Photography as Memory: part 2

 

 

markiepipe in rinardfixed
Markus and his Great Grandpa

Memory Making

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Other Peoples’ Memories, Other Peoples’ Photographs

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Bill Kostelec

May 30, 2018

 

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Photography as Memory: part 1

 

 

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

 

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

 

tintype of Dad
The twins Louie and Al and a buddy

 

 

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

 

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

 

Photography and Memory

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

 

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

And he had some photographs.

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

 

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

 

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

 

jody gets adopted
Baby Jill gets Adopted

 

 

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

 

Shane and Jerry
Jerry and Shane

 

 

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

 

Jim and Jeff
Jimmy and jeff

 

 

 

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

 

ignatz and Franciska
Ignatz and Franciska

 

 

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

 

 

End of part 1

 

Bill Kostelec

May 2018

35mm film and Everyman’s Camera of an Age Not Quite Gone By Part 2

 

 

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 Elma 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.

young couple color at empyrean

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.

larry W SAX

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.

 

Bill Kostelec

May 2018

Medium Format in the Digital Age

ShadeBLOGC

 

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.

hilyard widow with markBLOG2

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.

Hosata leaves after the rainBLOG2

 

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.

And that is good for us all.

Bill Kostelec

April 2018

 

Photographers at play

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.

 

Bill Kostelec,

April 2018

The Strongest Way of Seeing

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The strongest way of seeing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bill Kostelec

March 19, 2018

The Print is the Thing 2: Mental Templates and Visualization

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Bill Kostelec,

March 2018