The little meditation in part 1 leaves a lot unsaid and although I see this more as a mulling over of the issues of why we take pictures in a certain way and not another, there is also the important reality that viewers respond to some images more strongly and appreciatively than they do to others. It is one question to ask why Dorothea Lange composed the above photo in this way. The second question is why we respond to it with such admiration.
That’s the issue of the second essential component of communication. The first, the speaker, is in this case the photographer, the image maker. The second component is the hearer, or in this case the viewer, the reader of the photograph. I want to set off to the back for now the image itself, and look at the two components, speaker and hearer.
People say of some images, “what a beautiful photograph!” and we understand the compliment, especially when we also admire the image. When the subject matter is, however, poverty, pain, grief, destruction, mayhem or war, are we as comfortable in saying “My, what a beautiful photograph”? Lange’s Migrant Mother is of the woman at a bad point in her life. The clothing of her and the children s worn, dirty looking and one gets that the children are not just being shy, but hiding from their own deprivation and shame before the camera.
Colin’s image of the two cousins, suffering from the effect of tear gas is also an image of pain and suffering. Lange’s photograph has nice tonality, focused well, soft lighting, good composition. Mulvany’s photograph of the girls is likewise well done. So do we comfortably say, “what beautiful pictures”?
In part 1, I tried to discern the photographer’s approach to the subject and the choices made in the tripping of the shutter. I suggested that we all operate with mental templates that help us to work quickly, sometimes almost automatically as we respond to a subject and “capture” it. I noted the enduring image of mother and child, which exists as a human cultural icon which we might suspect played a role in the making of these two images. All of these guides work in the background for the photographer most of the time. They lay behind the other technical issues of focus and exposure and remembering to pull the darkslide. The picture is made. The photographer has spoken.
In this moment of communication, we the readers of the photographs perform our role, and both the appreciation of the “beauty” of the image, and any feelings of discomfort are what we bring to the moment. If the photograph is in a sense, the sentence spoken by the photographer, then the photographer’s part in the communication is limited to this word spoken, and rather than an ongoing conversation, we have a form more like a published poem, there for many readers to appreciate and respond to, and possibly for many generations of readers to come. The original speaker, on the other hand, is done with it.
Here we return to the photograph itself, which in place of the photographer becomes the initiator of many conversations. Now many will recognize Migrant Mother as a great photograph because it has become an ICON, significant historically as well as culturally. And many of those will appreciate it for that reason, its fame, its celebrity! Especially in a culture that has so much appreciation for fame and celebrity that is a natural response. For those in the know about the history of American photography, Lange herself is a celebrity. Migrant Mother was widely disseminated in its day, and not accidentally. For such public distribution was the reason for the hiring of the F.S.A. photographers. It had a social and a political purpose. Is it possible then, after such a history for a reader to appreciate Migrant Mother in a more neutral, non-storied way? Or do we find ourselves forced to recognize the famous picture, noting the socio-historical context and then also say, “It’s a beautiful image?”
I was sitting on a bench in the Art Institute of Chicago and on the wall above me was Van Gogh’s Bedroom at Arles. A girl came by to admire it and looked at me and said, “Wow, he must have been really crazy to do this. It’s so crazy!” I thought, as she walked away that Vincent didn’t make such a beautiful image because he was crazy, but in spite of his mental turmoils. She was reacting to what she knew of his story and less to what he created, the image on the wall. The painting is an image of calm and peace rendered in precisely thought out color relations and carefully constructed composition.
If we are able to admire Migrant Mother as image, seeing past its iconic state, and see it is a beautiful image, with all the dirt on the children and the shabbiness of their dress, with the obvious discomfort of the people photographed then our understanding of beauty is much more that what we might mean to say, “That is a pretty picture.” Like the photographer then our understanding of beauty is informed by more than the fall of light on the subjects. Precisely because it is of human subjects our sense of the beauty in the image is informed by the depth of our own human experience and our ability to embrace the fundamental truths of human experience, that there are times of joy and sorrow, trouble and peace and so on.
Returning to my initial point about the mother and child image as a cultural icon, for both photos above, I would suggest that the cultural values of caring for and compassion towards the weaker, smaller, younger, were sub-conscious elements in the taking of the photographs, and in the second part of the communication, for the readers of the photographs. Even without the caption that identified the two girls in Colin Mulvaney’s image, distinct from and apart from the social, historical context, we respond to the expression of those values. The photograph thus attains its power as a communication of values. That makes it not pretty, but beautiful.
Let me begin by acknowledging that the words icon and image are synonyms. Icon is a word current in Hellenic and Classical Greek, very old and means image. So the religious iconoclasts in various eras were in the habit of destroying statues and murals depicting scenes from the Bible. To the enemies of images, icons were “graven images” and against God’s law. In Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, icons are essential in the churches and their worship as windows into a spiritual reality. That’s the historical sense of icon.
In our times, icon and its adjectival form, iconic tend to mean something both more and less. We refer to “icons of Hollywood” or political icons, generally referring to individuals who stand out in celebrity and recognizability. My use here will fall somewhere between these two distinct uses of the term and thus I add image to the title.
Let me start with a truly iconic image, from Dorothea Lange, that we know as “Migrant Mother”.
Dorothea made this image in 1936 while working for a Federal agency. In the well known story she saw this family and drove by, then thought better of it and returned doing a series of 4X5 photos with her RB Graflex Model D. This is an iconic photograph in that it is so recognizable by so many people over multiple generations. That is iconic in a modern sense of the word. Let me add another photo.
This is a photo by Colin Mulvany of the Spokesman Review taken at the beginning of June, 2020. Colin uses Nikon Digital equipment. My initial viewing of this photo in the newspaper is the catalyst for the present meditation.
Long before Dorothea Lange, and reverting to the ancient version of Icon, there were in churches across Eurasia and later the Americas, images of the Madonna and Child, thousands upon thousands of such images. They were paintings, murals, frescoes and done by artists over many generations. Mother and child. The child was, to be sure, Jesus, who Martin Luther referred to as a baby, wrapped in rags and laying in a feeding trough. Often in the mother and child images the baby was freed from the dirty beginnings and swaddles in elegant cloth and gold. Still, the Christmas stories every year reminded the faithful (or not) of his humble beginnings. The Mother and Child image was and is a true Icon in the original sense and continues to be used as such.
When a photographer goes out to photograph he or she purposefully takes up the task of “seeing”. We all see only partly through the visual receptors of our eyes. We also see, and for me this is a significant, also through the lenses of our cultural and social experience. About 20 years ago my wife and I went on a photo exploration with a friend and ended up in a small Eastern Washington town once given over wholly to agriculture and now living in the shadows of its historical past, old farm implements and work trucks remaining like ghosts of the past. The three of us eventually ended up in an alley looking at remnants of faded and peeling paint on old windows and glass and iron bars robed in the patina of the generations gone. Why did the three of us. each one individually, all gravitate to this alley? To say that such places look good in black and white only partially explains it. We had seen the images of other photographers, in books and magazines where such things displayed themselves well. Part of the wisdom one gains in studying other photographers work is to recognize what does work well. Such image truths plant themselves as templates of sort in our minds and so a walk through the alley becomes a walk through a memory of sorts as the template guides our seeing. For a lot of photographers the body of Ansel Adams’ work serves as a restriction in the way they can visualize the landscape even as it serves to illuminate. The template is a double edged sword.
I started wondering about Dorothea Lange stopping at the pea pickers camp in 1936. She is drawn to the visually observable poverty of this family and she is very sympathetic, emotionally moved. But she is also a pro, grabs her big Graflex and approaches, makes her first shot from the distance as the woman and children eye her warily. Her final shot is the best. When she is framing it, looking down at the glass, and here my meditation takes over, a template helps her frame, the Mother and Child, whether she recognizes that or not, and with a final big Kachunk, the focal plane shutter snaps down.
Now obviously this is a mother with her children, so the connection is easy to make. Rather than take that easy route I want to think about the Mother and Child in a more neutral sense, in a more strictly visual, mechanical sense, so that image means less about a human arrangement and more about a visual arrangement, of lights and darks and composition. There is the rectangle, vertical in format, which acts as a frame around the figures, which makes the figures central, the point of focus. Portraits are so often in vertical format that we now use the word to describe it, the portrait mode. In the Mother and Child template the Mother, the caregiver is higher up than the one who is cared for. While often in portrait work the subjects eyes look back at the viewer, but not so much in Mother and Child.
Lange’s Mother looks away, past the photographer, viewer, camera. We know now that she was at least partly Native American, know something of her story, can find photos of her as an old grandmother with her grown children. But is any of that relevant to Lange’s photograph, which has now become an icon?
Colin Mulvany’s photograph was taken at a street demonstration after the death of George Floyd. That makes it newsworthy. The two figures in the image were tear-gassed by the police. They are not mother and child, but cousins, a younger and an older. Still, I wonder, whether or not the photographer in his approach to the subjects was not working with templates and influences and cultural and social history both personal and community shared? How could he not? He could have turned the Nikon to horizontal mode and captured demonstrators and policeman and location for context. Instead he creates a portrait, poignant, telling, universal. Does it matter that this was a demonstration instigated by the killing of Floyd, or promoted by Black Lives Matter? Does it matter that this is Spokane and not Paducah? It certainly does to his newspaper, which is why newspapers and magazines add captions. It does not matter to the photograph, the image itself, the icon that conveys more than the particulars even as it conveys less of them. The best photographers can instill in their fraction of a second image so much more than the moment, and can do so, I suspect, because they can intuitively incorporate the icons of our shared cultural and social history.
We are in the final stages of preparing for our annual holiday photo open house, which begins tomorrow evening and runs through the weekend. Once again the issue of pricing our prints has come to the fore with its conflicting values and complications. Because we do not work as commercial photographers, but rather as fine art photographers, we do not get an income from our love for the camera and the darkroom, but instead hope to sell prints through gallery and open air exhibits during the year. We had what we considered a major show this Summer from twenty-five years of photographing in an around Spokane, had plenty of visitors to the museum gallery where it was presented for about two months, but didn’t make any money at it.
Viewer enthusiasm is great, but it takes real money to buy film and paper and chemistry, and especially as Kathy and I are both using 8X10 cameras, the costs are pretty hefty. Our open house, in which literally our house becomes a living gallery, has been a pretty good source of financial relief. This is our tenth year doing it so we have our hopes up. This brings me to the point: setting prices, a dirty business full of angst and stress. I am a firm believer in the democratic nature of photography as a medium. Even apart from digital, a photographic piece of art is reproducible. We work with film negatives. A printmaker using a copper plate to produce her images will print an edition, and no more. Having a negative means I can always go back and print the image again. There are two ways of seeing this: Because I have a negative, every print becomes less valuable due to the law of supply and demand; Because I have the negative, I can make prints available to a broader and bigger group of patrons, who may not, for example, be able to afford having an original etching made in an edition of 50. This second is what I mean by photography being democratic. I once was a painter and as a hopeful artist I took slides to galleries in Chicago to see if I could find some interest in my work. What I found was the gallery people and the patrons were from a different world than mine. I lived in a lower middle class neighborhood growing up, in a factory town that smelled of the smokestacks. The folks in the Chicago galleries were not the people I knew, and it seemed to me at the time, unlike them in so many ways.
Everybody responds to photos. I want as many people as can to be able to enjoy an image I made and possess it. But this means that I have to be very careful not to price my prints beyond their means. I also have to consider what it takes to produce my work in terms of time and knowledge and experience, and all the years I have put into perfecting my skills and my knowledge of the techniques required. Then there is, as I suggested earlier, the costs of supplies. Some people tell us we don’t charge enough. We have photographer friends who charge, what we think are outrageous prices and there is no way I could afford to own a piece from them.
Thus this frustrating and anxious process of setting our prices for the open house.
I thought I’d throw in this quick little blog to see if some of you have some thoughts on it.
How do we distinguish fine art from craft? That question is loaded with presuppositions that are sure to create controversy and disagreement among practitioners of the various arts and crafts. In the history of photography and its place among the arts those presuppositions combined with the question of whether the camera was an automatic machine that mechanically produced images or whether it was a tool more akin to paint brushes and paints led to decades of photographers striving to make their photos look less like photos and more like drawings, etchings and paintings. For photographers who wanted to be artists, that was a source of anxiety well into the 20thcentury.
We went to see the Group f/64 show at the “MAC”, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture”, in Spokane and walked through the big room with prints from Edward and Brett Weston, Willard Van Dyke, Imogen Cunningham and Ansel Adams. Group f/64 represents a collective of West Coast photographers who purposefully took up that battle to gain photography’s reputation as art. There were many images I had seen before in books and in films and there were quite a few, especially by Edward and by Willard Van Dyke that were new to me. I was especially interested in seeing Edward Weston’s contact prints as the bulk of his work was presented in that form and he remains one of the divinities of the American photographic tradition and his prints are very valuable in the art market.
I had read that people are sometimes surprised at how dark he printed and knowing this I was still surprised. There was a photo looking across a body of water to another section of shore that I would have tossed in the trash can and reprinted. I say that with a lot of discomfort. Though Weston was never financially successful he had many admirers and collectors in the 1930s when the bulk of the work in the show was done. Weston was a pioneer of sorts as he explored forms probing the universals that tie all that exists into a mysterious commonality. Sometimes a nude looks like a piece of fruit and sometimes a fruit looks like a nude. His artistic conversations took place with some of the Mexican expressionists and muralists and with American painters like his friend Florence Henri, with other photographers like Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, with dancers and poets: his work represents the evolution of the searching, creative mind. In his Daybooks he talks about his artistic revelations with excitement, and he talks as well about his technical developments and growth.
He was very mindful of being an “artist”. Two of his most famous pieces, the Nautilus Shell and Pepper no. 30 were beautifully photographed, subtle, soft, delicate and mysterious. In 1930 photographs like these were opening the minds of other artists like some kind of magic mushrooms and were eagerly collected by painters and poets and others in his circle of friends. Today it is more difficult to see beyond or behind their celebrity, to understand why they stunned his admirers. That’s one reason that seeing his original prints really helps to understand his value and place in photographic history and why I wanted to see the originals.
One noteworthy thing about the Weston’s exhibited at the group f64 show, however, is that at the most, two prints bore Edward’s signature, a signature which affirms that he printed it, nor were there prints with his initials, a sign that it was an approved print made by of his sons. It could be that the Bank that acquired these prints gathered them from the many apparently circulating but unproven as Weston approved master prints. In other words, many of these images might have been rejected by Weston, throw aways!
In the Adams section there were again several images I was unfamiliar with and that is always a welcome thing. A large print of blowing snow and clouds on a ridge in Yosemite was masterful in its capture of the brilliance of the sun lighting the clouds and falling on the rock face and yet retaining the dark hard solidity of the rock itself. As a printer, I know how difficult this is to do and yet Ansel did it again and again. The image that we really found incredible was the biggest in the show, a very large Moonlight over Hernandez that seemed to find its perspective when we stood back about fifteen feet. Standing close, however revealed the perfection of the printing, the brilliance of the white crosses in the foreground grave yard, the subtle tones of the desert ground, the not quite full moon glowing in the dark sky above silvery clouds. I suspect that even if Adams had inadvertently exposed an unbalanced composition, the beauty of the printing would have still captivated us. Still, one would be disappointed in a weak composition. To put this again in a different form, the technical quality of Ansel’s printing is in itself a performance of extraordinary beauty. When one recognizes his mastery of the craft, and then couples that with a perfectly balanced composition, that makes the viewing of his original prints a necessity for the full appreciation of his work.
Looking at Edward and Ansel, two of my favorites like this leads to the topic of art and craft, a topic which has frequently come up between Kathy and me and with other friends in the arts. I once was a fine arts major in a small Illinois University, for two years before I’d had enough and dropped out. What I had enough of was instruction such as this from my first painting teacher;”Ya just gotta be creative man, just gotta do your thing…” What I was looking for was some technical knowledge passed along, like what brushes to use for what, how to lay ground most effectively. I recognized even then that there were certain technical keys to excellent work in any field. This middle-aged hippie painter had a different idea of art, one in which the key was unlocking the hidden genius and letting it pour out like, perhaps, Pollock’s paint drippings. In his scenario, the history of art was pushed along by the work of individual geniuses and their influence on contemporaries and artistic descendants. But it is not some mysterious spiritual quality called genius that makes an artist, at least not in and of itself.
I just finished reading a biography of sorts of Carleton Watkins, who was doing straight photography in a career that spanned the last 40 years of the 19thcentury. Watkins is less well known by moderns simply because his life’s work was all located in San Francisco in 1906 when the earthquake came that broke little Ansel’s nose! The quake and the fire that followed eliminated all of his holdings of prints, his cameras, his 40 years of glass plate negatives and for a long time, his reputation. There are still many Watkins prints that were sold over the years including some with the royal family in England, but when it came time for the first historians to try to document a history of photography, Watkins was absent from the discussion.
Most of his career was spent with the wet plate process. His images of Yosemite, starting in 1861, informed the nation and the western world of the spectacular beauty of the place. The early history of American California is chronicled in his “mammoth plate” prints. It used to really irk me when the twin boasters Stieglitz and Strand would claim that no good photography was done between Hill and Adamson and themselves. It was the arrogance of the East Coast club, that ignored the artists of the West. Knowing now that so much of Watkins was lost to the earthquake I can more generously attribute the Stieglitz/Strand claims to their ignorance of a master craftsman and artist. (Still, the work of the Civil War photographers like O’Sullivan was available if they had simply cared to research it. These photographers, I suspect, would not have neatly fit into their personal narrative.)
Watkins claimed the mantle of artist. It was an important part of his self-understanding. And the late 19thcentury community that bought up his prints, and the galleries that showed them and the prizes that were awarded his work all understand him as an artist without hesitation.
There were no gum bichromates, no scratching on his plates, no soft fuzzy lenses. Watkins amazed other wet plate photographers with the pristine excellence of his images. He had mastered the difficult craft of wet plate collodian and albumen printing but even more so, Watkins mastered the mysteries of composition, and the language of his medium, with its syntax and visual codes to produce images that can still stun an experienced photographer with their perfection.
Group f64 represented a struggle to claim the superiority of a photography that left behind the manipulations of the Pictorialists who ran the camera clubs, but perhaps they didn’t understand that it was really about re-claiming photography and the straight tradition that had already had a long and healthy run in the 19thcentury. Still, that isn’t quite enough to explain and inform the other thing they craved, recognition as artists!
Artists like Watkins had to master the craft, the technical issues related to their work. For Watkins, that was a wet plate negative without flaws, clean and even and well exposed. That is mastery of the craft. But even before his exposure of the plate, Watkins, the artist, studied the scene, moved around, thought about how to include light and shade, contrasting values, energy lines of motion and a sense of depth in order to perfect the composition. He went to sometimes extreme measures, climbing a thousand feet with hundreds of pounds of equipment to find the right spot for his tripod. Only when he had perfected the composition and when the light was just right, would he expose. He knew that the camera lens was an eye that had its own perspective on the world before it and the photographic artist had to be able to see with that eye.
Where does the craft leave off and the art begin?
It’s a false question. When you read Weston’s Daybooks, you see him struggle and strive to perfect, through frustration to frustration to elation. This is the work of the artist. For the photographic artist this requires a different way of seeing than the painter or sketcher. The process is seeing through the camera and then producing a two dimensional image that is seen again, or re-seen, with the binocular vision of the human eyes. It is not capturing what the photographer saw with his or her own eyes looking at the scene, but what the photographer saw through the camera’s eye. Successful art in any media requires finely honed craft. The best photographic artists had mastered their craft but also learned the mind of the camera lens, if you will forgive this attempt to conceptualize. A perfectly exposed and focused negative of a boringly bad scene will never be art. An automatic camera cannot make art. An artist, however, could make art with an automatic camera.
Bill Kostelec, December 1, 2019
Carleton Watkins: Making the West American. Tyler Green, University of California Press, 2018.
We are back from a successful trip to the Olympic Peninsula and also from a one day outdoor art tour which was not so successful, but it’s over. In my two printing days this week I got four images finished and ready to mount for our annual open house in December and Kathy today finished two new images for the same event. I say this not because it is exciting news to anyone except us, but to give context to my absence from this blog and as a prequel to what is really exciting to us, an upcoming exhibit at the MAC, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane.
As part of the prequel, we attended the exhibit just closing, a set of images from Edward S. Curtis on the North American Indian series he burned up his years and moneys on. The Spokane Public Library was one of the early purchasers of Curtis’ set and a couple Summers ago I served as a technical consultant to a library series that publicized the set and exposed weekly groups of visitors to some of the books and images. This last exhibit was, in itself, a powerful revelation of the role photography has played in out cultural history.
The next exhibit, opening in a couple days is even more pertinent to the work Kat and I do: “Museum Masters: Group f-64”. This show includes work by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Willard Van Dyke, and Brett and Edward Weston. A long time ago in a land far away (Atlanta) I saw an exhibition by Ansel and Edward Weston at the High Museum. At the time I knew next to nothing about Weston and as they were in separate rooms, I spent most of my brief time looking at Adams work, while strolling through the Weston exhibit casually, walking past the cases that held his cameras and giving cursory glances to his 8X10 prints. Every time I recollect this I try to kick myself.
Group f-64 was probably formed at some California potluck with a lot of vegetarian food and plenty of wine. Credit for the name goes to Van Dyke and although the group exhibited together perhaps just once, one gets the notion that most of the members did not take it as seriously as Adams did. He wrote a manifesto on straight photography. It has an earnest quality and semi religious overtones. As with most religious tracts there is an air of self-righteousness as well.
To get a sense of what Group f-64 was about we must mention Pictorialism of course, and specifically one of its California evangelists, William Mortenson, who taught photo classes and worked in and about Hollywood. I have several Mortenson books, which go from informative and thought provoking to insufferably maudlin and, given some of the illustrations, more than a bit icky. Pictorialism is a broad term for the general thrust of late 19thand early 20thcentury photo club kinds of photography. The Salons, as they were called, involved a sort of culture of contest in which one submitted prints before the “judges” who might give helpful advice but also might be critical to the point of humiliating budding photographic “artists.” There were salons in both the U.S. and in Europe, and photographers submitted works across the seas. Many good things came from these clubs but the overriding theme of creating art in general caused photography to develop an affection for imitating painting and drawing, where, in that era, art was supposedly best expressed. There were early exceptions among the salonists, like Peter Henry Emerson who developed quite a following among what is sometimes described as the “naturalist” photographers. The Stieglitz circle, i.e., the photo-secessionists, made an early but incomplete break from that predilection to make a photo look not like a photo. Ansel Adams began photographing in the pictorialist mode, soft focus lens, dreamy landscape etc.
There were technical contributions to the revolution that was to come. The anastigmat lens was one component, sharp and decisive. There was the Kodak and Kodaking among the masses who could afford the camera. We have a 1903 annual printed by Eastman Kodak of winners of their contest, all photos made with an Eastman camera, and lo and behold, when amateurs got a camera they did not go for warm and fuzzy but did their best to focus and hold still. Arguments may have been going on in the darkrooms of the New York Camera Club but the Mother of the family in Iowa just wanted sharp and properly exposed pictures of her children! Then came, of course, glossy gaslight and enlarging papers. Artist photographers tended to print on gum bichromate or Platinum and with those media details sunk into the fibers of the matte surface, Glossy paper on the other hand showed what the daguerreotype revealed 60 years earlier, the sharp, etched detail that a lens could capture.
So when the history of photography is written, inevitably we hear about the theories and the personalities that argued them. When one reads Edward Weston’s Daybooks, on the other hand, what comes out is Edward trying out some commercial glossy contact print paper, and almost immediately swearing off the matte surface platinum paper he imported from England. He then goes into a joyous frenzy of work trying out some older negatives on the new paper and the rest is history.
The California photographers all seem to have been moved by the same spirit and their personal friendships established a mutual support society so that the formation of Group f-64 seemed like a natural event rather than simply a way of formalizing an aesthetic ideology. Nevertheless, there really was a significant ideological basis to what comes to be called, “straight photography.” Adams’ manifesto tries to clarify what straight photography must be, but he was not a great writer. He was a great photographer and a true believer. And he was a vociferous opponent of the Pictorialist photo clubs and their soft and fuzzy salons of pretty pictures and a vocal antagonist to the Pictorialists’ advocate William Mortenson, his fellow Californian. Group f-64 advocated for the presentation of the photographic tools and materials in their very best and most natural state, sharply focused images, cleanly presented printing with minimal manipulation of negative and paper, straight and not tortured into looking like and charcoal drawing or water color print.
They didn’t invent this way of photographing of course. Timothy O’Sullivan, Peter Henry Emerson, Eugene Atget and Mrs. Alfred Donaghue of Baltimore, Maryland all practiced to the best of their abilities a form of straight photography. The dominance of the Pictorialists and the photo clubs, and of Stieglitz and his coterie in New York made the 19thcentury straight photographers disappear from the discussion, and that New York group made themselves the genius of its reinvention without really knowing the mediums’ own history.
Group f-64, in that context thus becomes very important and even as it disbands and the photographers disperse to their own careers, their impact will reverberate for the rest of the 20thcentury, and in a sense they win the battle. Mortenson, once a famous man is hardly found in the histories of photography. Adams writes two photo series that establish the norm for a black and white photography that joins a workable scientific and technical base to a romantic approach to the American landscape.
What became of the photo salons? They exist today in the photo clubs, like we have here in the Pacific Northwest, full of photo enthusiasts with remarkably similar high end digital cameras talking about converting medium format lenses to full frame bodies and the wonderful results. Kat and I have judged, at the request of the clubs a few contests and it was always an interesting but frustrating experience. We looked at prints made by Walmart, for example, of a bug on a bright, bright green leaf that, we were informed, was made with 40 different exposures! We looked at a panoramic view of the inside of a famous local old theater that, we were told, was stitched together from 7 different captures. Kat has a 4×5 negative of the same angle but alas, she made it with one ¼ of a second exposure and the 90mm Angulon. We turned down another judging when given instructions to watch some online lessons on judging, only to find the teacher showing when to advise a photographer to remove an object or person from the image file to better the competition. We cringed. That is not straight photography.
The name Group f-64 is interesting. Although we do have a lens that goes down to f-128, these big numbers are not the norm for lenses after maybe 1935! Part of the change was the transition from the US system of numbering: 4,8,16,32,64,128, to the f system itself: 1,1.4,2,2.8,4,5.6 etc. It seems however, that a lot of very good photographers in those days worked with the assumption that a lens continued to increase in sharpness as the aperture decreased, so that Weston brags in his daybook of making an exposure at f-256 to get the very best detail. In truth, the image degrades due to refraction much earlier and even if apparent depth of field increases the resolution goes to pot pretty quickly. For contact printers like Edward Weston, that never really reveals itself. So the name that Willard Van Dyke suggested is based on that fallacy. But no harm done. We are careful when we are shooting, nevertheless, to try to not go smaller than f-22 with most of our large format lenses, and definitely not with our medium format lenses.
It will be immensely enjoyable, in the midst of this land of miraculously stitched together ink jet prints from a dozen exposures with saturated colors as overdone as super-sugary pumpkin lattes with cinnamon sprinkled whipped cream tops, to take a slow walk through an exhibit of cool, calm black and white prints from a few of our favorite photographers and once more remind ourselves of our aesthetic foundations and inspirations. We are, we laugh to ourselves and each other, lesser lights: group f-22.
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?
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Of all the film formats, for me 35mm is the most fun to use. It can be spontaneous and quick, it can be carried without burden, even when taking an extra lens and film and because the film is the least expensive of any, I can be more aggressive when something catches my eye than I might be with a TLR or 4X5. I can use it even when I’m taking our dog Bella on a long walk, as long as I pay attention to her and let her know to sit and wait.
As my shooting is not limited to family gatherings and special events, or to put it positively, as I am always on a quest for a new image, throwing a 35mm camera over my shoulder when leaving the house is more the norm, “just in case.” If I decide to carry a Mamiya TLR and a tripod, on the other hand, it is because I have something specific in mind, i.e., I am going to a particular place with a photo or photos in mind. The opportunity to switch film formats in such contexts is a real blessing.
So has been my ability to try out a variety of 35mm cameras and I will offer some things I’ve learned in doing so. There are, after all, so many used cameras available one way or another that it can be a kind of adventure to try them out.
I bought a Realist 35 on eBay for about ten bucks a couple years back and did my usual cleanup when it arrived. It was made in Germany, very early 50’s. It’s a rangefinder camera with a fixed lens in the between the lens shutter. The lens does pretty good but the rangefinder image is rather dull. So one roll through was enough.
A student gave me an AGFA Karat, a pretty little bellows 35 a bit like the Kodak/Nagel Retina, with a very nice and bright rangefinder, and although this one does not have a Tessar lens it does just fine, single coated, made in about 1951. The Karat is really nice to use, especially with its great rangefinder. My version does not have any issues with gummy rangefinder shaft that some of them have. I was walking downtown with it around my neck and some guy starts smiling really big and stopped me, saying, “That’s a rangefinder!” . He was an Associated Press guy from the Spokane office and when he looked closer he said, “Man, that was my first 35mm camera.” These kind of fun things happening carrying around nearly 70 year old cameras.
Another of the rangefinder cameras that was given to me is a Petri Super 28 with a pretty blue-coated lens that looks suspiciously like the Zeiss Tessar 28s, and on its first run it produced flat dull negatives. I got ambitious and pulled the front off the lens. It too has a built in shutter on the front with a fixed lens. When I looked close with a loupe I found an interior lens element thick with dirt and what was probably grease. Though I know you are not supposed to do this, I got deeper into the lens and by holding the shutter open with B I was able to clean the lens element with a Q-tip and some lens cleaner, reassemble it all and shoot a roll with fingers crossed that I hadn’t upset the delicate and precise lens setup. Bang, nice sharp, contrasty negatives! So the Petri is a keeper, like the AGFA Karat 35.
Kathy and I bought a Minolta SRT set from a couple who were junk collectors several years ago and thrown in the bag were a couple Contaflexes, SLRs from Contax, both with fixed lenses and as they were pretty early neither had an instant return mirror. Press the shutter and the viewfinder goes black. Wind the shutter knob and it comes back. What initially struck me about the Contaflexes was that the cameras finish was perfect, no scratches, no dull spots, as if they were brand new. Both cameras have 2.8 Tessars with a blue/purple lens coating and one of them came with another front element, a 35mm Tessar. For this camera the lens was designed to change focal lengths by unlocking, removing and replacing the front elements. Though I was skeptical, I found both to be very useable lenses. Though both Contaflexes have built in light meters I get much better results using my hand held meter.
I did an equipment swap with a friend a couple years back and ended up with a Minolta ST 202, a SRT 101 and lenses, good lenses. The 135 Rokkor is excellent as are the two 50mm and the 28mm Rokkors. Kathy uses the 101 with the 25mm Rokkor non-focusing auto-bellows lens on her copy stand work and results from the Minolta equipment have been outstanding. My camera repair tech did a clean-up on the 202 body and was very enthusiastic on the Minolta equipment in general but especially the SRT series.
Finally, There are the Leica screw mount cameras, interchangeable lens rangefinder cameras produced after WWII and based on the pre-war and postwar screw mount Leicas. There are the Russian cameras, some of them made on the same tooling snatched from the Leica factories. I ended up with a couple for under 20 dollars apiece with mixed results. The better way to go is with the Canon cameras from the early 50’s. I had bought the IVSB2 with the Leitz Elmar but like most of my equipment it was burned up in a fire in 1992. Much later we agreed to help a lady inventory the equipment her father had collected over a lifetime as he was suffering from Atzheimers symptoms. We had just volunteered but when she saw I had some nostalgia for a CANON III she gave it to me as a present. The shutter was shot but I sent it off to get new curtains and 400 dollars later had a very beautiful rangefinder. The really nice thing, and the reason I am highlighting it, is the availability of LCM lenses, including Nikon, Canon, Leitz, and Minolta, all compatible with the rangefinders of the various cameras. The color image at the close of the last blog was made with the Canon III and Serenar 50mm 1.8 lens.
The photo of Larry and his Sax was made with a Leica III from the late 1930’s with an uncoated 50mm Elmar, wide open at 1/25thof a second in a very dark club.
I got that Leica III from a friend who had been born in the Phillipines just before Japanese occupation and the camera had been his Dad’s, a civilian working for the U.S.government. It was old and dirty and had some of the internal signs of salt air. The peepholes on these older rangefinders are very small by contemporary standards and take some getting used to. But isn’t that part of this great adventure?
That concludes the series on film formats and their effect on the way we photograph. Here’s to Good Shooting.
This is the second in my series on film formats and how they influence our photographs. “…how they influence our photographs” is a rather loose way of putting it as there are countless things that influence us. Still, my own use of medium format roll film convinces me that it is a topic worth exploring.
When I was a 35mm shooter only, and when 35mm was the standard for most amateur and hobbyist photographers, the notion of using a medium format camera seemed pretty exotic to me. I could never have afforded a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex and those cameras seemed to be for professionals and for me out of reach. In fact, I think it would have been much more economical and affordable for me in the 1970s to buy a monorail 4X5 and a lens and some holders.
When I moved to Spokane, Washington from Atlanta, a house fire burned up all my equipment, negatives etc., and a goodwill gesture from my boss landed me his old Rolleicord, my first medium format camera. Shooting square negatives was a big change as was, “shooting from the belly” which I somehow connected to forms of meditation that I had studied in graduate school. That was 25+ years ago and in the last several years I have acquired a nice setup with two Mamiya TLRs, a C-220 and C-330 with 6 interchangeable lenses and a couple alternative viewing hoods. The accumulation of the Mamiya equipment is not because I acquired wealth, it is rather, directly related to the digital revolution in professional photography! I have gotten hold of the discards from professional portrait and wedding photographers who went digital, and for little money.
I started using the Mamiya TLRs at a time when almost all my images were made on either 4X5 or 5X7 sheet film. A friend had given me a Rolleiflex T that was having winding problems and I did some research and settled on the Mamiya as a camera that I could use more loosely, without a tripod, to make more or less spontaneous snapshots when I was in such a mood, the bigger negative then supposedly increasing the image quality. I guess I was thinking of an upgrade from 35mm.
What I found instead was that the TLR worked best on a tripod, was lightweight, with brilliant lenses and good viewfinder, and lent itself to more formality than I had envisioned. It was also quicker, much quicker than the large format cameras and much easier to carry around with me. As Kathy liked the TLR as well, we found a second body and lens and within the first year became very enamored of the possibilities; hence 6 lenses.
I usually characterize the experience as a dramatic increase in productivity, by which I mean the increase in negatives that excited me, were easily printable, and that helped maintain a strong degree of motivation. I padded my interest in making images by every roll off successful negatives. What was especially gratifying in this process was that I also increased my output of sheet film work, developing a couple of series sets that I found very satisfying. Those were particularly suited to large negatives, long bellows draw and a slow and contemplative process of setup and shooting. In other words, the prolific medium format work made the particular characteristics and strengths of the large format equipment much more obvious which then pushed me to develop the aforementioned series work.
I often print square, with little or no cropping. The square is a nice slice of film and looking down at the ground glass the square is what I see. I know Ansel said that he mentally cropped his Hasselblad images before he pressed the trigger but as he had always preached visualizing the finished image before the exposure he could hardly say anything else! When most of us compose, we quite reasonably use the black 4 walls of our viewfinders or groundglass frame to do so and so I look for a composition that makes good use of the square. Another advantage to printing square is that I can take an expensive piece of printing paper and square it, getting a test strip and a print out of the same rectangular sheet.
Using the TLR on a tripod also means that I can most often use film of 100 ISO or less, increasing the ability to enlarge with little in the way of grain or other “artifacts” of the film negative. It seems strange to think about artifacts with a film negative. Sometimes I really like the feel of grain in an image, but the tripod means that I can use a film like Pan F when I have something else in mind.
As far as image quality goes, I have seen some comparisons done in online blogs “proving” that high end digital cameras produce sharper images than medium format film cameras, but such things are the fodder for self congratulations for those who don’t have the patience to work in a darkroom anymore, and that’s just fine. The notion that one has to have the “best” and sharpest and so on is, in my mind, detrimental to the whole purpose of the game, which is to make significant and satisfying images. And the darkroom is not for everyone, but it is satisfying to see our students, most who have never worked in a photolab before get so excited when one of their prints begins to reveal itself in the developer tray.
In any case, the Mamiyas have proven their ability to produce images of high resolution, great sharpness and fine detail. Even our oldest chrome shutter 80mm lens performs very well.
The histories of photography are usually narratives of “great photographers” who somehow became guiding lights for those that followed them, and to a limited extent there is truth in such stories. My take on the history of photography is a little different, in that I picture the major changes in photography as being technology driven, with the guiding lights as the pioneers of using technological developments to good advantage, (e.g., Stieglitz and the 4X5 Graflex SLR). Each major development in the camera and lens let talented photographers expand the possibilities of the medium. Each new development did not eliminate the utility nor the potentiality of the earlier technologies. Sheet film was not replaced by roll film. This means that because we have such a variety of photo technologies available to us, there is a vast number of approaches to image making. And because so many professionals had to abandon film to meet the market demands, that also means those of us without endless wealth can have access to loads of excellent equipment and the potential images that such equipment represents.
This latest blog is a rough transcript of a talk I gave at the local community college photo club, when my wife Kathy and I exhibited our alternative process prints there. It represents our overarching philosophical take on being film photographers in the digital age. The members of the club were all working on degrees in professional photography, and hence were destined to be commercial digital photographers, future competitors with each other. Photographers At Play
Photographers at Play, a rather trivial and playful title, at least on the surface, it makes me think of children. Once, at a concert, we encountered an acquaintance who told us of a scientific study, following a dozen children from when they first entered school until they graduated from high school. They asked these kids, in their initial encounter, Can you dance? Can you Sing? Can you draw pictures?, Can you make up songs? And the overwhelming percentage said “Yes I can.” Following these kids through the school years always asking the same questions, the percentage of “No I can’t” increased every year, until by the graduation day from high school only a very small minority could say “Yes I can” to any of those questions.
We are socialized out of our creativity and our self-confidence. Maintaining that feeling of creative power is and must remain a life-long struggle. I remember when I bought my first platinum kit from the Formulary in Montana. It sat in its white cardboard box for six months, because I kept thinking, “I can’t do this, I’ll screw it up.”
Meanwhile, the Modern Art ethos evokes the image of the solo, struggling, genius, who has the power to transform the world of art through manifesting the inner genius into a body of work. And thus, SUCCESS, which is first Recognition, And second Wealth. Play/Work
Now in this context Photographers at Play might begin to show a bit more of its serious intent. Play is the realm of children. We adults, are supposed to work. Indeed, early 20th century photographers referred to themselves as workers, a phrase that was sometimes political, in identifying with the working classes and progressive movements, but also a phrase very descriptive of the process nature of photography. There was chemistry, optics, the physics of light, the elements of handiwork in repairing broken wooden cameras and building the structure and apparatus of all the things required in the darkroom. But then in the 20th century many people in this country considered themselves to be workers, working class, and they were, in keeping with that class, keepers of workshops and tool benches and in those golden days of film photography, personal at home darkrooms. They were crafty people, a crafty generation and very self-sufficient in their skill sets.
But they were not necessarily very good at developing and maintaining the playful creativity of childhood. After all, times were hard, there were wars, big wars, Depression, and when times got superficially better in the 1950’s these crafty people managed to raise a generation of children that had their creativity stuffed deep into the holes of their bomb shelters and their suppressed joy of life.
Photographers at Play is, in this context a statement of protest, a repudiation of the great and overbearing weight of that socialization and even, Repression. Note that there are two terms, Play, of course which is both a verb, an action, and a noun, a process. Then there is Photographers, plural, not singular. If we were intent on maintaining that Modernist manifesto of the singular genius, then Kathy and I would be in perpetual competition and self-doubting. So we are saying 2 things. First, that Play is the proper attitude in which to work, and second, that photography is a communal enterprise, that it is an idea and a process which is well served in the context of a community of workers. Tools.Toys
When we were children we played with toys. As adults, we have our tools and even if we call it Work, which it certainly is, nevertheless our tools can be sources of playful energy. There is a certain joy I get with picking up a camera I have not used recently, or a camera which I have repaired and maintained, and taking it out on a shoot. There is another great pleasure in standing in the darkness before the darkroom sink and hand processing a sheet of 8X10 film, and waiting until close to time and flipping on the little green light to make a quick inspection. There is a satisfaction in watching a palladium print suddenly and dramatically appear as I pour the hot potassium oxalate over it in the developing tray. This is play, this is fun, this is work.
The variety of processes available to us as photographers right now is greater than it has ever been. This year we have begun doing gum printing, using water color pigments to make the image on paper. And one of the things that makes us more inclined to do that kind of work is our availability to shoot film, scan that original negative, and then print out a digital negative, usually an enlargement, with the increased contrast and density needed to make most of these alternative printing processes work at their best. Using the digital negative is also a sense of security in that an original film neg pressed up in a contact printing frame against a damp gum bichromate paper would make us very nervous for the health and well being of that film neg.
The variety of print possibilities increases for us all the time as we delve into one more process for the first time. I have been enjoying whipping egg whites up in a bucket with a little acetic acid and some sea salt, then letting them age, rot, ferment, or whatever for a week or two to make albumen paper. It’s a new game for us. Worker/Craftsman
The worker part kicks in here, because all of this involves developing a sense of craft, and a growing mastery of the various processes. One of the most exciting things about photography is that it is a life-long learning process; there is always more to learn, more to grow. Craft is a word that takes us back to that earlier generation of people with workshops in their basements. All of this requires a very serious attitude towards the materials and the processes. You have to do it right.
So does this help us to attain to a high degree of creativity?
We shoot film only. That’s because we love film and we love the processes. Film requires focus of attention to detail, patience, and a keen awareness of its limited potentialities. The constraints of film, especially sheet film emphasize the requirements for attention to detail and patience, things that I don’t naturally come by. But if you think about how children play, especially when they are very young, you will note that they seem to have a great availability to focus on little details, and they can be very patient on completing some little creative project. We adults on the other hand are so easily distracted by all the complication that life brings, especially adult life; so many responsibilities, that it is hard for us to practice the craft. But it is the mastering of the craft that transforms it from TASK to PLAY. In achieving a level of competence, we then find ourselves feeling the freedom of play. Working as a photographic community
One more thing, back to that Modernist definition of Artist as solitary genius. It was B.S. at the beginning of the 20th century and it remains so today. In the arts one is supposed to always be doing something new and different, to become the creator of trends and movements. It is as if the artist is only a dress designer, working on creating the next years hot collection that continues to feed the marketplace of consumer culture. Is that what you want from your work? In fact, more often than not you will find in the historical sketches of the 20th century photographers a great deal of collegiality, even in the midst of competing colleges; so you find in California, in the 1930s, gatherings of working photographs drinking and eating together and talking about the aesthetics of the camera, in response to and in distinction from the Pictorialists of the West Coast who seemed to work in the aesthetics of paint and brush with their cameras. These gatherings, fueled by conversation produced an organization , f64, and several exhibitions, including group exhibitions, that impacted photography here and abroad for the next 70 years. And this group was full of individuals with their own genius and powers, and their pictures did not all look alike. They were not producing little boxes made of ticky tacky. They were the Westons, Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Consuela Kanaga and Willard Van Dyke. But they talked, and drank, and argued and ate with and exhibited with each other and with poets and writers and critics and painters… This collegiality, in repudiation of the competitive isolation of the myth of the individual genius, is I think, a key and missing element of much contemporary art.
It is craft which the photographer must have in common with other photographers, the attention to detail, the getting it right. There is no need to worry about “finding one’s individual genius!” The key to uncovering it is the process, the craft, the skill with the tools, that one develops with discipline and patience. The enthusiasm required to maintain that work ethic is nurtured by the energy and empowerment that comes from working with your colleagues and sharing in their enthusiasm. The seriousness in developing one’s craft must be matched with the playfulness of following one’s art.
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
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.
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.
In the 1980’s I spent about 8 years in Atlanta at Emory University doing doctoral work in the Division of Religion. It’s where I got deeply involved in photography. I was using 35mm exclusively for awhile but then an old photographer suggested I get a Speed Graphic, a “real Camera”, and I found a 4X5 Crown at KEH, which still had a walk-in store. As my photo work progressed I got some kind of reputation among some of the faculty, and when the Religion Department sponsored a small conference with former President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu I was asked to make some photographs. The former President was in the library I worked in fairly often as his presidential library was located in the Special Collections area. I was teaching a religion class in the college at the time and had heard a couple students during a break talking about the “Bishop’s daughter”, another student in the class. I asked “Which bishop?” and they said, “You know, Tutu!” Well, I hadn’t known but when the department chair asked me to go fetch the Bishop across campus and bring him to the conference I did, and mentioned to him that I had taught his daughter in the now finished class. He got a bit excited and grabbed my hand. “She loved that class!” he said, which was kind of cool for me, as you can imagine.
So we went upstairs to the conference and Jimmy Carter was there with men in dark suits and wires in their ears and the two Nobel Prize winners embraced with big smiles and chatted like old school roommates. That’s how this photo came to be. I was using a Minolta 101 if I recall. Tutu had been a warm and funny companion as we walked across campus. The President though, at one point, gave me a cross look as he sat at the conference table. Being a strict amateur I think I was taking too many photos and so I backed off and sat with the faculty and he relaxed his next gaze in my direction.
The negatives turned out well and I made a contact print and some 8X10s for the Religion department and kept a contact print for myself. After getting the doctorate I moved to the Pacific Northwest where the air is dry and it is cool at night in the Summertime. And the first Winter my cabin in the woods burned down and destroyed my entire stash of 35mm negatives plus all my equipment and everything else the family owned except what we had put into a storage unit. Later on I found I still had the contact print.
Nearly thirty years later, while working at Gonzaga University, I learned that Desmond Tutu was coming to do the commencement address and I told the story of my photo to some colleagues who spread it around and I was invited to photograph him again, in a meeting with students. Kathy had previously dug out the contact sheet and scanned it, and got a nice copy of the photo from the scan, which we framed. Later on I found one 8X10 print from the original negative. Kathy went with me to the event as a second photographer and I was invited to present the Bishop with the framed photo. He had never seen it. He was excited again, and again warm and funny. He noted that he looked a bit different now and that I didn’t look the same either. He told me that he had driven Jimmy Carter to an emergency room in South Africa when the President broke his leg on a house project. They were still fast friends. The Bishop treasured the photograph, and took it home in his carry on luggage because he didn’t want anything to happen to it. And that’s my story of photographing 2 Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.
If I had not gone astray and become a theologian, I think I might have ended up an historian, as the interest I nurtured beginning with my learning to read has continued all these long years. As a film photographer, my historical bent leads me to a fairly small set of “histories of photography” and an even smaller set of collected writings on photography and/or by photographers. Then there are publications dedicated to the work of single photographers or perhaps small groups who in their author’s mind constituted a school or movement. Some of the newer works have displayed a nice humility in understanding by referring to themselves as “a” history rather than “the” history. A big book edited by Michel Frizot, with many European contributors, published in English in 1999 is called “A New History of Photography” while the American publication from 2000 by Robert Hirsch is titled “Seizing the Light, A History of Photography.”
I appreciate such humility. History itself is an ever evolving study. The history of photography is relatively short, even when one takes into account the discoveries and experiments that happened before the fateful year 1839. In my mind the historical significance of photography far outweighs its relatively short time of existence. It is not the technological history though that has such weight, but rather the sociological history of photography’s impact on the world. Marxist critics like Walter Benjamin, doomed to die in a Nazi concentration camp, and feminist critic Susan Sontag, have contributed to an enrichment of understanding of the way photography has both reflected social realities and impacted them. Social realities also impact the way histories are written, the way historians look at the sources.
That’s part of my reason for starting this series on photo history. It will be more like a reflection on the histories we have about a technological development that transformed the world in some very profound ways.
History and biography intersect, but history is definitely the attempt at a bigger picture. Take, for example, the story of the Frenchman, Eugene Atget. That he died in relative obscurity in 1927 means that there really is no biography of Atget. Before anyone thought of writing one, those that might have contributed something to a biography were gone. He left no writings outlining his approach to picture-making, nor formulas for plate processing or printing. There are no Atget “Daybooks” as there are for Edward Weston, no partisan essays as one finds for Paul Strand. Of those who knew him and wrote of it, there is Berenice Abbott who knew him briefly and admired his work to the point of rescuing it after the man had died, and there is Man Ray, who used an Atget image in a surrealist magazine, and who later in life expressed a lingering resentment for the interest and adulation the dead Frenchman had acquired, and scoffed that Atget had no artistic self awareness.
That interest and adulation is where history kicks in and biography drops off. What happened with Atget is that at a time when Modernism had grabbed the attention of artists of all sorts, (and the Catholic Church!) the work of Atget was finding an audience, through the efforts of Berenice Abbott especially, and young photographers were finding in the images a sense of direction and a sort of purification of photographic seeing. This was true of, for example, the young American Walker Evans, soon to become a significant figure in 20th century photography. So Atget IS significant because of the impact his work had on later photographers who became significant for even later photographers! Following the lead of Walker Evans was the 1950s photographic work of Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans”, in turn, influenced the work of Garry Winograd, Lee Friedlander and the like. You see how influence spreads? And we then, at some point make that chain of influence and significance into what we call history.
Note: If you want to see Atget’s work at its best, look for reproductions that preserve the beautiful colors of his original prints. They were made on printing out paper and toned in gold. Straight black ink reproductions lose much of the emotional impact of Atget’s work.
In a culture that is economically driven by consumerism, we are impressed with the notion that new stuff is better than old stuff. Get rid of that iphone 4 and get the new, improved iphone 8! Your Hybrid Toyota is 8 years old! Get a loan and buy the 2018 model! Sell off your old film camera equipment and get a new Canon digital with 10 gazillion megapixels! I’ve been, I confess without shame, regularly out of step culturally for most of my life, and so with photography and its tools.
We had our annual Holiday Open House the first weekend of January, where Kathy and I make nearly our whole house a gallery space, cook up some spiced wine, and invite folks in over three days to hang out, look at the prints either framed on the walls or in sleeves in racks. It’s a lot of work but a lot of fun. During that weekend a man who in the Spring is going to take a workshop with us handed Kathy a cardboard box with “some old film camera junk”. I didn’t get a chance to look it until Sunday evening. There were a couple small foldable flashbulb units, some bulbs, a couple odd 35mm cameras, a light meter labeled TOWER and one brown leather case that proved to hold an AGFA Karat 36, a rangefinder folding 35mm camera, made in Germany in about 1951. With it was an instruction manual.
In such situations my response is to get out a few basic cleaning materials, canned air, Pec12, micro fiber cleaning cloth, and so on, and while cleaning, check things out. I get the back open, check the shutter, move the aperture, and in the process get a better idea of what I have. The next step is to load with film and shoot. This I did the next day on a 2 mile walk with my friend Jerry. Then to home, to the darkroom, process the roll. When the film comes out of the photo-flo distilled water bath I hang it up, turn on the light box hanging flush on the wall and look over negatives with a loupe. Now I know much better what I have.
There is a sense of satisfaction when I find good negatives, on several levels. First, if the camera has worked properly that is good. It becomes a user and I enjoy using older cameras. The second level is just that; the satisfaction of using equipment as old as or older than me. This second kind of satisfaction is one way that I refute and reject that cultural norm that we must use the newest to do good work. It’s simply not true. The third level of satisfaction is making good images in this antique process of shooting and processing film. When I developed my first roll of black and white film, (Verichrome Pan 616) at 11 years old, and had my first look at the negatives in the light, I got the same thrill that I get now when I pull a roll out of the photo flo.
A friend of ours pulled out a big brown leather bag a while back to show us her Dad’s old camera. It is an EXAKTA V, sold about 1951 as well, with three lenses, a nice GE Golden Crown light meter and again, a good instruction manual. Holding it up and looking through the 58mm Zeiss lens was a disappointment. The image was dark, and dirty with just one clear circle at the center. She wanted me to try it out. I took it home and pulled the removable viewfinder. The mirror was yellow and brown with places of missing silver. A front surface mirror like this can be very bright but atmospheric acids and other pollutions had basically ruined it. Such a thing is an affront to my sense of the beauty of old equipment. I got on line, found someone selling an original equipment replacement mirror for a different version of the EXAKTA, a mirror that itself was probably 50 years old. I learned, however, that EXAKTA equipment tends to be interchangeable, and I ordered it even though my friend’s husband said “Aw, she’ll never use it.” When it arrived I did a little research online, found a suggestion, pulled the lens and lens mount and looked closely inside with a lens, figured out what teeny metal strips to bend, and I was able to pull the old mirror out and slip in the new, in about ten minutes.
Now both viewfinders are bright and clean and I am on the third roll of film with the old EXAKTA V.
During the Summer we do a couple outdoor Art Fairs. Our black and white prints turn out to be very rare and unusual at such events. A couple Summers back a lady was very interested as we had on display a print of the campus of Gonzaga University and she told me that her Uncle Leo had worked there long ago and that he was a photographer. “Leo Yates, S.J. ?” I guessed. “Yes!” So I told her I have one of his lens and shutters, a Protar VII convertible, in a Compound shutter. It probably dates before 1920 and I got it in a junk box full of old abandoned darkroom stuff. Only later did I trace it to the Jesuit. But this old lens and shutter has produced some of my best 5X7 negatives over the years. I had to have the cable release plug replaced once and sent it to a camera tech in California, Fred with a German accent who used to work on Ansel Adams’ equipment. Fred called me up and said, “Bill, I have been showing your lens to my assistant. Dis is a good vun. Let me go over the shutter and get everything good again.” So, of course, I did and that was maybe 12 years ago and it is still a good one. I used it to shoot Ektachrome 5X7s at a ghost town in Montana a few years back. No problem.
Old equipment is fun and often beautiful in itself. So often Kathy and I have had people stop us and admire our cameras. Modern lenses are multi-coated and so display more contrast and color saturation than our old ones , but that they are sharper than older lenses is questionable. I had to scan an original 8X10 silver print on matte paper of the first graduating class of Gonzaga University. The glass plate negative was long lost. On the monitor it seemed that the print was extremely well detailed and I made a 16X20 ink jet print from the file. The detailed texture from the brick work on the original Gonzaga College building was indeed incredibly detailed. The photo was made in about 1892 and I was working from a matte contact print. Whatever formula that lens was, it did its job very well. For us, the task is to use such equipment to the best of its ability and get good, printable negatives. And then, on to the first print of a new image.