film photography

collective memory

By | photography

When there was only “film” photography, as it is nowadays called, it was normal to have every good negative printed. Only the negatives that were no good, i.e. blurred, out of focus, completely black or transparent were not included with the prints that most people got from the photo shop. So almost every person, and certainly every family had their albums with annotated or anonymous pictures. Many had shoeboxes full of unsorted photographs. And there were the professional archives with still more. Many millions of tiny documents, mostly with the only intention of keeping memories alive of family and relatives, children, women and men in their daily surroundings, but mostly on holidays. But in this unimaginably big mass of images lies the collective memory of a people, of peoples, towns, countries, in fact the whole world.

Even when most of this material will never be seen by others, and in fact simply disappears from the face of the earth together with the people it depicts, there is a growing interest for the preservation of at least a selection of the photographic material that is available from various sources. These sources should cover both low culture and high culture for a broader insight. Cultural historians and sociologists (present and future) will be grateful for this. In many parts of the world institutions, museums, libraries and archives are active in the field of collecting and preserving our photographic heritage and a lot of good work in studying and analyzing has already been done.

With digital photography almost completely taking over amateur photography and large sections of professional and let’s say “art” photography, the print is not so self-evident anymore. Few people keep albums with prints; and the image, with all its historical/sociological/whatever importance, only exists in its virtual form. And when photo albums may survive, and may even go all the way from the fleamarket to the museum or archive, and thus be saved, the virtual image stored away on disks or in other ways practically invisible and inaccessible to others will disappear with its owner. This age might be a lot less well-documented photographically than the previous one in spite of the fact that everybody seems to be taking photographs. But where are the photographs?

f…. was a dirty word

By | photography

When I started taking photographs, ages ago, Henri Cartier-Bresson was the photographers’ pope so to speak. He had three dogmas for the believers, I had understood from reading the photo magazines and his own books (fortunately my French was not too bad):

first, there is a “decisive moment” for the photograph to be taken. Up to a point, there is certainly some truth in it, but some indecisive moments will do very well, I have meanwhile discovered. And it’s so irritating that every nitwit art critic with some general interest, preoccupied with knowledge but not even looking, comes up with this term to show he “knows about photography too”, even if there is no use for it.

second, you always used the whole negative, and sometimes even proudly showed you did so by including a subtle black border around the image on the paper print. There were even “styles” in the shaping of the outside of the border – some photographers used hand-torn carton frames to replace the narrow and sharp-edged metal frames that went with the enlarger. I even understood that Diane Arbus photographs (mostly posthumous prints) can be categorized and dated by their treatment of the image edge, soft without black border, narrow black border, uneven borders etc. 

third, and here comes the f….word, you should never use flash, Cartier-Bresson said, since it was “intolerably aggressive”, destroying the atmosphere, making the presence of the intruding photographer very obvious, and in fact, changing the whole action. That’s what he said and I was not unhappy to have an excuse not to use it for I did not have a lot of experience with it.

Then came house parties. I had done little work with flash and felt insecure about it. I had an electronic flash unit that was basic, but clumsy. Its head turned when I brushed against somebody’s shoulder and people froze like wild animals caught in car lights because it was blinding. This had to change. I bought two identical dedicated Nikon speedlights, since I worked with two identical cameras as well. Using also identical settings was the ideal solution. I soon found out after experimenting on a few films what the best combination of depth of field/stepped down lighting was. I had given up the idea of using the room lights, as there were unworkable extremes and strobes and lots of darkness, which did not go well with the detail that I strived for; I wanted to fill the frame with relevant information till it almost burst.  Flash made it all possible.That is how I overcame my initial fear of flashlight. I know I can use it for my kind of photography whenever I feel the need for it. Certainly in a house club with all its moving and pulsating lights no one will object either.

party war zone

By | photography

When I started taking photographs of house parties I had to choose the right camera for the job. I had a long time experience with several Nikon models, so that’s what I took along. They were strong, easy to operate (I had practised changing films in complete darkness, which came in handy!). I used 2 identical FE’s with 28mm’s (the old type, which has a wider spaced and therefore more precise indication of close range on the distance ring). For use in the dark I later even added white paint markers on some close range distances that I used a lot.  The 2 identical flashlights were preset for the same expected range. I also took care not to use the blinding full blast to spare my subjects. Not that many of them noticed the flash at all amongst the room lights and the occasional strobe…

I tried to use the viewfinder as much as I could for composing, but sometimes it was so dark that I saw nothing. In that case I put my eye as close to the finder as possible, and looked alongside it, using my experience in aiming to get the “framing” as precise as possible. Surprisingly, this worked most of the time. What I liked a lot was the extra grip provided by the motordrives, making up for their – considerable – added weight.

One time when the 2 cameras+speedlights+motordrives around my neck worked against me was the unlucky night when I slipped on the steep perforated steel stairs that lead up to the dj, causing their combined weight to make me loose my balance. In falling the stairs made a long cut in my forehead, causing a lot of bleeding. Fortunately that was all, but nevertheless I was rushed to a hospital, leaving my cameras at the club. When I collected them later, there was blood all over and I had to take them to the official Nikon repair department. They looked at me and then at the cameras, inquiring what war zone I came from… By the way, both Nikons were o.k. after cleaning, just a small scratch. Good camera for a war zone.

why the blog

By | street photography

My website is all about photographs, about straightforward black&white analog (film) photography. And there are some pretty strong pictures, I think. But even the strongest photography can be diluted by putting too many words in between, so I decided to separate the texts from the images.
In this blog I will therefore comment on my own work, as well as possibly on current developments and subjects of interest in photography, with a special focus on real street photography in the Garry Winogrand vein. Other favorites that will no doubt be mentioned in the near future are Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. So please visit this blog from time to time if you are interested in the backgrounds of my work and my thoughts about photography. Until later!

all texts (unless indicated otherwise)    © Tom Stappers