Photography as Memory: part 2

 

 

markiepipe in rinardfixed
Markus and his Great Grandpa

Memory Making

 

Photography is not always about making memories, but sometimes it is just that.  That’s the part the KODAK emphasized in its concept and in its advertising. We have a flyer on our kitchen wall, a water color image of a couple on a sailboat, the girl with a postcard sized folding Kodak.  The text reads in part “there’s all this and more for those who keep a record of their outings with a Kodak.” This was an important part of the cultural revolution energized by making cameras for the masses.  Few people were immune to the allure. Avant garde painters in Paris bought Kodaks and snapped each other on the boulevards.  And even before the Kodak working people found the quarters to pay for tintypes from small studios and street photographers. Workers carried the tools of their various trades to the camera and paid to get a record, a memory of themselves and their liveihoods.

 

The tintypers did a great business in the army camps of the American Civil War and their thousands of quick informal portraits not only gave families at home memories of the many who did not return, but they instituted the public affection for cheap portraits, cabinet cards and so on.  They also made an incredibly important contribution to the National Memory.

 

The tin type photographers of the era remain, for the most part, anonymous and forgotten.  Most of the individuals photographed for these one of a kind images are also lost as identifiable individuals.  So what remains?  The little photographs, dull in color and found in junk shop bins, these remain.  There was a day, an afternoon, adequate light, the excitement of the one being photographed, the photographers hand on the plate, dipped in developer and fix, rinsed off, the sitters first look, blowing on it to dry it, showing it to spouse or parent or friend, or slipping it into an addressed envelope and handing it over to a postman.  All the participants, all the witnesses interested or not, are gone.  Now the image is anonymous. Then why does it compel us, interest us, fascinate us?

 

Many people are fascinated with Vivian Maier, a woman who died in obscurity but now garners public interest because her unprocessed rolls of film were discovered. As it turns out Maier was a good photographer, and not only technically competent but with an excellent eye that sought out images rather obsessively over decades in some very photographically interesting places; the streets of the city.  People are fascinated with the story of her obscurity, that she was a complete unknown, in the world of photography. It is her photographs, nearly all have been printed by others after her death, it is these photographs that are of much greater interest, and it is their subject matter clearly presented with her command of exposure and focus and skills of composition that remain what is most important in the Vivian Maier story.  Through the 40’s and 50‘s and 60’s she recorded city life in New York and Chicago and that city life has been so transformed, that her work chronicles that which was but is no more, i.e., converted it to memory.

 

We value images from an earlier time.  The Ken Burns documentary on the American Civil War used a lot of literature, letters, newspaper articles, books to fill in layers of detail and nuance, but the popularity of the documentary, and its inherent power would not have been the same if instead of photographs there had only been artists renderings available.  The public sense of authenticity of the photograph, and even more so the common perception of the photograph as captured reality and captured moment made the images of the era almost time travel vehicles for the imagination. This, the artist, sketcher, painter can not do.

 

 

Other Peoples’ Memories, Other Peoples’ Photographs

 

I suggested earlier that when I was looking at the little print books of family gatherings that I was looking at other peoples’ memories, as I had not been present, had not existed at the moment of exposure. Now I am not so sure of the characterization.  If I read a memoir of some time or event I am reading the author’s recollections, interpretation, of his or her memory of the time.  A skillful author can convey even the impression of his emotional state at the time in the retelling. Language has the potential for nuance and subtlety that would be very difficult to express in a photograph. The creator of a photograph might, on the other hand, feel the welling up of such subtleties and nuance in looking again at her photograph, and in this case the image serves as a catalyst for recalling these things in the form of memory revisited.

 

Is it possible that someone else’s photo could stir up in me such subtleties of emotion?  This is the supposition behind the long held idea that the photographer should try to express in a photograph the emotional response the scene evoked in him at the time of its taking. This classic Ansel Adams take on artistic photography goes back to Stieglitz and his “equivalents” and is especially noted when it comes to landscape images.  The artistic skill here is beyond the technical achievement of exposure and focus, and represents the supposed ability to control the subtleties of the medium as to gain control of the readers’ emotional responses.

 

Stating it this way makes it seem like a far-fetched and rather presumptuous notion of a photographer’s ability.  This is not to say that a photograph does not itself have the potential to stir emotional responses and memories.  It is just that one must be very suspicious that a photograph can serve as a channel between the emotional response of the photographer and the same of a reader.  If one’s memory is stirred by another’s photograph, whose memory is stirred?  Not the photographer’s.

 

If not another’s memory, then what am I seeing in the other’s photograph?

 

We learn the language of our family and our community and that makes it possible to communicate on many levels.  The common language is the basis but not the whole of the community grammar, which includes norms for politeness and respect, recognition of common meanings to traffic signs, all kinds of rules for behavior and so on.  There is even a more fundamental body of understanding: such things as lighter in color usually suggest higher in elevation, from the basic awareness of sky and ground, or that reflections of the sky on a surface suggest wetness, or water.   We know that shadows tend to fall under things rather than over.  Much of this kind of innate knowledge is applied by us to the photographs we make.   So we have a basis in this common grammar that helps us to convey in our photographs things that the reader will understand and if we were to turn down the expectations of those photo gods a bit then there is some truth in that sense that “artistic photographs should convey something of the photographer’s emotional response to the scene…”   I cannot, however, read another’s memory in a photograph.

 

It’s not what you look at that Matters, It’s what you See!

 

That’s a loose quote from Henry David Thoreau, who was not a photographer.

 

In this last section I want to imagine a large retrospective of a photographer who worked with a camera his whole long life.  I don’t want to pick out a famous photographer so you can just imagine that it was you that I am imagining.  It’s all the same in any case as the principles will apply.  To do this I have to exclude the images made, let’s say, by a portrait photographer who toiled for 40 years in his studio on Main Street, already tired and struggling to stay creative after the first decade. I do this because what I have in mind is one who roams about, a lover of photos, if not obsessed with taking pictures at least warmly passionate about it. So you see, it’s not the same as it is with a commercial guy who went to school and into business initially because of his love for cameras and film, and then spent decades always on the verge of burnout.  For my photographer he or she should be one who would rather die with a camera in hand.

 

So in this retrospective we begin with, of course, the early years and as critics we look for signs of what is to come. Are there hints already that our photographer prefers certain themes, times of day, lighting qualities and so on?  Is a youthful exuberance and optimism, even naivety present in the prints on the wall? Or is there something darker that will manifest itself more strongly later on?

 

Into the second room of this big exhibit: here the photographer has reached some new level of energy and awareness, out of school and into the world, the real world.  Can we note the photographer’s take on the social realities of adult life?  We fully expect something of that sort, don’t we? We expect to be able to, ought to be able to gain something of the photographer’s take on the world.  Why is that? Why should we have such expectations?

 

As photographers we know that the process of making images has much to do with choosing, with selecting, with excluding or including, with deciding whether to make an effort or not, with looking through the viewfinder and making subtle adjustments and so on. We understand the process.  The walls of this imaginary retrospective would be blank except for the choices the photographer spent a lifetime making.  So we can walk through these rooms and gain some sense of this photographer. It’s inevitable.

 

Here we are in the middle age room.  Each image represents now 30 years of taking pictures.  What can we see from that 30 years of shooting?  Are there things that this person is now photographing that were not being photographed in the first ten years of work, or the second ten?  Yes, we say, look at the difference here.  See the shift in emphasis.

 

And then we are in the final room.  Critics often note in viewing this room, the later years room, how there is a darkness not before present, that there are notes of mortality present. Critics love to get into that drama.

 

When we walk out of the hall, what have we seen?  Did we just go through the photographer’s lifetime of memory or memories?  No, not memories, but what?  The first level of the answer to the question, what did we see?,  is that we saw the collection of what the photographer chose to look at and the moments he or she captured.  The first answer to our understanding this photographer is to learn what caught his eye, captured his imagination, captivated his vision.  The short answer to the question is the photographers question back: “What did I look at?” Thus the photographer responds when we ask, “Who are You?”  That is, according to Thoreau, not enough, not sufficient.    It is definitely the right direction to take though.  The photographer after all, is keenly visual in his or her approach to life, if in fact, this person with the camera is really a Photographer.  Thoreau’s question that seeks to clarify, “What did you see?” represents a deeper understanding of how the photos reveal the person behind them.  Seeking that deeper understanding of another is a valid quest, but it might be even more useful to turn back to face the self, an inward turn to self-revelation. The question then becomes: What do I look at?  What do I see?

 

Photography for me is full of mysteries.  I wanted to find in my fascination for looking at old family photos an ability to connect to other peoples memories, but found ultimately that I could not.  My memories are my own. The photos still hold power over me and they become part of my memory but only as photos, not as the moments in time.  The process of photographing on the other hand is partly in capturing moments from the flow that stops for no man. In some ways, the photograph represents a stubborn resistance to that flow of time.  The movie line, resistance is futile, applies here. When my box of my Dad’s photos and paperwork disappeared, all the efforts at preserving those moments proved futile, and thus I felt a death had occurred.  When the family of the Civil War soldier got the tintype in the mail, they somehow could feel as if they had their son and brother back, but when his corpse was thrown into a battlefield mass grave, the reality of the flow of time prevailed.

 

Is photography about the struggle against Death?  Perhaps it is more about preserving moments of Life. That doesn’t explain so much of photography and so many genres.  It doesn’t directly throw light on why one spends hours photographing inanimate objects or setting up still life images. But then one thing cannot be expected to explain everything, can it?

 

Bill Kostelec

May 30, 2018

 

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Photography as Memory: part 1

 

 

There was a cardboard box full of memories, mostly black and white photographs, contact prints from roll film cameras, some documents, like an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army, a C.C.C. publication that was more or less a yearbook of a camp, all stuff of my Dad’s life.  It disappeared a few years after his sudden death from a heart attack, as my Mother struggled with her demons, along with his work shoes, tools, his car, all obliterated in a spell of alcoholic and drug addled insanity.

 

The photos included pictures from the California Redwoods, CCC boys in the deep snow of North Idaho national forests, old cars, bare-breasted native women somewhere between the Admiralty Islands and Manila.  There was a photo of a Japanese soldier up to his armpits in a muddy hole, hands raised in surrender.  There were young toughs with “bogarted” cigarettes hanging from their lips on the streets of Chicago (he was one of them).

 

tintype of Dad
The twins Louie and Al and a buddy

 

 

The box was gone, including the rising sun flag that Japanese soldiers wore inside their shirts, a black and white skull and crossbones flag that flew from the antenna of my Dad’s amphib (amphibious tractor) during the invasion of Leyte – all gone.  He was already dead for a couple of years and with the box gone it was as if he had died again. Though he showed up in a few of the prints, he was mostly the photographer.  They were his memories, passed on to me, now memories lost.

 

It occurs to me that from an early age I associated photos with memories.  It also occurs to me that they were not my memories.  There were in the family little yellow booklets of deckle edged black and white prints, one per roll,  of 4thof July picnics, birthday parties and so on, from before I was born or at least from before I was able to form and retain memories. (what a concept! We are not born with that capacity, it has to develop like language and face recognition.)  Photos thus connected me to time and events in which I had not participated, at least not wholly.  In this essay I want to explore that side of photography, as I continue to reflect on its meaning and significance.

 

Photography and Memory

My initial exposures to photographs were to black and white, mostly in the form of family prints. Black and white images represented a distance in time.  They represented the past. The present was a world of color, a reality reinforced when NBC first put up its peacock and The Wonderful World of Color came on air.  Color meant modern and it represented progress. Black and white came to represent the past, the old days, the time before I was.   My Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska had both died young, he in 1925 and she in 1930 and they were only figures in some mythical time long before the world I lived in.  My maternal grandfather Bill died when I was a toddler, and I have only vague memories of him, but on the wall was a formal portrait made when he was older and white haired, black and white and vignetted.  My memories of him were dreamlike, and in black and white.  My grandmother never told family stories.  I had no idea where she came from or who her parents were. There were no stories of my Mom as a child, and Grandma didn’t talk about her husband.

 

My Dad, on the other had, at least a couple times talked to me about his life, about good neighbors and his Mother’s singing voice, about his time in an orphanage in Chicago, in the CCCs, about the war. But he was orphaned at 13 and had a lost boy’s perspective on those times.

And he had some photographs.

I always wanted to know more about his life, to know him better but it was difficult as a lot of the men of that generation kept much to themselves. I got a set of books called The Pictorial History of The Second World War when I was about ten or so and I spent hours, days, looking through each volume trying to find a photo of my Dad in the Philippines. All the images were black and white.  I tried to find him in them, but he was not there.

 

For me, there was a mystery in the looking at old photos.  In the photograph was a hint of Distance: photographs in black and white represented a contradictory revelation of distance even as they breached the distance of time and place. A presence of the past, or was it the transportation of me in the present to some time now past? That was part of the mystery of photography for me.

 

I was still pretty young when the family got a Polaroid Swinger. In fact my first photo instruction manual was a book about using the Polaroid.  It was a nice switch from the whirr of the Super 8 movie camera I used chronicling the foster babies, but I still ended up photographing the little ones, the foster kids and my second cousins who lived down the street.  It was all black and white. There was for me, still a kid, a sense of power in making the little prints.  It wasn’t from making something pretty; it was about snatching and fixing a piece of Time, capturing a moment that whirred ever past like the frames of the movie camera.  Even with the nearly instant production of the Polaroid print, the moment quickly became the past and the print became an artifact of history as much as an albumen print from a glass plate made in the American Civil War.

 

jody gets adopted
Baby Jill gets Adopted

 

 

In some sense, when one photographs a friend or family member, the photograph bears the implicit shadow of regret, as the moment captured already becomes a moment past, and a moment lost.  The baby so fresh and so innocent will quickly become a toddler, then a school girl and so on, and the parent sighs with nostalgia for the little one who now cops an attitude and has pimples and no longer wants to be hugged.  The camera can snatch a moment, capture it, but only as a moment past.

 

Shane and Jerry
Jerry and Shane

 

 

To be clear, I am not saying that photography does this inevitably nor always.  When I shoot a still life, or close in with the long bellows of the view camera on something small, digging deeper into its presence by enlarging it beyond its normal reality, and then open the shutter for 30 seconds, I am not snatching a moment nor creating a memory.  There is no reference to time and its passing even though the process is all about time. There is no sense of memory.  I am saying, however, that photography has the power to do those things, and more.

 

Jim and Jeff
Jimmy and jeff

 

 

 

Let me give another example: my Dad’s parents, Ignatz and Franciska were married in 1902 and both died at 45 years of age, long, long before I was born.  In fact, I knew their names from my Dad as Ignatius and Frances but little else.  They had no faces in my memory, no real presence.  After he died, my Dad’s oldest sister brought their original wedding photo from California to Illinois and my cousin Al made slide copies and I got one.  For years however, I didn’t look at it. Finally, I decided to scan it and there was Franciska, a pretty, female version of my Dad’s face, and there was Ignatz, who looked so much like me in a photo my Dad made of me when I was sixteen.  After living as imaginary mythical figures in my mind for so long, suddenly they were family, enfleshed, connected.

 

ignatz and Franciska
Ignatz and Franciska

 

 

As you perhaps can tell, I have found photography a potent and meaningful medium in my life, both as a taker and as a reader of photographs.   If I spend so much time talking about my life it is only because it is an easy channel for me to try to understand the social significance of this medium that is less than 200 years old and yet seems now so natural and normal a part of human culture that it is difficult to imagine its absence.  The world never was really black and white and grey but photography has made such a world totally believable.  That’s quite a powerful thing to ponder.

 

 

End of part 1

 

Bill Kostelec

May 2018

35mm film and Everyman’s Camera of an Age Not Quite Gone By

 

 

When I was still a kid, maybe 8 years old, I got to take some pictures with my parents Kodak Duaflex 620 camera, flash bulb and all. It was at some big family gathering and when the photos came back from the drugstore a family joke came into being as I had taken a picture of the bare legs of three of my Aunts sitting on the couch, cutting off their heads.  What did I know of parallax, or women’s legs for that matter!

 

Sometime later, my Dad bought a used Argus C-3 from a man who came to the house, and paid 25 dollars, which was probably too much.  That was the family’s first 35mm camera.  As a high school yearbook photographer I used a Yashicamat twin lens reflex a couple of times but when I graduated,  bought my own camera, a Pentax Spotmatic II with a super multi-coated Takumar 50mm 1.4 and a 35mm Soligor 3.5 lens.  I also bought a table top Durst 35mm enlarger with a Schneider Componon lens, all new. In the camera store there were all kinds of cameras, but somehow, it was in my mind that a camera WAS a 35mm, and the 4X5 monorails and medium format cameras on the shelves never even caught my attention.

charliesantiquesfinalb

As I was growing up the National Geographic photographers shot 35mm Kodachrome and the Life Magazine photographers were mostly 35mm shooters.  Gene Smith and Leonard McCombe, Cartier Bresson and Robert Capa, Garry Winograd and Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank made the 35mm the camera of choice for all those younger shooters who wanted to be photographers with a capital P.  In the days before Canon and Nikon became dominant, there were plenty of choices: Ricoh, Petri, Exakta, Contaflex, Agfa, Werra, Asahiflex, Argus, Mercury, even Kodak with its Retinas and Retinettes.   Because I had grown up in a house with a regular procession of foster babies and kids, and had been crowned the movie maker for them all by my parents, I came to the still camera rather late.  Thus the Spotmatic became my first regular still camera and I read photo magazines to reorient myself to it.

 

old man chicago for john
Old man on Michigan Avenue, 1977

 

The virtues of the 35mm were obvious.  Film was affordable and it was easy to process without an elaborate darkroom.  Instead of hand processing 616 film from my Dad’s Kodak Folder in the dark in an open tray, I could load the film on a reel and use a daylight tank.    A half dozen years later, hanging the Pentax around my neck I was able to roam the streets of Chicago on long lunches with free rolls of Ektachrome when we switched at the studio I worked in from E-4 to E-6.   The Pentax Spotmatic with three lenses (I had acquired the 100mm telephoto) was not much of a burden for a 20 something dude in a denim jacket and blue headband!  Back at the office my friend Bill would process the slides and I’d mount them and take them home to roll a tube on the kitchen floor making Cibachrome 8X10’s.

 

forsythe county
Forsythe County GA 1985, still segregated

 

Years later when I taught photography at Gonzaga University, the modus operandi of 35mm played a big role in my instruction.  “Carry your camera with you everywhere and if something catches your eye, even if you don’t know why, shoot it.”  The Spotmatic finally fell apart around the time my youngest son was born, which is the main reason why there are fewer photos of him.  I had my second (used) Spotmatic when I studied in Israel in 1986 and if I had known more about photography at the time, especially light, I would have shot negative film instead of the usual Ektachrome.  The contrasty light frustrated me and my failures from that trip convinced me to relearn the whole business of photography. The 35mm camera, on the other hand, was a perfect tool for walking the streets of Old Jerusalem or hiking up to the Mount of Olives in the Summer heat.  Without a tripod to burden me, I could whirr around to take a photo of something happening behind me, and when I photographed three old Arab men in traditional headdress deep in the shadows of the Via Delarosa, and the one in the middle whacked at me with his cane, I was mobile enough to miss the force of the blow. Quickness of use is dependent on a lot of factors beside the camera however.  In a memorable encounter on Michigan Ave in Chicago one Winter,  I heard an explosion of female laughing and chattering behind me.  It was the days of “the Dodge Boys wear white hats” and I turned around and at the curb two white Dodge vans had pulled up and pouring out of them were about 20 girl models in hot pants and white cowboy hats rushing towards me into the Tribune Building.  I had the camera in my hand loaded with film and as they ran past me waving and laughing, with their legs, I would suppose, goose bumping in the frigid Chicago wind, I could not take a shot.  Some other factor had interfered with my photographer’s instincts.

 

McCain Rally
John McCain Rally, Gonzaga

 

I still regret that during the Spring of my first year of college when I went with 3 friends to Washington, D.C. to see for ourselves what was going on with the peace demonstrations and the Nixon White House, I went without the Pentax.  Because, I suppose, of all those years of making Super 8 baby movies, I left the Pentax in the dorm and took a Canon movie camera and all I have of a major historical experience are two 50 foot roll of movies film and not a single 35mm negative.  The Pentax would have been a wonderful tool for the marches and the police lines and the camps at the Jefferson Lagoon with the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and the Welfare Rights Organization and Black Panthers in black leather jackets hawking their papers.

 

I got my first rangefinder camera by trading a 4X5 monorail someone had given me for a Canon IVSB2 with a Leitz Elmar lens (uncoated).  I had become convinced that my best photos had been made with a 35mm and I wanted to move up to what I thought would be a higher level of equipment.  The Canon was an aesthetically beautiful camera and the Elmar was a nice clean cutting lens. Meanwhile I was learning photography on my own with a voracious consumption of library books and lots of film.  Then my friend John Iacula handed off to me for a few hundred dollars a 2 body Spotmatic set with three lenses, a Minolta SRT set with 4 lenses, a Leica IIIc with a 90mm Elmar and a broken Nicca rangefinder body with a shiny chrome Nikkor 50mm 1.4 lens, the kind that David Douglas Duncan made famous during the Korean war.  I still use the Nikkor.

 

larry W SAX
Larry of the Working Spliffs and his Sax

 

Using a rangefinder camera reduces the bulk of equipment even more and I can throw a couple lenses in bags in my vest and with the camera around my neck I can walk miles just keeping an eye out for whatever might catch it. Nowadays I have newer equipment, a 1962 Leica M3 and a 2001 Voigtlander R2 that has its own meter!  Because I shoot a lot of large format I tend to be very careful with composition, and because I wear eyeglasses, the rangefinder can be a little difficult in getting my edges true.  The pleasure of shooting with the M3 overrides for me any of the difficulties.

 

markiepipe in rinardfixed
Markus and his Great Grandfather, Rinard, IL

 

One thing I’ve learned is that even though I can get a shot with a slower shutter speed handheld, image quality improves with a faster shutter, even with the rangefinders and no mirror. Because the small format comes with naturally bigger depth of field, this isn’t much of a problem.  While the gritty look of the 50’s and 60’s when magazine photographers push processed their Tri-X to extremes had a certain charm, I make too many big negatives to want that for my 35mm shots and I’d much rather use a cell phone with its dinky flash in those situations.  So with 35mm, image quality remains for me just as important as it is with a 5X7 inch negative.

 

Kathy is shooting a series on a copy stand with an SRT body and a Minolta 25mm lens intended for the auto bellows attachment.  She photographs objects that can be no bigger than a dime with this non-focusing lens on Tmax 100, and then enlarges them to 16X20 prints and they are sharp and finely detailed.  The idea that 35mm cannot produce image quality is just nonsense.  It produces under the right circumstances excellent quality but with a different feel than large or medium format film.

 

young couple color at empyrean
At the Old Empyrean

 

Today, one can get hold of a 35mm camera and lenses inexpensively and easily either at an online auction or from a local listing.   Millions and millions of cameras are out there and there is still plenty of film available.  It’s true that the cellphone has replaced the 35 as “everyman’s camera”, but then, that means that it is the cellphone that has become ordinary while a 35mm hanging on your shoulder will catch the attention of passers by.  And if you really crave the attention, get one from the 50’s, shiny and solid and no plastic!

 

Bill Kostelec

 

May, 2018

 

The Strongest Way of Seeing

 

 

 

This phrase from Edward Weston follows on an expression of disdain for the “rules of composition” which were apparently very big in the circles of the photo clubs and organizations which favored the pictorialist style of working. Composition, he says is really the strongest way of seeing.   Rules are nothing more than the after effects of good seeing, developed by analysis of well seen compositions. One can find many examples of repudiation of “rules of composition” from 20th century photographers, who also share in a disdain for the pictorialist salons and their repetitive motifs and predictable genres. Even Alfred Stieglitz, who in an early article suggests these rules for successful work, later on discards them, having been transformed by Cubist and other Modernist Art approaches to design.

All of the players I am thinking of are long dead and some of them were, like photography itself, born in the 19th century so one could ask whether it really matters in our contemporary approach to photography. We have seen the once dramatic compositional revolts in the work of mid 20th century photographers like Gary Winograd or the even earlier A. Rodshenko in the post-revolution Soviet Union but neither of them fostered a school of followers who emphasized the abrupt angles and tilting camera techniques, so they do not represent a finished statement on composition and design, more rather statements of the liberation of the hand-held camera, especially the 35mm, liberation from the tripod.

The contemporary scene is noteworthy technologically in reference to 2 cameras; the digital SLR and the cell phone. Both are quick and simple and capable of a boatload of digital after-effects and manipulations. One should probably add the third piece of technology, the computer monitor as it has almost equal value to the photographer’s work.   Children can successfully use either of these 2 camera devices in the auto mode and get pictures that are sharply focused and properly exposed, little children can do this. It is a return to the “You push the button, we do the rest” mode of photography which created such a cultural revolution at the end of the 19th century. All they have to do is aim the camera and press the shutter. It is exactly about aiming the camera to which the issue of composition lays its claim.

We should point out that different kinds of cameras are either easier or more difficult to use in the task of achieving a precise aiming. Weston’s 8X10 inch view camera with its big ground glass could be aimed very carefully and precisely, resting securely on its tripod. And once aimed it could be securely fixed in place. An iphone held up above ones head to catch a crowd scene can neither be viewed in detail nor held very securely and in an immobile manner.   Composing the scene carefully would be very difficult for the cell phone photographer. The 35mm camera, because it is held to the face could be expected to yield a more carefully composed image though they can present difficulties to eyeglass wearers. Generally speaking, a bigger ground glass makes composing easier which helped make medium format cameras like the Hassellblad and Rollieflex popular with professionals and advanced amateurs. The bright viewfinder of the 35mm rangefinder has also been a popular tool. Henri Cartier Bresson’s pristine compositions attest to its possibilities.

With the ubiquity of the cell phone for the snapshot shooter, one might expect an aesthetic revolution of sorts, an anarchist approach to aiming, framing and composition. There have been anarchist revolts in the arts before. But if the carelessness of composition is really a technical result of the mechanics of the tool, how it is held and so on, then what part of art and its values would we find expressed when the work of the “artist” appeared much like the work of one’s 3 year old granddaughter? This isn’t the same kind of experimentation as in cross-processing of color films and using the Diana and Holga cameras with their built in “flaws”. There, integral elements in the photo process are used to develop new ways of imaging. A rejection of composition as a thoughtful part of the process of making images seems more antithetical to basic human instincts and I think one would have a hard time maintaining such a rejection as any kind of positive artistic step.

Serious image makers, whether professionally employed or not, in this age of the cell phone camera, must work doubly hard to affirm the value of what they do. When someone is a wedding photographer in a room where every Aunt, Uncle, Cousin and Friend is aiming a DSLR or cell phone at the bride and groom, there is an added pressure of making images that stand out, that make people say “Wow!” If exposure and focus are nearly guaranteed by modern technology, then it might be exactly the perfecting of composition that makes the Photographer’s images stand out.

If composition has always been a key element, then why did so many of the famous and significant photographers of the 20th century express so strongly against the “rules of composition?” I have a copy of a British photo journal from the 1930’s and in reading an article that was supposed to be a continuing technical and aesthetic help column I found a very clear reference to the so-called “rules of composition” which apparently were some of the criteria in the various salons that amateur photographers would enter, competing for ribbons and praise. There were more rules that photographers were expected to adhere to in the salon competition. Andreas Feininger, in one of his instructional books tells a story of a friend who was a judge in one of those competitions pulling out a submission print, which Feininger recognized, and his friend the judge said something like, “I think he’s a good photographer but this will never get accepted. No blacks.” It was a print by Edward Weston. Feininger doesn’t comment as the point is so obvious, how foolishly these “rules” worked to guarantee mediocrity. Feininger was, by the way, one of those professionals who rejected the “rules of composition”. So part of the attitude of so many of these excellent photographers against the rules was that kind of foolish legalism of the Salons and the pictorialists altogether. If that’s all it was then we would be making a mountain out of a molehill.

 

The strongest way of seeing.

Not to make something out of nothing let us turn to the positive implications of Weston’s assertion. What does it mean to see strongly? In a milder form, what does it mean to see well?

The pallet knife is to a painter what the trash bucket should be to a photographer. Especially if the painter is using oil paint.   The application of color to the canvas is an essential part of the workflow. That’s how paintings become paintings. Painting is very often a process of experimentation, of adding and subtracting, of editing, rethinking, moments of revelation etc., and the pallet knife is a vital tool in all of that.   Oil paints take a long time to dry, and during that time the artist can take that knife and scrape away areas of color, large and small. Why would the painter do such a thing? Because in looking at his or her work at a particular stage, something doesn’t look right. Something is not working. There is some anomaly in the time space continuum! The artist’s instinct kicks in and informs. It sits there, an unsettled whisper. There is some failure of harmony. There is no Shalom, no Salaam, no Peace.   Discord, Imbalance, all apparent through the eye, through the “seeing”.

This is the first key to illuminating Weston’s claim. Seeing in this sense of the word is a refined process which has as its goal a personal and aesthetic resolution of the various discords and imbalances of the natural world. The world is full of them. The world is a messy place, even in the grand valley of Yosemite there are countless points of view that are not worth opening ones eyes for. We humans have a sense of that and an instinct for perfecting that messy world, or at least little parts of it. The instinct seeks what we might call harmony, the pleasing relating of various components into a single harmonious whole, a new thing. That is what the painting is supposed to be, and the photograph. When the various objects that make up an image interrelate properly, then the image “feels” complete and perfected. When this happens, the artist has created a new world. That’s quite an accomplishment but it is also one of those driving and perfectly natural forces of the human experience. Why else would people have started making images, drawings, before they could talk, before they developed language?

So the seeing that Weston refers to is instinctual and comes to us more or less naturally. More or less here recognizes that some of us have a better awareness and strength of that instinct which is largely visual but also spiritual. Talking is also an instinctual and natural part of the experience but it has to be learned, and some people seem to learn it more effectively than others. Seeing, like speech, can be refined, improved, perfected. We learn to improve our speech by listening to others, by listening to how they speak and communicate. We can improve, strengthen our seeing by looking to how others see.

The painter has the luxury of the length of the process to perfect and complete the harmony which is the underlying goal. The photographer is a bit more restricted and thus a very refined sense of seeing is required to make that tripping of the shutter the moment of harmony, at least, the moment of the initial harmony. ( The printing process might involve a further refinement of tones, for example, and Adams referred to this as the performance of the negative’s ‘score’). Weston and Ansel Adams both called this the “visualization.” No pallet knife available in photography, only the trash bin for failed negatives. You either got the shot or didn’t . Remember that these earlier photographers had to worry about focus and exposure as well as their visualization. Can we wonder that so many significant photographers rejected the idea of the rules of composition?  Can you imagine having to think about exposure and light values and then look to see whether you were using the rule of thirds properly too?

The overwhelming value of instinct, (of any kind) is that one does not have to think about it, only listen to it. In fact it may be that the hardest part for a lot of people is not that they have a weak instinct, but rather that they have not learned to recognize it and follow it

 

Bill Kostelec

March 19, 2018

The Print is the Thing 2: Mental Templates and Visualization

In black and white film photography, a key factor in the process of visualization is the translation of a full color world of three dimensions into a two dimensional object made up of values from black to white. In the first 75 to 100 years of photography there was little choice for photographers to engage that fact, with few exceptions like the Autochrome process. There were artistic precedents of course in drawings in charcoal, graphite and inks, and there were the printmaking processes of etching and engraving, woodcut and lithography. The earliest examples of translating the real world into the reproduced world is found in the cave drawings that remain mysterious to us and predate agricultural human communities.

 

For the generations that spent many hours in front of black and white TVs and read newspapers that exclusively printed photos in black and white, there are plenty of visual precedents for imagining the world in black and white, including the reduction to 2-dimensional rectangles. These visual precedents can work in the mind as what I call “mental templates” and help a photographer to make the necessary translation to black and white film and paper. For this reason I have had my students look through multi-volumes of good photographs by photographers who successfully and powerfully made those translations into black and white images. Not only would they spend time with a book, but they would pick out a photograph that especially impacted them, and have to write a short paper describing the characteristics of the image that made it work.

 

The templates can be very helpful but they have the potential to be controlling or limiting. For a budding landscape photographer devotedly studying the works of Ansel Adams, for example, how strong a personality would be required to not produce Adams-like images? While it is as easy as pie to produce a pale imitation of an Adams image, how difficult it would be to out Adams Adams! Ansel himself went to work with some templates in order, the precedents of the 19th century American painters, like Bierstadt, with their heroic visions of the American landscape. But even here he was making the translation from full color to black and white.

 

If one compares the work of Ansel and his friend Minor White it becomes apparent that something more than the application of mental templates is involved in producing their bodies of work. Ansel was not, apparently, a religious man, conservative in many ways but not devout to a faith or creed. His spirituality seems rooted in the land that he photographed, the mountains, the brilliant skies and lofty cloud banks as big as the mountains. White, early on under the influence of a mystical spirituality and with a definite inward turn produced landscape work very unlike his friend Ansel. Yet when he makes the translations to black and white film and paper he utilizes the same tools of translation as Adams; contrast, gradation, acutance, texture and so on. Both photographers successfully brought their personalities, one could say, their inner selves to the work of translation. Pulling that off may be the hardest part!

 

We could outline several components of the process of translating the three dimensional world of full color into a black and white photograph. Acquiring mental templates that help to see what possibilities are at hand, e.g., what other photographers have done in similar situations is one important component. Knowing how to control the materials is essential to achieving success, and this is what Adams emphasizes in teaching the Zone system. The third component is visualization in its most personal and subjective form.

 

Some people have an easier time in understanding their own personal vision than most, which gives them the ability to use mental templates without becoming entrapped in them. For others, it is helpful to periodically take stock of their work to hopefully clarify what is important in their seeing. If I lay out a lot of my images before me, can I see some pattern or tendencies? What do I look at? What catches my eye? Do I take a particular slant on things? Am I able to express something of my own particular character in the photographs? What kinds of my photographs do I consider the most significant and successful? Why are they significant to me? What am I really trying to say in a photograph? How is this My photograph and not someone else’s?

 

These kinds of questions can lead to a much deeper kind of visualization than merely imagining how the colors will translate to grey values in film and print. While that is important, even essential, the deeper element in the act of visualization, which Adams often referred to as an “emotional response” to a scene, is what in the end will separate the competent technician from the artist.

 

Bill Kostelec,

March 2018

The Print is the Thing: On Visualization, Pre-Visualization and Making an Image

Ansel Adams is noted for, among many other things, promoting a working concept some called pre-visualization. His friend Minor White used that term and made much of the concept, but in truth, Ansel preferred the term visualization to describe his approach to conceiving an image. Pre-visualization, he thought, was some kind of double talk. The photographer, he suggested, should imagine, (visualize in his mind) what the finished print would look like before he took the photo. In the Zone system of exposure that he worked out with Fred Archer, this visualization included anticipating the values in the print by combining exposure and development controls. Many photographers have gotten very good at that by following Adams clear instructions, and for many it is a mark of prowess and technical power over the medium to do so.

 

A second related form of visualization is the idea of always printing the whole negative, as a demonstration of the quality of visualizing in the very taking of the photo. We see that quality revealed in the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, whose work was, especially after WWII principally done with the Leica 35mm camera. With Cartier Bresson’s work, we see the power of good composition along with the keen eye of picking the right moment for the exposure. A whole negative print (with no cropping) demonstrates the photographer’s visual and technical skill.

 

In black and white landscape photography done with large format cameras, Adams approach to visualization can be very effective and a quite rational approach to the subject. Using color correction filters and plugging them into the exposure equations can help the photographer produce a finely tuned image, which is always a departure from reality, but which can evoke the drama or the mood that the photographer “visualized.” This is exactly what makes the photographer an artist rather than a camera operator.

 

In the disappearing art of photo journalism the skills of Cartier Bresson serve the photographer well, i.e., compositional finesse and the eye for the right moment. The photojournalist though is not able to employ the calculated approach of the large format landscape photographer. Visualization for these photographers is formed in part by knowledge born of experience in the field and anticipation of how events will unfold.

 

The concept of straight photography, a staple of more than 100 years of photographic theory and debate, slithers like a snake through this field of visualization. In the turning away from the late 19th century camera club obsession with “pictorial photography”, modernist types eschewed gum printing, erasures, soft focus lenses and so on for the reclaiming of the virtues of the camera and lens, to let the virtues and the limitations reveal themselves as integral to the photographic aesthetic. Edward Weston abandoned platinum papers and their endlessly soft gradation for the hard clean look of gelatin silver glossy papers. Adams even wrote a manifesto and helped form a West Coast contingent of photographers devoted to straight photography. It was, in fact, that straight photography as visualized by its apostles and disciples that characterized most of 20th century art photography.

 

At a couple different periods of my life I have worked in a printmaking studio, doing both intaglio, done on zinc and copper plates, and lithography, done on slabs of limestone, and all printed in a press with inks. These processes are very time consuming and there are layers and layers of complications to master if one wants to be an accomplished printer. I have not mastered any of them but have gained a deep appreciation of master printers. One of the things I learned over these periods was the value of working and reworking a plate, which in intaglio processes involves scraping away, burnishing, digging in, re-etching, or in other ways, finessing towards the final plate that will be editioned. An editioned print is the artist’s final say, final vision. Such an approach puts limits on a notion of visualization that would suggest a finished print in mind before the first line is drawn. What happens, to the contrary, is that when the printer pulls proofs as he or she goes through the long process, a final image will begin to emerge as the material, the metal and ink and tools take part in a sort of conversation with the printer. This is indeed a very different concept of visualization!

 

How does that concept apply to photography?

 

I know that there are a lot of Photoshop filters out there and that if you are content to sit in front of a computer monitor you might work and rework all kinds of transformations to a raw picture file. I am not, however, concerned with nor remotely interested in sitting at a computer and being “creative”, though those kinds of pictures will probably continue to win awards in photo club shows. I am totally committed to darkroom photography, and to paraphrase a movie line “I love the smell of fixer in the morning.”

 

In the darkroom there are, I suppose, fewer “filters” to work with. In silver gelatin printing there are the bleaches and toners, there are various developer formulas, there are alterations to the printing process, like lith printing and there are, unfortunately, fewer and fewer printing papers to choose from. There are also the alternative printing processes for which a lot of material and kits are today available. We have done cyanotype, platinum/palladium, kallitype, gum bichromate, liquid emulsion on papers, mirrors and ceramics, and even albumen printing.

 

Lately, I have been playing with combinations of toners, especially bleach and redevelop sepia and selenium. Depending on how deeply one bleaches the silver print, and as well how strong the sepia toning bath is, more or less of the developed silver will remain to be acted on by a later selenium bath. This can be very experimental and fun, and the end result can go from deep disappointment to deep satisfaction, along with an element of surprise.

 

One can nurture a spirit of adventure if he or she starts with the basic premise: The print is the thing! This runs contrary to the working principle: Visualize, then expose, then print in order to achieve your initial visualization. It also contradicts Edward Weston’s mature working method: the negative is the thing. Once he exposed the piece of film, he had it. His contact print was the fruition of his negative.

 

On the other hand, my basic premise has more affinity with Adams’ own dictum, the negative is the score, the print is the performance.. All the concepts I have referred to, straight photography, printing the whole negative, visualizing before exposure are valuable up to the point where they become restrictive. The distinction I make could simply be put that visualization is a living, ongoing process and not simply something that happens only before we press the shutter release

 

In no way am I suggesting a sloppy approach to image making. I use a trusty Pentax spotmeter and place my primary shadow zone. I control the time and temperature of development and do all the necessary steps to get a good printable negative.   Once I have that negative then, hopefully a new conversation begins, creative printmaking, and I am on another road of adventure in the darkroom.

 

 

Bill Kostelec

Feb. 2018

 

 

 

Photo History 2

Photo History; Myths and Legends Part 2

 

A while back a friend gave us a photo book; “E.O. Hoppe’s Amerika”[1]. I’d never heard of Hoppe though the book’s author said that he was one of the most famous photographers of his time. Given that I had by then read as many histories of photography that I had, well, I found that rather odd. It was the quality of his photographs though, that compelled me to think about Hoppe’s absence from these histories.

 

Hoppe was German born but a British citizen and a contemporary of Alfred Stieglitz. A successful portrait photographer in England he came to the U.S. to open a portrait studio in New York City and made several trips across the country, making a sort of photo portrait of the land and the people that were new to him. In fact, he did something remarkably similar to what Robert Frank did some 30 year later that produced Frank’s book “The Americans.”   Though the concept was not completely new it was Hoppe who was the first to put it into practice in America. [2}

 

To get the importance of the discussion, you must look at Hoppe’s work from his American excursions. Bold, dramatic, compositionally experimental, all of these things are evident, especially in his city work. A nation of steel and glass was what the cities were proclaiming with innovative architecture and an industrial, and not pastoral key. Hoppe was brilliantly modernistic in his photographic approach, even using out of focus elements in his city work where and how they had not been used before, (at least not on purpose.) His images include street portraits made with the full awareness of his subjects (unlike the famous series from Strand) and they include out-of-work men, Jews, blacks, immigrants, Native Americans : Noble heads these.

 

Hoppe was a full blown Modernist, especially in the city work, utilizing the “modern” camera’s mobility, speed, and ability to capture quality negatives that earlier photographers, with earlier and less developed equipment, would have had a harder time capturing. His work parallels the work of those we identify as the premier photographers of the Modernist movement, Stieglitz, Strand, Frank Eugene, etc. He was well known, published many books and was widely exhibited in this country. as well as his own.

 

So why is he relatively absent from the history of photography? Here’s a suggestion. The photo-secessionists noted above were immersed in a “battle” to gain the stature for photography as a fine art. Because galleries and salons and art critics had been either reluctant to or adamant in refusing to grant such status to photography, that also meant that those photographers who considered themselves artists also felt snubbed by the fine arts establishment. The “good” galleries would not show photographs.   Stieglitz is credited in many accounts as the chief warrior for such a change in status, especially in those accounts he himself makes. Hoppe, on the other hand, could care less about the whole controversy, and this did not ingratiate him with Stieglitz and his little circle. With New York City as the self-proclaimed center of the American art scene, Stieglitz took on the role of Guru/Godfather/Prophet, in regards to the place of photography as art in America. Those who, like Hoppe, were focused more on the craft itself , (and making a living at it), rather than their identity or status as “artists” tended to get lost or buried in the chronicles of the historians who took this sense of the battle for art photography very seriously.

 

All this is making me think again about the issue of photography as a fine art, but as well to a more fundamental question of the meaning of fine art as a concept. We have several friends who are what we call “clay people”. They do ceramics and we happily own some of their pieces. For many, pottery is considered a lesser art than let us say, painting. But what does that mean? It may mean something to galleries marketing art. It may determine relative financial value for the work itself. That clay work requires less skill and craft than painting or printmaking is simply not true, however, and the art market often looks a lot like the stock market, including big doses of speculation with future values in mind.

 

The Stieglitz camp’s obsession with status as fine art was also matched with their earnest efforts to make as fine of photographs as possible, with their own focus on craft and technique. In this they were completely at one with those like Hoppe who tried to be the best photographers that they could be.

 

Certainly one of the most enjoyable and intriguing aspects of film photography is the absolute requirement of good technique, and as Kathy and I dig deeper into the craft of it we are continually replenished by the nearly bottomless well of possibilities. Nothing in this commitment to craft and technique is antithetical to the creation of art. In fact, it is absolutely essential to it.

 

[1] E. O. Hoppe’s Amerika, Modernist Photography From The 1920’s. by Phillip Prodger.,2007, New York, W.W. Norton & Company

[2] Romantic America: Picturesque United States (New York: B. Westermann Co., Inc., 1927) and Das Romantische Amerika (Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth AG., 1927)

 

Bill Kostelec

see:   http://www.eohoppe.co.uk