Category Archives: Documentary Photography

Dragan Novakovic

Manchester, 1970, Dragan Novakovic

I’ve been lucky to have met a bunch of interesting, talented people via the blog. I’m repeatedly reminded that there are photographers out there doing exceptional work in anonymity, doing it not for the recognition or acclaim but rather simply for the love of what they’re doing.

The beauty of the internet is that it’s radically democratized photography as a practice. Anyone can exhibit their work to a worldwide audience; just post it to your flickr account or any number of other internet venues where your work can potentially be seen. No more gate-keepers i.e. self-appointed experts and curators and gallery owners in positions of power who determine what get’s seen and what doesn’t, often without reference to the strength of the work itself, too often determined by who knows who and who’s seeking to curry favor with whom.

As an American living in Paris, I was often amused by the cliched work of famous photographers who’d spend a week there and then push out a book. William Eggleston’s Paris monograph comes to mind, the work weak and uninspired, nothing but the standard romanticized take on the city, done in a weekend. It got published because it was William Eggleston. Not fair, but who said life would be.

The flip-side of the problem is now there are no gate-keepers. We’re awash in images with little or no means to differentiate the original from the cliched and derivative, the excellent from the mundane, but our own judgment in determining what’s good and what’s not. That’s why it’s more critical now than ever to have some sense of the broader history of photography as an art form and as a documentary vehicle, to have educated your eye to what constitutes an arresting visual image, to what works as a series of images that tell a story and give some sense of the reality that inspired them.

*************

So, at least insofar as Leicaphilia is concerned, I’ve become the gate-keeper for what gets exhibited here. Frankly, having had looked at, read about, and immersed myself in photography for as long as I have, I’m as competent as anyone to identify excellent work, and the work shown here, England in the 70’s, sent to me by Dragan Novakovic, a Serbian photographer from Belgrade, is exceptional. Superb work borne of a great eye, a stimulated intellect, a mechanical film camera and some Tri-X, the sort of stuff you’re capable of when your obsessions are the subtleties of light, tone, composition, subject and emotion. I have no idea what equipment he used, beyond knowing its 35mm Tri-X; I didn’t ask and it doesn’t matter, but it certainly does have the unmistakable look of what we call traditional “Leica photography.”

 

I hesitate to add any explanation to the work, to put a label on it or characterize it in a given way. Like all good art, it stands on its own. It’s simple and beautiful and thought-provoking. Each photo gives a profound sense of place and time, its own self-contained universe, yet the film aesthetic, the subject matter, the compositional and editorial choices all work together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. Go to Mr. Novakovic’s website below to see the full series. Photographs like this are why I fell in love with photography. It’s also why I find doing the blog so rewarding; Dragan is just some guy who reads the blog and thought I might be interested in some old photos, those old photos being as good as anything I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I’ve got the ability to disseminate them to a wider audience, something Dragan Novakovic richly deserves. According to him:

I wish I could tell you that these photos are the fruit of a well-thought-out project and expatiate upon it (projects and concepts seem to be all the rage these days), but the truth is, they are all completely random shots. Still, some background information will help to explain why and how I came to find myself there in the first place. While in secondary school, I came upon Friedrich Engels’s book The Condition of the Working Class in England and my imagination was fired by his descriptions of Manchester. Later I read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier and, after I had arrived in London in the autumn of 1968, I bought Bill Brandt’s Shadow of Light and was blown away, particularly by his northern towns photos. From then on visiting and photographing the area became an obsession with me and I finally made several brief trips to it, mostly over weekends. In short, I was overwhelmed and awed by the surreal look of the place; there was so much to see and so little time that I often found myself moving at a trot, not always pausing long enough to explore the subject and frame carefully; and I took mostly single photos of individual subjects because I could ill afford to buy film and carried on average only two to five rolls of Tri-X.


Dragan Novakovic lives in Belgrade, Serbia. You can see more of his work at http://dragannovakovicphotography.com/

The Anti-Leica

Christmas Presents to Myself: a Weird Novel About the Death of Roland Barthes (The Guy Who Wrote Camera Lucida) and a Sigma SD Quattro

I love quirky things, whether it be cameras or motorcycles or cars or music. Or people, women in particular. If I were to buy another motorcycle, it would have to be a KTM RC390. Cool little 390cc one cylinder 40 hp “thumper” engine in a dedicated lightweight track bike package that will smoke a liter bike (1000cc) when the roads start to bend a little. Maximum fun in a small, affordable package. Let the 20-somethings with their 180 hp Kawasaki’s and Yamaha’s snicker; I’m happy to leave them for dead when the pace heats up and the road turns twisty.

Likewise with cameras. You’ve probably noticed my penchant for the much-maligned Leica’s in the M series – the M5 and the M8 – and the quirky Ricoh GXR with its modular lens system. Great cameras all. The GXR is my absolute favorite digital camera of all-time. I absolutely love it. It’s the KTM RC390 of digital cameras – small, light, produces beautiful files with a certain character, performs great in the real world as opposed to on the spec sheet, and it’s different in a cool way. I much prefer it to both the D3S and D800 I’ve owned, the D3S too bulky, the D800 with unnecessarily massive files. The GXR hits the sweet spot. Of course, by an iron logic inaccessible to me, this also meant that it would be a commercial failure, which it was (general consensus was that it was a good idea in theory, but in practice just didn’t cut it for some undefined reason). There’s something about the “general consensus” that always gets my contrarian juices flowing. “Common opinion” is just that: common. Look up the definition and get back to me if you think that’s a good thing.

As far as digital cameras go, you can’t get more “much-maligned” than the Sigma Foveon cameras. They are glacially slow (as a friend says – “slower than a wet fart”), basically useless at any ISO over 400 (just like film), produce huge files and most require proprietary Sigma RAW software that runs at a snail’s pace and frequently crashes. They also, when used correctly, produce stunningly sharp and nuanced Black and White images that rival the best Medium Format. Of course, given the above, I had to have one.

*************

You might remind me that I’ve spent years denigrating the obsession with photographic “IQ” and wonder about the inconsistency and why I appear to be doing an about-face now. Guilty as charged. As a general rule, I am of the opinion that a 12MP APS-C sensor is sufficient for most any photographic need short of massive prints larger than 20×30 inches that need to hold fine detail. 12MP files from my GXR certainly can hold their own against fine-grained 35mm film negatives (Panatomic-X for instance) carefully shot with Leitz or Zeiss optics, and in most instances,  medium format 21/4 negatives as well. I’ve got a 40×60 inch print of my quirky wife hanging over our bed (the print is hanging over our bed, not the wife), taken with the 16MP GXR APS-C Zoom lens module. It’s stunning, even at that enlargement, the detail even when viewed close up really amazing. Why any general interest photographer would need more is beyond me. I just don’t understand the point of 36 or 42 or 50MP sensors given how people generally view and display their photos; detail in even a ‘middling’ 24MP full frame camera cannot be fully articulated on a 4k monitor or in any reasonable size print. 12MP is more than enough.

Taken with a 16MP APS-C Ricoh GXR and printed at 40×60 inches. Looks Great.

I will admit, however, there are times, very infrequent for me and I suspect for most everyone else, when you simply need the most resolute image you can get. Back in the day, you’d grab a 6×9 MF camera like a Fuji 690, or you’d rent a 4×5 or larger view camera to get what you needed. You certainly wouldn’t use your 35mm Leica, even with the sharpest Summicron. Medium format cameras were often bulky and a pain in the ass to shoot, usually requiring a fine grained film and a tripod, but when you nailed it the results were stunning. The resulting negative could be printed as large as you wanted with minimal loss of quality. That need does still exist today, even more so given the massive print sizes made available to even the most casual happy-snapper with the use of inkjet printing, at least for those absolutely needing to print big. Of course photography is not just about IQ, but it is nice to have maximum IQ in these certain limited instances and for the money, Sigma Foveon cameras offer eye-wateringly sharp images at ISO 100-400 that MF systems costing 10x as much would envy. The SD Quattro, Sigma’s latest Foveon camera, can shoot DNG and thus does away with the need to use Sigma’s abysmal RAW software. Interesting camera, cheap too.

*************

So, in the spirit of Christmas (i.e. buy a bunch of shiny crap you don’t need) I took the plunge and bought a Sigma SD Quattro with massive 17-50 zoom attached. I bought it for one specific purpose – to shoot very large b&w prints for a documentary series I’m doing about the old Dorothea Dix Hospital grounds here in Raleigh, a beautiful historic state mental hospital complex that’s being bulldozed to make way for a city park. I live directly across the street from its entrance and have watched it transformed from a bustling hospital that treated our most vulnerable citizens to a decaying warren of unoccupied  buildings set amongst pristine grounds full of beautiful huge old oaks. All soon to be uprooted.

Like most good things, I suspect we won’t miss any of it until it’s gone, and then we’ll realize nobody thought to memorialize it. Nobody seems to paying attention to the fact this local landmark, so important in our city and state’s history, soon will be a memory. The few I see sitting in the grass while their dogs run seem too busy looking at their phones to admire the faded beauty of the place and the majestic oaks they’re sitting under. So, given my training as a documentarian, I’ve decided to shoulder the responsibility myself and make a record of the place before its gone, and given current visual culture, nobody is going to pay me any mind if I ultimately propose to exhibit 8×10 B&W silver prints; too small, not sharp enough, simply not cool enough. What they’ll want are huge, hyper tack sharp prints. Hence the Sigma SD Quattro.

It certainly lives up to its reputation: it’s slow, and quirky and produces eye-poppingly sharp photos you can blow up to massive sizes with minimal loss of detail. To my eye, sharper and more pleasing than the files from the D800. Would I use it as I would my Leica or GXR. No, those fit different needs. But when I need big and sharp, while you can’t tell it from a computer screen, it’s about as good as it gets.

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the New Digital Leica – Part 3

What I fear is happening today is, there is such an overwhelming volume of meaningless, throw-away images shot millions of times a day that the notion of a photograph being “special” is as incomprehensible as someone pondering the bigger ideas behind why the sky is blue or the earth is round. It’s simply taken for granted. But photographs are special. They do warrant attention, study, examination and excellence in technique and approach. – John B. Crane, Nikon F6 Project

I did some travelling this last summer, and, while doing so, wrote a number of posts about using my iPhone 6 as my camera for the trip. The gist of those posts was that I’d discovered the benefits, photographically, of travelling light. I’d been away for almost a month, a couple of weeks travelling through Italy by train and bus from friends’ residence in Mantua and then to Paris for a further week with friends there. I’d packed the usual gear – a couple of camera bodies, both film and digital, a bag of film, the usual compliment of lenses, intending as I usually do when travelling to document the experience. Early on, I’d started using my iPhone to photograph and, as I went along I realized how easy it made things, no longer requiring a bag full of cameras, lenses, film and ancillary junk toted around everywhere I went. So I made the decision to keep my M4 and Bessa at home while I used my iPhone exclusively.

I’ve finally gotten around to reviewing the photos I’d taken while away, not without first having to surmount a number of problems created by a combination of my ignorance and the potential pitfalls that always lurk on the margins of digital capture. After getting home, I tried to download the photos from my phone to my computer for permanent storage and further editing, only to discover that the photos weren’t on my phone but in the Cloud, which is fine, except I have no idea how to access said cloud, which necessitated a trip to my local Apple Store where some pleasant young woman, speaking to me deliberately as if I were some addled senior with incipient dementia, helped me jailbreak my Cloud account. Having done so, secure in the knowledge that my photos existed somewhere, I then proceeded to erase them from my iPhone, whereupon I learned that I’d also just deleted them from my Cloud. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

A push of the button and a majority of what I had shot on my trip vanished without recovery. Luckily, at some point, while the photos still resided “on my phone” I had somehow managed to save a number of them to Lightroom, how I’m not sure. There seems no explanation as to why I was able to save some and not others. Suffice it to say my photos of Italian manhole covers survived intact, which is some consolation for the deletion of the majority of others.

I’ll always be able to relive memories of the Italian sewer system.

*************

Which leads to the larger question: So what? So, I’ve lost a bunch of tourist snaps. I’ve still got the experience, and the memories; having lost the photos doesn’t erase that. But it’s incredibly frustrating none the less, even though I’ve no one but myself to blame. Had I been more sophisticated about how this all works, I’d have taken the appropriate steps to secure my digital files before deleting them. But I didn’t, and most of them are now gone. Forever.

I still do have about 500 of what had been over 3000 photos I’d taken. Back in the 80’s and 90’s when I travelled with a film camera I could be gone for 6 weeks and come home with 20 rolls (700 negatives) and feel as if I’d sufficiently photographed what I’d wanted to, so the idea that I’d returned home from Italy and France with 500 photos shouldn’t necessarily be evidence of missed opportunities. Unfortunately, its different. When film was the norm, I gave thought to what I’d photograph, knowing my means to do so were limited by how much film I had. As a film photographer, I was discerning in what photographed. I gave thought to each shot I took. Ostansibly, there was a reason for any given exposure on a roll of film.

Thousands of pictures like this – gone

The ease of digital capture has changed that. We’re now able, without increased cost and with minimal added work, to photograph everything. And we do, as the files that I serendipitously salvaged from from my trip evidence – manhole covers and Pizza School handbills.Powerful, arresting, non-cliched photography seems rarer than ever, as if the ease and ubiquity of digital capture has overrun our critical faculties. The iPhone seems to have turned the craft of photography for an entire generation into something radically banal, a means to document make-up strategies and dinner choices.  We’re drowning in “meaningless, throwaway imagery shot millions of times a day,” having lost any critical discernment about the miracle of photography and its awesome power to arrest and transform discrete moments of life.

Throw into this the sad fact that digitization is compromising photography as a means of historical documentation, something I’ve written about at length, most recently here. Just this morning, a reader left a comment to that piece that speaks eloquently to the issue:

When my grandmother passed away recently, we found boxes and boxes of her old handwritten letters to/from her sister who was living overseas. But years from now, there will be no shoebox of love letters from todays’ grandma or grandpa. There will only be the cloud, made impenetrable by a lack of password. Long forgotten Facebook accounts will stand like a vast field of tombstones, many hidden from view or minimized in presence. The millions of photos taken by the average person will disappear with the loss of phones, the demise of harddrives, the replacement of computers.

I have much of my old schoolwork from decades ago, as well as school notices about upcoming excursions and music recitals. Today’s students now receive emails and automated attendance forms via the school system, which will disappear with the years, too.

Like the proverbial cockroach, good paper and negatives will survive. I’ve re-begun the practice of shooting a few well chosen film images each time I go out somewhere interesting. This gives me a permanent record of the highlights of my life, which is really how it was done in the old days. Negs are saved and scans and prints are made, and my photo albums grow one roll at a time. [Emphasis added]

1976. Someone important to me, now lost to time. The negative tucked away in a binder. Photos like this have enriched my life. I’m lucky to have them

His solution has become mine as well. I’ve spent 15 years now dabbling in digital photography, finally coming to the conclusion that it’s a Faustian Bargain. What it gives in ease of use and technical perfection it takes away in its lack of moderation, which, as the Ancients knew already, is the key to all things. So, I’m now recommitted to film photography, to the ideal of a few well chosen images that will construct a permanent record of the highlights of my life. A modest project, no doubt, in an era, in theory, of almost unlimited photographic possibilities, but good enough for me as it reminds of the simple yet profound miracle of photography.

What Do You See?

 I love the photo above. It’s one of a small number of photos I come back to when I review what I’ve done (…and yes, I took it with a Leica, an M8). Which is interesting, because most viewers will scan it visually and move on without much further thought. Aesthetically it’s properly done; were I to submit it to an art school critique, viewers would probably say it’s competently framed, formally interesting, if i’m lucky might use rhetorical cliches like “original,” “strong”, authentic.” Some with a picturesque bent might quibble about the decisions I’ve made, noting the pole that divides up the horizontal plane in a way upsetting to the rule bound. I can see someone saying it’s interesting… but what’s it supposed to be about? I can hear the critique moderator now talking of the mirroring of the pole by the crosses…or maybe the crosses by the pole, a commentary on man’s need to be heard etc (if you’ve ever endured an art critique you know how pretentious they can be; my standard response when I’m asked what a photo or painting “means” is to say I don’t know. That’s for the viewer to decide).

Art School Cool, circa 1977. I’m pretty sure my standing there with those crescent moons over my head was meant to mean something – what I no longer remember. I probably went to CBGB’s that night to see the Talking Heads.

As I’ve presented the photo here, without context, the “subject ” is what you will make of it. You have only the photo and whatever interpretive scheme might be floating around in your head to make sense of what you see. That’s the interesting thing about the supposedly “objective ” craft of photography. There’s an undeniable subjective element to what we do as viewers of ostensibly “objective” photographs. Your interpretation will vary depending on the formal arrangement, the context in which it’s presented to you, the knowledge and biases you bring to the viewing. While I find most post-modernist theory turgid and incomprehensible, it’s gotten one thing right – the meaning of things, whether it be a writing (a “text” in PM parlance) or a visual representation, whether a photo, drawing or painting, resides with the reader/viewer. The meaning of the photo you view depends on you. And that’s why, presented as it is to you – little context, no explanation- you might struggle to make sense of it or appreciate it in the manner I might. You might like it, hate it, be indifferent to it, depending on what criteria you bring to your viewing and how unmoored its presentation.

*************

Which leads to the following reality: the means I use to present my picture is crucial to how you will understand the photo. Effective presentation is the responsibility of the photographer, and it’s what separates the successful from the frustrated. I can publish it in a newspaper or hang it on a gallery wall, or glue it into a scrapbook, whatever choice I make signaling to the viewer what I’d like you to think about the picture. I can write a caption that identifies the objective facts of the photo [Route 61, Mississippi Delta, Leica M8];  I can go further and write a caption that puts the photo in context for you [...in Money, Mississippi, about 50 yards from where 14 y/o Emmett Till allegedly whistled at a white woman and set in motion a murder that would change American history]; I might simply place it within a sequence of other photos inviting you, by process of induction, to surmise a common thread that links those sequenced into a larger whole which both helps you interpret the individual photo while imparting a larger meaning on the collection itself. The important thing is that in each individual case, the meaning is extrinsically imposed on the photo. The single photo without context means nothing. The good photographer understands that a large part of his obligation to the viewer is to put his photos in a context that assists the viewer in making sense of the photo.

Mississippi Delta.  Same day, same camera as the first photo. Ultimately chosen for the same photo series. Does this help you make sense of the initial photo?

I suppose this explains why we might differ so radically in what we consider good photography, and it points to the difference between a naive and a sophisticated understanding of photographic quality. Naive photo critiques judge a photo on its technical and formal arrangements [Is it sharp? In focus? Good tonal values? Composition pleasing? Rule of thirds applied etc]. This is the world of gearhead forums and Flickr, the reason we chase after the newest Fuji X body with the new super-duper sensor, thinking something a little better will make the difference. Stay at this level and you’ll become a proficient photographic artisan. A more educated approach looks only to whether the photo communicates a compelling meaning. It’s also why naive photo artisans tend to be confused by and dismissive of the best things being done in the field at any given time – not only are they passing judgment with inappropriate criteria, they usually don’t possess the knowledge, experience and discernment borne of broad thinking to conjure a sufficient meaning from a work, a meaning that turns the picture into something more.

 

Transcribing the Real – Part One

Above is a photograph that immediately caught my eye among the mass of photos coming out of Las Vegas in the wake of the insanity there. It was taken by Chase Stevens, a staff photographer with the LV Review-Journal. At the risk of aestheticising other people’s misfortune, it’s a beautiful photo in its own way in addition to having documentary value. Were I to know nothing about Mr. Stevens, I’d assume he’s familiar with Frank/Friedlander/Freed/Winogrand, as the photo mirrors that aesthetic, and the use of black and white references the film era. As for its documentary value, it’s less a stand-alone photo than one in a series of photographs illustrating what happened that night, but it certainly works as one in a series. You can see the series here, along with a short article about Steven’s excellent work that night.

If you clicked through the link I’ve provided, you’re probably confused, because the photo used in the link is not the one above but rather this one:

The Las Vegas Tropicana on lockdown on Oct. 1, 2017. Chase Stevens—Las Vegas Review-Journal/AP 

same photo, but in color and obviously digital. I prefer the b&w version; you may be indifferent or prefer the later.

The B&W version is actually my creation (apologies to Mr. Stevens). I downloaded his photo as published and ran it through Silver Efex with a B&W film emulation that specified certain tone, contrast and grain values inherent in a given film stock (in this instance I think it was Kodak Plus X, maybe my favorite B&W film of all time, unfortunately no longer manufactured). I did it because my aesthetic sense told me, the first time I saw the photo, it should a ‘B&W photo’; that what seemed to me the obvious reference back to Robert Frank’s 1955 Manhattan cowboy photo required it be B&W:

Or maybe I’m overthinking this, but I suspect not.  I’m fairly certain that Mr. Stevens has some familiarity with Frank’s image, and the photo he decided to take that night owes some unconscious debt to Frank. I’m certainly not criticizing him in any way: that’s how creativity works. We learn by assimilating the work that’s come before, and if we’re good, we find a way to put our own small spin on an established aesthetic, the result being our own idiosyncratic photographic style. Creators who are truly sui generis, unique with no real creative antecedents, come along very infrequently, maybe once or twice a century in any given discipline. The painters Vincent van Gogh and Jackson Pollack come to mind, in photography HCB and Robert Frank.

*************

The larger question for me, what led me to manipulate Mr. Steven’s photo to suite my tastes, is the issue of the “objectivity” of photographs. As photographers, I assume all of us have at some point in our photographic evolution realized that the naive belief that photos objectively show “things that happened” in an unbiased way, without containing any subjective adulteration is, well, naive.

If Mr. Stevens had done what I’d done – ran his files through Silver Efex before he turned them in to his editor, would that have constituted an improper manipulation of his supposedly objective photographs that violated journalistic ethics? If so, what if, in the race to get to the scene Mr. Stevens had grabbed an old Leica loaded with Tri-X and shot his assignment with it? How would that differ, from an ethical perspective, from him shooting the scene with an M240 in RAW mode and sending the whole thing off to the editors for selection and editing? Is one more genuine, more real than the other? And if one is, what gives us the right to say so?

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’ve been binge-watching Ken Burn’s documentary on the Viet Nam War, currently running on public television here in the States. What strikes me is the incredible aesthetic beauty of the era’s photography (as distinct from the often disturbing subject matter), most of it B&W 35mm film, a beauty that digital documentary simple is incapable of. This is the photography I cut my teeth on, so I’m biased, but my opinion is that that B&W Film documentary aesthetic, de rigeur through the late 70’s, is effective in a way that digital capture simply isn’t. Is it “more real?” No. More “objective?” No. “Better?” Yes. Of course, this claim for the relative quality of one versus the other is subjective to an extent, but I’ll argue in future posts that it has an objective basis. I may even drag a few “philosophers” into the discussion. Humor me as we proceed.

 

Forget the M10: The iPhone is the Real Digital Leica – Part Two

Florence

If you’re familiar with Leica history, you’ll know that the Leica revolutionized photography because it was small and light and allowed photographers to carry it with them wherever they went. Prior to the Leica, cameras were big and heavy and cumbersome, requiring tripods and supporting paraphernalia to laboriously process the results. The Leica conquered the world not because it produced the ‘best’ photos but because it got the shot, technical specifications secondary. Thus the long storied history of the Leica in the documentary tradition.

I’m reminded of this reality while traveling with my M4 and digital Ricohs, both of which I’ve rarely used on my current trip, mostly because I’m sick of lugging them around. I have burned a couple of rolls of film with the M4, but it’s mostly been shots of people dear to me, usually at homes of friends or out to dinner etc. And that’s because those are the photographs I want to last, because those are the photos that ultimately have meaning for me and it’s comforting to know I’ll have a negative, a physical thing to refer back to in the years ahead.

What I love about film is its permanence. In the last year I’ve been bulk scanning a lot of my negatives from when I was young and just learning photography, and what amazes me is how fresh those negatives are even close to 50 years later. Print them up again now, using the latest technology (Lightroom, Photoshop, Silver Effects, archival inkjet printing) and its almost as if I’ve been transported back through time, back again with family, friends and lovers long gone. A while ago I scanned and printed  a 40 year old negative of my first dog, a sweet little girl named Shannon I’d rescued from a shelter in Greenwood Lake, New Jersey. While our time together was short – a few years before I moved south and Shannon grew old and happy with a girlfriend’s family – she’s always remained special to me, and that photo, now framed and hanging in my bedroom where I see it every night from my bed, often triggers in me involuntary memories long forgotten, returning me almost palpably to another life and the ones I then loved. Loved ones only truly die when there’s no one to remember them anymore, and that picture, just a casual snap on an uneventful day, keeps her alive for me even though she’s been dead now for 30 years. I’m awed by this power photography possesses, the power to give permanence to these simple moments that mean everything in a life. Would that same photo shot digitally, a file nested somewhere on a hard drive, have survived for 40 years? I’m not sure. Why take the chance?

*************

Naples

So I’ve made a conscious decision to continue to shoot film for the reasons above. But I’ve also learned a valuable lesson on this trip, and that is that I don’t really need to lug cameras and bags around with me to document my trip. My iPhone works just fine. In fact, it works better than fine. While I’ve not yet printed any of them, at least insofar as they appear on a computer screen, they look great, at the very least a level of quality equal to that we expected from our 35mm cameras, and the ease of use is incredible, as is the ability to process the results creatively in a way undreamed of 10 years ago. All the photos used to illustrate this post were shot and post-processed with my iphone, all with a few quick easy keystrokes.

Two shots of a fascist era bulding in Naples, both with the iphone. using either Snapseed or Hipstamatic, I post-processed both right there on my phone in a minute or two.

In a real sense, given its convenience and ease of use, the iphone is the legitimate digital heir to the Leica legacy. Quick and easy, always in my pocket, I’ve gotten all sorts of photos I’d normally have missed. I think at this point, the technology having sufficiently matured, the stand-alone  camera is obsolete except for specific applications that require non-standard focal lengths or for those willing to do the extra work for increasingly marginal gains. But it will never completely negate the viability of film: When I want a photo I know will last, film it is.

Is Resistance Futile?

I sat down yesterday to write an article about Diafine. Diafine is a b&w film developer that I’m particularly fond of for a number of reasons – it’s super easy to use, lasts forever, allows you to push box speed with excellent results, and generally makes your negatives look great. I was going to draft the post, tee it up for publication in a week or so, then pack my bags and a bunch of film cameras and get out of town for three weeks. I’ll be In Italy and France doing cool things and definitely want to document it all. I was thinking a brick or two of Arista.edu 400 (great film, cheap, looks great in Diafine, have no idea who makes it or whether it’s rebranded something or other) an M4 with a vintage Carl Zeiss Jena 50mm Sonnar, and either a Nikon F5 with a 35mm Nikkor or, if I wanted to travel a bit lighter, a Bessa R2S with a 35mm Nikkor and 25mm Voigtlander Skopar.

Homage to Ken Rockwell (I’ve been reduced to snaps of my wife to illustrate my posts).  Arista.edu 400 @800 iso developed in Diafine. It took a lot of work to take, develop and print these pictures.

As I was sitting at my computer, an email came in from a European photographer friend. It had a number of photos attached to it, what you see above and directly below. He’s been doing this to me for years, sending me these throw-away shots he takes with his phone, and it pisses me off, because every time he sends me another I realize both what a middling photographic hack I am and how easy it all is for him.

But I think what pisses me off the most, apart from the proof of the inequity of our respective talents, is how easily digital technology has made photographic self-expression. Apparently, he takes these shots with his iPhone and a Hipstamatic app. Hell, your 8 year old kid can do this. I’m just not sure if that’s good or bad, but I suspect that it’s forever vitiated notions of photographic excellence as a function of technical skill.

So, yesterday I downloaded Hipstamatic onto my iPhone 6 and went out on my bike for a good long training ride. Along the way I snapped a few pics, edited them on my phone right there on the side of the road and then emailed them to my home computer, where they were when I returned home. I pushed a few buttons and printed them out with my Epson R3000. Here are a few below. Took me about 2 minutes from beginning to end.

So, tell me again, why are we lugging our Leicas and bricks of film through airport security; why are we obsessing about lenses and films and developers and grain and bokeh? What possible reason should I have for continuing my dogged attachment to analogue photography? And why shouldn’t I just pack my iPhone and leave the M4 and F5 at home?

Thinking Back on a Photo I Once Took

“The beholder feels an irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the here and now, with which reality has seared the subject, to find the inconspicuous spot where in the immediacy of that long, forgotten moment the future nests so eloquently that we, looking back, may rediscover it.” Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography.

I buy a coffee and chose a window seat with a view onto Main Street. The people who sit around me, young, affluent, seemingly well-educated, interact with their phones or, if past a certain age, read a book. An eclectic mish-mash of music – 50’s crooners to 70’s funk to hipster folk-rock – plays a bit too loud in the background. What little conversation I hear is the perfunctory dialogue of the service industries, trite blandishments that lubricate commercial interactions. The conviviality within the space sounds forced, an affectation, as if the patrons were being made to try out for a part.

He catches my eye because of the incongruous sight he presents amidst the casual abundance around him. At first glance I mistake him for a fisherman, the kind you occasionally see trying to catch a meal from the banks of some sad industrial culvert. He wears a grey hoodie, holds a pail in one hand and what looks to be a window washer’s pole in the other. He moves as if through a medium slightly more viscous than he expected, a mix of hesitancy, resignation and muted expectation. He crosses Main Street, traverses the public art installation plaza and stops in front of the gourmet cupcake store, where he puts down his pail and props his window washer’s pole against the storefront facade. As he opens the store door the woman who works the counter approaches him. They meet halfway between the door and the counter. They speak briefly, and then he turns and leaves, retrieves his pail and pole, turns the corner and walks away out of my line of sight.

One hundred years ago, Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois hailed this town as a model of progressive black society. Known as “Black Wall Street,” Parish Street, just around the corner, housed the nation’s largest black-owned insurance company and numerous banks offering home mortgages and small business loans to local blacks. Since then, the black “middle class” has either moved up and on or migrated downward to more prosaic neighborhoods, where you can buy drugs or the cheap services of a woman without having to walk very far. Just a few years ago, before the gentrification, downtown was deserted save for a few homeless folks. Storefronts were boarded up or empty. I remember walking there with my Leica, feeling self-important, searching for a trophy to take home. I’m reminded now of a picture I took then – the image of a defeated looking woman dragging her bag of possessions past a faded cardboard Statute of Liberty displayed in an abandoned store window.

Walking the same street last week, I encountered a group of well-dressed folks in front of the old Kress Building on Main Street, one of the latest in a series of downtown renewal projects, now high-income lofts catering to urban professionals. The people wore name tags and appeared to be part of a guided downtown tour hosted by a prominent local university. I recognized one of the group’s guides as a well–regarded academician I’d previously seen on public television. She seemed enthused about downtown’s revitalization and pleased with the role she might be playing. I heard snippets of talk among the assembled, words and phrases that sounded vaguely anthropological, and then talk of catching lunch at a place next to the gourmet cupcake store, a new restaurant that serves local craft beers and wood-fire baked artisanal pizzas.

In some strange sense, I felt vindicated that I took that photo all those years ago. It’s evidence of what we’d otherwise forget. What would these people have to say to that haggard woman dragging her bag past the faded cardboard cutout? Would they even care that she had lived here, that it was home to her, and she had since probably moved elsewhere to accommodate them? No one is denying her a place to call home, certainly not these good people helping revitalize a moribund downtown.

The waitress presents me my check with unwelcomed gregariousness. My ‘Mexican Coffee’ will set me back 5 dollars with tip. Some earnest alt-rock group plays a tone-deaf version of John Lee Hooker’s “Catfish Blues” in the background, sacred music profaned by the well-meaning. As I exit the cafe, an elderly black woman, clutching a bag of donuts, moves quickly past the cafe window, eyes averted, as if this storefront hides some toxic secret.

On Making Pictures

by Rob Campbell

I don’t think there’s anything new to be said about the relative merits of film and digital capture, and apart from pointing out the differences in highlight roll-off and stuff like that, I do believe most of us would experience difficulty telling the results apart, equally competent photographers a given.

Instead, I think I’d like to talk about making pictures, and the differences that mental approach will inevitably bring to the exercise.

The greatest question regarding approach starts, obviously, right at the beginning, with the word why? Why make a particular photograph?

I suppose the answer to that will vary from person to person, but in my own case, photography has lived two distinct periods: the professional one which really began before I owned a reasonable camera or even had a business, because for the life of me I can hardly recall a time I didn’t want to do it every day. I just had this thing about it in my head. The other part, the later manifestation of the bug, happened post-retirement when I became an amateur. And the two experiences are totally different. If anything, the amateur status was infinitely more difficult to handle because, for the first time, I was faced with the complex character of motivation which, when left to be subjective and divorced from economic survival, has a really tough time forcing through enough energy to get up and do. Some of you familiar with the work of the famous Black Trinity of Bailey, Donovan and Duffy may remember the difficult Donovan quotation which I paraphrase as best I can: “The problem for the amateur is finding a reason to make a photograph.” Think about that for a moment and you’ll see what he meant.

However, once one gets over that initial hurdle (for me it happened after the death of my wife when photography really came back into my life as a form of instinctive therapy that allowed me to escape from the endless, destructive-because-useless churning of emotions built around loss), new departures become possible.

Instead of the easy route of the assignment which brought with it not only the motivation, direction and pleasure of the shoot itself, but also the added sense of validation by virtue of the assignment coming one’s way, I now discovered another buzz: the kick found in taking what life offers in the most mundane situations, looking at it, and seeking out ways of making snippets of it distinct and, with luck, interesting.

One can do it anywhere: walk down a city or village street and look into shop windows. Immediately you see two worlds. Put them together, wait until people move into places where you’d like them and make the exposure; wait until there are no people. Go out in the rain and gaze at the puddles. They become mirrors, and show you a different topsy-turvy world of reality. Photograph it; you always knew it was there, but shooting it and working on it makes it something quite else. Give it a title and you add yet another layer of meaning – or just fun, that maybe only you understands. But that’s cool too.

Some folks, with more nerve than I, go out and photograph people they don’t know and manage to make great images that carry massive doses of ambiguity, humour or even sadness. Street’s a wonderfully broad canvas: think Saul Leiter, Ernst Haas, Robert Frank, HC-B and so on and on, and they are all quite differently doing the same thing: catching the magic of the real world without having to create new bits for it. Now that’s a talent of both vision and reflexes!

I have no doubt that the exercise is much easier to pull off in cities like NY or Paris than in a small town somewhere in the sticks, if only because in the city you do become pretty invisible and people are already tuned in to studiously ignoring everybody around them and avoiding any eye contact whilst, at the same time, being on guard. Where every tourist has some recording device in front of his face, only your own conscience makes you stand out as something else. The rural town or village is a different thing: everybody knows everybody else, and whatever you do, you get noticed, even if you’re doing absolutely nothing more than breathing. And you can be sure you’d also be noticed if you’d stopped breathing. You can’t bet on that in a city.

Maybe the best one can do is play with reality just a little bit. If you don`t play with it, then I hardly see a reason to make the photograph at all: you contributed nothing and life would have existed in exactly the same way with or without you. Make the difference. But most of all, make it for yourself, and not for anybody else. Everybody else already wants too much from you. And hey, don’t waste money on crazy equipment: it can be done just as well on a shoestring, and if you really, really need that exotic lens, get it second-hand, because after the first flush of pleasure it brings, you’ll find yourself right back where you began, wondering about what to shoot and confusing that thought with what you need to buy in order to shoot the next variation of the same old things.

For anyone seeking inspiration, I’d suggest simply looking at a lot of photographer websites and finding something that really appeals, and then going out and shooting your own version of it. It’s not plagiarism, because you won’t ever find the same circumstances, your vision will be quite different, but you will still be able to make use of the sense of genre. Grasp the genre for you, and you are already on your way.

© Rob Campbell, 2017

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.”

*************

 

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.