I love taking photos from car windows. They’re the sort of views people don’t give much thought to and so rarely think to photograph. Yet, many of us are in our cars for a substantial part of our day, and much of what we see is mediated through the car window.
I’m intending to publish a book of photographs out of car windows. I’ve begun the process of winnowing down what works and what doesn’t. Like all photography grouping, much of it is dependent on context and sequencing. Narrative focus is what separates good work from bad.
The initial question, before questions of context, is the innate quality of the photo itself – does it stand on its own in terms of form and/or content? This leads to issues of the larger connective theme of the work – is it content i.e. all photos taken out of car windows, or is it formal similarity i.e. a certain ‘look,’ or aesthetic? My sense is it should be both.
With that in mind, here are a few in no specific order or context. I see them as having the potential to anchor a large narrative that extends the subject both in content and formal coherence.
20/10/19 18:07 For more than 35 years I have been intimately involved in the Leica world, encompassing the history of the company, the analysis of the products and the use of the products, all under the umbrella concept of the Leica World. I have experienced and discussed in detail with relevant persons in Wetzlar (old), Solms and Wetzlar (again, new) the digital turn and how the company evolved and changed while adopting the digitalization of the photographic process and the changing world of the internet based photography. The most recent event is the evolution from a manufacturing company to a software-based company. While a commercial success, this change of heart has accomplished a, perhaps not intended, impact: the soul of Leica products has been eradicated. A renewed interest in classical products is the result. The SL and Q are currently the hopeful products for the future. The ghosts of Huawei and Panasonic can be seen all over the campus and while the M-system is still being promoted as the true heir of the Leica lineage, it is now sidelined. Once upon a time, Leica followed its own path, guided by gifted and pioneering engineers and keen marketeers. Nowadays its products are as mainstream as every other camera manufacture. The company has sketched a future and follows a path that I am no longer willing to go.
Next up: Thorsten “von” Overgaard threatens to stop production of Leica inspired Elephant skin leather bags due to “soulless” bokeh of recent Leica optics.
Josef Koudelka, Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM
The view is in black and white, the grainy look of 1960’s era black and white film so typical of the journalistic photography of the time. The photo has the greyish cast of an overcast central European late-afternoon, what’s left of the day’s sun hidden somewhere behind a sky of low, scuttering clouds. Josef Koudelka, the Czech photographer taking the photo, has framed the photo horizontally in a 2:3 format, a function of the 35mm film used by the Exacta camera he was known to use throughout the ’60s. The photo is a view onto Wenceslas Square in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the afternoon of August 22, 1968. 5:01 PM to be precise. The photographer’s perspective seems to be a few floors up, seemingly in the middle of the Square itself, probably standing atop whatever monument graces the center of the Square.
Wenceslas Square, stretching out to a vanishing point, is empty, devoid of automobile or pedestrian traffic, although there are a few tiny, out-of-focus bystanders at the lower-left edge of the frame, some of them crouched together in what looks like commiseration of some sort. In the close foreground, a disembodied arm with wristwatch intrudes into the frame from the lower left, the watch face and the arm’s clenched fist positioned in the lower middle of the frame where it draws the viewer’s eye as the first plane of focus, but low enough that one’s glance wants to shift fore and aft, first the arm and wrist, then the Square behind, then the wrist again and the watch with its face on display. Presumably, the arm and fist and wristwatch belong to the photographer. The wristwatch says the time is 5:01.
Absent context, it’s unclear what this photo is asking of the viewer. The choice of black and white points to a documentary intent, although the view offered by Koudelka is banal, confusing, without an easily identified subject on which to focus. The camera’s optical focus is on the arm; the compositional focus seems to be both the Square and the watch, although, without further context, we’re not given any clues to make sense of which might have priority or what the relationship is, if any, between the two subject planes. While there’s a superficial inertia to the composition created by the compositional elements – no visible movement to be seen – upon closer viewing there’s a balanced tension radiating from the composition, a tension charged with potential energy that suggests something is about to happen, soon. The wristwatch, its minute hand in a wonky, off-axis position, connotes not stasis, but its opposite, an impending action about to shatter the delicate equilibrium of the captured moment. What it is that’s going to happen seems to be in the balance. The truth of the photo seems to be a function of the past, the present, and the future, whether it be more of what appears to be a temporary lull or rather of developing conflict and sinister atrocity. It’s as if the photographer, and us as viewers, are waiting for something to happen to help us finally make sense of what we see.
Determining anything more from within the four corners
of the photo is futile. To understand what Koudelka is trying to tell us, we
On Wednesday, August 20, 1968, soldiers from the USSR, the German Democratic Republic, the Polish People’s Republic, the Hungarian People’s Republic and the Bulgarian People’s Republic invaded the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic and occupied the Czech capital of Prague. The invasion was led Soviet troops at the behest of the leaders of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in response to the spontaneous Czechoslovak socio-political movement called the “Prague Spring,” wherein Czechoslovakia’s Communist leadership experimented with various political and social reforms deemed unacceptably liberal by Soviet standards.
Via a declaration by Czech leaders conveyed to the “People of Prague” by radio on the morning of August 21, both the Czech Army and Czech citizenry were ordered to stand down and not engage in any provocation or retaliation, as such would be counter-productive to the stated aims of the Prague Spring: “We call upon the people of Prague, in particular, the workers – Prevent any possible provocation! At this moment, defense by force is impossible! Our defense must be a dignified, prudent approach, unswerving loyalty to the process we began in January! In response, the Czech citizens who flooded the streets of Prague restricted their outrage to shouting slogans and peaceful resistance. Yet, as more residents crowded into the streets and surrounded the invader’s tanks and troop transports, Soviet soldiers fired into the crowd, killing a number of Czechs. Czechoslovak Communist Party leaders were arrested and removed to locations outside Prague and martial law was declared throughout the country, including a ban on public assembly. By that night, given limited knowledge of the Soviet dictated curfew, the occupying forces were driving their vehicles into the crowds and shooting random protestors who remained on the streets.
The next morning, August 22, Prague’s streets were empty. But as the day progressed, the news spread that there was to be a massive demonstration on Wenceslas Square at five o’clock. It was, in fact, a Soviet provocation, meant to provide a justification for the occupiers to crack down further. Warsaw Pact tanks and troop transports idled in the streets outside the Square, awaiting the arrival of what was expected to be massive crowds of Czech resisters. Czech Radio, still in the hands of Czech partisans, pleaded with its listeners to stay inside; the alternative would be a massacre. The question was – would the residents of Prague stay home?
At 5:01 Koudelka took the photo. His wristwatch tells
you as much.
There are two aspects of ethics
implicated in the practice of conflict photography: 1) the doing of it, i.e. can
the practice itself be justified ethically, or is it, as critics claim, inherently
voyeuristic and exploitative; and 2), if it can be justified ethically, is a
justification dependent on the specifics of the practice i.e. are some ways of
doing conflict photography ethically justified while others are not?
The ethical premise which justifies conflict photography as a practice is this: the photographer will be a passive observer of what’s happening in return for being able to document it. This presupposes a stance of non-intervention on the part of the photographer, whose role as witness precludes active participation in what’s being witnessed. This is what allows the photographer to stand passively aside while a Viet Cong prisoner is summarily executed on a Saigon street, or as an emaciated child lies helpless in the dirt while a vulture hovers nearby, waiting for the inevitable. The act of documenting is meant to serve a higher ethical purpose, that of educating others about what’s happening, with the understanding that the knowledge imparted by the photographer’s witness will motivate others to act.
Those others are us, the viewers. As such, we’re implicated ethically as well. The unsettling reality we’re confronted with is not simply the photographer’s ethical obligation but ours as viewers. Our response, however, is dependent to a large extent on what we’re given by the photographer. The photographer is the curator of what the viewer will see and how they will see it. The photographer must choose what to show and what not to show. This is where his power lies, it’s part of his obligation in the process, and it’s where the second ethical aspect of the practice of conflict photography is implicated. How a photographer ‘frames’ what he is presenting will constrain the potential range of viewer response. By ‘framing’, I mean both the technical specifics of the photo, but also what is chosen to be seen and what is chosen not to be seen, and, to my mind, what’s most important, the context within which the photo is presented. If the ultimate end of conflict photography practice is to activate an ethical response from the viewer, then the photographer’s responsibility is to present what’s being documented in a manner both factually and ethically true to the narrative the photographer is ‘documenting.’
Conflict photography, by definition, always has a didactic purpose. This is true, to some extent, of all photography. A photo isn’t simply a statement of fact; it is always, in some sense, an argument. As Susan Sontag notes in her monograph Regarding the Pain of Others, it is “both objective record and personal testimony, both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality.” It’s only within a context that the photo can serve the purpose presupposed by the premise. A photo without context quickly floats free of any meaning imposed upon it by the photographer. If a photo isn’t given form by a narrative sequence, or description, or accompanying text, then it’s the viewer who will bring that context to the photo. And ultimately, if the viewer is left to impose meaning on the conflict photo without guidance from the photographer, the photographer has abdicated his/her ethical responsibility.
Given the didactic purpose of conflict photography, the issue of rhetorical strategy has always occupied a necessary role in the genre. Magnum Photos was founded with a moral perspective on injustice which was specific to its mission. Magnum photographer Abbas Attar, better known by his mononym ‘Abbas’, reflects the means to that end when he says “I am interested in the world, sure, but also in my vision of the world…I try to show my point of view.” As for the specific content of Magnum’s mission, Magnum member Philip Jones Griffiths epitomizes the didactic tendency of Magnum’s photography: “There is no point in pressing the shutter unless you are making some caustic comment on the incongruities of life.”
As the genre has progressed – from the ‘Heroic’ WW2 images of Capa, Chim and Rodgers to the ‘Ironic’ images of Larry Burrows’ Viet Nam era work, to 90’s era work of Giles Peress and Susan Meisalas – conflict photographers’ rhetorical strategies have become more self-consciously evident, more an obvious feature of the work. This has been the consequence both of the imagery itself, the images “more dynamic,” the pictorial emphasis on the action of conflict itself, and, with the passing of the photo magazines like Life and Look, the narrative structures in which those images have been placed. Where Life era photographers were often constrained by the editorial prerogatives of military authority and the publishing magazine, more recent conflict photographers have the ability to publish extended photo monographs that highlight their unique ethical perspectives uncompromised by bureaucratic, social or military obstruction.
In spite of the stated ethical emphasis of recent conflict photography, much of it, when wrenched out of context, as it too often is, seems gratuitous, appealing to a viewer’s baser human motives. A glimpse of an image, usually of graphic violence and human suffering, shorn of the context the viewer would need to properly understand it, appeals to viewers’ baser motives and serves no real purpose but to titillate. Traditional conflict photography tropes that utilize images of atrocity are often counter-productive, exploiting those they mean to advocate for by re-victimizing them, while causing compassion fatigue for viewers. The “forensic aesthetic”, currently in vogue, where victim and violence remain outside the frame and the photographer documents the spaces associated with the conflict, is a response to such criticisms.
I’ve long been an admirer of Josef Koudelka’s photography. A member of Magnum, he’s been producing exceptional photojournalistic work since the early 1960s, most notably his depictions of Roma (“Gypsy”) culture, which Magnum published in book form in 1975, and his documentation, at great personal risk, of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Prague in 1968. Koudelka brings a unique aesthetic to his documentary work, producing some of the most beautiful and sumptuous film photography of his era. While he considers himself a photojournalist, his works can be found in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among many others. It’s the tension between his aesthetics and his subject matter that gives Koudelka’s work its bite, but it also leaves him open to the standard criticisms of any documentary work that retains a strong imprint of the documentarian’s subjective eye.
Koudelka’s Wenceslas Square photo is one of his most reproduced. It’s often found in anthologies of his work, one of the iconic photos for which he is known. This has always confused me, because my exposure to it has been within the context of my appreciation of Koudelka as an artist, someone whose work I appreciated for its formal beauty and coherence. Wenceslas Square, Prague, 22 August 1968, 5:01 PM, doesn’t possess the grand aesthetic beauty Koudelka is known for. It appears uncontrived, almost accidental in its form, more of a throw-away than most of his mannered work. To put it simply, it isn’t that good of a photo if one’s criterion is formal interest. Yet, it’s considered one of his iconic photos.
The reason, of course, is context, or the lack thereof. To understand and appreciate the photo the viewer must be privy to the historical, social and political context within which the photo operates. You’ve got to know the backstory, the specifics of the conflicting parties, the historical, social and political currents that are in the process of intersecting in Wenceslas Square in Prague on August 22, 1968, at 5:01 in the afternoon. If you have that context, the photo is now charged with meaning. It makes sense. You can understand what Josef Koudelka is trying to tell you.
Ostensibly, Koudelka’s subject is an “old style” subject, the heroic resistance of a nascent democratic movement with world-historical consequences. Much of Koudelka’s Prague Spring work retains that traditional didactic style, the style made famous by Capa and Chim and Rodgers. But the photo in question – the Wenceslas Square photo – has more in common with current forensic approaches. Koudelka has always been a cerebral photographer, and at some level, he meant this simple, uncontrived photo to possess a conceptual complexity that would require de-coding by the viewer, much like what’s required of current forensic approaches. Why else place that forearm and watch as a central pictorial element? I read the photo as Koudelka’s rejoinder to the ethical problems inherent in conflict photography. It’s conflict photography as meta-narrative, a conflict photo that comments on the practice of conflict photography itself.
the photo is a factual description – ‘this is what Wenceslas Square looks like
at this time’. No coherent story is denoted, no Romantic trope of sacrifice or
heroism. No encouragement of broader connotative issues. No good vs. bad, right
vs. wrong. It leaves the didactic message, if any, embedded in the broader context
within which the photo exists.
The photo itself is sui generis, there’s no falling back on previous tropes or personal signatures. It is screaming for context, a context that the photograph, standing on its own, can’t provide. Koudelka seems to be playing on this issue of context, his photo, standing by itself, a black box, indecipherable as to motive or allegiances, a screen onto which the viewer must project their passions, beliefs, and biases if they’re to make any sense of it.
The indecipherability is accentuated by the absence of action. It makes the viewer think, question. Whatever the photograph’s attraction, it isn’t dependent on titillation nor is it exploitative in any way. The photo suggests dynamic forces operating underneath the surface calm. What those forces are, and what message they reveal, waits for the context in which they operate. In this respect, it’s honest, deferring to the inherent limitations of conflict photography and, in effect, utilizing them to comment on the practice itself. It’s almost as if Koudelka is posing himself – and his viewers – a question.
Through all of this there’s a person behind the camera, the person with the arm and the watch, presumably the person of Koudelka who ‘takes’ the photo. Koudelka is reminding us that photos aren’t disembodied statements of fact; they are subjective views, the result of infinite choices made by the photographer – where to be, when to be there, what to include, what not to include. ‘Oh, and by the way, don’t forget I’m back here, staging all of this for you’, he seems to be saying.
Consider this the second part of my previous Holy Week post [I’d link to it but the “new, improved” WordPress software doesn’t allow me to do even basic things without incredible hassles. Suffice it to say that it totally sucks, and explains, why, among other things, I’ve been unable to give many of my posts ‘Catagory’ tags]. Go back a few posts and you’ll find it. There, I had posted a series of photos taken with a medium format film camera, a Fuji GS690. The photos had subsequently been tweaked to get them to look like I wanted them to look.
The bulk of the photos I’d taken that week were taken with a Leica M4 loaded with HP5 and pushed to 1600 ISO. I subsequently found a number of scans I’d done from those 35mm negatives – straight scans without much manipulation. Of course, the scanned files of the best 3 or 4 of the entire series were corrupted, so I’m unable to post them. I do, however, have the negatives, So I can go back and re-scan them, which is something I couldn’t do if I was dealing with native digital files.
The point of posting these photos is to note the difference one’s choice of format can make for a given subject. The 6×9 negatives are huge and produce beautifully detailed prints with subtle tones and gradations. The 35mm negatives obviously produce a much rawer look, grainy and indistinct. My intent was to use those specific characteristics to my benefit. I chose to shoot night scenes in available light with the M4, all handheld at very low shutter speeds. That’s how I envisioned the subject, sort of mysterious and furtive. At the risk of showing you my failures, this is what I came up with.
While I love the photo that leads off the piece, the rest is, at best, hit and miss, or, to put it bluntly, they don’t work. In retrospect, the day-time medium format photos are far superior insofar as they allowed me to document what I saw in the manner I saw it, albeit with the posthumous aide of digital software manipulation. Same subject, same photographer, different film format and camera, remarkably different output. The camera sometimes does matter.
[Editor’s Note: In 1952, Henri Cartier-Bresson published Images à la Sauvette, (what is known in English as The Decisive Moment, although the French title translates as “Images on the run”). Images à la Sauvette included a portfolio of 126 of Cartier Bresson’s photos This is the book’s 4,500-word philosophical preface, written by Cartier Bresson himself]
by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1952)
There is nothing in this world without a decisive moment. Cardinal Retz
I, like many another boy, burst into the world of photography with a Box Brownie, which I used for taking holiday snapshots. Even as a child, I had a passion for painting, which I “did” on Thursdays and Sundays, the days when French school children don’t have to go to school. Gradually, I set myself to try to discover the various ways in which I could play with a camera. From the moment that I began to use the camera and to think about it, however, there was an end to holiday snaps and silly pictures of my friends. I became serious. I was on the scent of something, and I was busy smelling it out.
Then there were the movies. From some of the great films, I learned to look, and to see. Mysteries of New York, with Pearl White; the great films of D.W. Griffith – Broken Blossoms; the first films of Stroheim; Greed; Eisenstein’s Potemkin; and Dreyer’s Jeanne d’ Arc – these were some of the things that impressed me deeply.
Later I met photographers who had some of Atget’s prints. These I considered remarkable and, accordingly, I bought myself a tripod, a black cloth, and a polished walnut camera three by four inches. The camera was fitted with – instead of a shutter – a lenscap, which one took off and then put on to make the exposure. This last detail, of course, confined my challenge to the static world. Other photographic subjects seemed to me to be too complicated, or else to be “amateur stuff.” And by this time I fancied that by disregarding them, I was dedicating myself to Art with a capital “A.”
Next I took to developing this Art of mine in my washbasin. I found the business of being a photographic Jack-of-All-Trades quite entertaining. I knew nothing about printing, and had no inkling that certain kinds of paper produced soft prints and certain others highly contrasted ones. I didn’t bother much about such things, though I invariably got mad when the images didn’t come out right on the paper. In 1931, when I was twenty-two, I went to Africa. On the Ivory Coast I bought a miniature camera of a kind I have never seen before or since, made by the French firm Krauss. It used film of a size that 35mm would be without the sprocket holes. For a year I took pictures with it. On my return to France I had my pictures developed – it was not possible before, for I lived in the bush, isolated, during most of that year – and I discovered that the damp had got into the camera and that all my photographs were embellished with the superimposed patterns of giant ferns.
I had had blackwater fever in Africa, and was now obliged to convalesce. I went to Marseille. A small allowance enabled me to get along, and I worked with enjoyment. I had just discovered the Leica. It became the extension of my eye, and I have never been separated from it since I found it. I prowled the streets all day, feeling very strung-up and ready to pounce, determined to “trap” life – to preserve life in the act of living. Above all, I craved to seize, in the confines of one single photograph, the whole essence of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.
The idea of making a photographic reportage, that is to say, of telling a story in a sequence of pictures, never entered my head at that time. I began to understand more about it later, as a result of looking at the work of my colleagues and at the illustrated magazines. In fact, it was only in the process of working for them that I eventually learned, bit by bit, how to make a reportage with a camera, how to make a picture-story.
I have traveled a good deal, though I don’t really know how to travel. I like to take my time about it, leaving between one country and the next an interval in which to digest what I’ve seen. Once I had arrived in a new country, I feel almost like settling down there, so as to live on proper terms with the country. I could never be a globetrotter.
In 1947, five freelance photographers, of whom I was one, founded our cooperative enterprise called “Magnum Photos.” This cooperative enterprise distributes our picture- stories to magazines in various countries.
Twenty-five years have passed since I started to look through my view-finder. But I regard myself still as an amateur, though I am still no longer a dilettante.
The Picture Story
What actually is a photographic reportage, a picture story? Sometimes there is one unique picture whose composition possesses such vigor and richness, and whose content so radiates outward from it, that this single picture is a whole story in itself. But this rarely happens. The elements which, together, can strike sparks from a subject, are often scattered – either in terms of space or time – and bringing them together by force is “stage management,” and, I feel, contrived. But if it is possible to make pictures of the “core” as well as the struck-off sparks of the subject, this is a picture-story. The page serves to reunite the complementary elements which are dispersed throughout several photographs.
The picture-story involves a joint operation of the brain, the eye and the heart. The objective of this joint operation is to depict the content of some event which is in the process of unfolding, and to communicate impressions. Sometimes a single event can be so rich in itself and its facets that it is necessary to move all around it in your search for the solution to the problems it poses – for the world is movement, and you cannot be stationary in your attitude toward something that is moving. Sometimes you light upon the picture in seconds; it might also require hours or days. But there is no standard plan, no pattern from which to work. You must be on the alert with the brain, the eye, the heart, and have a suppleness of body.
Things-As-They-Are offer such an abundance of material that a photographer must guard against the temptation of trying to do everything. It is essential to cut from the raw material of life – to cut and cut, but to cut with discrimination. While working, a photographer must reach a precise awareness of what he is trying to do. Sometimes you have the feeling that you have already taken the strongest possible picture of a particular situation or scene; nevertheless, you find yourself compulsively shooting, because you cannot be sure in advance exactly how the situation, the scene, is going to unfold. You must stay with the scene, just in case the elements of the situation shoot off from the core again. At the same time, it’s essential to avoid shooting like a machinegunner and burdening yourself with useless recordings which clutter your memory and spoil the exactness of the reportage as a whole.
Memory is very important, particularly in respect to the recollection of every picture you’ve taken while you’ve been galloping at the speed of the scene itself. The photographer must make sure, while he is still in the presence of the unfolding scene, that he hasn’t left any gaps, that he has really given expression to the meaning of the scene in its entirety, for afterward it is too late. He is never able to wind the scene backward in order to photograph it all over again.
For photographers:, there are two kinds of selection to be made, and either of them can lead to eventual regrets. There is the selection we make when we look through the view-finder at the subject; and there is the one we make after the tiles have been developed and printed. After developing and printing, you must go about separating the pictures which, though they are all right, aren’t the strongest. When it’s too late, then you know with a terrible clarity exactly where you failed; and at this point you often recall the telltale feeling you had while you were actually making the pictures. Was it a feeling of hesitation due to uncertainty? Was it because of some physical gulf between yourself and the unfolding event? Was it simply that you did not take into account a certain detail in relation to the whole setup? Or was it (and this is more frequent) that your glance became vague, your eye wandered off?
For each of us space begins and slants off from our own eye, and from there enlarges itself progressively toward infinity. Space, in the present, strikes us with greater or lesser intensity and then leaves us, visually, to be closed in our memory and to modify itself there. Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes forever the precise and transitory instant. We photographers deal in things that are continually vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth that can make them come back again. We cannot develop and print a memory. The writer has time to reflect. He can accept and reject, accept again; and before committing his thoughts to paper he is able to tie the several relevant elements together. There is also a period when his brain “forgets,” and his subconscious works on classifying his thoughts. But for photographers, what has gone is gone forever. From that fact stem the anxieties and strength of our profession. We cannot do our story over again once we’ve got back to the hotel. Our task is to perceive reality, almost simultaneously recording it in the sketchbook which is our camera. We must neither try to manipulate reality while we are shooting, nor manipulate the results in a darkroom. These tricks are patently discernible to those who have eyes to see.
In shooting a picture-story we must count the points and the rounds, rather like a boxing referee. In whatever picture-story we try to do, we are bound to arrive as intruders. It is essential,
therefore, to approach the subject on tiptoe – even if the subject is still-life. A velvet hand, a hawk’s eye – these we should all have. It’s no good jostling or elbowing. And no photographs taken with the aid of flashlight either, if only out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it. Unless a photographer observes such conditions as these, he may become an intolerably aggressive character.
The profession depends so much upon the relations the photographer establishes with the people he’s photographing, that a false relationship, a wrong word or attitude, can ruin everything. When the subject is in any way uneasy, the personality goes away where the camera can’t reach it. There are no systems, for each case is individual and demands that we be unobtrusive, though we must be at close range. Reactions of people differ much from country to country, and from one social group to another. Throughout the whole of the Orient, for example, an impatient photographer – or one who is simply pressed for time – is subject to ridicule. If you have made yourself obvious, even just by getting your light-meter out, the only thing to do is to forget about photography for the moment, and accommodatingly allow the children who come rushing at you to cling to your knees like burrs.
There is subject in all that takes place in the world, as well as in our personal universe. We cannot negate subject. It is everywhere. So we must be lucid toward what is going on in the world, and honest about what we feel.
Subject does not consist of a collection of facts, for facts in themselves offer little interest. Through facts, however, we can reach an understanding of the laws that govern them, and be better able to select the essential ones which communicate reality.
In photography, the smallest thing can be a great subject. The little, human detail can become a leitmotiv. We see and show the world around us, but it is an event itself which provokes the organic rhythm of forms.
There are thousands of ways to distill the essence of something that captivates us; let’s not catalogue them. We will, instead, leave it in all its freshness…
There is a whole territory which is no longer exploited by painting. Some say it is because of the discovery of photography. However it came about, photography has taken over a part of this territory in the form of illustration.
One kind of subject matter greatly derided by present- day painters is the portrait. The frock coat, the soldier’s cap, the horse now repel even the most academic of painters. They feel suffocated by all the gaiter buttons of the Victorian portrait makers. For photographers – perhaps because we are reaching for something much less lasting in value than the painters – this is not so much irritating as amusing, because we accept life in all its reality.
People have an urge to perpetuate themselves by means of a portrait, and they put their best profiles forward for posterity. Mingled with this urge, though, is a certain fear of black magic; a feeling that by sitting for a camera portrait they are exposing themselves to the workings of witchcraft of a sort.
One of the fascinating things about portraits is the way they enable us to trace the sameness of man. Man’s continuity somehow comes through all the external things that constitute him – even if it is only to the extent of someone’s mistaking Uncle for Little Nephew in the family album. If the photographer is to have a chance of achieving a true reflection of a person’s world – which is as much outside him as inside him – it is necessary that the subject of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him. We must respect the atmosphere which surrounds the human being, and integrate into the portrait the individual’s habitat – for man, no less than animals, has his habitat. Above all, the sitter must be made to forget about the camera and the photographer who is handling it. Complicated equipment and light reflectors and various other items of hardware are enough, to my mind, to prevent the birdie from coming out.
What is there more fugitive and transitory than the expression on a human face? The first impression given by a particular face is often the right one; but the photographer should try always to substantiate the first impression by “living” with the person concerned. The decisive moment and psychology, no less than camera position are the principal factors in the making of a good portrait. It seems to me it would be pretty difficult to be a portrait photographer for customers who order and pay since, apart from a Maecenas or two, they want to be flattered, and
the result is no longer real. The sitter is suspicious of the objectivity of the camera, while the photographer is after an acute psychological study of the sitter.
It is true, too, that a certain identity is manifest in all the portraits taken by one photographer. The photographer is searching for identity of his sitter, and also trying to fulfill an expression of himself. The true portrait emphasizes neither the suave nor the grotesque, but reflects the personality.
I infinitely prefer, to contrived portraits, those little identity-card photos which are pasted side by side, row after row, in the windows of passport photographers. At least there is on these faces something that raises a question, a simple factual testimony – this in place of the poetic identification we look for.
If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of form must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. We look at and perceive a photograph, as we do a painting, in its entirety and all in one glance. In a photograph, composition is the result of a simultaneous coalition, the organic coordination of elements seen by the eye. One does not add composition as though it were an afterthought superimposed on the basic subject material, since it is impossible to separate content from form. Composition must have its own inevitability about it.
In photography there is a new kind of plasticity, the product of instantaneous lines made by movements of the subject. We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life itself unfolds. But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.
The photographer’s eye is perpetually evaluating. A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a
detail – and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it. But he composes a picture in very nearly the same amount of time it takes to click the shutter, at the speed of a reflex action.
Sometimes it happens that you stall, delay, wait for something to happen. Sometimes you have the feeling that here are all the makings of a picture – except for just one thing that seems to be missing. But what one thing? Perhaps someone suddenly walks into your range of view. You follow his progress through the viewfinder. You wait and wait, and then finally you press the button – and you depart with the feeling (though you don’t know why) that you’ve really got something. Later, to substantiate this, you can take a print of this picture, trace on it the geometric figures which come up under analysis, and you’ll observe that, if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.
Composition must be one of our constant preoccupations, but at the moment of shooting it can stem only from our intuition, for we are out to capture the fugitive moment, and all the interrelationships involved are on the move. In applying the Golden Rule, the only pair of compasses at the photographer’s disposal is his own pair of eyes. Any geometrical analysis, any reducing of the picture to a schema, can be done only (because of its very nature) after the photograph has been taken, developed, and printed – and then it can be used only for a postmortem examination of the picture. I hope we will never see the day when photo shops sell little schema grills to clamp onto our viewfinders; and the Golden Rule will never be found etched on our ground glass.
If you start cutting or cropping a good photograph, it means death to the geometrically correct interplay of proportions. Besides, it very rarely happens that a photograph which was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the darkroom’s enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there. There is a lot of talk about camera angles; but the only valid angles in existence are the angles of the geometry of composition and not the ones fabricated by the photographer who falls flat on his stomach or performs other antics to procure his effects.
Color In talking about composition we have been so far thinking only in terms of that symbolic color called black. Black-and-white photography is a deformation, that is to say, an abstraction. In it, all the values are transposed; and this leaves the possibility of choice.
Color photography brings with it a number of problems that are hard to resolve today, and some of which are difficult even to foresee, owing to its complexity and its relative immaturity. At present , color film emulsions are still very slow. Consequently, photographers using color have a tendency to confine themselves to static subjects; or else to use ferociously strong artificial lights. The slow speed of color film reduces the depth of focus in the field of vision in relatively close shots; and this cramping often makes for dull composition. On top of that, blurred backgrounds in color photographs are distinctly displeasing.
Color photographs in the form of transparencies seem quite pleasing sometimes. But then the engraver takes over; and a complete understanding with the engraver would appear to be as desirable in this business as it is in lithography. Finally, there are the inks and the paper, both of which are capable of acting capriciously. A color photograph reproduced in a magazine or semiluxury edition sometimes gives the impression of an anatomical dissection which has been badly bungled.
It is true that color reproductions of pictures and documents have already achieved a certain fidelity to the original; but when the color proceeds to take on real life, it’s another matter. We are only in the infancy of color photography. But all this is not to say we should take no further interest in the question, or sit by waiting for the perfect color film – packaged with the talent necessary to use it – to drop into our laps. We must continue to try to feel our way.
Though it is difficult to foresee exactly how color photography is going to grow m photoreporting, it seems certain that it requires a new attitude of mind, an approach different than that which is appropriate for black-and-white. Personally, I am half afraid that this complex new element may tend to prejudice the achievement of the life and movement which is often caught by black-and-white. To really be able to create in the field of color photography, we should transform and modulate colors, and thus achieve liberty of expression within the framework of the laws which were codified by the Impressionists and from which even a photographer cannot shy away. (The law, for instance, of simultaneous contrast: the law that every color tends to tinge the space next to it with its complementary color; that it two tones contain a color which is common to them both, that common color is attenuated by placing the two tones side by side; that two complementary colors placed side by side emphasize both, but mixed together they annihilate each other; and so on.)
The operation of bringing the color of nature in space to a printed surface poses a series of extremely complex problems. To the eye, certain colors advance, others recede. So we would have to be able to adjust the relations of the color one to the other, for colors, which in nature place themselves in the depth of space, claim a different placing on a plane surface – whether it is the flat surface of a painting or a photograph.
The difficulties involved in snapshooting are precisely that we cannot control the movement of the subject; and in color-photography reporting, the real difficulty is that we are unable to control the interrelation of colors within the subject. It wouldn’t be hard to add to the list of difficulties involved, but it is quite certain that the development of photography is tied up with the development of its technique.
Constant new discoveries in chemistry and optics are widening our field of action considerably. It is up to us to apply them to our technique, to improve ourselves, but there is a whole group of fetishes which have developed on the subject of technique.
Technique is important only insofar as you must master it in order to communicate what you see. Your own personal technique has to be created and adapted solely in order to make your vision effective on film. But only the results count, and the conclusive evidence is the finished photographic print; otherwise there would be no end to the number of tales photographers would tell about pictures which they ever-so-nearly got – but which are merely a memory in the eye of the nostalgia.
Our trade of photo-reporting has been in existence only about thirty years. It came to maturity due to the development of easily handled cameras, faster lenses, and fast fine-grain films produced for the movie industry. The camera is for us a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy. In the precise functioning of the mechanical object perhaps there is an unconscious compensation for the anxieties and uncertainties of daily endeavor. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.
It is enough if a photographer feels at ease with his camera, and if it is appropriate to the job he wants it to do. The actual handling of the camera, its stops, its exposure-speeds and all the rest of it are things which should be as automatic as the changing of” gears in an automobile. It is no part of my business to go into the details or refinements of any of these operations, even the most complicated ones, for they are all set forth with military precision in the manuals which the manufacturers provide along with the camera and the nice orange calf-skin case. If the camera is a beautiful gadget, we should progress beyond that stage at least in conversation. The same applies to the hows and whys of making pretty prints in the darkroom.
During the process of enlarging, it is essential to re-create the values and mood of the time the picture was taken; or even to modify the print so as to bring it into line with the intentions of the photographer at the moment he shot it. It is necessary also to re-establish the balance which the eye is continually establishing between light and shadow. And it is for these reasons that the final act of creating in photography takes place in the darkroom.
I am constantly amused by the notion that some people have about photographic technique – a notion which reveals itself in an insatiable craving for sharpness of images. Is this the passion of an obsession? Or do these people hope, by this trompe l’ oeil technique, to get to closer grips with reality? In either case, they are just as far away from the real problem as those of that other generation which used to endow all its photographic anecdotes with an intentional unsharpness such as was deemed to be “artistic”.
The camera enables us to keep a sort of visual chronicle. For me, it is my diary. We photoreporters are people who supply information to a world in a hurry, a world weighted down with preoccupations, prone to cacophony, and full of beings with a hunger for information and needing the companionship of images. We photographers, in the course of taking pictures, inevitably make a judgment on what we see, and that implies a great responsibility. We are, however, dependent on printing, since it is to the illustrated magazines that we, as artisans, deliver raw material.
It was indeed an emotional experience for me when I sold my first photograph (to the French magazine Vu).That was the start of a long alliance with magazines. The magazines produce for us a public, and introduce us to that public; and they know how to get picture-stories across in the way the photographer intended. But sometimes, unhappily, they distort them. The magazine can publish exactly what the photographer wanted to show; but the photographer runs the risk of letting himself be molded by the taste or the requirements of the magazine.
In a picture-story, the captions should invest the pictures with a verbal context, and should illuminate whatever relevant thing it may have been beyond the power of camera to reach. Unfortunately, in the sub-editor’s room, mistakes sometimes slip in that are not just simple misspellings or malapropisms. For these mistakes the reader often holds the photographer responsible. Such things do happen.
The pictures pass through the hands of the editor and the layout man. The editor has to make his choice from the thirty or so pictures of which the average picture-story consists. (It is rather as though he had to cut a text article to pieces in order to end up with a series of quotations!) For a picture-story, as for a novel, there are certain set forms. The pictures of the editor’s choice have to be laid out within the space of two, three, or four pages, according to the amount of interest he thinks they are likely to arouse, or according to the current state of paper shortage.
The great art of the layout man lies in his knowing how to pick from this pile of pictures the particular one which deserves a full-page or a double-page spread; in his knowing where to insert the small picture which must serve as an indispensable link in the story. (The photographer, when he is actually taking the pictures for his story, should never give a thought to the ways in which it will be possible to lay out those pictures to the most advantage.) The layout man will often have to crop one picture so as to leave only the most important section of it – since, for him, it is the unity of the whole page or of the whole spread that counts above all else. A photographer can scarcely be too appreciative of the layout man who gives his work a beautiful presentation of a kind which keeps the full import of the story; a display in which the pictures have spatially correct margins and stand out as they should; and in which each page possesses its own architecture and rhythm.
There is a third anguish for a photographer – when he looks for his story in a magazine. There are ways of communicating our photographs other than through publication in magazines.
Exhibitions, for instance; and the book form, which is almost a form of permanent exhibition.
I have talked at some length, but of only one kind of photography. There are many kinds. Certainly the fading snapshot carried in the back of a wallet, the glossy advertising catalog, and the great range of things in between are photography. I don’t attempt to define it for everyone. I only attempt to define it to myself;
To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.
I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us, which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds – the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one. And it is this world that we must communicate.
But this takes care only of the content of the picture. For me, content cannot be separated from form. By form, I mean a rigorous organization of the interplay of surfaces, lines, and values. It is in this organization alone that our conceptions and emotions become concrete and communicable. In photography, visual organization can stem only from a developed instinct.
Above is the Forensics Unit of Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. Dix Hospital is (was) our state’s primary mental hospital. The Forensics Unit is where we housed people who were considered ‘criminally insane,’ and also where defendants were sent to assess their sanity and competence to stand trial. It’s closed now, but a light or two still burns in an odd window.
The hospital grounds are within walking distance of my home. Buddy, my dog, loves being walked on the grounds. He likes to chase the groundhogs that populate the hospital campus. He nabbed one a few weeks ago and proceeded to kill it. I tried to reason with him about why that might be wrong, but he wasn’t having any of it. He’s an animal. What are you going to do? At least he can do it with a clear conscience. He’s a carnivore, and he’s not killing them for a thrill, or because he’s pissed off at me, or whatever. He’s killing them because it’s instinctual, unlike a human’s desire to kill, which is a chosen action with ethical and moral implications.
Why kill groundhogs? Groundhogs are totally harmless. I grew up with a family of groundhogs that had made a burrow in our New Jersey backyard. My mom was always harassing my father to get rid of them, put poison out etc. What, I asked, are they doing to bother us? They’re just being groundhogs. Give em a break. Eventually, they relented, and we kept ‘our’ groundhogs. They were lucky. Most people just kill em when they find them in proximity.
But back to the point. I was walking Buddy the other day and decided, what the hell, I should see if I can’t get into that building. Probably some really interesting things in there. So I tried all the doors, and the last one I tried – 3 flights up an exterior fire escape – opened right up. Holy Shit. After propping the door open to assure myself re-entry, I took Buddy home, grabbed a camera, and went back to explore.
There were numerous lights on and the plumbing still worked. There were personal effects of patients in various cells. One floor still contained patient records (major HIPA violation). It looked at if the only thing they’d done when they closed the facility down was to remove the patients, where to, I’ve got no clue. I assume they’re now housed at the State Penitentiary, which is within spitting distance of the other side of my house. Yes; I live between the State Mental Hospital and the State Prison, equidistant between the criminally insane and the state’s death chamber. In its defense, it’s a great neighborhood; I’m within easy walking distance of downtown, and everybody wants to live close to downtown these days, so my property values are pretty crazy, which I like. I can put up with being next to the Penitentiary.
A “Self-Esteem Group” for the Criminally Insane. Only in America.
From Charley Bill Raper’s Cell
Wilson Man Charged In Double Murder Had Prior Run-Ins With Law
Posted October 11, 2004
WILSON COUNTY, N.C. — A home, where police found a woman and her son stabbed to death, is now the focus of an arson investigation as well.Investigators are looking to see if a vindictive family member or friend started the fire at a house where Charles Raper drove a truck through on Friday night.
Court records show Bill Raper threatened to kill his wife and burn down their house. Investigators said he succeeded in murdering his estranged wife, Sandra, and his 27-year-old stepson, Ray Batchelor.”We all knew he was capable of something like that because she talked about how mean he was to her, but we never thought he’d actually do it,” Amy Temple, Sandra’s niece.
The couple had a violent past in recent years. On Thursday, Sandra Raper got a protective order against her husband. The next day, detectives say Bill Raper drove his truck, filled with containers of fuel, right into the house.Investigators said Raper hoped the truck would ignite from the fireplace pilot light. They said when it did not, Raper got out and stabbed his wife and stepson with a butcher knife.
Some friends of Bill Raper claim he was the one often beaten by his wife and stepson and have pictures to back their story.”Everybody sees him as the mean person, but he’s more the victim of domestic violence,” said Fay Joyner, Bill Raper’s friend.
“This was not an act of instantaneous violence. This was methodically thought out and carried out,” said Maj. John Farmer, of the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office.
I hate zoos. Animals shouldn’t be confined and put on display for our amusement. That being said, this past summer I spent a day at the Omaha Zoo, it being, I’m told, “world famous.” I’d have been perfectly happy to sit for the day in our hipster hotel room in downtown Omaha drinking bourbon while the wife went to visit family. Instead, I was dragooned into visiting the zoo. You’ll have fun, she said. Remember that guy who took photos at the zoo, the guy who you like who took all the crazy street photos, she asked. Why not do the same. Take your camera and see what you come up with, she said. It’ll be fun. I had been giving animals a lot of thought recently, so I figured, what the hell, let’s go to the Zoo.
During that time I’d been reading in a philosophical movement known as “Phenomenology,” and specifically the German philosopher Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and the Swede Jakob Uexkull. In 1934 Uexkull published A Foray into the World of Animals and Humans, much of it based on ideas first elaborated by Husserl, which established what is now known as ‘biosemiotics,’ a fancy word for the premise, based on Phenomenologist thinking, that you must first understand the animal’s environment, its “umwelt” (literally its “around-world”), before you could have any sense of what it might be like to be that animal. The animal is its umwelt. This has obvious implications for housing non-human animals in zoos. If your intent is to understand the animal as it exists in nature, the one on display in a zoo enclosure won’t help, because it’s not that animal. Their respective umwelts are completely different.
The art critic John Berger, the guy who wrote the iconic “Ways of Seeing” in 1971, recently wrote an essay “Why look at Animals?” (2009). In it, he argued that zoos are emblematic of western society’s disenchanted worldview, where science has stripped away the basic ‘Being’ of animals, considering them devoid of any interiority. As such, house them where you will; they’re all the same wherever they live. They’re machines made of meat, inert things to observe and exploit rather than creatures who have a life and with whom we might share a life. Instead of acknowledging their being and sharing a world with them, we capture them and exhibit them in museums we call ‘zoos,’ where they become an object whose sole use is to be gazed at. In attempting to understand them, we negate them. It’s all very sad. This sadness, essentially, was Gary Winogrand’s point in his first published book of photography, The Animals (1969).
Winogrand, from The Animals. This Photo Makes Me Sooo Sad.
So, as I walked through the Omaha zoo, camera in hand, I was thinking about non-human animals and umwelts and Husserl and Uexkull and Winogrand. I wanted to be more cognizant of the being of the animals I observed… and more deliberate in my photographic response to them than Winogrand probably had been. I wanted to ‘think’ my photographs, to ‘see’ photographs that reflected the big ideas I carried around in my head. I had my Sigma Merrill, which is slow and encourages slow contemplative technique. No point and shoot. Rather, consider, evaluate, compose, reevaluate, recompose, shoot…and then wait as the camera processes the massive file. Then start again. If I took 30 photos while at the zoo, that’d be a good day’s work. Not much different from the film photography I’d grown up with.
While in the zoo’s aquarium, I noticed a guy with 2 DSLR’s hanging from his neck, enormous lenses mounted on both. Typical meatball, probably with a social media feed full of photos of sunsets. I watched him hold his camera up and heard the rapid clacking of a modern DSLR in burst mode. He must have fired off 15 shots in a second or two, put the camera down, and walked to the next exhibit, where he did the same thing. I saw him again later, outside, standing in front of the zebra pen, burst shooting at a zebra standing forlornly in the enclosure’s far corner. What’s it like to be that kind of photographer, I wondered?
Edmund Husserl says we create our umwelt by the attention we pay. Our realities are unique to us, created in the space we live in as opposed to some objective geometric space, in lived time as opposed to clock time. For Husserl, all experience necessarily involves a subjectivity the quality of which creates the experience itself. In effect, we get to choose our reality by choosing how we attend to it. In watching this guy with his cameras, I couldn’t help but think of the lessons I’d been taught reading the phenomenology of Husserl and Uexkull, of how you choose to structure your embodied experience in the world, and how that choice creates meaning, what Husserl calls your ‘lifeworld;’ how the experience of embodiment – bodily spatiality, but also attention and agency – affects the quality of your reality, your umwelt.
Me. At My Fancy Downtown Art-Deco Hotel. Creating My Umwelt. This is what my Wife Dragged Me From to Go to the Zoo.
What would have been DSLR guy’s experience? It certainly couldn’t have provided him the same experience of a more thoughtful photographer – someone slower and more nuanced, someone paying attention and attuned to his tools and his subject matter. I thought of how an hour really looking, attuned to the subtle changes of light and shade, the play of forms as people move about, the aesthetics of their groupings, the search for that one instant that makes a photo – the ‘decisive moment’ to use the overburdened cliche – contrasted with an hour hustling through that same landscape reflexively pointing one’s camera at things in 11 fps burst mode. I pondered the umwelt of the person who off-loads aesthetic decisions to burst-mode, how his disembodied interaction with his tools shapes his experience of his photographic act and environment. My experience versus DSLR guy’s experience. Both of our hours at the zoo, camera in hand, consisted of the same number of minutes ostensibly engaged in the same activity; however, I suspect that our respective lived experience differed as night does day.
I recently spent a week at the beach in North Carolina. North Carolina has incredible beaches, as nice as any anywhere. They’re an easy 2 hour drive from my home in Raleigh, although it was the first time I’d been to the beach in a while. I suspect that’s fairly typical. Like most wonderful things easily accessible from one’s home, we rarely take advantage of the proximity, knowing it’s always there if we do decide to visit. For example: Born and raised 15 miles from the Statue of Liberty, I’d never been until a few years ago, when I took our Italian exchange student for a visit. It’s also why I silently discount friends who live in NYC and justify the insane costs of living there by citing the proximity to various cultural opportunities or gourmet bagel places not available to us out in the sticks. [Right…when was the last time you went to MOMA or the Opera or the Whitney? And how much did it cost you in time, money, effort, and all the other petty harassments that come along with it? And who gives a shit about your bagels anyway? I meanwhile, can ride my bicycle out my back door onto beautiful dedicated bike trails to our Museum of Art (free admission), or to the museum on the campus of NC State (free admission), or can walk downtown to the Museum of Natural History (free) or to catch a bite to eat at one of the restaurants run by the chef recently awarded the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Nation, or I can jump in the car and easily access the myriad cultural offerings of Durham and Duke University or Chapel Hill and the University of North Carolina, all without constantly feeding 10 dollar toll charges to disembodied arms extended from gas-fumed toll booths, and I can do it all from my beautiful 100-year-old home set amidst 4 glorious ancient Oaks which probably costs me less per month than a shared 8×6 closet with chamber pot in some roach-infested walk-up in a Lower East Side neighborhood where preternaturally thin women with artificially stretched faces carry yoga mats and $12 spiced lattes. But I digress…]
My real point is not to denigrate New Yorkers (although I find them laughingly easy targets) but to tell you about my holiday. I figured I’d use the week as an opportunity to ‘document’ my trip, if for no other reason because I’m running out of things to write for Leicaphilia and none of my readers bother to send me content, preferring to free-load. The plan was this: I’d bring 10 rolls of Fomapan 400 with my M5 with 35mm and F5 with 50mm, and my Sigma DP1 Merrill. I’d take a bunch of pictures, post the best, and see if it made any real difference whether I shot film or digital and if it did if I could articulate the difference and/or could show the difference in my output.
Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten around to developing the 8 rolls of Fomapan I exposed. Even with an 8 reel tank, it takes time to develop 8 reels, hang them to dry and then bulk scan them and edit them down for a few keepers. You’ve got to be pretty dedicated. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to get to them in the next few days and they won’t get thrown in a bag with 80 or so other rolls still waiting to be developed. It didn’t help that my M5 shutter stuck at 1/500th an 1/100th of a second, which means I didn’t shoot much of anything with it but instead shot 7 rolls with the F5, most of which were close-ups of my dog and wife in various states of repose. I never took either film camera out of doors.
Which left me with my Sigma DP1 Merrill, which proved remarkably useful even at base 100 ISO given the amount of light available. It accompanied me both on the beach, off of it, and indoors. The output is really beautiful, but it’s not really appreciable when viewed on the web, where you’re viewing downsized jpgs. Trust me; the RAW files developed with Sigma’s software are stunning. The problem is the slowness of the RAW software: it took all afternoon to download 121 files, given that the software crashed 4 separate times before I got them all downloaded. And then I had to convert them all to TIFF files so they could be read by Lightroom. That took an hour or so. And then, of course, I had to find the keepers and edit them in Lightroom.
I also took my iPhone 8, which I take everywhere given it’s my lifeline to the rest of humanity. I hadn’t even thought of using it to take photos, stuck as I am in the out-moded mindset that requires dedicated photographic equipment in order to properly photograph things. But given it was always on me, I ended up taking photographs with it – not the planned kind, just records of spontaneous experiences I wanted to preserve on a whim. Point, shoot and forget, which is pretty much what I did. No convoluted thinking about aperture, or light, or even composition; certainly not film speed or type.
Out of curiosity, the morning we left I took a look at the photos I’d taken with my phone. I plugged a few of the ones that caught my eye into an app I had on the phone that applies “filters” to photos, chose a few random filters and saved the ones I liked. The whole thing, beginning to end, took about 5 minutes. The photo of my brother-in-law that leads off the piece is one, as is the one above and the ones below. All the others – the 2×3 format photos, are from the Sigma.
So, tell me again, what exactly was the point of the film cameras…or the Sigma for that matter?
[Editor’s Note: I’m currently enrolled in a graduate seminar on “Conflict Photography” at Harvard University. Our first assignment was to “tell your war story.” Here’s mine]
Driving through the Mississippi Delta in 2008, I passed through the little hamlet of Midnight, Mississippi, not so much a town as a few shacks clustered around a church hard against an abandoned rail line. Until mechanized farming destroyed the need for field labor, Midnight had been a thriving cotton town centered around a bustling cotton gin, connected to the larger world by a railroad bisecting cotton fields stretching as far as one could see. Now it was a forsaken spot where a dozen abysmally poor black families clung to each other in desperation, whatever work there had once been for them long gone. It was a sad place, slightly surreal in its seemingly static acceptance of the cruelties visited upon them amidst natural plenty. Even the name of the town – “Midnight” – bespoke a wry cynicism, having been bestowed on it by a local planter who won the entire town in a midnight poker game back in the day.
Up through the 1960′s, Midnight’s
economic and social relations functioned in a manner not much different than they
did during slavery. Whites owned the land while entire black families, from
school age children to grandparents, worked it. The profits went into the pockets of the land-owner,
the gin owner or off somewhere else. Today, large agricultural concerns farm the
fields with machines. The remaining
residents, descendants of those who worked the land since slavery, have no work
and subsist on government aid. The poverty in which they live and attempt to maintain
some semblance of dignity is appalling.
I passed through Midnight twice that day. Both times I saw an elderly black man sitting under a tree across the street from the only commercial establishment in the area, a dilapidated market selling beer and cheap wine. First time I waved; second time, I stopped, got out of the car and said hello. The old man introduced himself as ‘Artee James’ and invited me to sit. We got to talking, as people who’ve just met and are trying to be friendly do – about the weather and Mississippi and the pick-up trucks that kicked up dust when they rumbled past. At some point I retrieved my camera from the car, which, being honest, was the reason I stopped in the first place. To my eye, educated in American social history and documentary aesthetics, Mr. James, sitting serenely under a tree on a littered patch of dirt in a forgotten town in the Mississippi Delta, had the makings of a fascinating series of photos, sufficiently ‘exotic’ yet capable of serving the larger narrative of my choosing.
I hadn’t really considered the ethics of the interaction I’d initiated when I stopped and said hello. Specifically, I didn’t think what Artee James might think. Had you asked me, I’d tell you my motives were pure and reasonable. Educated both as a historian and a documentarian, I saw myself as ethically neutral, documenting something that deserved documentation. Mr. James, to the extent I considered him at all, was my entrée into a larger aesthetic and social subject. As for my prerogative in doing so, whatever reservations I felt I put aside as unproductive.
We talked while I photographed him, more a friendly interrogation than a dialogue of equals. Mr. James was gracious enough to tell me about himself and his life. Now in his late 70’s, he had worked the cotton fields since he was a child. Polite yet reticent, he had obviously seen more than he cared to tell. He told of a neighbor lynched in the early 60′s (I subsequently followed up on his story and found out, yes, it had happened, just like he said). Especially memorable for him had been Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Freedom March’ through Midnight in 1964. He only glimpsed Dr. King from the fields as King marched through town with a large group of activists; Mr. James and his fellow workers had been warned by their work supervisor they’d be set off their land if they joined the march. Midnight’s white land-owner cut off water to the town to encourage the marchers to pass through quickly; Mr. James mentioned this matter-of-factly, like it wasn’t something that needed further explanation. Even though he’d been prevented from greeting or marching with Dr. King, the presence of people marching through Midnight gave him hope. It was a feeling he remembered, a sense of pride that a famous man like Dr. King would care for him and his troubles. He shook his head, as if reliving a bittersweet memory, and then fell silent. Meanwhile, I walked around him taking photos.
Eventually, his friends and neighbors came out to see what was going on as we talked and I photographed. They stood around quietly, respectfully, but with the body language of people turned in on themselves. When I tried to engage them in conversation, they deferred to Mr. James to answer. I presumed at the time their reticence was shyness and not born of distrust or dislike. They certainly weren’t rude. I ended up staying awhile; someone eventually brought me a beer and then another, a neighbor woman brought me a poem she had written, and, in the course of the afternoon, I met Midnight’s residents, including a middle-aged woman, son attending Mississippi State University, who seemed to know everything about the town and its history and was grateful someone showed some interest, and who ultimately invited me to come back and spend some time with them.
I subsequently spent a week photographing their children, homes and church. They treated me with respect and kindness, even though what I was doing was trading on their pain and historical misery for my benefit, something I only realized in hindsight. One particular encounter – me with my camera, a resident doing yard work in the church cemetery – left me profoundly troubled by what I was doing in the name of ‘documenting’, by the assumptions I brought to the process by which I objectified their difficulties and pain.
My encounter with Midnight, Mississippi came to mind when I began to think about my ‘War Story.’ I don’t come from a ‘military family.’ Neither my siblings, father nor either grandfather fought in war; I never served in the military nor do I identify with military culture or the nationalism that glorifies it. I don’t have a ‘war story’ per se; I’ve never experienced war except as a passive consumer of its language and imagery, gleaned from various written historical sources and contemporary visual depictions. While I’ve read Herodotus and Thucydides and Homer’s Iliad, classical notions of warrior excellence and war as a maker of meaning strike me as irrational vestiges of dysfunctional cultural constructions. To my mind, there’s nothing good about war.
I’m not sure there’s anything good
about photographing war either. I see the same ethical dilemmas in conflict
photography as I eventually saw in my interactions with Mr. James and the
residents of Midnight, the exploitation of another’s misery in service to individual
ends. How do you ‘document’ the pain of others without exploiting the sufferer
and leveling their experience to an aesthetic event?
A few years ago I was in Powell’s Books in Portland, a white upper-middle-class hipster place if I’ve ever seen one; looking through the photography section I picked up a book that had recently gotten a lot of interesting reviews in the art press. The author/artist had compiled odd and interesting photos gathered from Google Street views and made a book of it. It had won a few awards, and the author had made a name for himself in the proper circles, something he could leverage in the future. Paging through it, there was a Google Street view from Midnight Mississippi, a blurry capture of an old black man sitting in a lawn chair under a tree. It was Artee James.