward.

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Of course, you could argue that the same logic applies to traditional film photography, and you’d be correct up to a certain point. The types of photographs you’re able to take with film also structure the results you get. With film photography that structuring typically takes the form of limits on what you can do, circumscribing your ability to take photos in certain situations or producing results within a limited aesthetic spectrum, setting the parameters within which the photographer must work as opposed to actively pushing him in a certain direction. There’s a big difference.

Above is a photograph by Antonin Kratochvil, a Czech born photographer and a personal favorite of mine. He’s long been known in journalism circles for his idiosyncratic approach, both technologically and aesthetically. Fellow photographer Michael Perrson describes seeing Kratochvil in a Croatian refugee camp using two old Nikons with beat-up, generic 28mm lenses, cameras “that looked like they could no more be traded for a pack of chewing gum than be a tool to make professional photos,” other photographers snickering at the Eastern European hack. Pictures he shot there would find their way into Broken Dreams, his award-winning monograph of the ecological devastation of Soviet era Eastern Europe.

As Perrson notes, what makes Kratochvil a great photographer is not his equipment but rather his unique sensibility. “He believes in the craft of photography, the skill and the ability of the photographer not to let his tools control his actions.” This simplicity releases in him the freedom to see things in unique ways. Kratochvil himself laments the ever-increasing incursions of technology into the photographic process – “technology has made it so that anyone can take ‘competent’ photos. It follows that if anyone can do this, where is the respect?” For Kratochvil, the camera is simply a tool; seeing is what’s important, and a given state of technology should never compel you to see the world in any given way.

Kratochvil strikes me as a very wise man in addition to being a superb photographer. But I’m certain that most smug digital technocrats, those whom digital precision and technical perfection have led by the nose, will find his work naive and technically amateurish, as if that was the sole criterion on which photography might be judged. Such dismissiveness is the tribute the inadequate pay to the articulate.

The Camera That Brought Me Back to Myself

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“The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize.”


I was obsessed with photography when I was young. I lived in Memphis and I wanted to follow along in the tradition of William Eggleston, whom I idolized. I studied for four years and made a very serious stab at capturing the tumbledown look of the South. I even worked at a newspaper for a time. But something went wrong. The work simply wasn’t good, and in spite of stupidly struggling with the problem day and night, I just couldn’t find my way to the ideal image. I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know what I was doing.

Years passed. The shitstorm of trying (or failing as it were) to be a responsible adult destroyed my illusions about producing a great work of art, and for a full decade I lived very poorly, having completely lost the thread of my original vision. My camera collected dust and was eventually forgotten amongst other weird relics from my former life as a “creative person.” It was a cliche I laughed about, wondering how I could ever have been so naive. I made asinine remarks whenever I encountered people who liked to bullshit me about “following your dreams” and so forth. I worked in the service industry, mopping up after rude tourists who had apparently made better life-decisions than I had. My conclusion was that even if you completely threw yourself into what you truly cared about, no one would ever thank you for it. You would have to cram it into your off hours with little or no emotional energy left for the task. You would have to pay for it out of your own empty pocket. Things would only get more and more difficult as time went by. You were doomed.

I may have been wrong; I don’t know. That’s just what I happened to be feeling during those years of insecurity.

Things went on uneventfully in this way, until about a year ago, when something interesting happened. I was unemployed, and having some time on my hands, I found my way into the obscure world of Tarkovsky movies. Something in his imagery got through to me, and a  long-lost memory flickered to life. I started dreaming about photography again, and those dreams quickly escalated to a feverish obsession, just like it had been in the 90’s, when I was a teenager.

My fiancé, sensing the crisis, offered to front me the money to buy some new photography tools and start over. It was a Purple Rain kind of moment, white guitar and all. Her generosity was enough to change everything for me. In spite of the desire to be optimistic, we’ve got to be real and acknowledge that it’s impossible to think about creating a body of work when your life is in shambles, and your idea of luxury is a pack of cigarettes. Sometimes you just need some help, and god willing, sooner or later you might happen to get some.

I wanted to use a Leica. I didn’t know why; I just did. Maybe it was because all my favorite images had come from this mythical camera. It was impractical, weird, anachronistic, expensive. I had a very hard time talking myself into believing that it made sense to get one -because it didn’t. I could have used any cheap camera, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it right this time. No compromises. It’s odd how you can know something at an emotional level, but you have to drag your rational mind, kicking and screaming, along with it.

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oxendale5 oxendale1I won’t bother reciting all the reasons why Leica cameras are special; we’ve heard it all before, and a good bit of it is true. I settled on the M3 with a 50mm Summicron lens, and I am not disappointed. I love this camera. I have spent many afternoons staring at the thing over a cup of coffee and wondering why I care so much about it. As strange as this may sound, the reason is not entirely obvious. Yes, it is a “nice” camera, beautifully designed and a pleasure to operate… but that isn’t enough. It’s a camera after all, not a designer accessory (at least it used to be). The images it has produced for me are excellent, but if it were really about image quality and sharpness we would not being using 35mm film in the first place. There’s something else going on with this camera. I think the things people say about it are just excuses for fetishizing something when they can’t rationally explain why. People are complex creatures full of unknown depths, and the Leica speaks to those depths.

I thought about this carefully and I came to the conclusion that the magic of the thing is in the sheer impracticality of it. The Leica strikes me as a symbol of revolt against the boredom of everything ordinary and modern. It’s useful for works of art, but not much else. It exudes the kind of authenticity that we have been denied every day of our miserable lives. You don’t use this camera to please a client or to make a deadline; you don’t use it to make money at all. When I pick up this camera I know I’m holding the perfect tool to do something deeply personal and creative, something that no one else can criticize. Hell, the idea of it seems almost subversive to me after all these years, and that is a very powerful feeling.

Leica signifies all these things to me, and probably to a lot of other people as well. It’s what the kids at the art college would call the Leica’s “discourse.” Some part of you senses this when you have one in your hands, even if you haven’t got the slightest idea what it is. It seems so serious,  so pure. The thing’s got gravity; it’s literally heavy. The symbolism is clear.

Today I am back in the fight with the kind of impatience and desperation that could only come from having wasted so many years without taking a photograph. I went out with just this one camera and one lens, and worked up a photo essay about depopulation in the high plains of Colorado. Good or bad I don’t know, but it is without any doubt the single best piece of work I have ever done. It has been like rediscovering all the lost ambitions of youth, and learning that they weren’t dead after all. Moreover, they have come to fruition, finally. I think the inspiration of the camera may have had something to do with that.

Joseph Oxandale was born in Louisiana in 1980 and earned his BFA from the Memphis College of Art in 2004. After doing a stint with The El Dorado News-Times in Arkansas, he moved west to Colorado. He currently lives in Denver.

To see more of his excellent High Plains photographs, visit

http://oxandaleworks.weebly.com/high-plains-lament.html

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Photography as Magic

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We’ve all got one photo we’ve taken that resonates with us. It won’t win an award, which isn’t the point. The point is that It has a meaning for us, and we keep coming back to it when thinking of the photos we’ve taken we really like. Above is mine, taken in 1970 when I was 12 and just learning the fundamentals of film photography. It’s of two kids in my neighborhood. Nothing special, but it reminds me of my  childhood – my aspirations, the shape of my personality even at that early age, by extension people now old, people now dead. The kid down the street who died way too young; the dog next door I adopted as my own because I wasn’t allowed my own pet; friends I’ve lost touch with long ago; my father, long gone.

I thought it was cool simply as a good photo back then. I still think it’s cool, and I still think it’s a good photo. Not bad for a 12 y/o kid. But it’s become something more than that for me now. Each time I look at it a rush of involuntary memories come back to me, memories shaken loose by a simple decision, long ago, to point my camera at something and click. This is the enduring magic, for me, of photography. Photography can make you feel young again  – or yet. It can give you a visceral connection to the past, providing a clarity that memory, always reconstituting itself, cannot. In spite of its inherently abstract nature – the reality that stasis is a constructed illusion, as Roland Barthes spent a book arguing – it still can possess an authenticity that can’t be rationalized away. Those people there, in that picture, once stood in front of that camera, 50 years ago, just like that. That, to me, is magic.

 

For Sale: The Leica That Didn’t Take the Famous Photo of Che Guevara

 

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Alberto Korda and his Leica IIIc

A Leica III camera belonging to Alberto Korda, he of the famous photo of Che Guevara looking revolutionary, is currently for sale on the Dutch auction website catawiki.nl.

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Korda’s Leica III

The Leica III is being sold by Korda’s son, Dante, who describes the camera as follows:

My father, Alberto Korda, was one of the few cuban photojournalists responsible for capturing the world’s attention with the Cuban Revolution Propaganda. He followed the Cuban leaders around and became Fidel Castro’s personal photographer for more than a decade (request from Fidel Castro, who was one of his admirers). My father’s passion and exceptional skills as a photographer made every event of the revolution a magnificent moment, a genuine representation of an era of changes and beauty.

This camera was one of the favorite cameras of my father. My father actively used this camera in the fifties and sixties and kept it the rest of his life. That’s why it’s likely that my father took with this camera one of the world’s most famous photo’s ever made. The iconic image of the freedom fighter Che Guevara.

Accompanied by a certificate of authenticity and provenance from Dante Korda

Unfortunately for Dante, this is not the camera his father used to take the iconic shot, which was taken with a Leica M2.

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Korda took the photo on March 5, 1960, at a funeral service for Cubans killed when a ship carrying arms to the revolutionaries in Havana sunk. He attended on assignment for the newspaper Revolución, carrying a Leica M2 with 90mm. Castro, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Che were on the speaker’s platform. When Korda approached the platform, he immediately noticed Che. “I remember his staring over the crowd on 23rd street.” Struck by Guevara’s expression, Korda lifted his Leica M2 loaded with Plus-X and took just two frames — one vertical and one horizontal — before Che turned away.