A few days ago I was asked to do an interview by answering some questions by my friend Joanna of the amazing RocketClowns team who designed my website. Generally speaking I don’t like interviews too much, because my experience is that all too often the interviewer only wants to hear what proves his point, or what in his opinion the public likes. That won’t do for me, but in this case I trusted the interviewer and her intentions, and the texts would not be interfered with. So here it is: you will find the interview under http://blog.rocketclowns.com/?p=587 .
“I have had two careers: Atget’s and mine.”
Berenice Abbott about her promotional activities concerning Atget’s very important photographs of Paris and saving his precious and fragile glass plates. She took this as serious as her own -equally important- self-chosen task of making a “portrait” of New York.
“It costs about $1.50. It is a toy camera that works well. The company also makes a cheaper model that squirts water when you press the shutter.”
taken from “The Snapshot” ©1974, Aperture, Inc., New York.
“Something has to be photographically/visually important, otherwise you write about it.” – Berenice Abbott.
To many people nowadays who have discovered the enchanting possibilities of film photography with what is essentially a plastic “toy” camera, the following will come as a surprise. What they think is a sympathetic hype and reaction to all the perfection and manipulability brought on by the sweep of digital imaging and high-tech camera’s, has started in the mid-1960’s at Ohio University in the photography classes and has never been away since!
In those days it was the Diana, a basically all-plastic toy camera from Hong Kong, which came in cases of 144 at a price of little more than a dollar a piece… a nice handout for educational purposes. The blur, flares, wrong exposures, light leaks and scores of unexpected effects were so exciting to the young and rebellious art students already used to the near-perfection of the materials of the day. I myself for instance used Kodak Tri-X with my Leica’s and Nikons (still do, what more can you wish for, actually…). The Diana grew more and more popular, and many (also very serious) photographers used one at some time as a sort of underground activity. I have shortly played around with a toy camera that took a fast sequence of 4 shots, but after some time the plastic lenses came out, if I remember well.
There were competitions and photobooks of exclusively Diana photographs; “Iowa” by Nancy Rexroth ©1977, distr. by Light Impressions, New York, is a remarkable book I bought in those days. Beautifully done, and the subject (childhood dreams) wonderfully fits the imagery that the Diana camera delivers. There have been other plastic camera’s since, like the Lomo of today, and there is another generation of photographers, fed up with the predictability of the “perfect” camera that “thinks for you” and instantly delivers the sharpest picture possible, without nasty surprises. Point is, however, lots of people love surprises. There’s a kick to be found in the unexpected, and sometimes you’ll find a gem…
In the middle of photographing a Spanish support demonstration in Amsterdam my film jammed in the high speed mode. I will avoid technicalities, but I wished I had one of the less sophisticated types with me at that moment. Not knowing what to do for an instant since I only had the one camera, I decided to open the back and – to the amusement of an onlooker who hadn’t a clue, but saw my irritation – radically removed the almost completely exposed film… All for nothing so far! Okay, have to go on, and checking the emptied camera at a quiet spot away from the action showed no obvious problems other than a torn film, so I started anew. Taking pictures of the demonstration again with a camera that worked again without a problem soon brought back my inspiration and I shot 4 films before it started to rain lightly. I had an appointment elsewhere around this time and I walked away from the demonstration. In the hectic Amsterdam crowd while crossing a few streets I took some more people shots in passing, protecting the electronically driven camera with my jacket from time to time. The rain then became more persistent, and soon I was more busy wiping the camera than taking photographs. Nevertheless I managed to finish another roll, and decided to take a mechanical camera as well next time (especially when there’s a rainy weather forecast!) so I would have a spare that can take a shower or two as well.
It had to happen. We had already seen the mirror, disguised as a long lens, to put in front of your normal lens. I had tried it on one of my Nikons, back in the 80’s. It was a metal tube that looked like a tele, but it had a big round hole in the side, through which the lens could look at an angle by means of a mirror. Awkward construction. It took ages to point right and you had to use a long lens to avoid vignetting! No good for me, it was not quick and made me feel sneaky and frankly, like an idiot. This disguise was for scared people (as is the hipshot, so popular with certain so-called “street photographers”) and far from being invisible, it attracted the attention.
Now we have the same kind of construction for the camera in your cell phone etc. A snap-on with a tiny mirror which enables you to take photographs without “pointing” (i.e. holding it up in the usual vertical position) which is signalling “you are being photographed”. Now you can pretend to use your phone for anything but taking pictures, while you are doing exactly that, because you can hold it horizontally, the lens looking forward by means of the tiny mirror underneath. Sneaky indeed. I can tell you I don’t like it. I’d rather just point, put the camera to my eye as I have always practised, be able to compose the image, give people a fair chance to indicate they object, if they feel that way. It’s o.k., gives me a more honest and self-confident feeling about street photography.
Breaking news… Mladic captured. Wanted for war crimes. Bosnian trauma of many years ago, 7,000 plus killed; also a Dutch trauma, military were unable to defend a “safe haven”, no air support given by partners… All day long interviews and commentary on national t.v.
“[The Bosnian] refugees came in masses to the [Dutch] compound carrying their valuable posessions, often a photo album…”
ex-Dutchbat soldier interviewed about the Srebrenica massacre.
So Doisneau used family members as actors in his photographs. “The kiss” is certainly no spontaneous action observed by a quickly reacting photographer, it was planned and staged! And yes, the gentleman standing on the running board of a late night London cab doesn’t only resemble Bill Brandt, it’s his brother. Even Capa’s falling soldier in Spain acted out his “dying”, as is proven by several takes of this “shot” with the same background (the original negatives surfaced not long ago in a trunk on somebody’s attic!). And I could go on… Is this “a sin against the principles, even the true nature of photography” as I hear some people arguing, even those who have no problem with Photoshop and the likes being applied with far less grace and taste…
A description is always true to itself, why are we so harsh on photographs that betray our preconception that a photograph, especially a classic one, should be representative, truthful and unmanipulated. Maybe because we want a photograph to fulfill the role we demand from it that it should have a narrative function. We want dearly to read a so-called meaning into it, in fact a “story” to comfort us. But is there life beyond the frame? Sure, but we sometimes make it up in our craving for explanations, if not easy solutions. We have to accept some photographs as icons, they do exist on their own, creating their own symbolic “truth” irrespective of context. What you get is not necessarily what you (hope to) see.
I started collecting photographs a long, long time ago, mainly by swapping photographs with colleagues on a one for one basis. Later I bought the occasional photograph that impressed me when I could afford it. And they were quite cheap in those days fortunately. A photographer friend of mine, one of 2 or 3 professionals who were members of a mainly amateur photoclub in the (not so close) neighbourhood saw my small collection. He liked it so much that he asked me if I could speak one evening at his club and tell about my passion, and explain about the photographs.
However enthousiast he was about his own idea, he immediately made it very clear that he expected me to do this for free! The club wouldn’t pay the small compensation for the night’s speaker as they had on other occasions, when I had shown my own work. His reasoning was “after all you didn’t take those photographs yourself” (!)
I replied that the payment is for the talk, not the pictures, and he saw it as some compensation for copyrights. Why would I go through the trouble of selecting a series of pictures, thinking up some cohesive story about the photographs that made sense as well, transport them (I did not have a car of my own), risk damage, all for a small applause in the best case… He still did not see it my way, or would not come round. The evening didn’t happen.