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Category : photo

16 Oct 2016

Hands, a gallery of twenty-eight photographs


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!

Katie Taylor is about to win the 1st Gold medal in Women's Olympic Boxing

OBSERVE on Facebook

11 Apr 2016

Looking at Pictures

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

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.

Two Perspectives

two perspectives

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

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.

Details

details

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.

31 May 2013

Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA

New York 1960

New York 1960

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a reputation for producing landmark photography exhibits. I saw the retrospective, Diane Arbus Revelations, a decade ago and it made a lasting impression on me. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which it was curated and produced. The exhibit featured 200 or so photographs, including many that had never been seen publicly. There was also a mockup of her darkroom complete with Nikon F and Rollei cameras, developing trays and marked contact sheets, all lit by safelight.

The soon-to-close Garry Winogrand exhibit at SFMOMA presents an equally comprehensive look at this photographer’s work spanning some thirty years. Guest curated by Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough, the exhibition contains many never-seen-before images. Winogrand died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 56 leaving behind some 250,000 frames of unedited film. Approximately 90 of the 200 plus photographs in the exhibit have been printed for the first time. Text1 at the entrance explains the provenance and preparation of the photographs on display. Prints made posthumously are all silver gelatin. There are no inkjet prints in the exhibit.

Free-standing glass topped island display cases in the gallery rooms provide insight into the photographer’s life. There are letters, family photos, magazines with work for hire, an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (with endorsement from Diane Arbus) and contact sheets. The contact sheets, which bear his editing marks, offer a telling view of his working method and selection process.

The photographs are presented by period (Down From the Bronx, A Student of America, Boom and Bust) and show the development of Winogrand as a photographer. Text throughout the exhibit reminds us of events of each period.

New York ca.1958

New York ca.1958

Winogrand was twenty years old when he discovered photography as his calling. At that time, the country was relieved to be finished with WW II and the postwar boom of the fifties, for many families, was the beginning of the move from cities to suburbs. Uplifted by the promise of peace and growing prosperity, wartime industries returned to serving the needs of the American public and technological advances born of the war found their way to consumer products and services. Families enjoyed leisure time together, rock and roll was born, and television presented a view of life that now only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, the innocence of the earlier decade was lost when president John F, Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Throughout the sixties the US was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War that tore the country apart. While political riots plagued college campuses, reaching a crescendo at Kent State University2 in 1970, social riots tore through major cities in the sixties. Assassination continued through the decade with Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King both losing their lives in 1968, Still, president Lyndon Johnson promised the country "A Great Society."

New York ca.1960

New York ca. 1960

The civil rights movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on race, sex or religion. The Cold War became ever more frigid and the possibility of nuclear annihilation was tangible (in high school I had a neighbor who built a bomb shelter). The role of the majority of women was as housewife and professional career choices for them were limited. One older female friend recently said, "if you wanted to work, you were either a secretary, receptionist, nurse or teacher."

By the middle of the decade "hippies" were an established counterculture. They opposed established political traditions, hated the Vietnam War, and advocated peace, love and spiritual enlightenment. Since the 1960s, many aspects of hippie culture have been assimilated by mainstream society. From the Banlon and polyester days of the early sixties, when canned vegetables were a staple of American households, the back to the earth movement began. Euell Gibbons preached natural foods and we learned how to talk to our houseplants in the book, The Secret Life of Plants. We learned that you are what you eat and health and fitness entered the American culture. Organic farms and cooperatives sprung up in rural areas across the country. Celestial Seasonings introduced herbal tea and natural fiber clothing began replacing synthetics. The Beatles launched the first wave of the British Invasion and forever changed music and popular culture. The armchair traveler who had relied on National Geographic magazine for insight into foreign lands and cultures was replaced by a peripatetic society as air travel brought faraway places within reach of those who could afford it. For the rest, television provided a window to the world and for the first time we saw the brutal realities of war as we sat in our living room.

1967 marked the first major exhibit of Winogrand’s work. Along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, the New Documents exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought attention to the three photographers and forever linked them together.

Dealy Plaza, Dallas 1964

Dealy Plaza, Dallas 1964

"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."

From the beginning Winogrand’s work showed few ties to the documentary traditions of the New York Photo League. Ironically, he was friends with Dan Weiner3 and considered him a mentor. It was Weiner who introduced him to Walker Evans's American Photographs, the book that made such an impression on the young photographer. His eventual break from commercial work around 1969 allowed him to concentrate on his art and evolve into the pivotal photographer of the Twentieth Century that he ultimately became. At that time there were few, if any, galleries devoted to selling photography. Those art galleries and museums that did deal in the medium presented the established names (Weston, Steiglitz, Adams, Strand, etc.). The means by which "art photographers" supported themselves was through stipends from teaching assignments and grants, which together. barely provided subsistence living.

Los Angeles 1980-83

Los Angeles 1980-83

"I don't have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I'm photographing. I have a responsibility to describe it well."

Though the photographs in this exhibition should be viewed in context of their time, to say they are only of a historical importance is wrong. Winogrand was not a photojournalist. This work that he is best known for is not documentary photography. He felt no responsibility to be socially conscious. He was not interested in telling stories (although much of the time his pictures did tell stories for many viewers). He was not trying to make the world a better place through his photography.

In her San Francisco Chronicle review, Caille Millner states that Winogrand "was famous for never asking people permission before taking their photographs" and suggests that a generation of male photographers idolized him for his bravado. What Ms. Millner missed is that engaging people before taking their photo results in portraits, not candid street photography (a term which Winogrand disliked). When you ask someone to take a photo of them, they will most assuredly pose for you. Those people who accuse Winogrand
of being brash or pushy mistake his intentness of purpose. Exploring
photographic problems was a purely selfish pursuit and all consuming for him.

Los Angeles International Airport, late 1970's

Los Angeles International Airport, late 1970’s

"We know too much about how pictures look and should look. How do you get around making those pictures again and again?"

In the exhibit the pictures change after he received his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. The lyrical approach to image making that he inherited from Walker Evans and Robert Frank gives way to complex, sometimes chaotic frames. This was one of the photographic problems he was exploring: how much information can a photograph contain before the content overwhelms the form? The 50mm "normal" lens was abandoned in favor of something wider; first 35mm then later, 28mm. This change of technique is striking in the presentation of the photographs.

Los Angeles 1980-83

Los Angeles 1980-83

"Frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about making a nice picture, that anybody can do."

Garry Winogrand was first to use many of the devices that modern street photographers take for granted today. By using a wide-angle lens, not only could he include more information in a frame, he also became part of the life of the street instead of being an observer from afar. True to the genre, today street photographers rarely use long focal lengths or even carry telephoto lenses. Before Winogrand, horizon lines in photographs were parallel to the edge of the frame. The tilted frame that is so commonplace nowadays was one of his "experiments" as he explored the possibilities of what photographs were and could be. The seemingly simple, snapshot look of his photos brings attention to his subjects and has rarely been done as eloquently. His commonplace subject matter was previously thought too mundane to be worthy of photographing; yet it is Winogrand’s process of selection that brings focus to the nature of our society itself. In order to not suggest specific meaning to his photographs, he titled them using only place and year. Like Cartier-Bresson, compositions were made in the viewfinder and negatives were never cropped when printed.

When still photography was introduced it was hailed as a medium that could capture a moment with irrevocable truth to be preserved for eternity. Winogrand knew that the tie between a two-dimensional photograph and what it depicted was questionable at best. The simple act of framing a selection of a scene could create new relationships between the elements of a photograph that did not exist in reality.

La Grange, Texas 1977

La Grange, Texas 1977

"When I’m photographing I see life."

The early photographs are easy to relate to and bear a closer resemblance to existing documentary traditions in terms of subject and framing. While distinct from that of his contemporaries, they suggest the direction in which he was heading. The early photographs present scenes and subjects without washing them in sentimentality or opinion, or over embellishing them with style or form. By the time Stock Photographs was published in 1980, images might consist of a diagonal slash of content across the frame, or a somewhat blurred subject harshly lit by flash. Yet to say that certain stylistic approaches were indicative of a period would be untrue. The later work is certainly more somber…often more radical in composition. Early subject-dominated photographs tended to be carefree and detached. Later on they became introspective, as if promises had gone unfulfilled. Subjects seem to be involved with their own inner thoughts and problems. Was it Winogrand who changed, or was it the world? If he had a premonition about his illness, it would be difficult to pinpoint when it began to influence his photography.

Rodeo, Fort Worth 1975

Rodeo, Fort Worth 1975

Garry Winogrand has often been derided for not editing the work he was producing as the 1970’s got underway, leaving thousands upon thousands of images that he never even looked at. Even some of his strongest supporters, like John Szarkowski, felt that his talent had declined. Winogrand would rather be on the street taking photographs than looking at those he had already made. Photography in itself is a process of selection. In the later years shooting may have been as much as he was willing to commit to, leaving the final selection to others and for posterity to judge in the end. With a retrospective this large and many of the images never actually selected by Winogrand himself, we can only guess as to whether or not it represents a valid statement of his work. Credit is due to the curators for even attempting such a monumental task. To be sure, there are some less than strong images in the later period. Weeding out a third of the pictures would result in a stronger collection of images, but it would not tell us as much about the evolution of the photographer. A smaller exhibition would not include the wrong turns and experimentation that all artists deal with.

Looking back at videos of him working the street we can only marvel at how he made photography look so simple, yet created a body of work that is so complex and groundbreaking for its time that it created a whole new way of making and looking at photographs. His most lasting legacy must certainly be the vast archive of photography he left showing the sixties and seventies in America with honesty and an intensely personal vision that is unique. We will never know whether he was fooling us all when he said he took pictures to see what things looked like to a camera. If Winogrand were still alive, he would probably tell us, "look at the pictures, what do you see?"

We hope that SFMOMA will mount a Lee Friedlander retrospective in the coming decade, thus completing the trilogy of the 1967 New Documents exhibit that launched the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. On June 2 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will close for two years for renovation. The Garry Winogrand exhibit will travel to Washington DC, New York, Paris and Madrid. The catalog is available as hard cover or paperback from the museum’s online store at www.sfmoma.org.


NOTE ON THE QUOTES

These quotes from Garry Winogrand are mostly transcribed from a two-part interview conducted by Bill Moyers in 1982 (see "Garry Winogrand" post in Archive for links), although they have appeared in other writings of and about the photographer. The Winogrand doctrine was revolutionary for its time: " …there isn't a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of 'em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera." "All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface, that's all there is." To this day, people still get contentious when you tell them that photographs don’t tell stories — that a narrative involves the passage of time, not a frozen slice of it. While Winogrand is generally acknowledged as the author of this radical philosophy, I have recently revised my thinking. John Szarkowski's book, The Photographer's Eye, was based on his 1964 Museum of Modern Art exhibit of the same name, and first published as a book in 1966. The volume is divided into five sections with an explanation of each at the front of the book: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point. Bits of text in the book bear a striking semblance to the Winogrand doctrine; " …photography has never been successful at narrative. It has in fact seldom attempted it." "…the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story, but a picture." This is the same language used by Winogrand. It appears that this way of thinking about photographs was something that evolved as part of the interaction between Winogrand, Szarkowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge and others in that circle during the mid-sixties. Joel Meyerowitz4; says," I can tell you that neither of us (Winogrand and he) had anything intelligent to say about photographs back then, a grunt of surprise or saying ‘that' s interesting’, or ‘that' s tough’…until John showed us what might be part of the dialogue we were all lost." He adds, " Szarkowski was the mentor to us all, and I firmly believe that his wisdom, through his exhibitions, writings, and private talks with each of us shaped the thinking of my and Garry's generation."

FOOTNOTES

1) The majority of photographs in this exhibition were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision by Thomas Consilvio or Paul McDonough. The rest were made after his death and unless otherwise noted, were printed in 2012-2013 in Tuscon, Arizona by Teresa Engle Schirmer. All are gelatin silver prints.

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.


REFERENCES

Evans, Walker, essay by Linclon Kirstein. American Photographs. 75th anniversary ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2012.

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

 

farm scene

    Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin 1973

12 Feb 2013

Context

man & dog

kon’-tekst, noun

The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.

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.

18 Dec 2012

Street Photography: form vs. content

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.

Untitled
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.”

06 Jul 2012

Looking Back at “New Documents”

By Greg Allikas

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, NJ 1966 (archives.evergreen.edu) - Street Photography

Diane Arbus, Identical twins, Roselle, NJ 1966 (archives.evergreen.edu)

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.

Lee Friedlander, New York City 1965 (sfmoma.org) - Street Photography

Lee Friedlander, New York City 1965 (sfmoma.org)

“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.”

Garry Winogrand, World's Fair 1964 (masters-of-photography.com) - Street Photography

Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair 1964 (masters-of-photography.com)

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.

Notes

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

27 Feb 2012

Discipline and the Fifty

A New York Minute

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.

RalphGibson1-w-


TOP: New York Minute, NYC 2011 – taken with 50mm f1.8

ABOVE: Ralph Gibson – West Palm Beach 2011

KC – DISCIPLINE

 

16 Nov 2011

Blackout

The Great Blackout

Last Wednesday marked the 46th anniversary of the Great Northeast Blackout that darkened New York City overnight on November 9, 1965, 5:28pm

I was there. I graduated high school the year before and was working in the city at a graphics studio while attending Pratt Institute in Brooklyn three nights a week. What a different life I would have had if there had not been a war in Vietnam and a draft.

The power went out just about quitting time. The offices I worked in were on the 13th floor but they called it 14th. You know how that goes. I commuted 40 minutes into the city every day on what was then, the New York, New Haven & Hartford railroad. The trains ran on electricity so I had no plans to try to get home. A few co-workers lived uptown and decided to walk down the stairs and try to find a taxi home. That was the same thought that thousands of other office workers had so an hour or two later the men were back. Thankfully they brought sandwiches.

We had no lanterns or candles so being resourceful, we decided to try lighting the end of a grease pencil china marker. A few of those provided some light and as we later learned noxious fumes as well. I had only been doing photography for two years or so and the fact that I was able to get printable negatives of what was essentially, pure darkness, surprises me even today. The camera used was my first “good” camera; a Miranda F with 50mm f1.8 lens.

There was and has been much discussion after the event about “what we learned” and what could be done to prevent such a thing happening again. I am sure that systems and procedures were revised immediately after the failure that left 30 million people in the dark. In this computer age we have far more sophisticated systems in place to prevent such catastrophes. Yet there are more people and we all are more dependent on the services that electricity provides. With the capabilities of computers also come the vulnerabilities. The wars of the future will likely be fought on computer networks, not battlefields.

Hopefully today will be a better day at work than yesterday. Our DSL line was on and off all day.

The Great Blackout

David Bowie from the album “Heroes” – Blackout

17 Oct 2011

Anthropology 101

Bus #4

As I have been posting these older photographs, several things have become evident. I have noticed, particularly with the bus series, that these people do not exist downtown any more. For one thing, this particular bus stop is gone. It was the main stop back then. Either the middle class has made the upwardly mobile move and are now disguised as young professionals, or the whole demographic of West Palm Beach city proper has changed. Government offices and toney restaurants have replaced the Woolworths and Kresge five-and-dimes. The last of the downtown department stores, Burdines, has not only long ago left downtown, but the shopping landscape altogether. The ubiquitous Starbucks is frequented by yuppies (do they even call them that anymore?) reading the daily news on their iPads. Has West Palm Beach finally grown up, or has the world just changed? Or both? There is certainly no longer any need for pensioners to go downtown. There are plenty of dollar stores taking over strip malls in the outlying areas.

While we may think of ourselves as street photographers and street photography not as journalism, we are social documentarians. Anthropologists. Takers of a visual census of our time. We may not know that in the present, but it becomes evident in our photography as it acquires the rich patina of time. One of the characteristics that identifies street photography (for me) is that we do not have the responsibility of journalism. We are not required to be compassionate, or responsible or to fulfill any mandate to tell a story. Yet in the end, our work may end up being all of these things.

Don't Get Married

TOP: Bus #4, West Palm Beach 1980

ABOVE: Don’t Get Married, West Palm Beach 1980

27 Mar 2010

Ducktown, 1974

Ducktown, TN, 1974

Hold the edit!

A few posts earlier, I posted a comment by Garry Winogrand about saving your contact sheets for a year before looking at them. His reason was to separate the act of taking the photographs from the photographs themselves. This really makes a good bit of sense and I personally find that I have a hard time selecting images from a recently shot set, especially street photography.

Going back through an archive can often yield overlooked gems. The older the better? Street photos naturally aquire a patina with age…call it retro if you like. Naturally, because they depict a time gone by.

In 1974 after selling our photo studio, Valbuena and I went separate ways. I went north. That summer I packed most of my belongings into my 1967 red Volvo and like Lincoln Duncan, headed down the turnpike for New England. I took my time and as many backroads as I could find. There ain’t much to photograph along the interstate! After heading north through western Georgia I found myself in the curious copper mining berg of Ducktown. It seemed to me then a strange place, perhaps because of the mining activities at the time.

A few weeks ago I came across this shot while looking through some boxes of contact sheets and negs for a specific photo. Somehow I had missed it 35 years ago. It had never been printed nor was the contact sheet marked for printing it. Today, I really like the image. The hat and the cigar make it, but he is also nicely joined to the lightpost by his shadow. I like the minimalist building which may be a post office, but I don’t recall. The final bit of humor that appeals to me is the exiting man with his bowed head. What else does one do in Ducktown but “duck”?