Tag Archives: George Fevre

PICTO Paris

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Some time ago I received an email from Jean-Pierre Favreau, a gentleman from Paris who reads the blog, enquiring if I might put him in contact with George Fèvre, a man I knew from my days in Paris. George had been the master printer at PICTO, the venerable Parisian photo lab that handled Magnum’s film output. If you’ve seen a Cartier-Bresson or Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, George probably printed it. In addition to being an amazing darkroom printer, George was a wonderful man. It turns out that Mr. Favreau had worked at PICTO with George many years ago. Unfortunately, I had to inform Mr. Favreau that George had died a few years ago. I asked Mr. Favreau if he would tell me of his time at PICTO and he kindly sent back a reply (and also a piece he wrote about first visiting NYC as a photographer in 1981 which I’ll someday get around to publishing as a separate piece). I’ve translated his reply from the French and have included it here below.

For some context: In January 1950, Pierre Gassmann opened PICTORIAL SERVICE in Paris’ 7th arrondissement, six enlargers arranged around a long tank tray.  Lucky him – his first clients were the founding members of Magnum Photos – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Chim, William Klein, Willy Ronis, Robert Doisneau, Edouard Boubat. The Magnum guys soon dubbed Gassmann’s lab “PICTO,” and Gassmann eventually embraced the name himself.

PICTO thereafter grew with the rapid development of press, fashion and advertising photography in the 50’s. In 1963 Edy Gassmann, son of Pierre, opened PICTO Montparnasse dedicated to color photography. With the help of Paulette Gassmann, his wife, he ultimately created multiple PICTO sites dedicated to specific services. PICTO Front de Seine opened in 1969 followed in 1984 by a high-end print workshop in Rue de Rennes. In 1985, Edy opened  PICTO Defense, one of the first European labs handling digital technology. in 1989, PICTO Bastille opened, dedicated to black and white and Fine Art photography.

041-petersphotoalbum2Pierre Gassmann and Peter Turnley at PICTO, 1983

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By Jean-Pierre Favreau

At the time I started working at PICTO I didn’t know that it was one of the most prestigious labs in the world. I was young and ignorant.  I had first arrived there in the mid-60’s, via Vavin Metro station, then onto the Boulevard Montparnasse, past the Dome and into Rue Delambre. A few steps later I arrived in front of a beautiful building where PICTO had recently moved.

I was met by George Smith. Mr. Smith was a charming man, smiling and polite. Very intimidated, I explained to him my situation – I’d like to work in his photo lab. At the end of our conversation, he asked me to do an internship in one of the labs to learn a bit and to see how I’d do, and then I would take a test the following week to see if I was skilled enough to work there. That day I met Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Boubat, Koudelka and Lartigue.  When I think back on it now I’m astonished that I worked with greats like them.

Luckily, I passed my test. George then introduced me to Pierre Gassmann, founder of PICTO , himself a great photographer. Mr. Gassmann hired me; I suspect it was actually a favor because he did not really need anyone else.

It was then that I met George Fèvre. George was the great PICTO printer. It was the golden age of PICTO, daily servicing 15-20 Magnum and other Black and White shooters,  without counting the night service. We worked like crazy. Often Mr. Gassmann, after periods of great activity, especially the fashion shows which lasted a week, would take us all out to dinner at La Rotonde or La Coupole. Those were fun times.

A famous negative. Those are George Fevre’s fingers.

PICTO eventually launched three other labs in Paris, and I eventually moved on to different things. Today, after the invasion of digital, it only has one lab dedicated to traditional silver halide processing and printing.

I ran across George Fèvre again only a few years ago. George always had this kindness and a warm smile in his eyes. He told me he was thinking of opening his own lab and seeing my satisfaction, offered me a job, which astonished me – his typical generosity . But travelling as frequently as I was at the time, we never again met up and I heard no more about George. On learning of his death, I was seized with a great sadness and blamed myself for not visiting him more often.  We often forget that the people who’ve helped us the most, and have been influential in our lives, may one day disappear. I would have loved to see him again, to talk about those good years and the famous negatives that passed through his hands, from which he created iconic prints with his incredible skill. I will miss him.

 Actually Using An Old Leica to, You Know, Take Pictures

Leica IIIg LPfoto 1A sublimely beautiful Black Paint Leica IIIg. You can actually take pictures with it

Call me a poseur, or a hipster, but old screw mount Leicas are really fun. Not just setting them on a shelf and admiring them, or walking around the house while fondling their knurled knobs and beautifully machined parts (as I’m known to do), but actually taking them out and shooting film with them, just like they were meant to do. They’re so ‘retro’ that they’re not, and for those with a philosophical bent, this sort of meta-activity (activity meant to comment on the activity itself) can be immensely satisfying, not to mention the pathetic looks you’ll get from the iphone crowd or, better yet, the conspiratorial nods you’ll sometimes receive from a fellow traveller of advanced age. For me, however, the best part is passing paths with somebody sporting a digital Leica with “Swiss Anti-Fingerprint Coating,” often wearing a beret and taking pictures of people in coffee shops in the touristy parts of town, Billingham or Ono bag conspicuous by its immaculate appearance. These folks, when they notice you – and trust me, they’ll notice you, because for all gearheads the act of being out and about with a camera is all about seeing and being seen – often wear a look of morbid fascination, fixation admixed with potential danger,  as if I was carrying a live grenade with the pin removed. I suspect they really want to inquire about it, but don’t quite know what it is or what to make of it, or, if it goes that far, how to use it.

I’m often asked, usually by the iphone crowd, “Does that thing work?” Hell yes it works, because it was built to work seemingly forever, because it’s a sublime fusion of simplicity and function, overbuilt to last for as long as you continue to service it. Keep it in use, and the most you’ll have to do is send it off to a reputable service tech like Youxin Ye every 30 years or so.  I have no doubt that my grandkid’s grandkids, if they were of a mind (and could figure out how to load the thing) could be using it in another 100 years. Try that with your M240, or is it an M260 now?

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Of course, some of the earlier screw mount Leicas – the IA, for example –  are so outdated that even a hopeless romantic like me finds them impractical to use. In 2000, leica offered the an 0-Series replica, fully functional and sold through Leica dealers, to celebrate the 75th birthday of the 35mm Leica camera. The camera is virtually identical to the 1923 Ur-Leica prototype #104 resident in the Leica Museum. No thanks. I like my nostalgia authentic. In my mind, using one of these is like going to Las Vegas and claiming you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If I’m going to use a screw mount Leica, I’m going to use the best, most technologically advanced screw mount Leica ever built – the Leica IIIg, not some cheesy historical replica dedicated to the Sultan Of Brunei [on a side note: how is it that Leica culture could be so schizophrenic as to give us both the sublime IIIg, M2/M3 and M4 and also the “Hello Kitty” M6?].For sale-12Released in 1957, the IIIg is Leica’s last screw mount camera. Had it been released in 1950 or 1953, it would be have been far more influential in subsequent Leica lore, because it’s a superb camera that’s really fun to use.   Leitz had introduced the Leica M3 four years earlier in 1953 as a clean sheet design with a new lens mount and the now iconic M styling. The M3 set a new standard for 35mm rangefinders that lasts to this day.

The IIIg was introduced as the logical last evolutionary step of the old Barnack design series, a last tip of the hat to more conservative Leicaphiles who still preferred the familiarity of the Barnack camera. Its new features were incremental – the same basic ergonomics of the IIIf with a redesigned top cover and a larger and improved viewfinder similar to the M3, including an extra frosted window for the projection of different frame lines into the viewfinder.

Leitz produced and offered the IIIg for only 3 years, 1957-60, years when the M3 was meeting with professional  raves and impressive sales. Japanese manufacturers were also offering their updated alternatives to the M3; the IIIg not only had to compete against the better spec’d M3, Canon P and Nikon S3, but after 1958, the Leica M2, itself a runaway success much like the M3. Next to these now iconic cameras, the Leica IIIg was a technological dinosaur, lacking the combined VF/RF assemblies of the M3 and the Canon and Nikon that allowed for a single, much larger eyepiece for simultaneous focusing and composing.

aaaa-08413The author’s incredibly cool Leica IIIg

The Leica IIIg was much like the screw mount Leicas that had been produced by Leitz since the 20’s, featuring only incremental changes from the previous Barnack Leica, the IIIf ‘Red Dial:” A larger .7 mag viewfinder with two sets of illuminated, parallax corrected framelines for the 50/90 focal lengths; Shutter speeds calibrated with a modern shutter speed progression – the 2/4/8/15/30/60…. ; Separate flash synch dial replaced with two flash settings at 1/50 and 1/25th on the shutter speed dial; A film reminder dial placed on the back of the body that exceeded ASA 100.

The IIIg is not as common as earlier Barnacks.   Consequently, they sell for substantially more than a well cared for IIIc or IIIf, and most of them sit on collector’s shelves or circulate among us Leicaphiles in quixotic buy/sell attempts to finally satiate an obsessive compulsion to find The Perfect Leica.

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Above is a photo I took in a Paris street with my IIIg and a first generation collapsible Summicron. The photo isn’t going to win any photojournalism awards, I’m sure, but I really like it just the same. It reminds me of what I love about the city – an eclectic mix of the profane and the sacred, where the beautiful peeks out at you in the most unexpected places.  It also seems appropriate that it was taken with an old Leica, the sort used by HCB for many if his iconic Parisian photos. What’s printed above is a simple scan of the negative with some minor fiddling in Photoshop. But I also have an 10×15 silver print of the same photo, printed by HCB’s own master printer George Fevre, one of my most treasured photographic possessions. How cool is that? My own Parisian “decisive moment,”  captured with an iconic Leica film camera and printed by one of the World’s most masterful printers, the same guy who printed HCB’s stuff. That’s what you call “living the dream.”

 

Digital “Photography”: Based On A True Story

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Which One Do You Prefer?

 

“Digital capture quietly but definitively severed the optical connection with reality, that physical relationship between the object photographed and the image that differentiated lens-made imagery and defined our understanding of photography for 160 years. The digital sensor replaced to optical record of light with a computational process that substitutes a calculated reconstruction using only one third of the available photons. That’s right, two thirds of the digital image is interpolated by the processor in the conversion from RAW to JPG or TIF. It’s reality but not as we know it… Veteran digital commentator Kevin Connor says, “The definition of computational photography is still evolving, but I like to think of it as a shift from using a camera as a picture-making device to using it as a data-collecting device.”

I ran across the above quote in an article in Time Magazine entitled “The Next Revolution in Photography Is Coming,” which, to put it charitably, is normally not the first place I look when I want cutting edge philosophical discussions, given its pedestrian readership usually located on the far end of any cultural curve. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting article, discussing things some of us, myself included, have been articulating since the inception of the digital age. Just a few years ago, saying essentially the same thing on a popular photo forum, I was roundly derided as a kook by the usual suspects. It’s not as if ignorance and lack of expansive thinking don’t have a consistent pedigree; if history teaches anything, it’s that the revolutionary implications of technological changes are never seen by the average guy until they’re impossible to ignore. Now, if Time is any indication, maybe it’s a message finally resonating with the generally educated public: the passage from  analogue to digital “photography”, from a philosophical and practical perspective, is less an evolution than a revolution of the medium. What we’ve wrought, with our CMOS and CCD sensors that transform light into an insubstantial pattern of 1’s and 0’s, is not merely a difference of degree from traditional photography but rather a fundamental difference of kind. You can even make a claim that digital photography really isn’t ‘photography’ in the etymological sense of the word at all. As Mr. Connor suggests, its more accurately described as “data collecting.”

Until recently, photography worked like this: light reflected off people and things  and would filter through a camera and physically transform a tangible thing, an emulsion of some sort. This emulsion was contained on, or in, some physical substrate, like tin, or glass, or celluloid or plastic. The photograph was a tangible thing, created by light and engraved with a material trace of something that existed in real time and space. That’s how “photography” got its name:  “writing with light”.

Roland Barthes, the French linguist, literary theorist and philosopher, wrote a book about this indexical quality of photography called Camera Lucida. Its one of the seminal texts in the philosophy of photography, which means it’s often referred to while seldom being read, and even less so, understood. To summarize Barthes, what makes a photograph special is its uncanny indexical relationship with what we perceive “out there,” with what’s real. And its indexical nature is closely tied to its analogue processes. Analogue photography transcribes – “writes”-  light as a physical texture on a physical substrate in an indexical relationship of thing to image (i.e. a sign that is linked to its object by an actual connection or real relation irrespective of interpretation). What’s important for Barthes’ purposes is that the analogue photograph was literally an emanation of a referent; from a real body, over there, proceeded radiations which ultimately touched the film in my camera, over here, and a new, physical thing, a tintype, or daguerreotype, or a film negative, was created, physically inscribed by the light that touched it.

Now photography is digital, and the evolution from film to digital is not merely about of the obsolescence of film as the standard photographic medium; rather, it’s the story of a deep ontological and phenomenological shift that is transforming the way we capture and store images that purport to copy the world.  Where we used to have cameras that used light to etch a negative, we now have, in the words of Kevin Connor, digital data-collecting devices that don’t “write with light,” but rather which translate light into discrete number patterns which aren’t indexical and can be instantiated intangibly i.e. what is produced isn’t a ‘thing’ but only a pattern which contains the potential of something else, something else that requires the intercession of of third thing, computation.

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4-1-niepce-view_from_the_windowThe First Photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, 1827, Le Gras, France

In August, 2003,  I was sitting in the garden outside of Joseph Niépce’s Burgundy estate, where, from the window of which, Niépce had taken history’s first photograph. I was enjoying a pleasant late Summer afternoon in the company of George Fèvre, one of the unsung masters of 20th Century photography. A personal friend of Henri Cartier-Bresson, George was the master printer at PICTO in Paris and was the guy who printed HCB’s negatives from the 1950’s until HCB’s death in 2004. If you’ve seen an HCB or Joseph Koudelka print on exhibit somewhere, in all likelihood George printed it.

George was an incredibly nice man, humble to a fault, full of fascinating stories about the foibles of the photographic masters and very thoughtful about the craft of photography.

Cartier-Bresson-negative-HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON, Behind the Gare St. Lazare (1932). Picto Labs, Paris. Hands: George Fèvre, Paris 5/11/87 © John Loengard

Up to that day I lived in the old familiar world of traditional photographic practices: aperture and shutter, exposure, film type, developer characteristics, contrast filters and paper grades, a world whose highest achievements George had helped promulgate. What better person to talk to about photography, and what better place to do it, where it all started.

Of course, I wanted to hear his stories, first person accounts of iconic photographers and their iconic prints, and George, always the gentleman, obliged without any sense of the significance of what he was remembering. To him, the specifics of how HCB or Koudelka worked, the quality of their negatives, and how George used them to create the stunning prints that made them famous were nothing special, all in a day’s work for him. What George was interested in talking about was Photoshop, something he had just discovered and of which he was fascinated. And he said something curious to me, something I always remembered and something I stored in memory for a better time to reflect on it.

What George said was this: Photoshop was amazing. Anyone could now do with a few keystrokes what he had laboriously done at such cost in the darkroom. It was going to open up the craft in ways heretofore unimagined. But it was no longer photography. There was something disquieting about the transformation. Photography’s tight bond with reality had been broken, its “indexical” nature, as Barthe would put it, had been severed, and it was this bond that gave photography its power. We were arriving at a post-photographic era, where image capture would become another form of graphic arts, its products cut free from ultimate claims to truth. There could be no claims to truthful reproduction because there was nothing written and no bedrock thing produced, just a numerical patter of 1’s and 0’s instantiated nowhere and capable of endless manipulation. The future would be the era of “visual imaging.”

Since that day,  the cataract of digital innovation has not abated but intensified— we all know the litany because we are caught up in it on every side: 36 mp DSLRs with facial recognition and a bevy of simulations, camera phones, Lyto, Tumblr, Facebook — do I need to go on?

AAAAAAA-6George Fèvre, Le Gras, France, August, 2003

The changes have brought their benefits: giving people the chance at uncensored expression,  allowing us to easily capture and disseminate what we claim to be our experiences. Of course, there are also new problems of craft and aesthetic. Previous technologies have usually expanded technical mastery, but digital technology is contracting it. The eloquence of a single jewel like 5×7 contact print has turned into the un-nuanced vulgarity of 30 x 40 tack sharp Giclee prints taken with fully automated digitized devices and reworked in Photoshop so as destroy any indexical relationship with the real.

We are currently living through a profound cultural transformation at the hands of techno-visionaries with no real investment in photography as a practice. All the more ironic in that this has happened at a time when popular culture now bludgeons us with imagery: while photography is dead, images are everywhere. You see imaging on your way to work, while you’re at work, at lunch time, on your way home from work, when you go out in the evening. Your computerized news feed and email inbox is full of it. Even what you read has become an adjunct to the primacy of the image. The problem is that the images digital processes give us possess no intrinsic proof of their truth, its non-instantiated computated product endlessly malleable and thus cut free from ultimate claims to truth. And it’s this claim to truth that gives photography its uncanny ability to communicate with us, to make us reflect, or to aid us in remembrance, or to help us see anew.