“When it comes to organizing the world into a picture, the photographer has little to go on…[his] only constraining form is his frame. Inside those four edges there are no structural traditions, only space.” — Ben Lifson
Robert Capa famously said that if your pictures weren’t good enough you weren’t close enough. I always thought that was wrong. Sometimes you can miss a picture by being too close.
Aesthetics is a question of where you place the frame. As psychologist Rudolf Arheim notes, the visual world surrounds us as an unbroken space, subdivided conceptually but without limits. Photography is the practice of isolating a portion of that whole, always with the understanding that the world continues beyond the frame’s borders. Part of what gives a photo meaning is the larger context within which it resides; sometimes that context is implied, sometimes it’s expressly pictured. Sometimes the subject is found within the frame while its context lies out of frame. Other times the photo is the dynamic of context and form within the frame; for this you need distance. Robert Capa would be an example of the former; Henri Cartier-Bresson would be an example of the latter. There’s room for both in photo aesthetics.
I say all of this because I’ve been admiring the photography of Erik van Straten, a Dutch amateur photographer [‘amateur’ in the sense that he doesn’t photograph for profit] whose work you’ll find in various corners of the net. If anything, his photography is a rejoinder to the cliche of getting close. His work possesses a dynamic power precisely because he’s chosen to stand back when necessary. For van Straten, the key is not getting near, or sufficiently far, but “being the right distance.”
Erik van Straten was born in 1954 in Leiden, the Netherlands, and grew up in Amsterdam. In 1971 he was admitted to the photography department of the applied arts school in Amsterdam. While there he realized that professional photography didn’t interest him. Photographically, he went his own way while nurturing his own style.
He remains a dedicated film shooter and darkroom printer. He has never ‘transitioned’ to digital photography because a well-made gelatin silver print is simply more beautiful than any photo on a screen or from a digital printer. A traditionalist, he uses various film Leicas or a Nikon S2 with standard focal lengths of 50mm and 35mm. His preferred film is Tmax400, developed in Perceptol. He makes his prints with a Leitz Focomat IIc. The photos reproduced herein are scans of gelatin-silver prints he’s created in his darkroom. You can still see in them the beautiful gray tonalities and granular textures of the gelatin-silver process even when they’ve necessarily been scanned to be presented here.
Refreshing in this age of disembodied digital processes, van Straten’s photographs remain material documents in addition to being visual observations. They possess the tactile elements of paper and emulsion. They are physical things one centers in frames and hangs on walls. A traditionalist, van Straten considers this materiality a necessary feature of a photograph.
I find van Straten’s photos to be beautiful in a literal sense, and that isn’t a criticism but a compliment. There’s a fullness about them, an intuitive sense of space that creates a coherent whole. They’re mannered without devolving into mannerism; they are representational and yet self-referential, realistic while being stylistic. His photos are simultaneously portraits of the individual and the archetype, a blend of the specific and the universal. If they are stamped with van Straten’s psychological imprint, they also have a universal aspect, a mythic quality – what Arther Lubow calls a “trinocular vision,” a confluence of personal, objective, and mythic. They are allegories playing out in the moment, liminal zones in which the everyday touches something eternal.
What I love about Erik’s photography is the simplicity- they are snapshots (I don’t find that word to be negative at all), in the best sense of the Leica philosophy. His whole collection of work does add up to something of interest.
The fact that these are all darkroom prints is lovely, and also should serve as a kick in my butt to finally set up my darkroom again.
The rub, however, is that we are seeing these shots on a digital platform of some type or another.
I agree that no digital black/white print (that I have made) matches a good darkroom one. I know this from experience, not from just being a theoretical fan of the film ethic. That said, it really comes down to whether or not one intends producing prints of some kind. Anything other than a print, and darkrooms become nothing more than a modern conceit. Seems to me that using film to make the shot, but intending to scan that and use digital for the rest of the proceedings is a bit perverse, nothing but a self-inflicted inconvenience within the image chain.
I’m also a bit bemused by the notion that scanning a print, as here, itself a second generation of the original exposure, will be better than scanning the original negative. Let’s face it: any print you make is less crisp than the negative from which it is born; it’s in the nature of the print’s emulsion. Copy a print, and you’re working from an inferior new master of the subject.
However, if you are copying a master print because you need a shortcut to making subsequent prints of that negative and it’s a difficult bitch to print, then that’s another matter.
I think romanticism can be lead to strange conclusions. 🙂
“Seems to me that using film to make the shot, but intending to scan that and use digital for the rest of the proceedings is a bit perverse, nothing but a self-inflicted inconvenience within the image chain.”
Yes, this is the (my) eternal dilemma – why use film in a digital world? I don’t think there’s a good answer to that question, other than “because I want to.”
And if you choose that path, at least part of the time, how do you get your images into the “real” world? Scanning negatives produces something not-quite-satisfactory. Scanning a print – maybe somewhat-more-satisfactory.
Viewing any art on an electronic screen is a compromise, be it a Koudelka photograph, or a Jackson Pollack painting, or a Calder sculpture.
This is the dilemma, no doubt. I think the best response is to do what Erik does – ignore it.
Well, yes, that is the rub, Rob. We’re stuck with digital as the medium with which to attempt to present film capture. It’s an insoluble dilemma as the analogue print we’re looking at is really, of necessity, a digital scan. But I do see some worth in what Erik is doing, only maybe in the sense that he’s being intellectually consistent, which I admire.
Let’s face it, you and I and Erik and a thousand others could be pumping out massive amounts of decent work daily with our phones. It’s like catching fish in a barrel. But instead, we labor along with our film and D76, one photo at a time. And we find a real value in that. Explain that to me…
It’s the difference between being a mechanic and being a craftsman.
When I was a boy I loved engines, especially Italian engines so I apprenticed with a mechanic that was a craftsman. Everything was done by hand. Tuning was mainly accomplished by ear. You develop a sensitivity over time that tells you when you get it right. You use all your senses, including your ass in the seat.
Do I need a dyno to tell me that I got good power out of the engine? No. I know when it’s getting it. I also can feel when there is something left, that’s a fine distinction.
Having control from inception to completion combined with the knowledge to adjust allows you to think, at the end of it, I got it all.
I think it’s partly generational. I tried using a cellphone – admittedly, an old Samsung of 5 megapixies for a while – but it ended up costing me dear: a yacht skipper I know had seen some snaps on my website of distressed paintwork on boats up on the hard, and was interested in buying for decoration on the yacht on which he worked. I had to turn him down due to knowing that there was no way he was going to get a large print for which I’d be proud to accept paternity. Never gonna let that happen to me again. Real cameras, from then on in!
But as to the doing it with film and chemicals: yes, it certainly is a hard-earned skill, and that carries a heap of personal gratification when you get it right; trouble is, working on one’s own is hardly the way to discover if you’re doing it right: in my own case, when I landed my first pro job I thought I was already a pretty good hand in the darkroom. Very soon the rest of the pros working beside me in my new job disabused me of my imaginary prowess: six years later I really was good.
Yes, doing it slowly in the dark has charm. ( 🙂 ) I find that I soon get bored making images on the computer. It ends up being pretty automatic and “more of the same” though, of course, it might just be genre that bores me now. Enthusiasm is ever more difficult to raise; maybe that’s really what lies behind the on/off thing with the Q2 Mono, an attempt to buy enthusiasm, which would only last a little while, and knowing that provides a necessary brake.
I’ve said in the past that if I had to return to shooting film then I doubt I’d bother shooting anything, but this is me being more than a tad disingenuous.
Truth is in a perfect world I’d love to shoot sheet film, have that purpose built wet darkroom where I could immerse myself in the joys of exploring a range of processes and producing prints that few would ever see. That in itself sounds a tad disingenuous, but really it’s not, I’d be in craft and creative heaven.
Back in this world, I immerse myself in shooting to a sensor, then processing, printing and publishing digitally.
Each to their own.
Keith, what’s stopping you? A darkroom can be quite easily built, and for not a lot of dosh. Your perfect world is not unattainable.
Rob, in a word, health, together with other real life practicalities.
Next time, perhaps?
Next time, I hope I have more sense than to get strung up on any kind of artistic adventuring!
Next time, I hope I have the sense to do something boring but very lucrative that lets me get off the treadmill before I’m forty, and then enjoy a money worry-free dolce far niente with Ann for the rest of our lives, and that when our time comes, we get ready for the next round, but together! There’s little value in last man standing. I hate waiting rooms.
(I’m looking forward to Sunday, 20:30 hrs (Spanish time) when the Beeb World Service tv does an interview with Tracy Emin. The same guy did the interview with William Klein, and I have watched that quite a few times. These days, I spend too much time watching news channels.)
It seems to me that the effect can be reproduced both with film and with a digital sensor. Film prints better, digital cameras tend to make the best of the fitted lens. The sense of depth and “trinocularity” is more to do with camera angles and aperture than the carrier medium.
That is not to distract from the examples here. They are all very good at showing the effect and would make great things to have… real things. I thought that the one with the horizontal boardwalk was amusing since it doesn’t do “the usual thing” with the reflection.
Also, never done this before, but I just saw an interesting post over on Hamish’s site that is perhaps related to the subject being discussed here:
Hope you don’t mind Tim?
I’d kill to have a darkroom again. I loved printing. The problem for me isn’t getting the equipment, it’s that I don’t have a room!
If you did your printing quite some time ago, you may find that, today, you can’t get your favourite papers and developers anymore. For me, the love was destroyed with the advent of plastic and multigrade papers. I detested using filters instead of the familiar graded papers.
Well Rob even if many legendary paper are gone ilford still produce the ilfobrom gallerie but only in grade 3. You would have to manage with enlarger choice condenser /diffuser and different developper wich is also sparce today unless you mix your own chemical. I have to admit the graded paper still have the best mid tone gradation specially for skin tone. Have a look around you may be surprised.
For universe’s sake James dont kill anyone (altough i can make some suggestion). I have a focomat 2c in a small walk-in wardrobe (no clothes hanging in there) to print and i drum process the paper in the kitchen just like i use to with cibachrome eons ago. This way i can print 16×20, washing in tray obviously. I tone in trays but i’ll try to do slight selenium in drum to see what’s possible. The most difficult part is to get the wife’s approval.
Come on give it a try
My name’s Éric, i shoot m leica with 35 and 50 and print fb paper with a focamat 2c but that dont make me a Erik. I dont have his brio but i’m still trying after more than 40 years… you can say i’m a slow learner lol. Jokes aside i may have few prints i’m proud of on a yearly basis. The interest for me is the process, i find it soothing like a kind of meditation. Let’s say it’s therapeutic. I dont scan, the most digital i would do is taking a snap of the print with my ipad to show friends by email. I’ll usually send print by mail with a hand written note (fountain pen), i even lick the stamp…
I have know Erik’s photography for a few years now. I find his photographs thoughtful, meaningful while having the appearance of candid work on his daily routines. Sure, his work would look better in real life. Holding a fibre paper archival print is first class. Thank heavens, and in the case Erik, that we can see his work on a digital format. Sharing one’s work digitally allows connection across the world. I am thankful and grateful for Erik’s photography and willingness to share his procedures techniques (mentioned above). That being said his work is first class. I particularly love his portraits.