how much can I get into a photograph

By | photography

Looking back on the year 2011 I remember all that moved the world, revolutions and wars in the Arab world, and the west that couldn’t believe its eyes, hesitant at first, confronted with what it saw as being so “western”: a secular mass movement demanding democracy, spilling over from one country to the next, Tunesia, Egypt, Lybia, which next…Seeing and hearing their brave and fair demands did more for understanding and sympathy than many years of th so-called multi-cultural society have achieved so far.

Then there were natural disasters, terrorism, the economic crisis. There were demonstrations over here too, especially in Amsterdam. I went to a Spanish demonstration, students who realized there was hardly any future in their home country with no jobs for more than 1/3 of young people and numbers rising whilst the country remained deep in debt, its Mediterranean coast lined with empty white hotels. I photographed those proud young people full of life, and the girl behind the banner, with the white flower in her hair, aware of her act and visibly enjoying every moment of the comradeship and common goal. I kept hearing vague memories of songs from the Spanish civil war and Charlie Haden’s plaintive bass lines with the Liberation Music Orchestra.

The second image that still stays with me is from another demonstration, supporting the people on Tahrir Square, Cairo. I was photographing an Egyptian family in Amsterdam and concentrated on an older couple. The woman was not looking at the men, who were waving an Egyptian flag, but at the baby in the pram she held. Amidst all the noise and shouting I could not hear what she muttered, but I tried to understand, because she cried. Then I suddenly heard what she said: “Misr habibi….Misr habibi” – my dear Egypt.

street photography: hunters and collectors

By | photography, street photography

Some days ago I was seeking cover from the spring rain that came pouring down in the busy Amsterdam streets where I was photographing. Shoppers and tourists alike were huddling together in a covered passage between two streets, suddenly standing shoulder to shoulder looking at each other. I was holding my camera in my coat pocket, finger on the trigger as it were, ready for whatever was coming. As the small crowd was accumulating I spotted another photographer with his camera around his neck; I knew him because he has also been photographing  people in the streets of Amsterdam for a long time. From time to time I almost bump into him because I like to move around in the crowd while he often stands at a strategic spot like a rock in the sea, watching the passers-by. We don’t speak though, as I get the impression that he doesn’t like to as he avoids eye contact. I’ve seen some of his work on the internet, and have read that he wanted to photograph people’s activities in the streets and group these pictures into categories, which would eventually lead to some kind of encyclopaedia. He actually has a small book out with such pictures and categories. I looked it through and concluded that his approach is that of a collector. He adds pictures of eating people to more pictures of eaters in the streets, etc. He uses a digital camera, shoots a lot from the hip (therefore does not compose in the finder/on the screen), crops his photographs. A very different approach from mine, so it’s interesting for me to see if the results are very different and what these differences are. After all my approach is more like hunting, I don’t stand and wait, but I move continually, trying to find the hotspots looking for action or turmoil in the crowd, a technique I developed in the years I did my photography amongst the night-long dance parties of the house era. What I look for is that special moment that the banal suddenly shows something of a higher order which lifts the scene above the everyday moment. That’s what I am hunting for.

the print – a valuable object

By | photography

When I was young I used to work in a photo archive. It was an archive with thousands of images of Dutch landscapes, windmills, national costumes, folklore, old buildings etc., etc., to which I had proudly contributed. All of these photographs were just “material” for publications by the tourist industry, and the photographers were paid very little. We used to charge only administrative and actual replacement costs to those customers who never returned the lent material after use. Some even had the nerve to send back an envelope with the cut-up prints, snippets and all, or otherwise spoilt photographs with paper pasted on, texts written on the back that showed up like relief on the front, as more signs of utter disrespect for the photographer’s work (and remember, I’m talking about the darkroom, not the computer). Captions reattached to the prints after use by means of a stapler, small creases or scratches were no real problem! “You can’t see that in printing.” When the stock was almost gone for very popular images (yes, you guessed right, the inevitable windmills, tulips – in black&white – and wooden shoes) we just ordered another batch from the photographer, who didn’t mind… When a particularly nice picture came by, it was more than once confiscated and pinned up to the wall. There were some with well-known photographer’s names.

Ed van der Elsken said to me once that he regretted he had disregarded the uniqueness, and indeed value, of his old (vintage) press prints from his Paris, old Amsterdam and Sweet Life periods. He had used them to create a unique intro to his exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum: by gluing them to the walls, the floor and the ceiling of the entrance hall. Very hip and contemporary at the time maybe, but what a pity in retrospect !!!

It is a strange thought that in fact, even the photographers themselves had to be taught the value of a lot of their old, and often forgotten prints. The scarcity of good (often vintage) prints, not caused by limited editions, but simple lack of interest in those days, has not escaped the attention of the collectors. They already know that a work of art “signed all over” needn’t necessarily be signed to be collectible.