random beginnings

By | photography

When you put a new film into your camera, you take 2 or 3 shots after closing the camera back, to make sure that the piece of film sticking out of the cassette is wound up. No attention was given to the (manual) settings, like exposure or distance, and you pointed mostly to the ground while taking the necessary blind shots. Now a fresh part of film which has not seen any light was ready for the first take. 

After printing the whole film on a contact sheet when I had finished the 36 or so frames, I always looked at those first two unplanned images with wonder. These blind shots showed a strange world with light flares, blurs, unidentifiable objects, often unsharp, or my own feet on a variety of pavements, grass, lights and shadows. It kind of fascinated me always, but something told me not to use any of it, because I felt somehow that I did not really create these pictures.

Still I sometimes printed the occasional mysterious frame which preceded number 1 (which in those days – the 1960’s – came with the intriguing numbers 84 to 88 on Agfa film. If you were lucky it might even have a large film type perforation right through it, adding as it were something of an identification, some importance, to a piece of irrelevant reality that had portrayed itself.

Of course, I wasn’t the only photographer to notice the interesting film beginnings, so one day I saw a collection of prints made by a number of well-known Dutch photographers of such random images that had appeared on their first few frames. The chosen results indicated that not everybody was willing to show completely uncontrolled imagery, however. Some obviously insisted that even their “unintentional” frames were “part of” their output, potentially interesting, or that it looked like their known work, their “normal” photographs, but only a bit “off”…

Giving up all control, and showing the unpersonalised picture must have been asking too much of them. You have to be free and certain about yourself first, to get on friendly terms with coincidence, it seems.

for Vali Myers

By | photography

It’s July 1988, Paris is hot, very hot and tourists have taken over the town. The Parisians have left for the coast or their country house and the wooden panels are fastened in front of the shop windows. I’m glad I have found a cheap room in the Hôtel d’Alsace Lorraine, 14 rue des Canettes that my friend Peter, the African Art dealer from Amsterdam has mentioned to me. It is situated in a very old building in one of the streets of the rive gauche that leads up to the monumental Place Saint Sulpice, where I like to sit in the shadow of the trees. Going up the stairs of the old hotel I noticed the framed newspaper clipping, telling that the concierge of this hotel used to be Madame Céleste Albaret, the gouvernante of Marcel Proust. The whole place breathes history; I already bumped my head very hard on one of its mediaeval oak beams which runs right through the middle of my small room, which is entresol, halfway two floors, the toilet is nondescript with a door made of planks with holes. In the sunny morning I wake up to the unfamiliar noises of a Paris street. I make a good start of the day and take a few pictures of my bed: the pushed-back blankets are the rolling waves of a restless sea and the old faded wallpaper has a repeating pattern of a sky with hovering seagulls…

Back in Holland I visit my friend Ed van der Elsken, who likes to hear about my trip to Paris. He inquires about my photography and asks where I stayed. He reacts very surprised when I tell him about the Hôtel d’Alsace Lorraine. He urges me to describe the room. “But that’s Vali’s room!” he exclaims, and his light blue eyes stare at me, “Tom, that’s incredible, that’s the room where she lived 30 years ago! She always had the curtains drawn and lived in a dream world, addicted to opium, only came out at night during that period… What a coincidence… and you never knew?…” When I tell him about the photograph I took in that room with the imaginary dreamtime seascape he seems almost moved, says he wants to see it soon, “bring it next time”. In his book “Elsken:PARIS 1950-1954” (Libroport Co. Ldt., Tokyo, 1985) Ed, the Dutch photographer, quotes Vali telling how madame Céleste watched over her like a mother during that vulnerable time. She proudly said to a visitor “You are going up to see the strange one, my favorite jewel.”

I titled the picture “Sea of dreams (for Vali Myers)”  You can have a look at some of my Paris photographs from that period at http://www.tomstappers.com . The photograph “Sea of dreams (for Vali Myers)” can be seen at http://www.photogalaxy.com/photo/tomstappers/2/?m=0.0.0.tomstappers.az

Ed promised to introduce me to Vali, but I only saw her at his funeral in the old church of Edam and standing at his grave afterwards, in thoughts. She was smaller than I had imagined her, fiery hair, tattoos, quiet, unapproachable, almost shy. It was such a sad day, I did not talk to her. One look – all. There’s a photograph of her on my wall that I often look at in passing.