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.