Friday, December 29, 2006

Narcissism kills: the rise and fall of Francesca Woodman

You can’t speak ill of the dead, it would be in bad taste, wouldn’t it? But in this case I believe it is even worse taste to speak well of certain deaths. Let me explain: I find Francesca Woodman most irritating. Not just the circumstances of her life, which are highly suspicious, from her premature talent - being the daughter of two artists she has been exposed to their influence from an early age, her photos show everything but naïve spirit, they are too conceived, concocted, conceptual and yet strike me as artificial or professionally artistic and good - down to what must be defined tragic end by jumping or falling from the window of her (?) New York studio. Even more maddening are those who make an intellectual feast of her legacy, relate her work to this and that, but worst of all idealize her death. As the links keep popping up on my screen, I try to make sense of the lot. Sentences like “She was preparing to become an angel” are not just soppy and blatantly pathetic to the adults among us, they are downright dangerous to younger or more impressionable minds. Pity the victims of mental depression but do not ever glorify suicide. It has nothing to do with talent, nor art.
My impression is maybe superficial, instinctive as is my goal and in keeping with the spirit of this blog. I read her short biography with marvel and envy: winters in America, expensive exclusive art schooling in Rome, summers in Tuscany. Lonely as she may have been at times, her photographs betray favourable circumstances: her good health and looks, beautiful interiors, moody spaces one finds in big Italian villas or New York artists lofts (how many 22 years old artists can afford a window in New York to jump from, I bitterly wonder). I fear that all these things somehow lead her to her end. She must have been flirting with the thought of death as many adolescents do, and done so in earnest, the feeling enhanced by the hyper sensitivity of someone who thinks she is an artist: someone special. So she eventually was attracted by the void, and fell into her reflection as surely as Narcissus did, fatally.
This tragic and alas romantic (to the so inclined) epilogue to her life seems to give her work more importance and poignancy, but this is a delusion. Judge the work on its own merits, and try not to think of Francesca if you can. But it’s hard, isn’t it? She didn’t want you to forget her. This is, to me, the problem with autobiographic work.

Another famous suicide photographer that comes to mind is Diane Arbus, and her end too I find maddening. Maybe it’s the feeling of waste, maybe something else. I can’t help thinking that while she was photographing all these characters that she found, something deep was happening inside her wonderful and talented self. It’s not that hard taking pictures of freaks, try being one for a day. So in a way she might have fallen too in some reflection of her own. Rest in peace, both of them.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

D'Orazio's Schooling.

Sante d’Orazio is a long-winded photographer, meaning that he doesn’t shy away from filling a whole book with a series of photographs that really look very much alike. Or maybe he is simply incapable of editing his work, and finds it easier to publish every frame shot (or nearly) than choosing the best out of the lot and move on to a new shoot, idea or set. This I had already noticed in a book about Pamela Anderson’s naked body. Despite her voluptuousness I couldn’t help a surging sense of boredom as the thing went on, page after page without hardly a change. I mean: what is this? What am I supposed to make out of this repetition? Is this an attempt to link still photography and moving pictures? Am I supposed to flip through the many pages so fast as to create the illusion of movement at 24 pages a second? Or am I expected to enjoy each and every slightest variation of Anderson’s pose, longingly posing my gaze on every pore of her silky skin, only to start all over at the next almost identical page? A word comes to mind that I won’t write down (but it rhymes with banker).
This time the book is titled “Katlick School”, possibly a kind of phonetic anagram of Catholic School, and is about a young model, Kat I presume, dressed in a Catholic School uniform, either authentic or one styled ad hoc for the shoot, the shirt conveniently shorter than in reality. Kat is followed by the eager D’Orazio in a trite simulation of different moments of a School’s girl day. A very glamorous school girl, that is, beautiful and posing like a fashion model. Kat seems to have learned her lesson as to what photographers want in the same place where they all have: the usual clichés, the lips, the seducing gaze, you know what I mean. Stereotypes seriously lacking in emotion and truth. The photographs look like those that might have been taken by a talented boy friend, aged seventeen and a half, blessed by having a nice camera and a very good looking and somewhat malicious nymphette to play with. Halfway the book they go to the park, and switch both to colour and lomography using a Holga or some such plastic camera. Again Sante drags on for pages on the same theme, as if he wanted us to follow each and every strenuous step to the one frame that sums them all up and should stand alone in a book. Then, abruptly, about two thirds of the volume, we find that Kat has fallen prey to D’Orazio the “pornocrat”, and is standing naked in what is the first of many provoking sexy poses, again in black and white, in a new very explicit erotic series that leads to the end of the book. Gone is the girly setting, now it’s grim undefinable interiors and it feels like a butterfly stuck on the pages of a dirty mag, at a bar, on a sofa, with sex attributes and erotica. Gone is the seventeen and a half year old school boy with his clumsy banal charm and in comes the middle aged dirty minded man, even more despicable for being so predictable, so commonplace, so talentless.
Am I a prude? Maybe so. I do pity the girl and wish dear Katherine better luck in the rest of her modelling career and life, so that she can steer clear of photographers like Sante D’Orazio. I am sure others will find it possible and even easy to explore Kat’s potential as a model without ending in the obscene. I hope that Kat will find other ways to pose, possibly closer to her true self, more authentic, less a projection of very common male sex fantasies. This is not eroticism, it’s porn. As for Sante, his Catholic schooling, if he ever had one, obviously has turned sour: I fear he might be beyond redemption. It’s not the beauty of the models, it’s the mind of the photographer that counts the most for the result. As an atheist I don’t mind sinners, when they make good photography. This book isn’t.

Looking back on these first articles I am slightly worried: why am I so angry? Why so aggressive? Who am I taking on, and why? I guess it is the famous ones that I am after, whenever I have the feeling that their success is undeserved, or even worse, misleading to the public and photography in general. Being the end of the year it is a good time to set goals for the future. I have a mind to write stories about photography that I deeply admire, and in positive terms, constructive and all. I plan to write about Henry Cartier Bresson, Roland Barthes revealing essay, and of course the mysterious much beloved Atget. Will I stop being aggressive on others? I think not.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Trashing Tracey (?)

Rizzoli has published a comprehensive monography on Tracey Emin, from her beginnings up to now. Faced with it at my usual book mega store, I went through its full content in little over fifteen minutes, text not included obviously. Few words I could catch on the fly as I flipped through the interviews. Those that caught my eye were mostly four letter words, or longer but to the same effect. Her work consists of drawings and letters, embroidery with text, text in neon lights, installations in wood and metal, films that can’t be effectively displayed in print, photographs. She has enjoyed so much success and media exposure as to be iconic in her own right: her face is so well known that we feel the pang of recognition when looking at it. And then she has chosen her life, and her body, as a theme for her art. Everything is very personal and shared with the wide world, many of her sketches show her with legs spread open as the subject. She has done this so often that it has to be seen as a theme for her. Also in one notorious photograph, she seems to be stuffing her genitalia with money. Possibly the female sex is seen as a gate that connects inner and outer world, or a centre around which everything revolves, at least in her life. It’s not so much the uterine but the vaginal side of things that seems to weigh heavy on her destiny and her artwork.
Her wooden installations look like soviet constructivism, although Tatlin’s carpentry might have been more solidly built and had a totally different agenda: he was bent on creating a workers paradise whereas Tracey seems to describe darkly a modern woman’s existential quagmire. Her neon light texts are a familiar medium to the aficionados of modern art from the early sixties onwards, leaving us to deciphering the letters in gently flowing cursive but at times hard to read handwriting and their meaning beyond their shallow appearance. I remember one by another artist which read: “this is art”. Somehow that’s what they all seem to be: they are self proclaiming, therefore possibly revealing of an underlying doubt as to their identity by the author?
“Ceci n’est pas une pipe”, maybe, then what?
She embroiders about sex, about her abortion(s), puts the names of her sexual partners on the inside of a tent, and puts her bed on the floor of a museum. This being so intimate that she claims personal abuse when two Japanese visitors decide to turn the installation into a performance of their own by jumping on it in their underwear. Normally a degree of interaction with a piece of art should be welcomed (when not vandalic), especially an informal one as this, but Emin reacts on the media as if the folds of her bed sheets, disturbed by the desecrators, were made of marble and had been shattered by barbaric hammer blows and destroyed forever. Even more, she feels as if she has personally been raped, in a way.
If we assume that she is sincere in this claim, then her identification with her work, her being one with her art and that being so intimate, and all being on display really is a rare phenomenon of personal exhibition(ism) . Still I wonder: should we care?
I like Emin when she shifts her gaze away from her thighs and on to the wider world around, and draws in her thin nervous lines an essential landscape of Margate. This work is personal, universal and moving, showing talent and promise.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Inflated Balloons At The Paris Photo 2006

There might be a strong case to be made for a practicing photographer not to visit Paris Photo, or any other fine art photography trade show for that matter. For what good can come of it? Allow me to elaborate: the bathroom of my hotel room contained more inspiration than the whole show in terms of elements that could lead to the making of new photographs, while the excessive tendency to ponder on other people’s work, either historical or modern, can lead to conformism, if not downright plagiarism – which could be defined as the inbreeding of creative ideas with obvious degenerate offspring as the result. If you are looking for inspiration read a poem, listen to music or work in the field. If possible, always leave it to your gallery or agent to visit these affairs and meet the collectors.
Most of all I find it puzzling to see how many visitors carry cameras and shoot around, maybe at the work, or at the visitors, I couldn’t exactly tell. The only possible explanation other than a doomed attempt at stealing a reproduction was that of collecting some data for later reference in case you were a dealer or maybe a reporter. Many if not all the galleries seem more than happy to supply the visitors with free cards and samples, and/or have a good internet site that can be referred to, so why bother at all, I wonder. Either in an attempt to capture some of the atmosphere, which was regrettably very much like that of any other trade show held at the Carousel I suspect, or simply a photographic reflex of the inquisitive compulsive “snapper” I do not know. Some boys were clumsily manning a battered Sinar 4x5 inch camera along the alleys. It looked like a camera owned by a school, judging from the many signs of wear many of which could only be explained by poor and careless handling and being it too damaged for a rental company to give out. Possibly these guys were trying to document the show in a fashion, still I felt that four men to a camera is somewhat exuberant even in an age of emerging photographer’s duos (another puzzling phenomenon, how do they do it exactly? Do they have twin lenses and finders on their cameras? Dual shutter releases that only go off if pushed at exactly the same time to ensure mutual creation?). These guys seemed to get in each other’s way most of the time, with one doing most of the work and at least one in useless tow behind. Bless them anyway for their pains, god knows what will have turned out in that light. As for myself, although my manly chest was embellished by the presence of a gently dangling vintage Leica, I didn’t once raise it to the eye but left it idle as I walked around waiting for some spark that didn’t come. So I switched to another channel of thought and tried to consider the whole thing on a more rational level, trying at least to collect useful information to share with you about the market and the trends, if any could be detected, and the quotations. Compared to some galleries in my home town of Amsterdam I found most prices reasonable, with many things on offer for less than 10.000 euros, a few gems for less that a 1.000 even, and anything more expensive than that almost invariably the work of very well recognised and well known masters. Pity that these images were also very well known, published in every book and already seen in magazines many times, which makes them if not in the least less charming, certainly quite predictable as a collector’s choice. These images, I suspect, would appeal to the kind of buyer who is looking for a safe investment, as having being well known for decades if not longer must be a guarantee that their value will increase in time. Specialized dealers come from America, where they can be visited by appointment only, and for once allow those of us who cannot afford a price tag of more than 100.000 Euros a peak in their lofty world and their lovely prints if not a friendly chatting up. Do serious buyers at this level really join me and other populace on the floor of PP? I must assume they do, as why else would this gallery be here in the first place? And lucky it is for us, being thus given the chance to look at an original Steichen hanging an inch from our nose. Very egalitarian and libertarian if not fraternal, must be the influence of the Paris air. This kind of work is not only very expensive but, as museums and great collector’s contend them on the expanding world market, also becoming very rare. For the rest of us, who do not want to be left out of the action but can’t get in at that level, the largest majority of the galleries on show is devoted and directed to, from many parts of the world. Even one from Peking and another from Korea, welcome if probably still struggling newcomers, make their pitch. Many styles, many authors, many techniques and formats. I was glad to see smaller prints on offer, as I have always felt that the tendency towards large prints and the almost compulsory blowing up of images for commercial reasons is detrimental to the charme of many images and also revealing of a basic misunderstanding: the concept that size equals value in photography.
A special niche in this respect has to be reserved to the huge 20x24 inch Polaroid camera which I found in a small portrait set. Having had the honour of using one in 1995 I was moved to see it up and running, even though the good Jan Hnizdo who operated it at the time wasn’t around for me to greet now – maybe this wasn’t his camera - and the images next to it were very conventional studio portraits, making the size of the instant prints really the only special thing about them. COME ON, WE CAN DO BETTER WITH IT!
Much sepia, both old and modern. Huge super glossy colour prints are still the thing for some, and also the new digital prints made from last century’s material, like William Klein’s red painted contacts and Bert Stern’s Marilyn to name two. Most galleries seem to spread their chances of winning the punters by going for different things at the same time, such as large impudent black an white nudes by Friedlander next to more conservative quiet landscapes in colour of a Japanese author, the gallery being based in Tokyo. Many modern authors were on show with work that I had seen before, it seems to me a market wishing to please everyone and very unsure of its taste. Some experiments in display techniques included a large still life transparency on a light box – not a success as it tends to look like a fast food place window regardless of it being a quite artistic shot – and tiny video screens built into thick frames to create the illusion of a moving photograph – a brave attempt at change if not much more than a gimmick based more on the thickness of the frame than the depth of the underlying thoughts. The frontal nudity taboo being shattered, the genital is following in close pursuit as some huge prints were on display including a sort of diptych man/woman. Although probably safe from legal action, I still doubt that most large corporate clients other than porn erotic empires would judge this material suitable for public exhibition in their buildings. Maybe some wealthy collector would consider it for the private wing of his/her mansion. From a creative point of view I think that looking for sensation in this direction reveals, if anything, the impotence of the photographer, possibly in ironic contrast to the evident potential sexual prowess of the models. I leave it ultimately to you whether to find this work titillating, annoying or simply boring.
Officially the northern countries of Europe were to be given special attention this year, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. One example of huge barren landscapes in Iceland or somewhere in Greenland, looked very much like work that one would maybe too literally expect from a northern country, but were combined with images of garbage in what must have been meant as an environmental statement. Although very sympathetic to the preservation of nature, unfortunately I didn’t feel that this work was good enough to further the message with the modern public. It looked dated, predictable and bland. In general I am suspicious of the sudden appearance of the so called schools, whose definition seems more instrumental to the wish to apply labels by dealers and critics rather than describe an actual cultural interaction of photographers. Living as we do in a global flow of information and images, one’s background seems potentially much larger than our country of origin might have entailed in the past. A Nordic photographic profile didn’t show any deeper than self evident subject matter (lots of snow), or maybe I just missed it.
Scanning the sequel of images with increasingly tired eyes, I was struck time and again by the tendency of photographs to resemble one another in styles and mainstream genres, regardless of each author claim at originality. I stumbled en passant on a nice Joel Meyerowitz image of a girl standing on a beach in her bathing suit, facing the camera in youthful anticipation and reminiscent of yet another precursor of the trendy Dijkstra (oddly didn’t see any of her work here) – I mean of course the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli’s Venus, who beat them, and all the others before them to the theme by some 500 years. It must be said that it is difficult if not impossible not to remind something else whatever one does, and therefore impossible if not arduous either to prove plagiarism or to rightfully be entitled to the role of original creator and that of disowned author with credibility. In order to draw a conclusion to this visit I must rewind the tape of this chronicle to a few minutes before I was to join one of the queues winding like a spiral web around the octagonal centre of the ticket counters. As it happened I walked into a huge multimedia mega store and indulged my years long obsession by buying a brick of a book: a huge and heavy comprehensive Atget’s Paris edition. Burdened by its weight during the rest of the day, but also recently awakened to its sensitivity and meaning by a few lines I had found the evening before, reading the slightly silly (possibly in an attempt at being funny) but frequently punctuated with poignant good points and not often enough highlighted truths “Photography, a crash course” by Dave Yorath which I quote: “ he (Atget) was an obsessive, who cared nothing for self aggrandisement (this is hardly typical of your average photographer)”. Indeed self aggrandisement seems to me not only to be caused by the photographer’s ego but also by the needs and laws of a market that wants to expand, this will being even symbolized – if probably unintentionally – by the presence of a huge inflated balloon right on top of the ticket counters in the hall, carrying the logo of PP all around it. This is not meant as a sour criticism, neither of David’s good effort that calls for more serious essays by his hand, nor of the promotional needs of the market and or of the excellent design surrounding Paris Photo. As a freelance photographer (read unemployed, in David’s witty vocabulary) I am only too aware of the importance of self promotion. But I do want us to bear in mind that commerce and artistic creation must be mostly separate and distinct things, or else all art will end up looking like advertising, and this seems already to be the case, I am sorry to say, for many things in the galleries. It would be a lot more interesting if advertising came to look more like art, but even this is quite difficult and to be honest usually means a loss of money for the client. Maybe less attention to the author and more to photography would be a good thing, and in this respect I would like to mention one gallery: the charmingly named “Lumière des roses” of Montreuil. They specialize in anonymous or simply amateur unknown photographers of the 19th and 20th century, and have put up a very nice show that was pure joy and fun to see. Authentic, almost childish at times but always fascinating and leading to a rediscovery of this art, this craft, this hobby, this pleasure of photography. Sometimes the conscious creations of a photographer, sometimes a lucky accident, but always a phenomenon capable of recording the marvel of life itself if left to operate its magic unaffected by pretences and personal ambition.
Many photographs are good but not all good photographs are meant to be hung on a wall. Some look better in books and magazines, as was proven by many publishers present at the show in their own section. Too many books and magazines to discuss in detail now, they seem to feed and keep awake an insatiable market for good imagery, which is a good thing in a world where we have to compete with cheap and bad images spread around in huge amounts on the internet, for instance.
By this time we had completed the circle and were nearing the sleek looking silver grey BMW coupé close to the exit. We were ready to drive the beautiful machine of one of the trusted sponsors of PP right out of the underground location and on to some French country road in the sun, off to lunch regardless of what if any is its connection to the world of photography. This probably is more or less what happened to the lucky winner of some competition the rules of which I didn’t bother to examine closely (I never win anything anyhow, especially since I have accepted this fact and stopped trying). As to us, we just walked to the metro.

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Jan Saudek.

Nothing light about one of the latest Taschen volumes, a huge retrospective on Jan Saudek’s work that has appeared on the shelf of my local book megastore. So I dove into the depth and length of it, trying to make sense of this author in the midst of Christmas shoppers and Saturday afternoon rush. Shameless and absorbed, isolated from the noise and impervious to distraction, oblivious of anything but the photographs. Nothing, not even the preface or any caption, was to distract me from the images, and these alone were to tell me whatever was worth knowing about Jan Saudek, at least to me. Occasionally I would glimpse at the date, in order to put the images into some kind of historical contest. Not just his personal life, of which I know very little, but the European political situation in which he happened to live and work.
The story begins with black and white photographs of Jan and his brother, and their lives as young east Europeans, stuck on the “wrong” side of the iron curtain, pathetically trying somehow to partake in the American dream, being conscripts, students, workers, but most of all young. Young Jan has talent, this much is evident, and doesn’t seem much impaired by the lack of fancy western equipment or money. The fascination of these images lives in the universal aspiration to happiness that transpires from them, regardless or in a way made stronger by the society in which they live, restrictive and authoritarian. They are young, good looking muscular men, and display an appetite for freedom, a lust for life and love, an interest in the open air, nudity and sex. Nudes appear almost immediately in his work, not so much in an aesthetic classical way but transgressive, liberatory, uninhibited, symbolical. From the innocence of children nude in a landscape to grown up men and women, sometimes against the unlikely backdrop of industrial socialist developments. A contradiction quickly appears, the paradox of a man built like a working class hero but with a tormented ill adjusted soul that doesn’t seem to bear the communist regime very well. They seem happy enough, Jan and his young family, riding motorcycles in the summer, playing in the sun. And yet inexorably this man would drift from his sunny beginnings into a mouldy cellar, a room with a window overlooking a blind wall, a striped curtain on top and no other view but his inner vision. In this humble studio setting he was to develop the style that he is mostly known for: the strange combination of 19th century photography techniques, sepia hand coloured prints, and the weird characters that inhabit this dreamlike space. His models range from young to old, male and female, beautiful or grotesquely horrible, often naked, and are engaged in mostly anguished unsettling scenes, sometimes frivolous, rarely romantic, increasingly obscene explicit sex and violent as time goes by. His vision seems to spiral down into a Dantesque hell, chasing his demons all the way down to the darkest pit of his subconscious.
If Saudek’s trigger is indeed to be found in the oppressive communist regime, why is it so that international recognition and the very crumbling of the iron curtain and dismissal of his alleged oppressors haven’t brought about an opening in his cellar? Not at all, the most recent work is bleaker than ever. Nor is our western thirst for his imagery in the least quenched by the fall of his detractors: the communists.
As the legend would have it, Jan was a suppressed dissident. Forced to work in a cellar and in secret by the socialist police, he was hence to produce symbols of his legitimate aspiration to freedom and denouncing the injustice of the political system through his disconcerting – but possibly titillating to a western public – images. While one of the first images that filtered through to the west was an enchanting view of Prague, with a small naked girl walking innocently among white geese in the foreground, back to the camera, it was quickly to be followed by his other more “adult” cellar work. I am not questioning Saudek’s honesty (a true and conclusive exploration of his motives would require a longer inquiry) but have doubts about our integrity as Westerners when confronted with this work, and other east European expressions of the period. Just think for a moment of the way in which Milan Kundera’s “The unbearable Lightness of being” was filmed to realize that to us, well fed and spoiled Westerners, Eastern Europe was mainly a décor for self complacent commiseration and possibly stimulating erotic adventures. Made strong by the dollar, many crossed the border and were catered for sexually, proving undeniably that if real socialism was a system cruel enough to drive people to prostitution, capitalists didn’t prove to be morally superior by refraining from taking squalidly advantage of the situation. In truth both were victims of their respective systems, fellow human beings unable to break the bounds of their times and cultures, prey of oppression and neurosis, ultimately not free.
This is why Jan Saudek’s descent didn’t stop but was possibly made worse by the realization that whatever his expectations and dreams as a young man, just crossing a political border or gain international recognition as an artist or even the total fall of a political system wasn’t going to deliver him from his inner nightmares. This seems to me the story told by his oeuvre down to his gruesome latest work: helpless desperation, boundless expression of anguish at recognising that not dictators but our own human nature will drive some of us unavoidably to madness. Jan is free at last, one would think, and can do whatever he likes. Still he can’t escape himself, has no choice really but to continue on his course, maybe even committed to it by the pressure of our unsavoury voyeuristic appetites. Nothing, not even the probable success of this latest hardback by Taschen, will deliver him from that hell. A strange proposition for your Christmas coffee table, wouldn’t you say?

Something(s) about Annie

Leibovitz is the greatest living photographer of the world. Not only does she photograph the great and the famous, but does so in such a way that the result is almost invariably a great icon, if not often so original as to transcend the effect of recognition that we feel towards the effigies of celebrities and replace it with admiration and awe at her own talent and at the power of photography in general. The great get greater or at times even unrecognizable and unexpectedly intriguing through her lens and anyone else she photographs instantly seems to turn into a celebrity, by power of her sheer vision and craft alone, at least off the page. And all this she has been doing for longer than we can remember, leaving a trail of images in our memory and great books on our shelves and tables. Quintessentially American, capable of sophistication and the subtlety that I tend to associate to European photographers as well, she is by now so famous herself as to rival her subjects in that respect. Even Madame Tussaud’s, the ultimate and slightly macabre universal hall of fame, has added her to the collection of frozen waxy look a likes . I bought my first great Annie Leibovitz book long before I could afford a shelf deep enough to hold it well. It stuck out, and in a way still does among many others by other authors.
The appearance of her new book is what prompts me to comment on her daunting work and career, that wouldn’t otherwise need further attention than that already lavished on her by so many. It’s an overview on ten-fifteen years of her work, that includes many great images that we already know and many from the realm of her personal life that we didn’t. Annie Leibovitz argues that as there is no separation in her life between personal and on assignment, so it is only natural to include many personal and indeed intimate records of her life into this collection, consequently sharing them with the greater audience. She is not the first one to claim this continuity, Helmut Newton has always said that there was no distinction to him between personal and other work. In his case style and subject matter and sensibility definitely supported the statement, although I suspect that this was obtained by giving us an image of himself as a person somewhat falsified, the same as his models were probably not all the sadomasochistic kittens that he made of them for the enjoyment of his aficionados. Newton made everybody take part in his slightly sadistic black and white sexy universe, everything eventually to be bound very “sumo” and set on a custom design table for the wealthy. When Leibovitz is concerned I don’t feel as much at ease with the idea. She is naturally versatile, equally at ease in beautiful colour as in moody black and white, and plays all the registers of photography, from sharp to blurry, crisp to misty, formal to playful, at will and masterly to produce whatever the situation calls for. A Leibovitz masterpiece may be less easily recognisable as her own than many others, and in this she has in my opinion earned even a greater deal of respect. To me being allowed to look at her personal grainy black and white family album felt awkward. I didn’t need to intrude in her family to know what she stands for, she made this perfectly clear even in her most glossy work. Neither have I ever felt a need to know what she looked like naked when she was pregnant, or her partner the much admired essayist Susan Sontag for that matter. She has not stepped in front of the camera as part of a concept, like Cindy Sherman, but has decided to share these images with her public in a moment when American photography, the arty stuff, is showing an interest for personal records. Is this in a way possibly an evolution of conceptual art like that of Tracy Emin or Sophie Calle, and other younger authors the confront us with as much autobiography as possible in an attempt at drama an human empathy? I can’t believe that Leibovitz needs this expedient in any way, she is perfectly able to tackle her work and life on other levels and deliver all and more drama than we expect. Did she feel her work too commercial and distant from herself after all? Or is this a late conversion to a new creed? She certainly can afford and is allowed to take any artistic risk that she likes at her point in life and publish whatever she feels like in large format and between hard covers sure to find an audience. Only it was surprising to me to come across some double spread pages that didn’t work, other that were simply not any more meaningful than any other photographers (yes, they are always better than average snapshots) personal records. Most keep them to themselves. She, being a celebrity, can chose to share them if she likes. The only thing to do is take them and her foreword at face value, believe what she tells us and decide for ourselves what to make of them. I have spent a good deal of time going through the pages in my local book superstore and decided at last to let this one lay.

Meeting Mr. David Chan in Kowloon

Kowloon, in China, is a peninsula facing Hong Kong Island. Connected by subway and constant charming ferryboats, it is lively and somewhat less stiff than the other side of the harbour. Nathan Road runs its length, like a backbone, an artery of traffic and commerce, life, pleasure and toil in the countless shops and businesses that are based here, in buildings that look like and in fact are gigantic beehives of activity. Luxury well lit colourful shops at street level and sometimes below, more inside alleyways and upstairs. These rely on an army of sales people who work on the pavement dishing out a continuous stream of advertising folders or aggressively try to lure the public into buying something. Typically they are of Indian origin and operate for either a tailor or a jeweller selling replica watches. They do not take no for an answer the first time, nor the second, so that their resilience would become a nuisance, were it not for the fact that so many other pleasant distractions keep the visitor amused and bewildered. Classier establishments rely on their formally dressed clerks to stay on the doorway and courteously invite everyone in. Seeking temporary refuge from this constant flow of impressions and emotions we ventured slightly off the main road, and happened to notice by chance the sign of a camera shop in one sideway gallery. The window was well stocked with many desirable objects, fairly priced, and especially many beautiful and even some quite rare classic cameras. This would in itself have been noteworthy, but, as we were quickly to find out, a few other shops lined the alley, all with comparable or even more impressive displays of photographica. I found it hardly believable to have come across so many cameras in one location as unlikely as this, many of which I had only previously seen in old magazines, or vintage catalogues. To me it seemed nothing short of a collector’s paradise, a photographer’s Eldorado at least for those most nostalgically inclined, in which the pleasure of seeing one item was diminished by quickly finding another, and then yet another in overwhelming succession. Only a few days earlier I had had my first Hong Kong surprise when at a small Kodak Express minilab shop, in a quite shabby street, the owner proved to know exactly which pre war Leica I was carrying, and then as we chatted casually produced from under the counter a perfectly preserved Zeiss Hologon wide angle camera. This latest find prompted me irresistibly to find out about this unexpected phenomenon, to know how and why this concentration of special photographica came into being, why here, and what makes it a good business proposition for a shop keeper. So I walked into the largest of the shops, that of David Chan & CO, and was subsequently kindly given an appointment to meet the owner, Mr. Chan himself. Later on the same day, as we chatted amiably, he lead me to see even more treasures that are kept inside a safe in another shop opposite the main entrance of his place. Mr. Chan’s charm and courtesy are undeniable and I must be excused for a measure of positive bias in retelling his story as well as I can and without even the slightest attempt at challenging his opinions and beliefs on photographic matters. I know quite a few of them to be controversial and could trigger passionate debates among experts, especially the advocates of modern lenses and Japanese products, but this is his version. Personally I love old cameras and lenses and so didn’t find it hard to be convinced by his arguments as I was being congenially fed a delicious lunch in his favourite Chinese sea food restaurant. Seriously, I know that all readers will have the independence of thought to make up their own minds, but this testimonial seems to me too interesting not to be told and comes from someone who has earned the right to be listened to in the time span of 45 years in the photography business. I am tempted to believe him and try out his ideas, if not downright convinced by his words alone. After all, Mr Chan doesn’t need me to believe him, in fact he is not even eager to sell his beloved possessions!
David Chan moved to the city of Honk Kong from Canton in 1962. A young man of 18 at the time, driven by ambition and the extreme poverty of his native town at the time, he applied to every job he would hear about as he had, in his own words, nothing to do. Either with a tailor or apprentice to a jeweller, or any other thing that would come his way. As it happened a photography shop was his first workplace, a junior clerk selling cameras to the tourists in the Kowloon area, not far from his present place. Under British administration Honk Kong was economically thriving. Not without a hint of nostalgia Mr. Chan remembers those times as very good for business, and clever the colonial administration for allowing entrepreneurs to run their companies very much undisturbed. Eager to advance himself, young David worked in the shop from nine in the morning to nine at night, and would then go to English evening classes, from nine thirty to eleven thirty. In ten years time his hard work paid off and he was able to start his own company, a camera shop. Beginning in 1972 and still largely unaware of the value of cameras on the foreign markets, he was buying and selling to generate turn over, and make a profit as best he could, probably missing out on the full potential of a few deals. Eventually it was through the cooperation and friendship with an older gentleman from Japan, Mr Lakajima of Shukiya camera company in Kenzo, an international second hand camera dealer who took him under his wing and showed him the ropes, that his fortunes started to change for the better. Those were the days when American tourists would bring German cameras to Hong Kong and sell them. Other visitors would buy Japanese products. Mr. Lakajima would bring Japanese cameras to Hong Kong, and brought German cameras back to Kenzo. Historically, according to David Chan, the Japanese had studied the German specimen carefully and had reached a few basic conclusions: they were too expensive to make and too difficult to use for the general public. A 1972 Zeiss Ikon Contarex with the 1.4 lens would sell in Hong Kong for 7.000 dollars, when a Volkswagen beetle car could be bought for 8000 and a small apartment for as little as 20.000(!). So they started their own industry on cheaper and innovative products that would prove more user friendly if slightly wanting in mechanical and optical quality. Problem is, Asian people and Mr Chan himself do not like compromises and love German optics and mechanics, and German cars and Swiss watches. They feel that their quality is unsurpassed by Japanese products, even today. The key reason for the existence of shops like these, is this taste for high quality European mechanics and optics. They enjoy the lenses that are especially designed for a specific purpose, such as portrait lenses, or apochromatic, macro or commercial types. Furthermore they are convinced that the best times for optics were the fifties and sixties, and are now over, which accounts for their fascination with vintage lenses and cameras. Here they are, in nice impressive rows, the Leicas, the Rolleis, the Linhofs, the Hasselblads and the Zeiss Ikons and the old Voigtlanders –not the new Japanese ones that are looked upon as a way of cheating the client by selling a modern inferior product in the old coat of arms. And many lenses, including good American products like the better Kodaks and the very good Ektar commercial lenses, Schneiders, Rodenstock, legendary Dagors, and on and on. There are also many Japanese cameras, and East German or Russian or Chinese but just for business, not for passion or real interest. This personal attachment drove Mr. Chan in the course of the last twenty years to put a number of interesting cameras and lenses to the side, and to collect without the intention of selling.
These were chosen partly for their quality and rarity but also for some original feature or design that would set them apart. A total estimate of how many cameras are actually held in the collection is not given, nothing is written but a record is kept only in David’s memory. He admits to having tens of thousands cameras stored, partly in the shop and more on another location(?). Much of the display in his downtown shop is actually not for sale, and the better pieces are kept in a safe for fear of his employees selling the items by mistake in his absence. These pieces were lovingly acquired abroad, many in the United States when he travelled camera hunting with his Japanese mentor in the seventies en early eighties. In those days Americans didn’t seem to care much for used classic cameras and sold them cheap. Now they have changed their minds, possibly too late. He expects the value of collectable cameras to increase even more in the future, their present prices being still low in comparison with their future potential, which means that they can be a good investment. Still the whole point to him is not to make so much to make money any more, actually the bulk of his cameras is destined to be donated to the Hong Kong museum, since none of Mr, Chan’s children has an interest in taking over the business. Although he would be willing to sell a piece if double, he doesn’t encourage foreign collectors, ‘heavy guns’ from Japan for instance, to visit his shop for fear that they might pressure him to sell something very rare. He doesn’t advertise, isn’t interested in the internet. I ask him about the future of photography, and he concedes that the digital technology is obviously going to take over from film. Will he change his shop accordingly? NO. Does he like digital cameras? Well, he feels that they are just tools, things to be used and be thrown away when one is finished with them. The design is not as nice as the old cameras, they are not objects to be cherished like a Hasselblad 500 C that he lovingly holds close to my hear while he operates the film holder crank, for me to appreciate its fine working. But there is another dimension to classic lenses than collecting, he points out. Thanks to a wide range of adapters his old super optics from the past can be used on the latest digital SLRs, to great advantage according to him and as advertised in a beautifully printed Japanese catalogue of Gakken Camera Mook Co. Also for analogic cameras there are many adapters for sale, in many combinations that can be even strange and surprising. For instance one to fit an old 80 mm Kodak Ektar originally designed for the first Hasselblad to a Nikon body. Obviously something like this goes at the cost of any TTL coupling of the light meter or automatic pre set f stop. In practice it would sound like a hard bargain, but optically an improvement in his opinion. At last I can’t resist buying an adapter for Hasselblad lenses on Nikon bodies, with the intention of trying out his theory in practice with my Planar on the Finepix S3 Pro at the first opportunity. Could he be right after all, despite all the praise that I have read about new digitars and bad old lenses to be changed or else? As we part, the best of friends from the opposite sides of the world, I am glad to have met somebody who has dedicated his life to his passion and will eventually share it freely with all the future visitors of the museum that will house his collection. Until that day, shop 15, Champagne Court, is the place to be for a glimpse of his achievement. Quite a few other shops have clustered around his place, run by former employees and allegedly all in good harmony with one another with slight differences in prices. They have promising inviting names like: ALL BEST CAMERA WATCH CO, or ALL GOOD FRIENDS CAMERA CO. or even better, ONESTO PHOTO CO. In general in these shops the prices for cameras and lenses of the top makers seem reasonable compared to the Netherlands, sometimes even cheap, but then inexplicably some lesser types could prove relatively expensive, especially some accessories. A set of extension rings for Exakta seem to me quite steep at 1500 HK dollars when you could find it at maybe 15 euros on a lucky but not too improbable day in Amsterdam. It must have something to do with different priorities and interests from the part of the respective collecting communities. So beware and tread carefully to find your best buy, not everything is that convenient and almost all the large format cameras look heavily used with overpriced lenses. Again some local preference and due to rarity in Asia, I guess. But Leicas are not expensive and I was tempted…Still I confined myself strictly to an orgy of window shopping.
There is also a camera repair centre in case you wanted to have your recently purchased camera checked, and a Kodak Expres Minilab called SUN PRINT PHOTO LAB to have your test negatives processed in 15 minutes or printed in one hour. Why not wait in the small typical Chinese snack bar? It’s all in the same narrow passageway, downtown Kowloon, China.
For those who do not want to make the trip, you may enquire by e mail on specific items that you are looking as Mr. Chan will quote and might be persuaded to sell, if they are not unique.