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.