The extra winter issue of this lifestyle/fashion photography-oriented magazine features part of my House Parties series as an editorial. The subtitle: New Symbols for a New Age hopefully puts a new public on the right track in looking not just for appearances, but for intentions and possible meanings. The fin-de-siècle mid-1990’s dance scene in the Netherlands, as shown in these pictures is still visibly an indicator of the changes of an increasingly urbanized population looking for new ways of expression for their common feelings in spite of all cultural and social differences. Values and traditional roles are challenged and tested out, while the relentless beats of the new music never stop. Somehow I felt like it would always be 1996….
When William A. Ewing, the author of the the photobook “Love and Desire” (Chronicle Books / Thames and Hudson 1999, and a number of editions in various languages) asked me if he could use one of my house parties pictures, he wanted to know, did I perhaps have more photographs that could be grouped under this heading. O, sure, was my instantaneous reaction. Come to think of it, in fact most of my photography is about love and desire; especially when you think of it in the widest sense, apart from the purely physical or erotic connotations. Photography may well be seen as an act of love and desire; the love of life itself in all of its manifestations and sudden beauty, the desire to experience and partake, to observe and understand, to capture and share and maybe even own some of it.
This is what I also realized when I recently looked once again at some books by Garry Winogrand. To me he remains the greatest observer of life’s miracles at street level, but who elevated photography far above the business of making a buck or making an impression. His maniacal search for images of life going on all around him (he left a third of a million pictures at the time of his death) could only be stopped by his untimely passing away, and even his closest friends could only guess what he was striving for in the images that he had taken during his latest years, once they looked in bewilderment at the proofed and printed results from the bagloads of undeveloped films they found at his house. If you could call him an addict, he wasn’t addicted to photography, but to experiencing and getting to grips with life where he discovered it: on the very streets of his own life.
When house parties were still considered a new and exciting phenomenon by the museum world in the Netherlands (the famous “low culture”!), I heard that the Kunsthal in Rotterdam was planning an exhibition about this subject (doubtlessly with a new, young public in mind). So I made an appointment with the then manager/photography curator, who said he was very interested. I went to Rotterdam, taking a selection of my house parties series. After looking at my series of photographs he seemed a bit puzzled – was it that he wanted this subject in “more contemporary” color I wondered, had he expected a wild kid with speedy eyes and uneasy manners? Or, since this was Rotterdam, a young stoner skinhead photographer from the gabber scene? -. None of that, after a pause gathering his thoughts, came his verdict: interesting photographs but this is not how I imagine a house party looks(!). My slightly irritated reaction, something like – o, I’m happy I seem to have avoided the clichés then… – did not go down so well. He gave me his card, mumbled something about sending an invitation for the opening, blablah. I left, thinking about how people really only want to see confirmation of what they already know, or more likely think they know…. Why? And should it upset me…no, I couldn’t care less.
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.
On one of the house parties a visitor came up to me with an “understanding” grin and shouted in my ear (because of the loud music): “I was watching you, and I see what you’re doing, you’re only photographing the beautiful girls!” He seemed to be rather proud of this observation, which in fact said more about him than about my photography; as usual the observer only sees what he expects. Of course I did not avoid the beautiful girls, I like to include them in my photographs whenever it is opportune. That certainly was no problem as there were so many, but what really kept me occupied was on a different level as I was trying to read the intricate patterns of behavior, trying to see the subtle signals, the symbolism, the body language. I was busy understanding these people and everything going on, trying to make sense of the shapes in the dark and the flashing lights, even sorting out my emotional reactions while exposing film after film, constantly checking my gear amidst the crowd. I realized I could never adequately explain, no use trying, so I gave him the thumbs up.
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.
The subject came up again some time ago: how many of the photographs you have taken on a certain occasion do you really use in the end? I remember talking about it one afternoon years ago with my friend Ed van der Elsken, looking at the peacocks outside his farmhouse near Edam. He was known to be a prolific shooter and wondered what my results were. His were about one “usable” (as he called it) picture for every film, so 1 out of 36. By usable he meant “worth publishing” by the way, not “technically o.k.” of course, and he had a good eye for catchy images! Neither of us used motor drives then, needless to say. I had to think of it, but thought that overall, my results matched his 1 out of 36.
When I did use motordrives for the house parties series, the numbers went up quite naturally, and after one of these many nights I came home at 4.30 a.m. tired, but with 14 exposed films in my pockets, my best result until then. As I had agreed that my hit score was about the same as Ed’s it was reasonable to expect something like 10 to 14 great pictures, for I had not even made excessive use of the motordrive (I never do, preferring the single exposure mode to sequences). This was not bad at all, but of course it’s only the “rough material” for laying out a series, and more than one perfect image gets edited out later. In fact, the more choice you have, the better the series will be in the end.
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.
House parties is the first series on the renewed site Tom Stappers|Photographer www.tomstappers.com . These photographs were taken during the heyday of the house scene in the Scheveningen dance Club Exposure between 1994 and 1998. The club, “.XPO…” for insiders, soon acquired legendary status because of the extravagant side acts and the chemistry of that special mix of visitors, and by now seems to have reached mythic proportions in the collective memory of a whole age group.
To me, as a photographer, the whole scene was not just the usual boy-meets-girl, but a concentrated version of life with all the exuberance, desire and rejection that were acted out right in front of me. Fortunately I was readily being accepted, which enabled me to identify with the regular visitors – in spite of the differences – and not feel an intruder. I enjoyed the music and the people, careful not to outstay my welcome, while managing to take many thousands of photographs. I like what came out of it. These are respectful photographs.
My redesigned photosite is online, and the first two series presented are house parties and vegetation. The very up-to-date design chosen by |r|ocketclowns allows for the photographs to be shown on a surprisingly large format, and I like the navigation, that is both transparent and logical. To enable some explication, the occasional comment and a few necessary notes, I will add texts (aimed at photography insiders as well as interested newcomers to my photography) by means of this blog. The choice for the separation of words and images was made so as to not interrupt the flow of photographs. The blog which replaces the texts of the original site will be all the more versatile for it, hopefully more readable, and certainly more informative because searchable. I sincerely hope you will enjoy all of it, so do take a looooong look, and come back as often as you like for images and texts. I’m sure the website will get ever more interesting as it grows…and I’ll try to keep in mind what I myself would like to see and read about, trying not to repeat myself. Just in case, if you haven’t found it yet, www.tomstappers.com .