Category Archives: street photography

Baudelaire’s Eyes and What They Tell us About Photographic Truth

Charles Pierre Baudelaire (1821 – 1867) was a French poet, essayist, art critic, and translator of Edgar Allan Poe. He’s best known for Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil), an extended Modernist prose poem about where one might find beauty in modern, rapidly industrializing mid-19th-Century Paris. Baudelaire influenced a whole generation of Fench poets including Paul VerlaineArthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé, among others, and also 20th-Century artists as diverse as 60’s rock star Jim Morrison and Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa. He coined the term “modernité” to designate the fleeting, ephemeral experience of urban life and claimed that the primary responsibility of modern art was to capture and, in so doing, transform that experience.

While Baudelaire lay on his deathbed, dying of syphilis, his mother found two photographs of him he had secreted in his overcoat; apparently, he’d been keeping the two photos on his person, a hidden, guilty pleasure of some sort.  In one (that’s it above), he stares aggressively at the camera as if trying to directly meet the unmediated gaze of the ultimate viewer of the photo. Frankly, he looks pissed off, as if the camera itself were his enemy, something put between him and viewer, something that obscured the potential of a meaningful relationship between him and the person who’d view him as the subject of the photo. 

Baudelaire had been interested in photography since the 1850s. French photographer Nadar, (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820 – 1910),  was one of Baudelaire’s closest friends until Baudelaire’s death in 1867 (Nadar wrote Baudelaire’s obituary in Le Figaro). Nadar remains one of the great early photo-portraitists, his portraits held by many of the great national photography collections. 

In spite of his interest in photography and his friendship with Nadar, Baudelaire never much liked photography as a means of getting at anything subjectively truthful.  He thought the camera’s lens “a dictatorship of opinion,” a device that made an end-run around the active self-questioning required of a viewing subject. Photography could not, according to Baudelaire, encroach upon “the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary”; it was competent only as a means to document objective facts.

According to Baudelaire, only with an “embodied vision”, actively interrogating what one looked at, could you possibly gain any sense of mastery over the perceived object, and such active interrogation only became possible when the subject of one’s gaze could gaze back. Real subjective visual truth came only when there could be a reciprocal interaction of the viewer and the subject.  Rather than the one-sided transaction implicit in much of Western visual art – painting or photography – Baudelaire’s idea of a truthful visual representation would be a “forest of symbols” that looked back at you “with familiar eyes.” Using this criterion, photographic portraiture was, at best, caricature.

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

In secular Western culture, where science and rationality are presumed to give us insight into what is “true,”  we are used to seeing the material world through the lens of science, where subjects are turned into objects and placed in categories. Photography aides that process by its ability to document objective facts, and Baudelaire saw that as a legitimate use of photography. For Baudelaire, the problem came with photography’s attempt to capture the subjective. It can’t, because it can’t look back. There’s no real interaction between the viewing subject and photographic subject. Relationship, that which underlies subjectivity, is impossible in the one-sided encounter offered by a photograph. The image will always be distorted.

Compare what happens when you look at a photograph of a woman, how you look at it, with the way you look at that same woman encountered in the flesh, on the street; how you do so determines whether or not you let her look back.  “Truth” is found in the reciprocal gaze, between subject and object, between the man and woman walking past each other in the street.

Baudelaire would say that modern man suffers from a distorted visual culture created by the ubiquity of photographic images.  Given the extent to which photography has been normalized and now embedded in our societal consciousness, it has led us away from the truth. It has distorted our ability to understand others. It gives us only a superficial caricature, a false representation of other people, visual images of persona as opposed to the person themselves. Capitalist consumerism uses its distortions to make us want things, playing on our imagination because the image can’t interact with us.  We see other people in this “post-truth” world, where photographed people are real only to the extent they conform to our imaginations. The image world it gives us is of strangers-as-passersby who never make eye contact. It’s hard to see, really see, someone else in this world of images, surrounded by people who are all doing the same.

Believing is Seeing

Edinburgh, May 1, 2015

” What we see is not independent of our beliefs. Photographs provide evidence but no shortcut to reality. It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.”

-Errol Morris, Believing is Seeing: On the Mysteries of Photography

A couple of years ago my wife and I found ourselves in Edinburgh for a day, traveling between some place or other. For those of you who’ve never been, it’s a really nice town to spend a few days – lot’s of history, good free museums, active and interesting culinary scene, great street life. We were also lucky enough to be there on May Day when Edinburgh celebrates Beltain, the Celtic neo-pagan holiday commemorating the beginning of Summer, the celebration consisting of naked people dancing around fires on Calton Hill overlooking downtown Edinburgh.

Edinburgh is also a great place for “street photography.” Given its latitude and the oblique angle of the sun, you get nice bright light contrasted with deep black lengthened shadows, which makes for the types of visual contrasts good street photographers exploit. And it’s a town of shoppers, for me at least, the perfect setting for interesting and thought-provoking visuals. Princes Street – a half-mile of upscale retail shops running east/west – being as target-rich an environment as I’ve ever experienced. So, of course, the day I was there I walked around snapping photos while the wife shopped for a kilt for her son (yup). The photos I’ve used to illustrate this post were all taken during an afternoon walking Prince Street.

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

 “Street” Photography

Above is a “street photo.” I took it that day in Edinburgh. It’s an uninteresting photo. It says nothing, connotes nothing, implies nothing. It’s just a guy on a street, a throw away shot that doesn’t work on any level. But, hey, it’s properly exposed, it’s in focus, the tonality is nice, it’s framed competently (but what’s up with the big black empty space on the left?) and it’s a guy on a street. Bingo, I’m a “street photographer.” Too many “street photographers” seem to think that’s enough to qualify. If you have any questions, go here and look at what people post on public forums dedicated to showcasing “street photography.” 90% of the photos posted are no better than what I’ve posted above, many even worse. Why? They say nothing. They’re just people walking down the street. Ask the photographer ‘what’s the point’ and in all likelihood, he’ll reply with a blank stare – ‘what do you mean, what’s the point?’

Which gets me to my point. Street photos – any photo for that matter – need to say something. How do you do that? You have something to say. You must have a belief – an idea wishing to be made manifest – before you photograph, and the resulting photos should convey that idea, both individually and as a collective. Garry Winogrand’s 1960’s work, wonky and off-kilter though it was, was the result of a unified vision that worked both individually and collectively, the collective giving context to the individual, the individual stating its own visual truth.

Good “street photography” captures a fleeting moment that stands for something larger. The people and things pictured aren’t just people and things; rather, they suggest something more, some question to be answered or puzzle to solve. What is shown suggests something not shown, hints at it, implies it. It aspires to a  reality truer and deeper than anything immediately at hand, something more intense and deeper than the ordinariness of the routine life pictured – what the Greeks called anagnorisis – when the mundane surface is stripped away and the essence is revealed.

 

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

Below are a number of photos I took that day in Edinburgh. I think they’re all good examples of street photography that works. They have a theme that runs through them, something I’m suggesting to you. They’re interesting visually and, and, if you’re paying close attention,  intellectually. They work both individually and collectively as a series. They have a point of view, something that I’m attempting to communicate to you the viewer. We may differ on what that point is, but the photos themselves admit of something more than their topical subjects, and they add something to each other when they’re viewed as a group. Really, that’s all you need to produce decent work. Just have something to say.

The “Right to One’s Image”

This Photo Might be Illegal

Long ago, before your phone was also your camera, it was a first-class pain in the ass to shoot street photography in Paris. The French, peculiar people they are, are very particular about the “Droit à l’image” (Right to One’s Image) issue. Frankly, it can be incredibly tiresome dealing with French people who seem to think it’s their business what you do with your camera in a public space. In the States, we’re relatively habituated to people pointing cameras in public spaces. Under American law, if you’re in a public space, you’re fair game. Of course, this hasn’t stopped freedom loving Americans from bitching at me when I’ve pointed a camera in their general direction, but I’m on firm legal ground when I’ve told them to go pack sand.

In France, meanwhile, I’ve had people threaten to call the police because I was taking pictures of inanimate objects in public. Arrogant people, the French, although I love them dearly in spite of their obvious faults. And God help you if their child could possibly be somewhere in the picture – I’ve almost come to blows with aggrieved Parisians about the issue. My standard response is “Yes, call the police. Let’s talk to them about it” at which point they’d cut and run after a few choice words, or, if that didn’t work, I’d suggest they engage in an anatomically impossible sex act and then ignore them, which seemed to either force the encounter to an unpleasant conclusion or, in rare instances, send it nuclear. More on that some other time.

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

Sitting on Your Front Porch in Mississippi? Fair Game

The gist of Droit à l’image des personnes en France is a simple oneIf the subject of the photograph is a person, that person has a right to oppose the use of his imageThis right derives from the French civil concept of private life.  Essentially, what it means is this: before being able to use the photograph in question, you must ensure that the person photographed does not expect privacy of his personal image and that he does not oppose the publication of this image. Unlike other countries (e.g. The States) this right to one’s image includes images taken in public, including group photography during something like a street demonstration.

The person whose image is at issue can oppose use its use by invoking Art. 9 of the French Civil Code which protects the right of every individual to respect for his/her private life. Contrary to a misconception seemingly prevalent in Paris, it’s not the taking of pictures in public itself that is a violation of the right, but rather the diffusion or publication of photographs where both the context and the person are easily recognizable. Try explaining that to some large French guy currently in your grill, spittle flying, demanding you delete the photo you’ve just taken on that picturesque Parisian Boulevard.

Meanwhile, These People Could Sue the Hell Out of Me

Like most things, the devil is in the details.  Any photographer who is content to shoot for his own personal and private use does not violate the law (e.g see: Court of Cassation, Criminal Chamber, October 25, 2011, appeal 11-80.266,  “… the taking of photographs without the consent of the persons appearing therein having been made in a public place, the offense provided for by article 226-1, 2 ° of the Penal Code does not apply.” And if you really want to get legalistic, even in France there exists the right to photograph and publish persons of “public interest” without their express permission. As such, if I see Sir Thorsten von Overgaard – obviously a “public figure,” married as he is to Princess Joy – out and about with a gaggle of acolytes taking his street photography seminar, I’m within my rights to take his picture, as authorization is not required of “public figures” given a recognized “right to information”, “right to information” meaning photographs of public personas in engaged in public activities. The suckers following him around, off limits.

Night Time in the Bois de Boulogne

Swans in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris 2003. Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200.

Readers have probably noted along the way that I’ve never officially posted my identity on the site. There’s a reason for that. I’ve not wanted the site to be about me; for purposes of the blog, who I am is mostly irrelevant. Plus, I have a web identity in my field of work and don’t wish to conflate the two (no, I’m not a dentist). I wanted to say what was on my mind without fear of offending someone in my professional life who might stumble on the site via a google search –  whether I offend someone is usually low on my list of priorities, but in our toxic American culture, where everyone thinks they have a God given right not to have their feelings hurt, you’re always going to piss somebody off when you have an opinion, so best just not tie my name to the site. Problem solved. However, as Leicaphilia has progressed (or digressed, depending how you see it), it’s content has become more personal. I’ve settled into an online persona and have revealed more about myself and the particulars of my life and backstory, and some of you, mostly those who’ve taken the time to email me, now at least know my name.

I’ve also been using odds and ends of my photo work to illustrate posts from the beginning, all without attribution, but I’ve never published a piece about a specific project I’ve done. I’ve occasionally published work submitted by readers, but I’ve made a point of not peddling my own work because it just didn’t seem to be the proper place to do it…and I’m long past the point where I want or need the approval.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve decided to occasionally publish some of the photo work I’ve done through the years. Most all of it’s been done with an old Leica and film. Some of it’s been shown locally, most of it not. Good or bad, it seems a shame to sit on it, not showing it to others, when I’m able via the blog. So accept occasionally being subjected to my work as the price you pay for the other content.

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

Paris, where there’s a great (and often cliched) photo around every corner in the ‘good’ parts of town

Some 15 years ago, while living in Paris, I was lucky to make friends with a native Parisian, also a photographer, who introduced me to parts of the city I’d never have seen were I confined to my ex-patriot bubble. Paris is a fascinating city, full of beautiful spaces both public and private. Yet much of it is dirty and ugly and unsafe. Parts of it – the ’93’ in particular – have a sinister feel not unlike NYC in the 70’s, places where you’re best not to go without an realistic sense of your own vulnerability. As city dwellers know, the most effective strategy to prevent being victimized in strange places is often an observant fearlessness, carrying oneself in a way that signals confidence and self-possession while minding one’s own business. As a photographer, the worse thing you can do is to be signalling your vulnerability – openly displaying a tourist’s cluelessness, consulting a map while dangling a camera around your neck, looking hesitant while shooting. Best strategy: if you’re gonna do it, do it bravely and openly, like you’re there for a reason and deserve to be…and don’t take any shit from anyone, unless, of course, they’re armed or you’re seriously out-manned.

I’d been schooled in the attitude while attending ‘Art School’ in NYC in the late 70’s, a time when large parts of Manhattan seemed completely lawless. I’d never been bothered in even the worst parts of town, often seeking such places out looking for ‘authentic’ photographs. I’ve also been blessed (or cursed, depending on your outlook) with a rashness that at times has caused me problems. Regardless, the key – act like you belong, and most people won’t bother you. It also helps if you act like someone capable of defending themselves.

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

The Bois, back in the day

If you’re a reader of 19th and Early 20th century French lit, you’ll have read of the Bois de Boulogne, a place of elegance and spectacle where wealthy Parisians retreated for amusement. With sports fields, bandstands, cafes, shooting galleries, riding stables, boating on the lakes, a zoo and other attractions, it was the place for Parisians to see and be seen.  An area in the center of the park, called the Pré-Catelan, included a large circular lawn surrounded by trees, grottoes, rocks, paths, and flower beds, a marionette theater, a photography pavilion, stables, a dairy, and other structures like the Théâtre des fleurs, an open-air theater in a setting of trees and flowers.

Today, the park is pretty much down at the heels, a sort of no man’s land to drive through with the windows shut. Not a place normally on my list of priorities. However, I’d been told by friends that I had to go there at night, in a car, not for the leisure but to see firsthand the surreal Fellini-esque atmosphere that prevails.  Apparently, after dark it becomes an open market for prostitutes of the most flamboyant type. If your tastes run to the sordid and dangerous, you’ll feel right at home. And if you have a fondness for transsexuals, this is the place to go, as 90% of the hookers there are/were men. I was also told, in no uncertain terms, that venturing there on foot with a camera and pointing it at the natives would not be a good idea, as most sex is solicited from cars while the hookers and their pimps control the boulevards. Some idiot with little command of the language and a camera around his neck probably wouldn’t last long, which explains why, after some research I discovered there aren’t any photos documenting the scene. How could that possibly be? 

I ultimately spent many nights there, either in a car or often on foot. I was never bothered much; in fact, I had more than a few interesting conversations with the denizens, most of whom seemed to come from the east and almost all of whom spoke English as their preferred medium. I used an M4 with a 50mm, scale focused, and HP5 pushed to 3200, aperture close to wide open and shutter speed at 1/15th. Pretty much ‘point and shoot’, you get what you get, find the good ones on the contact sheet. Thinking back now, in the age of quick and easy digital, it seems laughable that I’d spend a few hours shooting and come back with only 2 rolls of 36 exposed. I did try shooting digital a time or two, but abandoned it and went back to the M4 when I couldn’t duplicate the results I was getting with film. Digital couldn’t replicate the smoothness of the low-speed motion captured with film, and digital lag made shooting cumbersome – and there was the film grain which itself became an integral part of the look I wanted. Were I to do it again today, I’d do it using film.

Bois de Boulogne, Paris, 2003, Leica M4 and HP5 pushed to 3200. That swirling motion was produced the old-fashion way: by moving the camera as I shot. In reality, not planned – just a lucky shot.

 

 

 

The Photographer as Visual Curator

 


By Andrew Molitor. Molitor is a fellow writer on photography, variously described as iconoclastic, irrelevant, occasionally right. He swears a lot. You can find him at photothunk.blogspot.com


 

Recently, in an article in The New York Review of Books, Janet Malcolm told the story of how she had included – as a joke –  an artless, banal snapshot in her book Diana and Nikon, together with a number of other photographs that had been decreed by the relevant authorities to be Art. It’s the photo above, Untitled, 1970 by G. Botsford.  Interestingly enough, as time passed, Botsford’s photo started turning up here and there as an example of the “snapshot aesthetic”, itself a work of Art.  Malcolm, via her off-hand joke,  had decreed this photograph to be Art, and now people were willing to accept that it is Art in some meaningful sense.

This is the problem when considering photography as Art. Photography is not quite what we imagine it to be. The carefully crafted Fine Print is not, after all, the only pathway to true Art. Sometimes, a photograph can become Art simply because someone – not just anyone of course, but someone with authority within the art community – says it’s Art. 

We’ve seen this before. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited a signed urinal as a sculpture entitled Fountain, he was doing the same thing as Ms. Malcolm, whether tongue in cheek we’re not sure.

What then is Art, with a capital A? Is it whatever some pointy-headed fellow with a title like “curator” or “Professor of Arty Artness” says is Art? That feels a little thin, a bit like a cheat; you intuitively feel that this can’t be right. The opposite end of the spectrum claims that Art requires skill, talent, and labor. Sculptures made out of marble, formed with infinite patience and a deep understanding of the properties of stone, now that’s Art!

The latter sort of thinking belongs to people who look at photography with a lifted brow. As noted in the previous post here, it’s this thinking that drove much of the Pictorialist movement in the Victorian era, and which drives much of the urge to “post-process” digital photographs today. It can’t be any good, the mindset goes, unless it’s had a lot of work put into it.

Duchamp’s Fountain, and Malcolm’s joke, disagree. They say that Art is merely whatever you think is Art.

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

In my opinion, neither of these positions is correct, although each has a sort of a piece of it, a single section view. Art is whatever creates an Art-like experience. If you look at it, and it makes you think, makes you feel, enlarges you as a human being, then it’s Art. I would contend that this isn’t purely subjective, because usually if it works for you, it probably works for other people as well, unless you’re a complete weirdo. The appropriate term here is inter-subjective. The two acts – the first declaring, from a position of authority, that something Is Art and the second working very very hard, with great skill, to make something which you hope is Art – are both acts which can imbue an object with Artness.

When confronted with Michelangelo’s David (a product of labor and skill) as well as with Duchamp’s Fountain (a product of a simple declaration) we likely experience that sensation of Art. We feel, we think, we expand a little. The category of things that are Art is a bit fuzzy, the edges are not at all well defined. Are raindrops on a rose petal Art? Perhaps not. Is David? Almost certainly.

An object of Art is perhaps as much a subject for meditation as it is anything else, It’s not wrong to consider such an object as merely a trigger for a process that occurs inside ourselves. Michelangelo’s David or the “willfully bad” snapshot attributed by Malcolm to G. Botsford can serve equally as a focus for meditation, as a trigger for our own internal search.

All this presents something of a problem for the photographer as artist. There’s no getting around it, you can take a random snapshot of your own feet and if you can persuade Larry Gagosian to put it up for sale with an immense price tag, it will indeed be Art. Your blurry foot picture can serve as that trigger for thought, it can create an Art-like experience. In that unlikely scenario you personally had nothing much to do with this, it’s pretty much all  Larry G’s work, his authority makes it Art-like. That doesn’t make it fake, though, it would, in that situation, really be Art with a capital A. Unfortunately for you, you’re probably not going to get Larry on board with your scheme.

The point to hang on to here is that there are many roads to that Art-like experience.

David would probably be pretty intense to look at, even if no art critic had ever mentioned it. The knowledge of stone, the skill with the chisel, the mastery of form were not wasted. The labor was real, and produced real results. The fact that Duchamp could, with a figurative wave of his hand, turn a urinal into a similar experience takes nothing away from Michelangelo. The well, here, does not have finite capacity.

Vast labor and skill, or the mere declaration by authority, both produce Art. By analogy, we can reason that photography’s relative ease takes nothing away from either Michelangelo, nor from the photographer. It is not necessary to labor endlessly, either mashing gum bichromate prints with your hands or fiddling around in Photoshop to make your photograph worthy of the name Art. You certainly may do either, and your labor and skill may produce results.

In its very essence, though, as I see it, photography is simply selection. Not to denigrate selection, it is in its own way every bit as worthy as making. In this case, selecting and making are two different activities, which ought to be viewed on an equal footing, neither being a poor cousin to the other.

This bears repeating: the act of photography, that act of selection should be considered as on the same moral plane as the act of creation that typifies a painting, a sculpture. Think of the photographer as a curator of the visual, selecting and interpreting a slice of the real for other’s consideration.

This is the essential worry photographers have about whether photography is Art. Contrary to the regularly scheduled articles about how it has just now been settled, Photography has been comfortably ensconced as an Art for over 100 years now, in part due to Duchamp and his urinal. We saw then that selecting something could indeed be viewed as co-equal with making something. Photography being, essentially, selecting, but with an optional and open-ended add-on of making, of creating, fits into this framework perfectly comfortably.

Many photographs are not Art. Looking at them generates no Art-like experience. Mostly, they’re not intended to, they’re just a document of someone’s holiday, someone’s lunch, someone’s coffee, someone’s child or dog.

What makes a photograph into Art? As we now know, Janet Malcolm declaring it to be so seems to do it. Ansel Adams demonstrated that putting a lot of work into prints might do it, producing quite a different Art-like experience. Robert Frank’s famous book partakes of a bit of both, being on the one hand a great deal of labor, but on the other hand made up largely of what appear to be snapshots, at least in the sense that they lack the lumbering and meticulous flavor of the Adams pictures.

At the end of the day, in order to be accepted into The Canon, one needs the imprimatur of some authority figure, but let us set that aside for the moment. Suppose we’re making Art for a small enough audience, and audience that will accept at least tentatively our own statement as sufficient authority. How then to produce an Art-like experience?

We’re unlikely to be able to slip that blurry picture of our own feet past this audience, they expect, demand,  more from us generous though they might be. Our authority is not Duchamp’s, even with our friends. We are granted, perhaps, a bit of leeway by our friends. Our friends feel a certain openness and generosity, but are not willing to swallow just any old thing.

I think that we do it by selecting carefully, with genuine feeling, with genuine ideas. Ansel Adams, held up as the mighty technician, literally cannot shut up on this theme. It seems that almost every page of his famously technical trilogy repeats that a picture must be a true reflection of an emotional state. Oddly enough, the Zone System people rarely mention this. His pictures are indeed sublime (although, crush the blacks and see what happens).

If we have a real idea, a real feeling, a real something-to-communicate, and we allow our pictures to reflect that, then sometimes our work might just generate an Art-like experience to someone, somewhere. We might “get through” from time to time, and it’s that communication – the curation of the visible, and the aesthetic response of the viewer –  that creates Art.

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/

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?

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

Learning the Craft with a Leica

img_20160306_0023

By Tadeas Plachy. Mr. Plachy lives and works in Prague in the Czech Republic

[Editor’s Note: I love stories like this. It’s easy enough to be jaded about modern Leicaphiles – those who simply buy the camera for the name and the cache that supposedly comes along with the name- and easy enough to forget that there are still people like Mr. Plachy, dedicated to learning the craft of traditional photography and wanting to do so with a camera that has meaning for them as something other than an upgradable widget. He’s right – there is something profound about the use of a precision mechanical camera like a Leica M2, 60 years old but still remarkably relevant.]

My photographic journey had already begun when my grandfather gave me his well used Leica on his deathbed. I had started in the 90’s with a cheap film camera, a Minolta point and shoot, shooting Kodak color negative film. I was a curious kid so I shot everything. My mother, who paid for the processing and prints,  was quite unhappy that I shot random things. Sadly, while moving I lost all my negatives from those years.

In 2002 I received my first digital camera. I went to London for school and took my new 1.3mpx fixed focus digital camera. I could take about 20 shots with a set of 2 AA batteries. I carried full pockets of batteries. A 128 mb compact flash memory card cost the same as the camera, so I only had one. It was full within a day. I soon put that digital abomination into a drawer and never looked at it again. Unfortunately, my digital experience killed any further interest I might have had in photography.

In 2014, my wife and I visited her parents in Herefordshire, England, for Christmas. While perusing a book store I spotted a box marked “Lomography Konstruktor.” My wife noticed my curiosity and a few days later I found it under the Christmas tree. My love affair with photography had begun again. I did some research and decided that I wanted a rangefinder. But I was still finishing my university while married, and I couldn’t possibly afford a Leica, so I went for next best thing within my budget – a Zorki 4K with Jupiter 8 50/2 lens, my ‘Russian Leica.’

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

img_20160327_0007

My university is close to the Castle District, one of the nicest parts of Prague. I shot with my Zorki there almost every day. Along the way I discovered I was doing something called “street photography.” Apparently I was on the cutting edge and didn’t even know it. In May, 2015 I attended a darkroom workshop and learned to process my BW negatives and print with an enlarger. I have been doing it ever since. Sadly, I suck at it, but, of course, that’s no reason to quit.

In 2015 I visited Paris with my wife and my Zorki 4K. And, as so many before me (Bresson, Kertesz etc…) I fell in love with photography even deeper there.  I noticed that my 50mm lens, which seemed  perfect for me in Prague, wasn’t allowing me to get more context of the street into my Paris shots. This is how we learn. After I returned I bought a  Jupiter 12 35/2.8 lens and Russian auxiliary viewfinder. But the memories of Paris brought me back to the fact that someday, somehow, I’d need a Leica.

With my wife I often travel around Europe. London, Rome, Edinburgh, Vienna, always with my Zorki. It was Summer in Vienna when I totally fell in love with Leica. There is a big Leica store in Vienna, just across the Stadthalle. In it everything I dreamed of. I asked if I could take a look at an M2 with a 50/3.5 collapsible lens they had on display for a bargain price. Even though it had some scuffs, scratches and few pieces of Vulcanite were missing, it was a Leica M2, and it worked. I could feel the precision when cocking the shutter. The viewfinder was so much better than my Zorki. But I still hadn’t the money to buy it, even though it was a lovely price for both M2 and the lens. But the seed had been planted.

I love the beauty of precise mechanical machines. I spent 5 years as editor-in- chief of a blog about mechanical watches. I saw how they were manufactured and how much labour goes into these intricate devices. Classic film Leicas are the same for me in this respect. That was another reason I started placing every spare penny I could into an envelope marked simply “Leica”.

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

img_20160306_0013

Six months after my visit to Vienna I bought my first M2 in a Prague camera store,  with guarantee. Unfortunately, its shutter was riddled with holes, which wasn’t apparent when I tested the camera in store. I returned the camera, got my money back, but my heart was sort of broken. But shortly thereafter I found another M2, a bit less nice, with some vulcanite missing, but it worked. I bought it, got it overhauled and shot the heck out of it, using my Jupiter 12 and Jupiter 8 Russian lenses and a cheap Chinese adapter. The, for Christmas that year I received a Zeiss Biogon 35/2.8, the modern one made by Cosina. It’s a good lens, probably too good for me. I added a Voigtlander VC-2 meter and now I’m all set.

I’ve recently found a job near my university. I’m 5 minutes walking from Prague Castle and the Castle District, where I love to shoot. Mostly every day, after 8 hours of mind shredding crazy stupid boring and pointless work for my government I find it most relaxing to go shoot photos with my M2. Sometimes I shoot 2 rolls in 2 hours, sometimes it takes me 2 weeks to get through a roll of HP5, which I load from 100 ft rolls into old East German canisters I got in a flea market. I’m slowly starting to blend into the city life in the quarters where I shoot. People who live there are starting to recognize me. I’m still on a steep learning curve. My photos are far from perfect, although the technical side is pretty easy these days, I can make proper exposures, I can process and scan, but the content is what I’m struggling with.

img_20160306_0010

I don’t want to make excuses, but Prague is a really hard place to shoot. In the historical center, you can’t find any locals who live there. We no longer have those small shops or cafés where locals would get together and have a chat – just tourist traps and people selling rides on Segway. In any event, I can see that through my photography I’m becoming a different person then I was before. More curious, more involved. I continue to shoot my trusty M2, mostly everyday out in the streets of Prague or wherever I find myself (soon I go to Budapest, Barcelona and London again…), documenting the world and life around me. I know the Leica is just a tool, that great vision is what makes a great photograph, but I must say, my Leica M2 is one of the best tools I could wished for.  As for my grandfather’s Leica…that’s a story for another day.