When I was doing a lot of commercial photography for a living I would occasionally need to hire a model. One of the first thing I would look at when interviewing was her hands. Were the hands slender and fingers long? Were the nails well groomed? Were her gestures graceful? Certain cultures are known for their expressive use of gestures. Doctors and musicians’ hands rarely show the signs of hard manual labor that a farmer or construction worker’s hands might. It is not only human intelligence that has allowed civilization to flourish. Our hands have built it. Our opposable thumbs have provided humans a dexterity matched only by other primates. That ability to grasp gave the earliest hominids the incentive to create tools. And eventually, we would have cameras.
One of the ongoing activities of the OBSERVE international photography collective is for members to issue a theme that all members will either create new images for, or select archive images. Then it is up to the “theme giver” to create a gallery of twenty-eight images which would, but not necessarily, represent two images per member. I was very grateful to be able to curate what I feel is an excellent representation of the theme, Hands, they speak their own language.
Please take a moment to view the collection of images here, and if you use Facebook, follow OBSERVE there. Many more good things to come!
When I first thought of selecting a few images from a photographer whose work I admired I thought it would be easy. It isn’t. Interestingly, I don’t really believe in writing about photographs because good photographs speak for themselves. We shouldn’t need someone to “explain” them to us.
I find that so many photographs these days, and there are so many to look at, that are merely derivitives of other photos. Images created to a style. Images that look like so many other images I have seen on any given day. How can that be avoided with the popularity of picture taking and devices to do it with. When I find some that move me, I want to share them in hopes that others will appreciate them as well.
When I first opened my second Flickr account, for street photography only, Piotr’s photography immediately caught my eye. Not only does it posess a technical virtuosity, there is an oblique way of looking at the world that I appreciate. Couple that with his often-supplied Youtube video links that accompany most postings, we get a picture of a person who may be slightly twisted and has a wonderful sense of humor. That knowledge gives me a different way of seeing his work and humor abounds in it. While I don’t know if he even considers himself a “street photographer” he is among the best. He posesses that unusual skill of making an ordinary scene look extraordinary. Something all of us street photographers strive for. There is a certain “look” to his B&W work that seems deeply rooted in film photography…long tonal scale with rich blacks and clean whites.
Tomorrow is Another Day
A well dressed big brother looks on as the crowd marches forward in this Orwellian fantasy, beckoning all to join the program and drive a shiny new automobile. A lone dog stays back, unsure of the path forward. Perhaps there is a connection between the gaze of the man in the billboard and the daschund that the pedestrians are unaware of.
This beautifully executed photograph succeeds visually and offers much powerful symbolism. The visual weight of the factory windows balances the well-lit poster. A speeding train adds urgency to the scene as do blurred legs of the pedestrians. Our eye keeps flipping between the man and the dog creating rhythm. A good example of how a tiny element can have as much importance as a large element.
Night photography can produce amazing images but it can be extremely difficult to do well. While a tripod offers control it also is limiting, especially in public places. Balancing the need for a shutter speed that will not produce excessive subject blur (unless that is the desired effect) against high ISO noise can be challenging. Holding detail in bright areas wthout losing shadow detail requires considerable skill. ISO 1600, f4.0 @ 1/13.
A memorable pictorial of society as it exists today.
It is not a given that interesting subjects make interesting photos. Take the challenge of photographing an event such as a parade for example. Creating compelling images that go beyond photographs of the costumes and floats is not easy. It would have been tempting and all too easy to photograph this subject based on a need to show his face. By seeing this quite odd scene from the back, we have no idea what the man is doing, or why the sea of vinyl covers the street of the city, while passerbys, except the photographer shootng from the “wrong” side, pay no attention at all. It brings to mind the scene in Fellini’s “Casanova” where Donald Sutherland (as Casanova) rows across a sea of billowing black vinyl in the dark of night.
Here, the use of a wide angle lens creates a strong vanishing point drawing us into this strange world. The old world setting makes an even starker contrast with the man and his vinyl. We can only wonder if the bulges in the fabric are unfortunate pedestrians or animals who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Piotr wrtes about the image…
“It was Saturday 10 April 2010 – a plane with President of Poland was flying in to celebrate the anniversary of the Katyn massacre in Russia. On the street there was to be a performance. Artists with the event machine sewed on a large black cloth, not knowing at that point we had lost President. Plane with the president on board crashed and everyone died.”
Transformation of Tradition
I suppose that for some viewers this is a perfectly ordinary scene. Or maybe I don’t get out enough, because have never witnessed anything like this before. Semana Santa has rich tradition throughout countries in Europe and South America and that week is one of the most important in all of Catholicism. Here in the US, particularly in the south, men in robes and pointed white masks carryng crosses do not carry a positive message.
Unlike “Two Perspectives” whose strength was the ambiguity created by the point of view from behind the subject, “Transformaton of Tradition” is powerful, almost scary, because of the head-on confrontation of these all-too-serious looking masked men. We feel as if we are about to be overtaken by the procession. Once again artificial lighting adds a theatrical quality
to a scene that would have appeared quite ordinary in daylight. The empty street, which is shown to be unusually devoid of bystanders, offers that same cold disinterest as in the previous image, in what is a pageant event. Endless depth of field helps to sell the theatrical reality. Put into context, and if we view the image large, we see Christ atop a float at the rear of the procession, arm held aloft as if waving to a crowd of fans, or is that a can of soft drink he is holding?
Piotr’s large sense of humor is once again evidenced by his customary Youtube selection.
There are some photographs that are so timeless that the seem to embody the spirit of photograpy itself. They speak to all times back to the beginnng of the medium. While they may not break new ground, they perfect on tradition. This beautful image is one of those classics. While not “edgy”, it delights and satisfies as our eye moves across the frame. The dark door is centered but the composition is not. A man provides balance as he glides across the frame, robes flowing. The whole scene is bathed in light that caresses the architectural elements and defines them in 3D detail. Except for the precision with which the mage was executed, this high-key tour de force could be a platinum print from the mid twentieth century. The photo was made around the time of the recent revolution in Hurghada, Egypt.
Piotr lives in Wroclaw, Poland, Lower Silesia region and is in his forties. In previous conversation he had told me that he generally shoots straight to grayscale jpeg and processes in a Polish equivalent of SilverEFX Pro. He uses a Canon EOS 550D usually mounted with a wide angle lens.
See more of Piotr’s work here.
"I am surprised that my prints sell. They're not pretty. They're not those kind of pictures that people can easily put on their wall. They’re not that window on to a nice landscape or something."
"I don't have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I'm photographing. I have a responsibility to describe it well."
"We know too much about how pictures look and should look. How do you get around making those pictures again and again?"
"Frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about making a nice picture, that anybody can do."
"When I’m photographing I see life."
NOTE ON THE QUOTES
In his last years, Winogrand put off developing his film and editing his contact sheets in favor of shooting. At his death he left behind approximately 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and 4,100 more that he had processed but not reviewed, representing most of his production during the last six years of his life. Winogrand had allowed others to edit his work and print his photographs, however, and in preparing for its posthumous 1988 exhibition Garry Winogrand, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, develped. proofed and edited the work he left behind. That show included a small group of prints made by Consilvio from late images selected by John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s department of photography, and by Winogrand’s friends and fellow photographers Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma.
Many earlier Winogrand photographs also remained unprinted at his death. For the present exhibition, therefore, guest curator Leo Rubenfien undertook a two-year review of the bulk of 22,000-odd contact sheets in Winogrand’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tuscon. Over ninety posthumous prints made from Rubinfien’s selections and drawn from the full span of Winogrand’s career are on view here. The labels for these prints indicate whether Winogrand marked a given frame on its contact sheet, suggesting that he found it to be of interest.
2) On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. John Filo’s iconic photograph of the tragedy won a Pulitzer Prize. (Wikipedia).
3) Dan Weiner (1919-1959) studied painting at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute, eventually accepting a job as a commercial photographer. He joined the New York Photo League and developed an affinity for the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. Following World War II, he pursued work as a photojournalist, refining his belief that the photographer has a moral responsibility to illuminate social ills and to comment on significant events in history. Weiner’s life was tragically ended by a plane crash while he was on assignment in 1959. (www.robertmann.com).
4) Personal communication.
Kotz, Liz. "Damaged." 21-28: Coleman, A.D. "Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at Century’s End." 31-37. The Social Scene. Ed. Stephanie Emerson. Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art. 2000.
Lifson, Ben. "Garry Winogrand's American Comedy." Aperture 86: 32-39. 1982.
Rubinfein, Leo. "Garry Winogrand's Republic." 13-61. Garry Winogrand. Ed. Leo Rubinfein. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2013.
Szarkowski, John. The Photographer's Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.
Winogrand, Garry, introduction by Tod Papageorge. Public Relations. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 1977.
Greg Allikas, May 2013
Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin 1973
Since the renewed interest in street photography there is a never ending discussion as to what exactly, street photography is. While a consensus is rarely reached, there are some givens. First and foremost, street photography is candid photography. By all standards, a photographer’s intervention in the scene being photographed is unacceptable. Street photography and documentary photography (and photojournalism) are bound together and can overlap. A picture can be both a documentary and street photograph. The fine line that distinguishes them is in perceived storytelling. Simply put, street photography asks questions, documentary photography provides answers (hopefully). Street photography has no responsibility to be compassionate or address social issues (although it may). It is the selfish expression of the photographer’s view of the world captured for his or her own pleasure. While there is a certain “look” to street photography, it is hard to define and continually evolving. While telephoto lenses are widely used in photojournalism, they are not in street photography.
A comment about the photo above brought to mind another characteristic of street photography: context. A photographer, who judging from his own photos is new to street photography, suggested that I do a vertical crop to include just the young man and dog. The soft puffy clouds, swaying palm trees and empty street contrast oddly with the focused gaze of man and dog, at what, we don’t know. It is the context that makes this more than just a photo of a man and a dog. The tranquil setting itself enforces the oddness of the man, the way he is holding the dog, and their fixed gazes. Imagine how different this photo would have looked with cars and people in the background.
A street photo can be as much about context as about subject. Often it is the context that is the reason for a street photo. The subject becomes secondary. It is this attention to context that separates street photography from documentary. For street photographers, managing context is often more challenging than subject. The more complex the scene the more difficult getting the elements into place becomes. While some street photography may look like random snapshots, choreographing a scene into a single still frame in a split second is challenging. It is also exhilarating when it succeeds.
When I first began taking photographs it was pretty simple. I would see somebody or something interesting on the street and I would take a picture, The camera was loaded with Tri-X and had either a 24, 28 or 35mm lens on it. I didn’t know I was doing street photography and they weren’t even calling it that then. I had no intention of creating artistic images and any concept of style was founded on content. I don’t think that Winogrand, Freidlander, Arbus, Levitt, Erwitt or any of the pioneers of the genre ever thought about creating artistic photographs. In this new blossoming of street photography slick style is much admired.
In the first year of the SPNP project certain modern SP clichés became evident. We have the “people juxtaposed against advertising posters”, and “pocket of light”, many iterations of feet photography including “feet with colorful shoes against yellow road stripes”, pigeons are a recurring theme and reflections in windows are always a good way to fulfill any brief.
I stopped doing the SPNC briefs because I don’t want to be under pressure to have to take a certain picture. I want to shoot what I want to shoot. This past year a quote by Winogrand is sitting on my shoulder like a conscience; “How do you keep from taking the same pictures over and over again?” He went on to add, “When I go out to shoot I don’t have pictures in my head. I frame in terms of what I want to have in the picture.” That sounds deceptively simple. But he didn’t say “Look for dramatic light” or “Use diagonals and bold shapes.” Perhaps it is the absence of a consciously applied style that has made Winogrand’s work so enduring and monumental.
I have spent the past couple of years experimenting (with color!) and trying to see where I fit in between the content driven style of the past and the artsy style of the present. It has proven confusing. A few months ago I came up with the idea that maybe what Winogrand was getting at when he asked how we get around taking the same pictures all the time was at its point, an absence of style. In other words, people, their behavior and the world we live in is so infinitely variable that all we really need to do is decide what we want in the photographic frame and that when we apply certain ”style” we are in effect, making pictures that look like others.
Last year this photograph by OakT really captivated me and I continue to refer back to it. While seemingly simple in its presentation it resonates with humanity and carries the weight of daily existence we all face. It is more than just a photograph. It’s visual anthropology. I came across a quote by Joel Meyerowitz this week that is another arc in closing this whole circle of thought; “Over the years I have seen that photography is too often about the pictures only. To me it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.”
The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach has opened its exhibition of the five nominees for the inaugural Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers. The award calls on five internationally acclaimed photographers to act as a nominating panel, each selecting one emerging artist who is at the leading edge of contemporary photo-based art and has yet to have a solo show in a museum. The winner of the prize, to be selected by the museum’s Photography Steering Committee and announced on December 4, will receive a cash prize of $20,000 and a solo exhibit at the Norton.
If you go to the exhibit expecting to see fine examples of photography, save for Eunice Adorno’s intimate photo essay, you will be disappointed. If you go expecting to be surprised at what is regarded as cutting edge photography, you will be quite pleased.
Adorno was nominated by Magnum photographer, Susan Meiselas. Her series of color photographs, titled “Las Mujeres Flores”, reveals the strict social traditions that define Mennonite women in northern Mexico. The work shows the craft of a photographer in control of her medium who has the facility to create a strong narrative with images. The group of photographs shows an understanding and respect for her subject.
Gabriela (Nin) Solis, also from Mexico, and Mauro D’Agati, from Palermo, Italy presented traditional photography as well. Solis’ work was black and white analog silver gelatin prints and D’Agato’s, color pigment prints. Solis was nominated by the esteemed Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide. Her prints were quiet pieces, many of them small, some cropped to square. They were studies of the effects of a superhighway construction project in Mexico. If the work possessed the visual strength of one of the Westons or the enigma of her nominator, we may have come away remembering it. But it did not. Her compositions have become lost in the hundreds of other images seen that day. D’Agati’s work represented a look at the underworld of Naples through the eyes of “Carmine”, but without being told, you would not know. A large collage of mugshots could have as easily been traffic violators as mafia players. The photographs lacked the intensity one might expect of the subject and as images themselves, looked like what you can find in online photo sharing websites. Both artists’ work depended on a written explanation to understand it.
I won’t even pretend to understand or explain Analia Saban’s mixed media work. The monochrome pieces involved scraping the gelatin off of silver gelatin prints and trailing it across an adjacent canvas panel.
I am certainly open-minded and I doubt anyone would call me a prude. Had I seen this selection of Sven Venø’s work at a gallery in Manhattan or San Francisco I would have reached the same conclusion and simply forgotten about it. One wall of his exhibit contained three large, realistic color photographs on aluminum, and to the right were three pedestals with running videos, each corresponding to one of the three still photographs. We were told one of the videos was eight hours long. Venø is the subject of his work, portraying different characters in much the same way as Cindy Sherman. In fact, her name was mentioned during the curator’s talk. At approximately 3×4 feet, it would hard to not notice Venø’s penis sticking out from his bluejean shorts. While I was not offended by the photograph, I didn’t see much point in it either. It was just a color photograph of a guy on a rope ladder with his dick hanging out. The English artist explains that his work explores the traditional roles of masculinity and that he does so by playing the part of the fool. I think most people know that a penis defines a male. This looks like exhibitionism masquerading as art.
The day after the preview and opening of the exhibit, I received an email from a fellow photographer I had seen there the night before. “Did you see the porn part of the exhibition at the Norton? After we heard the talk I walked around again…and there was a video on of a guy masturbating with an ejaculation and all…” I told her I had not seen that.
While the large still exhibitionist photograph did not offend me, the notion of the video certainly does. How does a parent explain to their child, or teenager, that a “real” man jerking off is a perverted act that should immediately be reported to the police, but a video in a museum of a man jerking off is “art”? Art that might be rewarded with a $20,000 cash prize!
A fear of perverts and pedophiles whipped up by the news media pervades the community. I have been told on numerous occasions by city security officers that I “cannot photograph children playing in Centennial Fountain.” Other photographers here tell of similar incidents in other public places.
Any discussion of obscenity involves community standards. What is appropriate for one city may not be for another. One has to wonder whether the new William & Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Tim Wride, believes the exhibit will be seen as a major coup for the museum, or whether he goes in to work every day dreading email from outraged museum goers. Perhaps the nasty bit of business is buried deeply enough in the eight-hour video that few if any will actually see it. We only hope the decision to be controversial does not cost the museum in the long run. With more great photographic art now than ever, it is surprising that the museum would exhibit something of such questionable taste and low moral standard.
By Greg Allikas
July 7 marked the sixth anniversary of John Szarkowski’s death and I thought it fitting to look at his contribution to photography, specifically how this single exhibition shaped what we now know as street photography.
Forty-six years ago the “New Documents” exhibition closed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show featured ninety-four prints by three relatively unknown photographers; Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. The exhibit was a landmark event for modern photography. The show, curated by John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the museum, inextricably linked the three photographers together and made their careers. The new student of photography should understand that at that time, except for the work of a handful of photographers, most museums did not have photography collections or departments. The photographs of Ansel Adams, Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston represent the type of work that did exist, if at all, in a museum. Few if any photography galleries existed. For the most part, photography was photography, not art. Because it was a mechanical process and perceived to be “easy” by most, easier than painting anyway, it was not taken seriously. One could argue that Szarkowski single-handedly changed that whole notion with this one exhibit. It took some time to take root, but “New Documents” set the movement in motion.
Szarkowksi succeeded Steichen at MOMA in 1962. He was only 37 and had a large pair of shoes to fill. Stiechen had curated the monumental “Family of Man” exhibition in 1955. It contained 500 images by 273 photographers both famous and unknown and was built on a theme of the human experience…birth, death, love, joy, sorrow. The show was a huge success and toured the world. The book is still popular. While “Family of Man” was a landmark exhibition it did not break any new ground in the photographic vocabulary and relied on existing documentary traditions. It was more about the subjects of the photographs than the photographs themselves. Photojournalism was socially responsible and served to report, inform and affect change. Arbus, Friedlander and Winogrand had no such goals. They selfishly photographed for themselves. Szarkowski wrote in his introduction to “New Documents”1, “In the past decade this new generation of photographers has redirected the technique and aesthetic of documentary photography to more personal ends. Their aim has been not to reform life but to know it, not to persuade but to understand. The world, in spite of its terrors, is approached as the ultimate source of wonder and fascination, no less precious for being irrational and incoherent.” His egalitarian view that anyone, anywhere, anytime could create a great photograph worthy of comparison to the masters shaped the future of photography and has become commonplace within the photo sharing websites of today’s digital age, where stars are born and die every day.
1967 was the year of the “summer of love” yet it was a turbulent year in America. The country was deeply involved in Vietnam and civil disobedience plagued cities across the country. Riots in Detroit required the National Guard to restore order and left dozens of people dead. The Equal Rights Amendment would not be passed for another five years. Cameras used film and photographers had darkrooms. With so many social and political events ripe for documentary photography, 1967 seemed an inauspicious year to present an exhibit of photographers so preoccupied with their own personal agendas.
“New Documents” received a cool reception. Jacob Deschin wrote, “”The observations of the photographers are noted as oddities in personality, situation, incident, movement, and the vagaries of chance,” in his New York Times review2. Nine years later Szarkowski would take an even bolder risk with “William Eggleston’s Guide,” which was met with even more skepticism. Today Eggleston is considered to have set the stage for fine art color photography3 at a time when the materials and medium were far more limited than they are today.
What did Arbus, Freidland and Winogrand have in common other than working in black and white? They all used small 35mm cameras, although Arbus eventually moved up to a 2-¼ square Rolleiflex. The photographs of the two men are closer to each other than the work of Arbus is to either of them, Both men realized the importance of photographic context, but Friedlander was inclined to often deal only with the elements of place while Winogrand was self-admittedly interested in people. While Arbus may have taken photos on the street, she was primarily a portraitist and is lumped into the street photography genre solely because of her inclusion in “New Documents.” Her methodology had little to do with the “catch as catch can” approach of Friedlander and Winogrand and depended on cultivating a trust with her subjects, sometimes over a period of time. Perhaps Szarkowski sums it up best in this excerpt from a museum press release4 for the exhibit, “What unites these three photographers is not style or sensibility; each has a distinct and personal sense of the use of photography and the meanings of the world. What is held in common is the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorizing.”
In 1967 street photography was not a new invention. One could argue that the early work of Atget, Brassai and Kertesz was essentially “street photography”, although Brassai posed his subjects on occasion. And of course there were Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and Lisette Model (whom Arbus studied under) and Robert Frank’s opus from ten years earlier, The Americans,. Winogrand himself was profoundly influenced by Walker Evans, American Photographs. These works, however, relied more heavily on documentary traditions than the frivolity of Friedlander’s storefront reflections or Winogrand’s public relations. In an interview with John Pilson5 published in 2011 Tod Papageorge describes Sunday night get-togethers (including Joel Meyrowitz) at Garry Winogrand’s house as being focused on discovering just what photography was, and wasn’t. Papageorge goes on to say that much of the conversation was about photographic “problems” and strategies to solve them. How much information could be crammed on to a 24x36mm piece of film and still be coherent when viewed as a print? Must the horizon be level? What happens when you use flash? What happens when you use flash at a slow shutter speed? What happens to something when you photograph it? In an essay for the catalog for the exhibit, “The Social Scene”6, A.D. Coleman writes about “New Documents”, “Increasingly asymmetrical, unbalanced, fragmented, even messy, especially in contrast to preceding photography, this work demanded of both photographer and viewer an openness to radically unconventional formal structures.” With its snapshot view of the world, the work carried an authenticity that was not evident in the work of say, Eugene Smith, or the FSA photographers where it could be said that the photographs were not entirely candid, or entirely honest. Many of the visual mannerisms we now take for granted had not been seen before “New Documents” nor had such seemingly banal subject matter. The ways in which these three photographers used their cameras opened up a new visual vocabulary for generations of photographers. But it was John Szarkowski’s willingness to take risks that expanded the borders of modern photography. It may be no idle claim that he was once referred to as “the man who taught America how to look at photographs.”
Here is a list of the photographs that appeared in the exhibit.
1. Museum of Modern Art archives; press release, February 28, 1967;www.moma.org
2. The New York Times; July 9, 2007; www.nytimes.com
3. While color photography was commonplace by the 1960’s it was nothing compared to today’s technologies. Kodachrome was very sharp film but involved a proprietary process that only few color labs could afford. Hence, film had to be sent off for processing. At ASA 25 it was very slow and full sun would give an exposure of about f5.6 @ 250. C-41 color negative films were also slow but gave one additional f-stop at ASA 64. The various Ektachrome films were not nearly as fine grained as Kodachrome and the dyes in processed slides were not as stable as Kodachrome either. If not stored properly you could expect to find faded colors and fungus on old Ektachromes. We referred to High Speed Ektachrome of the 70’s (ASA 160) as having “grain the size of golfballs.”The biggest obstacle however for color to be used for so called “fine art” photography was the available processes for making prints. Conventional “C prints” of the time made from color negatives (or internegatives from slides) had dyes that were extremely fugitive. If displayed prints received significant light, natural or artificial, fading could be noticed in as little as a few years. Who wants a piece of art that needs to be kept in a closet? Also, color was never truly faithful even if printed by a professional lab. Dye transfer prints were the best color print available at the time and were relatively stable, but they were costly and only available from top tier professional photo labs. Cibachrome prints came later. While permanent, color fidelity was hit or miss and the process used toxic chemicals hazardous to home users. Consequently, most serious photographers who sought a place in “fine art” photography worked in black and white. Properly processed and stored silver gelatin prints should have an unlimited life.
4. Museum of Modern Art archives; press release, February 28, 1967;www.moma.org
5. John Pilson; “Taking Pictures”, Tod Papageorge in Conversation with John Pilson”; Aperture #204, Fall 2011; New York
6. A.D. Coleman; “The Social Scene”, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation Photography Collection at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Los Angeles;2000
FOTOfusion recently wrapped up at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre. This annual event brings world class photographers to town to lecture and teach workshops. I had a chance to attend a few lectures including one by Ralph Gibson. The hour was spent surveying his work from beginning to present accompanied by comments on thought and process. I have always admired Gibson’s work and consider him one of the photographic masters of my generation. Unlike today’s digital photomontage masters or even Jerry Uelsmann with his multiple negative composites, Gibson manages to embody a surreal quality to his images merely by what he includes, or excludes from the frame. The brilliance of his mastery of this art became more evident to me after spending an hour with him. Little did I know that he started out as a street photographer! His street work predating the 1970 book, The Somnambulist, is inspired and his path to future work is evident.
Another thing I learned about Ralph Gibson is that like Henri Cartier-Bresson, he uses a Leica M series with a 50mm lens. Is there a magic to this focal length that these two, and other masters have discovered? As long as I have been a photographer the so called “normal” lens has been the one least used in many a photographer’s lens arsenal…unless it were a macro. Some pros don’t even own one. Most street photographers favor something wider: a 35mm or 28mm (or DX equivalent). The logic being that the photographer is part of the action rather than a distant observer. For today’s street shooters a 50mm lens carries somewhat of a stigma as producing images that are not really “street.” Worse, on a DX crop-sensor DSLR, the 50mm becomes a 75mm lens which is a short telephoto, totally unacceptable for street photography. Or does it?
The beauty of a 50mm lens is that it produces the same perspective as the human eye. Mount a fifty on a DSLR and look through the camera with both eyes open and the objects seen through both eyes are about the same size regardless of whether the camera is full frame or crop sensor. The spatial relationship of objects in the frame is the same regardless of the size of the camera’s sensor and approximates that of our natural vision. In order to qualify as a telephoto, a lens would compress those spatial relationships just like a wide angle lens expands them. Even on a DX camera body a 50mm is a “normal” lens, it’s just that the camera sensor is not big enough to accommodate the entire image the lens produces. That certainly does not make it a telephoto.
There is something to be said for discipline in our artistic endeavors. By not having to concern ourselves with process we can concentrate on the task at hand: the challenge our tools present us in expressing our vision. I remember a trip I took to Brazil some fifteen years ago. I did not want to risk taking my work cameras so I took an old camera body and several lenses ranging from 28mm to 200mm. I spent the whole trip changing lenses rather than trying to make photos through any one of them. Too many choices! Artists have always found ways of imposing limitations to challenge their artistic vision. Painters may select a certain canvas size or a limited color palette, or work with knives instead of brushes. Plastic cameras like the Diana are still popular and create a certain look through their limited capabilities. The photographic masters mentioned above and others I suspect, like Elliot Erwitt and Robert Frank, have discovered a certain magic in a 50mm normal lens and learned to respect the limitations of a singular way of seeing.
TOP: New York Minute, NYC 2011 – taken with 50mm f1.8
ABOVE: Ralph Gibson – West Palm Beach 2011
KC – DISCIPLINE