Category Archives: Documentary Photography

The Advent and Death of Photographic Realism

The German philosopher Walter Benjamin overturned the by now anachronistic conception of Charles Baudelaire, who divided art into two opposing camps : on the one hand the imaginative ( true artists who want to “illuminate things” with their subjectivity) and on the other hand realists (who want to “represent things as they are” but have no real means to do so). Benjamin’s essays – Little History of Photography in 1931 and, more importantly, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1936 – argued that photography had finally emancipated art from the imaginative dimension that he claimed had heretofore characterized all traditional artistic work, and as such was a watershed historical moment in the history of imagery production.

Walter Benjamin Thinking Really Big Thoughts

Even in the era of prevailing subjective pictorialism forward looking photographers took up Benjamin’s call for realism, seeing in photography a unique medium to approach and recreate the truth for other’s purviewAmong these, in America, were Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine who used photography as a tool for social investigation and denunciation. In France Eugene Atget documented a disappearing Paris. 

In America, Jacob Riis fathered modern social investigative photography. Emigrated from Denmark, he initially worked as a police reporter, but then devoted himself to photographing the most disadvantaged areas of New York. In 1890 he published his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies on New York Tenements ,where he documented the life of immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then the most densely populated area of ​​the world, with over half a million people in one square kilometer. Riis’s work spurred New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt to take government action to alleviate the retched social conditions Reis met there, and as such is remembered as one of the most influential photojournalists who documented the social injustices of America between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s.

Lewis Hine, a teacher at the Ethical School in New York, used photography as a sociologist, photographing the life of immigrants on Ellis Island. In 1908 Hine became an official photographer of the National Child Labor Committee , an organization created to combat child labor in heavy industry. There he used photography as an instrument of social protest, accurately representing child laborers and their working conditions.

Lewis Hine, Child Laborer in North Carolina Cotton Mill, 1890

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From 1889 to 1924 Eugene Atget documented old Paris, which was transforming itself into a modern metropolis, “manifesting from the outset the ambition to create a collection of all that is artistic in and around Paris”. He considered himself a commercial photographer, so much so that in 1890 he exhibited a small plaque outside his laboratory with the inscription “Documents for artists”. With his 18×24 bellows camera, a heavy wooden tripod he systematically photographed Paris, its architecture, shops and shop windows, along the way garnering the interest of the Surrealists like Man Ray and Brassaï, who saw in Atget a surrealist approach (i.e. highlighting and magnifying the real).

Atget died relatively unknown in 1927, although some of his prints were present in various archives in Paris.  Atget’s artistic recognition was posthumous, thanks to the interest of Berenice Abbott ,who after Atget’s death bought the collection of Atget’s negatives and prints. These are now housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1930, Abbott published the first book of Atget photographs, Atget, Photographe de Paris. From this moment his fame grew, so much so that he is consecrated as one of the most influential photographers of the early modern age: appreciated and recognized both by ‘realist’ American photographers such as Walker Evans, Ansel Margaret Bourke-White and by Europeans André Kertesz , Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Josef Koudelka.

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Why the new use of photography as practiced by these men and their successors Cartier Bresson, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka? As Benjamin noted, as a means of mechanical reproduction of nature, the photographic process removed the necessary subjectivity inherent in previous ‘artistic’ approaches to creating imagery, which by its very nature relied on the artist’s subjectivity to render. With a camera, that subjectivity was nullified; the camera recorded what it recorded (of course this doesn’t account for the fact that someone has to point the camera at something). What we’re given is an objective view, using Sontag’s words, “stenciled from the real.” While photographers may editorialize to the extent they choose certain subjects and present them in certain ways, photography’s objectivity assures us that what we’re seeing is real, it happened, and as a result we can draw various conclusions about the state of affairs it represents.

Is this type of photography still available to us in the digital age? I’d argue it isn’t, and this is one of the enduring conundrums photography must face as it goes forward. Photography is no longer mechanical reproduction, which Benjamin saw as the means by which it achieved its claim to objectivity. Ironically, Benjamin anticipated this devolution back to subjective imagery. In his view, history was not a linear story of progress where we learn from the past, but rather something chaotic and contradictory in which past mistakes are repeated by future generations. Digital technology has made photography endlessly maleable and as such has brought it back to the subjective status Benjamin identified as the defining characteristic of pre-photographic imagery. The objective link has been severed. If you use Benjamin’s criterion of truth, photography as an objective chronicle of the truth is dead.

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Composition

“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 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 glace. 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.” – Henri Cartier Bresson.

I once met HCB, a few months before his death. He was at a gallery show in Paris where I’d stopped in. He, of course, was the center of attention while there, rightfully so; a legend in our field. Although, I must say, I’m conflicted about him. His photography is obviously one of the 20th century’s benchmarks. His written thoughts about what he did and how he did it – well, let’s just say I find a lot of it not helpful, the standard word-salad that comes along with any attempt to articulate the meaning of visual art, where the meaning is ultimately not reducable to language. You either get it or you don’t, and when you do it’s not capable of being articulated verbally.

I suppose what HCB is saying here is that a successful photograph is one where life offers us the form, we choose the content, and the goal is to fit in the content in a way that results in pleasing form. We “work in unison’ with the forms we’re presented to bring balance to the whole, modifying perspectives by moving a certain way, by coincidence of line etc. When successful, we produce a photograph that has both pleasing form and content. It’s interesting to me that HCB never really went further and talked about the role of content in the equation. In this respect he was a ‘Formalist’, someone whose aim was to produce a form that was pleasing to the eye. The content might as well be irrelevant. A guy on a bike, a kid with a jug of milk, a guy looking through a fence; all of it benign, pretty, not saying much except as it’s pleasing to the eye. And I think that it’s ultimately his failing as a photographer. His work is the equivilant of Muzak; it’s pleasing, but at a very superficial level. It ‘says’ nothing, really.

I think that’s why I prefer later photographers, those like Josef Koudelka who came after HCB, internalized his ideas about form but also chose content that had a message. Koudelka’s Gypsy photographs are of a magnitude of insight HCB could never aspire to. They are both beautiful formally and emotionally powerful via their subject matter while teaching us something as opposed to merely flattering the eye.

60’s ‘street photographers’ like Winogrand and Friedlander went in the opposite direction – a complete rejection of form for content. At least insofar as Winogrand is concerned, the content became a sort of joke – who could produce the most arresting content irrespective of whether it said anything of value. I think of Winogrand’s work as simply an extended joke, and attempt to produce manufactured photographic realities that produce strong emotional reactions in the viewer. Ultimately a party trick. Friedlander at least was saying something of value – extended meditations on American car culture and self – expression respectively.

I’ve lead off the piece with a photograph I’d taken in Paris. It has both pleasing form but also has content that (hopefully) speaks to something about the subjects involved and the photographer who took it. While it might have a bit of the vibe of an HCB photograph (Paris, street, candid, movement), it’s not something he would have taken, probably because its form isn’t strong enough on its own. But it does possess a content that says something – something about beauty, about the appeal of the beautiful, about how some people simply can’t see the beauty that surrounds us and walk right by it locked into the minutia of their daily existence, how others long for that beauty. That’s what makes it a good photo, and it’s also an analysis that Bresson would have missed, and why he’d have passed it by without another look.

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Film and Delayed Gratification

Delayed gratification is a person’s ability to resist an immediate ‌reward so that they can get a more valuable future reward. A reward can be defined as anything that brings comfort or pleasure. 

Delayed gratification necessitates imagining yourself in the future. Many people equate delayed gratification with self-control or willpower, but more importantly it involves a future expectation of a more valuable reward.

You often hear Gen Zer’s saying that a main reason for their interest in film photography is the delay between taking the photo and seeing the results. Somehow, that interval between the photo and its realization imparts a weigh to the photo that a quick instantaneous review on a screen lacks. It’s an unintended future reward film gives us in the digital age.

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve just finished developing a huge backlog of film that had been accumulating since 2012. Part of my reward is getting to look back on my life when I was healthy and well. It wasn’t that long ago. The photo that leads off this post is me sitting on Valentino Rossi’s MotoGP winning 2009 Yamaha while attending a race weekend in Indianapolis in 2015. In addition to being evidence that I actually did do it, I can look back and see myself relatively young and healthy. Knowing that, 7 years later I’d be in the process of dying wouldn’t have entered my mind that day.

Life is funny that way. What I’m experiencing now has taught me to value each day because its of infinite worth. I hope that’s what you take from this, in addition to thinking I was a pretty good-looking guy back in the day (or at least that’s what my wife tells me).

Directly above is another newly discovered photo – me in a hotel room in Barcelona in 2004. Nothing special about the photo, but for some reason it resonates with me. Again, I was young and healthy and I was fortunate to be visiting someplace interesting. I’m taking the photo with a Leica M4, the best meterless M Leitz produced. For some reason I sold it. I should have kept it; one thing I’ve learned is to never sell a film Leica unless you have compelling reasons to do so. Whatever the reason I sold it, I’m certain it wasn’t compelling. Another life lesson learned.

Wouldn’t it be great if we learned our life lessons with enough time left to benefit from them?

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State Fair

North Carolina State Fair, Raleigh 2022

Having been dragooned into attending the NC State Fair by visiting friends, I decided to try the M240 as a ‘street photography’ camera. 21mm f4, ISO 800, f8 and scale focus. Basically point and shoot. As I’ve mentioned innumerable times, my preferred ‘street photography’ set-up is the Ricoh GXR with the 21mm via the M-Mount module using the same settings. Given the GXR’s crop sensor, its the equivalent of shooting a 32mm on a full frame.

Having now experienced both, I’m still partial to the Ricoh for street work. It’s smaller, lighter, less obtrusive, and mated to the 21mm gives the perfect focal length for drive by shooting (the 21mm used full frame is simply a bit too wide for my tastes, not allowing you to get the feeling of being on top of subjects in a way the same lens on a 1.5 crop sensor does. The M240’s 24mpx sensor does, however, give you much more leeway to crop, unlike the GXR’s 10 mpx, but I’m pretty much a ‘no crop’ guy anyway). Here’s the best of what I could do with the M240 in 150 minutes at the fair. The one above and the one directly below are cropped. IMHO, nothing exceptional, but then again I was there 2.5 hours, so I wasn’t expecting a body of work. But the two previous times I’ve been to the fair with the GXR I’ve been amazed at the amount of interesting photos it’s brought back.

Another thing I’ve noticed with the larger megapixel sensors is that it’s more difficult to dirty them up in post-processing. With lower pixel count cameras – the old CCD Nikon D200 or the Ricoh, both 10 megapixel – it’s easy enough to push a few buttons in Silver Efex and get a gritty image resembling Neopan 1600 or Tri-X pushed a few stops. It seems the pixel density of 20+ megapixel sensors resist such treatment. One more reason I find the digital sensor sweet spot to be 10-16 megapixels; of course, if you’re shooting with sharpness and clarity in mind, or are looking to produce 40×60 prints, lower resolution sensors aren’t going to cut it. But for street photography you’re going to display digitally or print in reasonable sizes i.e. 12×18 max, they work.

Anyone else shoot them both? I’d love to hear reader’s preferred cameras for street work…..

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Modern Advertising for a Modern Camera

Leica IIIf

Leica advertising has always been stylish. Here’s two in particular that I admire. The first, above, is an early ’50s Modernist advert. Angular orientation with embedded triangles, sans serif typefaces coupled with old school italic script typeface…and the Piccadilly Circus Eros Statute. Eros is one of the primordial gods that emerged from Chaos when the world began, and is the driving force behind the unions of the primordial gods that initiated creation. Subtle. Well done. Someone was familiar with classic Greek mythology who expected his target audience to be so as well.

As for the camera, this “automatic focusing” Leica is an IIIa with a 50mm Summar. Beautiful.

Leica Monochrom
Leica Advertisement

Sixty years later and this ad for the M Monochrom. Monochrome (as in black and white) design can easily appear dull. But it’s perfect here (it is a Monochrom camera after all). This one cleverly uses font-weight to bold certain letters and make them stand out against the monochrome design. The bold camera and letters give a point of focus, while the small text does two things: It draws the reader in and helps align the bolded text. It’s “edgy”. It works.

In between these two are any number of inspired advertising designs. Here are a few more I like, all of them graphically simple while drawing your eye to where it needs to go:

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With the exception of the Monochrom ad (a nice throw back to the glory days), the advertising wonks at Leitz who designed these are long gone, replaced by a new, hip generation of 20 something Parsons Design grads who have no conception of the incredibly rich history of Leitz they could draw on. Who’ve been educated, not with the Greek classics, but via Facebook and social media.

So we get the argument from authority sublimated via the cult of personality: famous people achieving their photographic vision with their newest Leica, Lenny Kravitz stalking his prey in the East Village while rocking his rosta hat and a camera designed by Jackson Pollock.

Photo by Lenny Kravitz. Leica gave This Guy a Show at a NYC Gallery. This was the Photo they Used to Advertise It. Seriously.

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Erik van Straten. Exceptional.

Meanwhile, there are more than a few Leica users quietly producing stunning work. Look hard enough on the net and you’ll find them – not, mind you in some curated corner where money is looking to be made, or amongst the beautiful people of NYC or some self-appointed expert shill man looking to make a buck off the low-hanging Leicaphile fruit – but everyday people who’ve been using Leicas forever, producing bodies of work that should humble the “Leica Photographers” producing the banal shit above. Leica needs to start recognizing them, because they’re why Leica is famous. Leica should think about returning the favor.

Dragan Novakovac. Just a Guy With a Leica.

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Significant Fact…or Insignificant Flicker?

“I capture reality but never pose it. But once captured, is it still reality?” – RIchard Kalvar, ‘Street Photographer

Having had looked at lots of it over the years, I’ve concluded there are three types of ‘Street Photography’: 1) photos of people on the street (go to any popular photo forum – and a lot of street specific websites – and you’ll see endless variations of this); 2) gimmicky photos of people in public spaces e.g people caught in awkward poses or fallen in the street etc; or 3) photos that attempt to say something about a person in the street, or something about the person’s relationship with someone else in the street, or or something about the person’s relationship with the built environment. (It helps as well if it also has a pleasing or interesting aesthetic i.e. it’s not completely dependent on its subject matter to generate interest). It’s only this latter type that holds any real interest…for me.

My problem with ‘street photography’ as it’s practiced by most is that it invariably falls into the first category – photos of people in the street that have no inherent interest beyond what they depict i.e. it’s just a picture of someone in the street. Below is my contribution (New York City, 2013): people in the street and not much more. While it may possess some marginal aesthetic interest, it doesn’t say anything. At most it relies on a gimmick, the juxtaposition of three people looking three different ways. So what. As a younger photographer, less aware of the subtleties that create real interest in a photo, I’d likely have picked it out and published it. Hey, look at my photo of people on the street!

New York City, 2013

Compare it with the photo below (Edinburgh, 2015). The two photos make for an enlightening juxtaposition. Same formal aesthetic – three people on the street similarly positioned. From a textbook perspective, the Edinburgh photo is a failure – bad framing, no faces. Yet, to me, the photo has a power the New York photo doesn’t, something about those rumpled clothes that talk about the lives of the people who wear them. You don’t need their faces to read into the photo a deflating reality about about the people shown; it’s there in their clothes, goods that promise so much while in the shop window but look like this once we’ve fallen for consumerism’s conjuring tricks.

Edinburgh, 2015

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New York City, 2013

A larger question is whether street photography can be ‘documentary.’ The legitimacy of ‘street photography’ is premised on the assumption that capturing a millisecond of arrested time in an image can reveal something true. Art critic Lincoln Kirsten thought this debatable. “The candid camera is the greatest liar in the photographic family, shaming the patient hand-retoucher as an innocent fibber. The candid camera with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real fact of what is going on than to explode it…It drugs the eye into believing it has witnessed a significant fact when it has only caught a flicker.” That kid above: did the camera catch something meaningful, or is that just a throwaway glance the camera insists is something more?

So, assuming we’re talking about interesting street photography of the third type, can we say that what’s being shown us is truthful, or is it trickery, an artificial reality created by the camera isolating in time something that requires a larger temporal context to be represented accurately?

Edinburgh, 2015

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Me in the Mirror

Who sees the human face correctly: the photographer or the mirror?’ Picasso

I love this quote. It gets at something paradoxical about mirrors. I got thinking about mirrors for two reasons: first, I’m currently reading Jorge Luis Borges’ Labryrinths, a collection of his short stories that deal with time, identity and imagination. Borges was intrigued by mirrors, finding them “monstrous,” shot through with deep philosophical paradoxes; second, given I’m pretty much confined to the house these days, I’ve been going through my photo archives and trying to put some order to all the chaos, and I’m uncovering lots of photos of me in the mirror. Mind you, most of them were taken when I was young, long before the selfie was a thing. At the time they were just throwaways, last exposures on a roll that needed to be developed. Now they’re the keepers. Funny what time does. I’m glad I had the foresight to take them, and thankful that photography gave me the means to do so.

I was 17 when I took that picture. I still have a vague remembrance of doing it. (The fact of the memory says something about a continuity between that 17 year old and me.) Some young lady had written something in lipstick on the mirror and I thought to preserve it with a photo. I ended up getting the photo above, which to me is much more interesting than what was written by someone long forgotten. Apparently, that’s ‘me’, although I feel at most a tenuous connection to the person shown. What that connection is I’m not sure. Is that really me? I do remember the camera – a beat up black paint Nikon F body with a scruffed up chrome FTN Photomic prism, my first ‘real’ camera. I remember being so proud of it, as if it had some magical power to produce better photographs than the consumer grade cameras my parents had heretofore given me. Ironically, it probably did allow me better photos by giving me a confidence in a vision that was capable of being revealed by such a sophisticated instrument.

I love the serendipity of the picture too, the off-kilter framing with the window and curtains hinting at something other than a mere reflection of who I was. That 17 year old kid, learning about what made a compelling photo, I’m sure would have passed this one up when reviewing its contact sheet, everything about it being wrong from what Popular Photography told me made a good photo. Now, I find it a really compelling photo, which should tell me something about the relationship of that person and the person I’m now.

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Sean Flynn’s Black Paint M2

Black Paint Leica M2
Sean Flynn Leica M2
Black Paint Leica M2
Sean Flynn Leica M2

This black paint Leica M2, serial number 1130008, was owned and used by US press photographer Sean Flynn, son of actor Errol Flynn. Flynn used this camera to cover the Vietnam War and Israel’s Six Day War. Flynn often accompanied US special forces units in hostile areas. On April 6th, 1970, Flynn with his fellow photojournalist Dana Stone motorcycled into Cambodia. Neither was ever seen again. It’s thought that both were kidnapped by the Vietcong and given to the Khmer Rouge before being executed. Sean Flynn was declared legally dead in 1984.

His M2 was found in his Paris apartment after his disappearance. Why he didn’t have it with him when he disappeared is anyone’s guess.

Sean Flynn with His Black M2 and Chrome Summilux

The camera, still in good working order, was auctioned off by Leitz Photographica Auctions in 2018 for an unspecified sum. It shows the obvious signs of wear of a black paint Leica used in extreme conditions. It was auctioned equipped with steel-rim Summilux 1.4/35 no.2166593 (from the last series of 200 lenses made in 1966). Attached to the camera was a short strap made from a parachute cord, with steel ring from a hand grenade.

Sean Flynn Leica M2
Black Paint Leica M2

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Memento Mori: Ohno Tsuneya, Oct 9, 1937 – Dec 23, 2017

Post-War children watching kamishibai in 1955 – from Human Symphony: The Photo Exhibition of Tanuma Takeyoshi, from the exhibition catalogue. Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. 2004.

By Shuya Ohno

[Editor’s Note: This was sent to me by reader Shuya Ohno as a beautifully designed PDF presentation. Unfortunately, I’m not sophisticated enough to publish the PDF as received, so I’ve reformatted it for publication. It’s a loving tribute from a son to a father and how that father passed his love of photography – and a Leica M3 – to his son.]

My father – Ohno Tsuneya – was born into a peaceful small town in the hilly countryside of Saitama prefecture, a few hours by train from Tokyo. His hometown, Chichibu, nestled among small mountains provided an ideal playground for a young mind to explore fields of wildflowers filled with insects, forests reverberating with cicadas all summer, and brooks and streams with nymphs, tadpoles, crayfish, and minnows. In town, he gathered with other schoolchildren on Sundays and spent his pocket change on candy so he could listen to the local kamishibai busker tell stories with his hand-painted pictures depicting fantastical illustrations of ghouls and heroes.

Like any boy during that time, he played baseball – that American import that’s also quintessentially Japanese. Like me, my father was slight in build, tall and lanky. Not athletic but loved to hike, ski, and explore. When the fever of war swept across the country, my father like all the young boys his age were indoctrinated at school to defend the motherland, and with their spindly arms taught to hold and wield bamboo poles as spears to poke at straw effigies of enemy soldiers.

My father in baseball uniform. Date and photographer unknown.

As the youngest of four siblings, my father had freedom to play. His father, a local politician, was a man of airs and appetites, a connoisseur who raised renowned hunting dogs that he had imported from Scotland. All the filial duties and expectations to succeed fell on my uncle, my father’s elder brother who my father no doubt worshiped.

WWII and the devastation of the country left Japan with per capita income less than that of India at the time. Late in the war, Tokyo in a single firebombing raid saw over 100,000 civilians killed, over a million homeless. Food was scarce. My mother’s mother sold off kimonos to buy rice, and sewed the rice into blankets to smuggle from the countryside to Tokyo for family. My father’s mother had to smuggle rice from more rural areas back to Chichibu. After the war, Japan threw itself into the long arduous task of rebuilding the country and society. My grandfather Ohno Tetsu died in 1950, during the American occupation of Japan. He was 46 years old.

My grandfather (second from right) with his prized hunting dogs. Date and photographer unknown.

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My uncle Ohno Mitsuya, boarding steamer to travel to San Francisco from Tokyo Bay. He is flanked by his two sisters, my aunts Noriko (left) and Kazuko (right). My father is in the back, second from left. Date and photographer uncertain.

My uncle Ohno Mitsuya sailed to the US to study journalism at the University of San Francisco. He never returned. Suffering from Marfan’s syndrome, he died presumably of a burst aortic aneurysm. He was only 23 years old. My father was still a teenager – and was now the only man of the house.

He came out to Tokyo to study at 9 years old, and eventually went on to study medicine at Jikei Medical University – the school he would later return to as a researcher and professor. He met my mother, Taniguchi Makiko when he was a student, bicycling across town to see her.

My mother was born on the first day of summer in 1940 in Tokyo, though her family hailed proudly from Kagoshima, the southern holdout of the last of the samurai. Her father Taniguchi Eizo served in the capital as an attorney for the City of Tokyo. During the war, her family fled to the countryside near Hiroshima after their house in Tokyo was firebombed. Eizo continued to work in Tokyo. On August 6th, 1945 my mother was 5 years old, playing when she and her mother saw a flash in the sky in the distance – it was the first atomic explosion and the end of the war. Eizo did his legal duty and served as a defense attorney during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.

The Taniguchi family: From left, my mother, Makiko, held by her sister Hamako, sister Hiroko, her mother Emi, younger brother Masamitsu, father Eizo, and sister Fusako.

Like my father’ father, Ohno Tetsu, my mother’s father Taniguchi Eizo died in 1950. He was 56 years old.

My father was 13, my mother was 10 years old when they lost their fathers. My mother’s mother, Emi, died after struggling with severe depression for eight years. My parents came of age without having a father in their lives.

My father hiking.
My mother’ student portrait.

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My father loved photography – the art, the activity, the ritual, the tools. One of the last times he and I shared an outing was a brisk February Sunday in 2004, a day before my 38th birthday. We spent the afternoon at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to see a retrospective of Tanuma Takeyoshi.The exhibit spanned 60 years of Tanuma’s career, beginning with images of post-War children in Tokyo from 1949 that he took as a young apprenticing photojournalist.

In 1956, the Family of Man exhibition came to Tokyo. Tanuma was inspired by this exhibition and went to see it again and again. So did my father. The exhibition is still regarded as a grand undertaking, 503 photographs from 68 countries – its magnitude matched only by its own hubris and that of its curator, the photographer Edward Steichen.

My father, Michi, and me on Bear Mountain.

However naïve it may seem today, the driving aspirations and ethos of the exhibit, to capture and encompass humanity in its multitudes as a single connected family, was situated firmly in the liberal ideology of its time, reflected in the contemporaneously articulated charter of the United Nations:

We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and… to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.

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My father before a camping trip, camera ready at his hip.

The post-war Japanese intellectual of the late-Twentieth Century was an amalgam of times and cultures. Adorned with a black beret or a bucket hat, tucked into a turtleneck, the aficionado of culture and the cool connoisseur of consumer goods practiced as an amateur naturalist, a hobbyist polymath, and a citizen of the world. Simultaneously Modern and Romantic, the intellectual eccentric saw himself as hero, like a Sherlock Holmes – a Victorian avatar that still stubbornly abides in Japan.

It is not surprising then that my father left us in the United States and returned to Japan. He had brought us, my mother and my brothers, Shinya and Michiyuki to the US when I was 6 years old. My parents remained a married couple – we were still a family – just separated by 13 time zones and 6,740 miles. He left when I was 14. I had worshiped him until then.

Family portrait with Christmas tree. Shot with a self-timer in our apartment in Fort Lee, NJ. ca. 1974

Throughout my high school days, I felt his absence, and filled it with rage. I was angry at myself for feeling angry toward my father – I felt like I was desecrating some sacred filial code. I drove my mother crazy, at times to tears. She deserved none of it. It took me into adulthood until I stopped following in his footsteps and abandoned science, until I worked feverishly making art, and then making social justice change that I felt relieved of my anger, forgiving my father and accepting and understanding him. He never saw it as abandonment, just a temporary necessity dictated by his work ethic. My mother eventually joined him after Michi graduated from Rutgers. Michi was perhaps the most American of us for having grown up in the US since he was 3 years old, but he too went to settle back in Tokyo.

Me at 17, Nara Japan
Me in my senior year of High School, 1984.

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My father taking a photograph with his Nikormat at a Bicentennial rooftop party. Photo by his close friend and colleague, Raymond Sweet. NYC, July 4th, 1976.

I inherited my father’s 1956 Leica M3 (#831611). It’s not that he bequeathed it to me. I claimed it a couple of days after he passed away. I like to believe he would have set it aside for me – but perhaps he meant to sell it. I didn’t know this M3 existed until I was rummaging through his cabinet of classic cameras, divvying up the collection between my brothers and myself. It was not a camera I had ever seen him use. He used a Nikormat while we all lived in the US. He gave that camera to my brother Shinya. My father used a black Leica M6 after that. But I knew what the M3 meant to him. We had years ago discussed its lineage and its reputation as the pinnacle of craft and industrialization, the greatest camera of the 20th century.

Industrialization and the availability of the easy point and shoot 35mm camera became a turning point for the modern world. Susan Sontag in her seminal essay, “Photography,” first published in the New York Review of Books in 1973 presaged my father’s relationship to his camera.

“The very activity of taking pictures is soothing,” she wrote, “and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel.” For my family, it was not travel but immigration in 1972 – jarring and alienating. Language proficiency, or rather its lack, always kept my father a little apart from interactions, a little behind in conversations. I could always see his desire to drop the bon mot, the jokes and puns he had in his head, if only he had mastery over English the way he had over Japanese. Instead, he had his camera. Sontag continued, “Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.” It is a fine instrument for capturing and collecting moments but also a tool for defense.

Her essay is still incisive, perhaps more so with the advent of the cellphone. “People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture-takers, at home and abroad. Everyone who lives in an industrialized society is obliged gradually to give up the past, but in certain countries, such as the United States and Japan, the break with the past has been particularly traumatic.” Migration only exacerbates this break.

For the last two years of his life, my father was bed-ridden in the hospital. He was intubated and then given a tracheotomy, taking his voice. By the end, he lost his desire to communicate, left his thick glasses by the bed and no longer cared if he could see.

My parents at Jikei University Hosptial. My father had undergone an aortic valve replacement surgery. Complications post-surgery kept him in the hospital for two years until his passing. My mother visited him every day. I took this photo with my father’s M6. 2015

I inherited from my father, not only his camera, but also his adulation for what he glimpsed in that Family of Man exhibit – a vision of humanity suffused with dignity and love for all people, an exaltation of the everyday, the celebration of the common person, and the democratization of art

​Now I strive to take photographs that express my love for the world. And every time I pick up the M3, every time I press the shutter, it is a continuing conversation with my father. The viewfinder of this old camera is his eyes, as I ask him, “Do you see? Do you see?”

My wife, Medhanit Tekle with two local children in Aksum, Ethiopia. 2018. We were married 6 months after my father’s passing. I took this during our honeymoon with the Leica M3.

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All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag.

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Buddy

Buddy, Sucking Up to My Brother-In-Law

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you’ll know I have a dog. Buddy. You’ll probably have picked up on the fact that I Love Buddy. A lot. Me and Buddy are a pair; where I go he goes.

I actually have two dogs, but I’m partial to Buddy (don’t worry – the other one gets my wife’s undivided attention). I’ve had him, now, for 8 years. My wife, visiting a local pound about another animal, was introduced to him by a kindly pound worker who had taken him to heart. Apparently, he’d been there since a pup and no one had the heart to euthanize him even though no one seemed to want him. Donna called me while driving home and told me about him. What the hell, I said, go get him and bring him home. So she did. It’s remarkable how such ‘off-the-cuff’ decisions can change your life. I love this boy in a way hard to explain.

Buddy is what I refer to as “a piece of work,” pure personality and joie de vivre. This past weekend he got banned from the dog park by my home for “improper behavior” i.e. he insists on humping the other dogs. His predilection for humping had heretofore been overlooked – tolerated – because in all other respects he’s a real sweetheart, just as pleasant and good-natured as they come. Unfortunately, he started humping puppies at the park. Apparently, humping puppies is crossing the line. He’s been banned.

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He doesn’t seem to be taking his banishment personally, which is to be expected. As I’m writing this, my wife has found him under the dining room table eating some gingerbread cookies last seen on a plate on the table. He’s remarkably nonchalant about the whole thing, feigning ignorance as to how the cookies might have made their way from the plate to the floor. Undoubtedly, in a few minutes, he’ll be happily nestled at my feet with a shoe in his mouth, his way of reminding me it’s time to go walk.

I’ve never had the first problem with him. As I said, he’s super sweet. He makes me smile. He’s just a sweet, goofy critter with a huge heart and unshakable loyalty to me. And he’s funny. I’m not sure how to explain his ‘sense of humor,’ as if a dog could have a sense of humor – but he does. He’s most definitely a funny guy. Look at the photo below, and tell me that guy doesn’t have a wicked sense of humor. Admittedly, I’m anthropomorphizing him. So what.

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An Emergency In Slow Motion

Self Portrait with Feeding Tube, Raleigh, North Carolina, November 2020

I’ve been reading up on Diane Arbus recently. She’s someone I’ve always known about but never really taken to; there’s something off-putting about her work that makes me queasy when I look at it. It bothers me. I don’t think it’s because of the common criticism of her – she’s “exploiting” her subjects for her benefit; we, by definition, “exploit” the people we photograph – so much as what it says about her. Her daughter, Doon Arbus, in her postscript to the posthumous publication entitled Untitled, claimed her mom “wasn’t interested in self-expression,” which is a stunning misunderstanding coming from someone who should know better.

As William Todd Schultz argues in his fascinating ‘psychobiography’ of Arbus, An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus, Arbus’s work was all about herself, her externalization of an inner world produced by individual trauma. I recommend Schultz’s book to anyone interested in understanding the artistic process and what creates and nurtures it. From what I can see, Arbus had one fucked-up internal life. Maybe it explains why she took her own life at 47. Insofar as any work of art can be ‘explained,’ it explains it, or, at the least, puts it into a context that helps open up a dialogue with the artist and enhances the experience of the work itself. It’s made me rethink her work as something she wanted to tell me.

All of this is prelude to the fact that I’ve been contemplating documenting my recent medical experiences and putting them out there for you. You could read that as objective documentation or shameless self-absorption, depending on how you feel about what motivates these ‘documentary’ desires. What’s so special about me and my experience? Nothing. That doesn’t mean it isn’t my experience, and it doesn’t necessarily preclude me from sharing it with you in a way that might – just might – mirror to you your own experience in some way. It can easily lapse into vulgarity, become a cheap attempt for attention or sympathy, but I’ll assume the risk. Frankly, the attention doesn’t interest me at all. When I started Leicaphilia years ago I did so with the intention of remaining anonymous, and I kept it that way for a number of years. But as time passed, and readership sorted itself out, I gradually engaged the blog to discuss more personal things, which seems more in the spirit of what I do as a ‘documentarian.’ Isn’t that the function of ‘documentary’ photography? The alternative is pictures of cats and fence posts.

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Checking in for Chemo

So, as regular readers know, I’m currently in the process of beating cancer or having it beat me. Stage Three Stomach Cancer. Nothing more traumatic than what millions of people experience every day for any number of reasons. Actually, I’m tempted at times to see my current travails as a blessing, a pedagogy about life, its value, and maybe even its meaning [I’m still unsure about the latter]. But it’s occurred to me that it would make a potentially interesting photo essay, and Leicaphilia gives me a platform to present it. So, that’s what I’m going to do, among all the usual things, going forward. Or, at least it’s what I’ve chosen to do today.

All of the photos below were of my chemo visit yesterday. Today I’m home, hooked up to some Frankensteinian device pumping poison into my system for two more days, after which I get monitored to see if my white blood cells are falling dangerously low and potentially necessitating another hospital stay. Luckily, my oncology doc tells me I’ve apparently got a very strong immune system. My white blood cell counts remain normal after chemo. As such, I don’t require the $8000 shot usually given to people after each chemo round. $8000 each shot, money upfront. That’s $64000 out of pocket for 8 rounds, not covered by any insurance I possess. When they scheduled me for it and explained the cost, I laughed. Right, like that’s gonna happen. America health care – all I can do is shake my head.

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Paolo Pelligrin’s Mosul Girl

Paolo Pellegrin’s Refugees from the village of Bajurbuk, near Bashiqa. Told by ISIS that they were to be moved to Mosul the following day, the village residents fled their homes in the middle of the night and took refuge behind Peshmerga lines. Iraq, 2016, © Paolo Pellegrin

I ran across this stunning photo in The Guardian the other day. It’s by Paolo Pellegrin,  a member of the Magnum Photos agency and winner of ten World Press Photo awards. There’s something timeless about the photo, harkening back to the best photojournalism of the Leica era. What interests me is his choice of B&W, which is a conscious nod to the traditional mid-century photo journalist aesthetic even though he’s fully digital – he shoots with a Canon 5d with a limited selection of lenses. Unlike most zoom-happy digiphiles, Pellegrin restricts his use to 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm primes, which itself betrays his film era roots. He retains some misgivings about digital: “In general, I embrace digital photography as an evolution of the medium, but I dislike the ease with which it can be manipulated. When you deal with charged issues, like people in war, you need to be able to trust the photographer.”

Unfortunately, IMO, he hasn’t reached far back enough for the traditionalist nod. The photo, which I grabbed from his website and thus presumably is printed to his specifications, suffers from that ‘thin’ ‘brittle’ look of much of digital B&W ( Heidegger calls animal consciousness “world-poor” in contrast to human consciousness [he’s wrong]; I think of digital capture as “reality-poor” in contrast to film capture [I’m right]). It would be much better as a ‘film’ image I think, so I’ve taken the liberty of reconfiguring it to how I see it. You may or may not agree.

What’s instructive is how easy it is to convert an obvious digitally captured image to one that looks indistinguishable from something shot with an M4 and some Plus-X. That being the case, do we really need those old film cameras or is that just one more affectation the passage of time is proving wrong? More interestingly, is the “film” look itself now an anachronism, a ‘manipulation’ that Pellegrin thinks we shouldn’t trust? If so, are we now then, by default, stuck with world-poor digital rendering?

That’s Better (Apologies to Paolo Pellegrin)


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Walking the Dog

“I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” Garry Winogrand

One of the things I appreciate about photography is that it gives you permission to look. Most of the time I don’t. I’m usually operating on auto-pilot, oblivious to anything around me except something that’s outside normal expectations. I suspect we all live this way, conserving our limited attention for when evolution had bred in us a need – fight/flight, sex, food. What about our aesthetic sense – which evolution has clearly prioritized as a basic human need? How might we indulge a sense of beauty? Does being a photographer assist in some way? I think it does.

Garry Winogrand was onto something when he decided to photograph things to see what they looked like when photographed. He was one of the first photographers to recognize the camera’s potential to make us see things. It both gives us permission to look and creates new visual realities, showing us things we otherwise wouldn’t see. The nice thing about the digital age is I now always carry a camera with me, which allows me to always be looking at things in terms of what they might look like photographed. Back in the film era, that really wasn’t possible, unless you were a lunatic like Winogrand who left behind 6500 unprocessed rolls of film at his death. Today, all you need is your iPhone and some attention. Winogrand would have gone nuts with an iphone.

Think of photography as a means to discover things, a way of saying “Look at what I saw!’ Often times (not always) it’s not so much a way of documenting what is but rather discovering new ways things might look if you leave yourself open to it. And because it’s about leaving yourself open to seeing how things might look, everything is opened up to you as a subject. An afternoon walk with the dogs and an iPhone can become an exercise in seeing things. This is a profound gift digital photography gives us. It turns a routine walk into an aesthetic experience…if we let it. That’s pretty cool.

All photos taken with an iPhone 8 and processed in camera with Snapseed

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What, Exactly, is the Point?

1978: Me the Brooding Art Photographer. What Did I think I was Doing?

Why do we take photographs? Why, for many of us, is the act of photographing so central to our lives and who we are? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately. I’m not sure I have the answer, but I suspect it has something to do with the fleeting nature of time and a desire to arrest its flow.

I’ve been photographing ‘seriously’ since I was 12. By ‘serious’ I mean intentionally engaged in the practice of photography as something more than merely reflexively recording meaningful moments in time. Granted, much of the pleasure I’ve derived from my interest has been centered around my fascination with cameras. What started the whole thing was a 7th-grade teacher, Mr. Smith, showing me his plain prism Nikon F. I was hooked. From there I was lucky enough to purchase a succession of increasingly impressive cameras, culminating in a Leica in 1977 (for those of you not around then, a Leica was a quasi-mystical thing that cost 5x a normal camera if you could find one; it didn’t really do anything more than a Nikon F did, rather it marked you out as photographic cognoscenti. It appealed to snobs even then.)

I’ve always understood my interest in photography to serve a larger purpose, but I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate what that purpose is/was. Maybe that’s the point of what great thinkers have noted about language and reality; the net of language misses much of what we experience. Maybe photography is a way of articulating things language can’t. Maybe it’s an inarticulate attempt to establish a sense of permanence amidst the relentless passage of time, a way of memorializing the fact that ‘this happened.’

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Me 42 Years Later

A week or so ago I was told I had 6 months to live. Aside from the more existential questions that raises (e.g. “Are you fucking kidding me?”), it brought home to me the question of what I’d been doing photographically for the past 50 years. Maybe there was a purpose in it all. Interestingly enough, one of the first things my wife told me I needed to do in the next months was to put my entire photographic library in order so she would have access to it and some sense of what she was looking at. What she said made sense to me. It seems important I do that.

But Why? When I have such limited time, what purpose could devoting much of it to cataloging a photo collection as opposed to ‘living’ whatever remaining time I have? Wouldn’t my time be better served with a trip to Europe to say goodbye to dear friends, or traveling someplace I’d always wanted to see, or simply indulging whatever particular desires I might want to indulge…smoking, drinking, recreational heroin use (I must admit, I am seriously considering buying a Ducati Panagale V4 so as to enjoy outrunning hapless North Carolina Sheriff’s Deputies throughout the backroads of the state).

I’m of the belief that people only really ‘die’ when the last person who remembers them dies. You live on in the people who love you and carry your memory. My father, who died ten years ago, seems as alive to me now as he ever has, a large reason being the photographs I have of him. It’s something more than the mere photograph itself. It’s remembering the entire experience the photo conjures as me the photographer and my father as my subject. Photos support and enlarge his memory, helping keep him alive. It’s an invaluable gift photography gives us.

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Back When I Thought I’d Live Forever

So, I’ve since been told that there’s a ‘chance’ I might be cured, or at least my life prolonged past the proverbial ‘six months.’ Hope springs eternal, as they say. A few rounds of chemo, a few surgeries and I’m as good as new. I’m now considering all the things I’ve yet to do after I get through with the medical issues. I’m still going to be putting my photography in order though, just in case.

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The Art of Seeing Well

It is always good to keep your eyes wide open, because you never know what you will discover. The drive to live life more alertly being an instinctive need, whether you are an artist by trade or desire, the art of seeing well is a necessary skill, which fortunately can be learned. -Michael Kimmelman

What’s the point of photography? Maybe the bigger question is: what’s the point of looking at things, really looking at them? That’s what we’re doing when we photograph. Granted, we’re placing a value on preserving how something looks, whether it be a lover, a pet, a glimpse of what we daily encounter…. but we’re also attending to it in the moment. That’s why we value simple photographic tools – mechanical rangefinders the perfect example – that get out of our way and allow us to experience the moment without having to ‘interface’ with a machine and its requirements.

A good example is the difference between using my M5 or my Ricoh GXR with the M module. I rarely even use the meter in my M5; I find it more a disturbance than a help. What I like is the big, clear 35mm window, no clutter, just a focusing patch and you’re done dealing with the machine. Look at the light, set your exposure and forget the little details. The rest is looking. The Ricoh? Great little camera, but I’m constantly fiddling with something – a menu, an ISO setting, something flashing on the damn LCD – my attention drawn away from what I’m trying to see. It’s the story of every digital camera I’ve ever used; once you reach a certain level of competency i.e. you’ve distilled the photographic act down to its basics, all those technological ‘aids’ – those things camera makers promised us would make our experience better – just get in your way.

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For that matter, what’s the value of what we as photographers create? What’s the value of looking at a photo hung in a gallery or museum or published in a book? Why is it so important to us? For me, the point is the process of perceiving itself. It meets some primal need humans possess. But it also has to be disinterested to be an aesthetic experience. Looking at porn isn’t aesthetic, no matter how well done; the reason it isn’t is because we’re motivated by something other than the enjoyment of beauty. A genuinely aesthetic experience of beauty is aimless. We only fully apprehend the experience when we remain disinterested. A vested interest in what you’re looking at gives you tunnel vision. You see what you’re looking for, and as such, you don’t really see.

Photography allows me to move through the world with an attitude of detachment, in a state of heightened awareness. I’m always looking…which means I’m seeing things people habituated to their environments typically don’t. That’s pretty cool; we’re not here long. Best to pay attention while we are.

Photography – or, more precisely, film photography, where there’s typically a lag between what we see and how we see it reproduced by the camera – amplifies the enjoyment I get in looking. It allows me a second chance to see something I’ve already seen and to see it with new eyes. It’s why I find myself increasingly drawn to photograph the people I love. I’ll run a roll of HP5 through my camera in a day or two, just shooting domestic scenes around me – my wife, the kids, my dogs – and throw it in the pile of rolls to be developed at some later time. That invariable means a year or two down the road, when I’ve accumulated enough unexposed film to shame myself into doing something about it. When I develop them I’m always amazed at what I get. The banal circumstances of my domestic experience seem somehow re-valued and take on a larger meaning. The photo puts them in context. I understand what I see – and value it – just a bit better.

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Howard Axelrod, in The Stars in Our Pockets, addresses the technological processes that remove us from having to pay attention. GPS is an instructive example: with it we passively navigate our environment without reference to its larger context or where within that context we fit. It’s all end result – do we get there, or don’t we. (He doesn’t address the larger issue – that we’re also using a machine to move through space which itself mitigates our environmental interaction). Axelrod asks, “Will we still be able to achieve a kind of orientation that is really a kind of wisdom?”

It’s this “orientation that is really a kind of wisdom” that photographic looking gives. The heightened attention it cultivates can be difficult to practice. Really looking with disinterest requires effort. You can’t do it if your attempts to do so are mediated by tools that divert your attention instead of focusing it. In a photographic context it requires the correct tool, something that remains transparent to our purposes. This is why we hold onto those cameras that become extensions of our seeing through excellent haptics and long usage. Usually I don’t even recall putting the M5 to my eye; it’s such a simple act, done so many times, that its reflexive now. The digital camera? Not a chance. Even though it’s full of the technologies that supposedly simplify my experience – auto exposure, autofocus, auto ISO, facial recognition, etc etc, they’re never transparent to the act; I’m always scrolling through some fucking menu, or looking for some dial to turn or button to push in response to some LCD readout. The camera is telling me what to see.

There’s a reason we love our old mechanical film cameras. When used competently and correctly, they allow us to give ourselves over to the moment. We can exist in the moment for no reason or purpose other than that of the experience alone, for the appreciation and apprehension of what’s in front of us. That’s a remarkable gift. It’s also what’s required if one wants to produce work of any meaning, work that will help others see as well.

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The Pleasure of Looking at Photos

I’ve been looking at a lot of photographs lately. Photo books, to be more precise. I spent last night looking through Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, (2014), a retrospective of Koudelka’s career published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Along with Robert Frank, Koudelka may be the photographer I admire the most. There’s something incredibly luxurious about his work, especially Gypsies and Exile – both shot with 35mm b&w film – when viewed as printed photos and not simply images on a screen. It’s something the current generation of photographers may be missing, which is a shame. The times a photograph has really moved me, not simply as an interesting visual experience but as something existentially and profoundly alive, have all been when viewing a physical print, whether hanging on a wall or printed in a book.

There’s something remarkably satisfying about looking at b&w film photographs printed in a high-end photo book on 100 weight semi-glossy fine-art photo paper. There’s a tactile dimension to the experience that incorporates both the hand and the eye. It’s so much more rewarding and inspiring than viewing the same photos on a screen, something about the instantiation of the photo as a ‘thing’ which makes the experience of the image on a screen so remarkably impoverished in comparison. Some of the most intense visual experiences I’ve ever had have been either standing in front of a matted and framed photo hanging in an exhibition or printed on the pages of a fine-art photo book. Viewed on a screen, it’s just another image, one of thousands we consume daily. Viewed on a gallery or museum wall, or as a page in a book held in one’s hands, it’s a unique thing having specific tangible qualities. One thing I’m sure of, and that’s b&w film photos print better than b&w digital photos. There’s some essential character of a printed 35mm negative that can’t be duplicated with digital capture no matter how you attempt to post-process it to mimic film. If you don’t see that, well, I’m not sure we have much to talk about.

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Which leads to the larger question: Why do we love photographs? What is it about them that makes their experience so important to us? Joseph Addison, an English essayist, poet, playwright in his 1712 essay “The Pleasures of Imagination” sees it as a matter of possession (as in physical possession of a thing): “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a picture, and find an agreeable companion in a statue. He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession. It gives him, indeed, a kind of property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude, uncultivated parts of nature administer to his pleasures: so that he looks upon the world, as it were in another light, and discovers in it a multitude of charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of mankind.”

If you agree with Addison, the pleasure we derive from looking at photos is a solitary thing, not beholden to being shared or intensified by being experienced with others. Experiencing Art is not about shared pleasure; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s because it’s an experience fundamentally incommunicable; I’ll be damned if I can explain to you why I sat up till 3:30 AM last night looking at Koudelka’s photos, or why I find myself obsessively going back to Robert Frank’s Valencia 1952, or why I could stand slack-jawed in front of a simple Walker Evans photograph in the Getty museum.

One thing that Koudelka, Frank, and Evans have in common, and that is their aversion to captioning their work. They present their photos without explanation, and we the viewers get to decide what it means. As Gerhard Richter has noted, “pictures which are interpretable, and which contain a meaning, are bad pictures.” A good picture “takes away our certainty because it deprives a thing of its meaning and its name. It shows us the thing in all the manifold significance and infinite variety that preclude the emergence of any single meaning and view.”

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What Meaning Does a Photograph Have?

My Father Being His Usual Goofball Self, Atlanta, Georgia, 1971

From “I Am A Strange Loop” by Douglas Hofstadter

One gloomy day in early 1991, a couple of months after my father died, I was standing in the kitchen of my parent’s house, and my mother, looking at a sweet and touching photograph of my father taken perhaps fifteen years earlier, said to me, with a note of despair, “What meaning does a photograph have? None at all. It’s just a flat piece of paper with dark spots on it here and there. It’s useless.” The bleakness of my mother’s grief-drenched remake set my head spinning because I knew instinctively that I disagreed with her, but I did not quite know how to express to her the way I felt the photograph should be considered.

After a few minutes of emotional pondering – soul searching, quite literally – I hit upon an analogy that I felt could convey to my mother my point of view, and which I hoped might lend her at least a tiny degree of consolation. What I said to her was along the following lines:

“In the living room we have a book of Chopin etudes for piano. All of its pages are just pieces of paper with dark marks on them, just as two-dimensional and flat and foldable as the photograph of Dad – and yet, think of the powerful effect that they have had on people all over the world for 150 years now. Thanks to those black marks on those flat sheets of paper, untold thousands of people have collectively spent millions of hours moving their fingers over the keyboards of pianos in complicated patterns, producing sounds that give them indescribable pleasure and a sense of great meaning. Those pianists have in turn conveyed to many millions the profound emotions that churned in Chopin’s heart, thus affording us all some partial access to Chopin’s interiority – to the experience of living in the head, or rather the soul, of Chopin. The marks on those sheets of paper are no less than soul-shards – scattered remnants of the shattered soul of Chopin.

In just as potent a fashion, looking at that photograph of Dad brings back, to us who knew him intimately, the clearest memory of his smile and his gentleness, activates inside our living brains some of the most central representations of him that survive in us, makes little fragments of his soul dance again in the medium of brains other than his own. Like the score of a Chopin etude, that photograph is a soul-shard of someone departed, and it is something we should cherish as long as we live.”

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“Mise en Abyme”: The Image Within the Image

Lee Miller, Portrait of Space, 1937

I love the photo above, taken by Surrealist ‘Art Photographer’ and photojournalist Lee Miller. There’s something dislocating about it, something difficult to read at first glance, something disorienting about the reality on which you as the viewer stand, a function of the questionable dimensionality of the photo itself. Produced by the indexical process of analog photography, it’s something more than an indexical account of the real, a view turned to a subjective vision by what appears to be an interplay of literal and fictive frames.

Portrait of Space is a “mise en abyme” or an image-within-an-image. It’s a visual puzzle, a play on ambiguity and the permeability of boundaries. The title itself is part of the puzzle. What’s the subject of this ‘portrait?’ Given the multiple frames, it’s up to you to identify what space is the subject. Is it all of it, or some part of it? What can be considered inside and what outside?

Pretty cool that all of that can be summoned up via an indexical photograph that, in the words of Susan Sontag, “stencils off the real”. It’s testament to the infinite creative possibilities inherent in our simple ‘documentary’ medium.

In actuality, the photo is taken within a tent in Egypt. The viewer looks out onto a desert, through a window with a torn mosquito net, the tear itself serving as a frame. A wooden picture frame hangs from the net above the tear, creating a second frame nested with the window frame which itself is nested within the frame of the photo. The appears to be a stone border demarcating the landscape within the netting tear and the window frame. Beyond lies desert. Above, occupying various ratios of different frames, and about 2/3 of the image, is sky with wispy clouds.

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I realize, in reviewing my work over the years, the “mise en abyme” trope is something I’ve been intuitively drawn to since I started photographing things. Maybe it has something to do with having an early education in the arts, where one learns to think of visual art, whether painting or photography, as layered abstraction, although I find that I was doing things like shooting out car windows or using windows as frames within photos since I was 12. So who knows?

Of course, it’s at the root of whatever is inspiring me to publish a book like Car Sick, and hopefully it’s part of the reason many of you good folks have reserved a copy. In any event, the photo above is something more than some funky statues in some god-forsaken place somewhere; it’s the view out a car window of those statues, which introduces a layer of complexity absent in the straight shot. Now the photo infers a viewer of those statues, a viewer in a vehicle, the vehicle itself in a certain relationship to the statuary, the viewer in a certain relationship to both the statues and the vehicle. The interpretive possibilities of the photo have expanded exponentially, all with the inclusion of the sense of a car window that brackets the view.

So that’s the idea I’m selling you in Car Sick. Think of it not as a collection of marginally interesting, semi-competent views out of car windows – think of it rather as a brilliant collective “mise en abyme“, a celebration of image-within-image, “in which notions of inside and outside, are endlessly placed and displaced”, as critic Patricia Allmer noted of Miller’s work, challenging you the viewer with its layered details, made possible by the artist’s [that’s me!] “unique sense for presenting a slice of dislocated reality. “

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