rise and fall of the fisheye

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It was January 1970 when suddenly I felt like doing something very seventyish (and that’s what is still feels like). I guess it’s because technical development such as calculating complex lens systems  by using computers became available. The dawning of drugs driven hippie awareness and the need to express accompanying new visual and mental states hitherto unknown somehow helped a great deal in introducing that new phenomenon: the fisheye. I did not really need one, but was eager to explore its possibilities. So I bought one I could afford; it wasn’t very sharp, but did “the magic”.

Thinking back  I recently tried to remember what I used it for. I only remembered a few subjects and in fact no remaining results. So I looked it up in my old negatives. And there it was: believe it or not, the first thing I did was a funeral. Although I was serious about it, I felt uneasy using it, because of all the attention I was getting. The results were eerie, the funeral looked like some incomprehensible happening with extraterrestrians swarming around. Then I photographed caravans near a football stadium: more ET-activities and distorted faces. Then a series of nudes, which turned out more acceptable since that subject historically has had its share of distortion (Kertész, Brandt), offering a way to accentuate shapes and spaces. Fortunately the negatives I have made in London during that period, as well as the Kralingen (Rotterdam) Popfestival are without the fisheye, as are a large series of French gypsies. Some fisheye pictures of architecture, a few sparse portraits and some nature/landscape experiments were the last results before the fiseye was ultimately forgotten. I sold it soon afterwards…

becoming the tree

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It used to be fashionable for the photo gurus to proclaim that, in order to take “good” photographs, you should “become one with your subject”: to photograph a tree you should become that tree. In an extreme form: you had no “right” to express your opinion about/take a photograph of e.g. poor people if you did not belong to the same social class!  No matter what ideological or philosophical thoughts these seemingly “deep” ideas stem from, they have always struck me as plain nonsense. Would an extensive study of all the pharoahs and dynasties of ancient Egypt have resulted in better photographs for my Egypt series….hardly. I did not want knowledge to get in the way of experience. I was going to absorb the country as it presented itself to me during the five weeks of my stay.

Useful as it may be to know at least something about your subject (be it old people’s homes or Latino gangs), it certainly is no guarantee for better photographs. A quick intuitive response is far more important to me than study, meditation or even identification with the subject. Being able to look at things your very own way and thus maintain a certain distance – figuratively speaking! – sometimes helps to avoid being overwhelmed by a subject, or may add to an atmosphere of alienation, when opportune. Having an open mind, not losing yourself, is the key to good observation.

Being an insider, and I’m thinking in years rather than weeks, may get you those special images and a feeling of belonging, and seeing details that stay hidden to the casual eye. In both my “house parties” series and the upcoming “gypsies” series on my site http://www.tomstappers.com you may find this involvement which permeates the best photographs from the many thousands I’ve taken over a long period of time. It is fascination with other people’s lives that drove me, not some supposed “professional attitude” of pursuing “the ultimate picture” that “says it all”, should such a thing exist.

an important photograph

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In the 1970’s I made several trips to the south of France where I met a friend of mine who studied there. I also stayed there with French gypsies who I  had met. They were Sinti from Marseille, mostly musicians, amongst whom Joseph Reinhardt, the brother of the famous Django, was the best known. I also met some lesser known people like Kiri, a man of small posture, and his family. After I had returned from this trip, my friend from Marseille wrote me that Kiri had contacted him and he told the sad story: a tragic accident had happened when he had run over his little boy of some eight years old in backing up the car at the very moment the kid was behind him, where he could not see him. When his youngest son died, the father was in shock and the whole encampment panicked. After the funeral the father realized they did not even have one single photograph of the kid, unless the photographer who had visited them would have one. So the question was passed on for me to look at my photographs, and search for a glimpse of the little boy that was so tragically killed.

Amongst the many photographs of that period I found only one, that had the gypsy boy on the very right edge of the picture, running as he always was. I made an enlargement; it was a bit blurred, but I had no choice and the kid was recognizable. Later I heard that the father was happy but very emotional when my friend gave him the photograph that I had sent. He barely looked at it because he said “it hurt too much”, folded it twice and put it in his wallet “for later”. I have never met Kiri or his family since, but this has made me realize that there’s more than one meaning to the phrase I so often use: “an important photograph”. Photographs are part of our personal and collective memory.

more photographs

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I’ve just been selecting photographs from the following series:  Paris (1970’s-1990’s), Egypt ( January-February 1989) and Periphery ( June-November 1991). Only “Periphery”, an assignment by the town of The Hague where I grew up on the eastern town border (autobiographical), was on my former website already, although the selection may be slightly different. The other two are new on the net. There’s more to come, e.g. gypsies, tattoo, jazz musicians, London, Barcelona and other cities… If you want to buy a personal favorite from these added or earlier photographs for your collection (reasonably priced signed gelatin silver prints 30×40 cm.), be welcome to email me. The 3 current series have been scanned and will be uploaded to my photosite www.tomstappers.com in the next few days, probably soon after Easter. Do visit, I think they’re interesting allright, and keep an eye on this blog. I will comment on my photography in several more posts to come!