Sunday, November 18, 2007


Admittedly whenever I enter Belgium I am mostly on the way to somewhere else, usually France. Even so I have always been fascinated by the way things change as soon as you cross the border between Holland and Flanders. Not really noticeable or defined by anything as dramatic as a large river or an impressive mountain ridge, still unmistakably a crossing from one culture to another.

Endlessly fascinated by the view from the train, mostly of things going rusty, rotting, decaying or falling apart in any possible way, but ever so charmingly, I never could find a word to describe exactly what this Belgian quality is, that sets it apart from the rest of northern Europe. Then at last, a few weeks ago, just as I was coming back from one of my short highly enjoyable Parisian stints, it hit me: “ Belgium is Vanfleterenesque”. I am of course referring to the Flemish photographer Stephan Vanfleteren and his recently released major opus book succinctly entitled “B”.

Stephan – I am using his first name, having met him a few years back in a Amsterdam café’, although this would be too thin a connection for me to actually call him by his first name to his face now that he has deservedly become a celebrity – has done something quite exceptional and very good: he has developed an original black and white photographic signature of his own, a style, and created a unique body of work that touchingly portraits the moving poetry of his country and his people, mostly seen from the angle of the poor, the old and the sick.

Never for a moment are we left to feel other than sympathy and respect for his subjects, those up to now mainly unsung heroes of a tough life and hard times, and the streets and landscapes that make up their world. Vanfleteren’s subjects are met mostly in café’s and approached with endless patience. Not by a prying intrusive paparazzo but a fellow human being, an empathic poet, a deeply sensitive person. All these qualities obviously are felt by his subjects and repaid with the trust and acceptance needed for his extremely close up way of working.

The old Rollei 66 SE is at the heart of his medium format approach. Eclectic choice this is, in many ways, but one that allows Stephan a few of his personal stylistic traits. Not only does he shoot from bellybutton height, holding the camera against his stomach to “work with my gut feeling” as he himself puts it - exploiting the low angle - but also not having a camera in front of his face at the time of shooting makes it easier to stay in touch with the subject while working. Furthermore, the 66 is the only 6x6 handheld reflex camera that allows tilting the lens upwards or downwards on his built in bellows, allowing either extended depth of field (Scheimpflug) or restricted selective focus. Quite a few of his beautiful square photographs rely on this creamy softness around the main point of interest. When in 35mm he tends to be the faster, quick snapping photographer one would expect from a photojournalist. Stephan is equally proficient in both styles.

So why is his work full of sentiment and never soppy? How does he get away with so much drama without seeming concocted? Why is he successful where others are merely boring, how does he see beauty where others see only squalor? I guess there is only one answer to this: Stephan is an artist of the camera.

Paradoxically, the fact that his book and his exhibition are met with so much acclaim and success by his fellow countrymen seems to me, regardless of how sad his images of Belgium can be, a very hopeful sign for his presently troubled country and a credit to its people.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Status Anxiety: the Camera as Symbol.

Expensive cameras have a few down sides to them. Usually they are heavy on the neck, as they hang from their increasingly flashy and needlessly fancy colourful straps. But they also call for unwanted attention, either from thieves or from museum guards and potential subjects. Camera awareness as such is a bad thing (this is in general true, from any way you look at it, either the photographer's angle or anyone else's) and gets in the way of the making of good photographs. I imagine that the newest models, that will pack a staggering 10 megapixel sensor in a small unobtrusive body, may find a niche in the market for serious travel and candid shooters. Carrying a tripod is also asking for trouble, they are forbidden inside most buildings, where they could be useful, and are obviously a burden on the long walks in the sun, when they are mostly useless.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Travelling light in the Digital Age (I wish...)

Let me get slightly personal for once, by showing you the inside of my photo bag as I set out for Italy on my summer holiday. Having decided to go digital, in order to shoot more of a series of infrared landscapes, I had to rethink my travelling gear. Typically I would take a SWC Hasselblad with two 120 film holders and a Leica M4 or a Leica III, either one with three lenses (35-50-90) on holiday. This would also entail carrying enough films for both formats, color and black and white.

This time I am leaving with a Fujifilm S3 and one wide angle zoom lens, 10-20mm.
I should have thought this to be fairly equivalent to the SWC in terms of weight and volume and that I would have enough spare room for the usual Leica kit to fit in. But digital cameras need batteries, ideally rechargeable, and these need a charger. Now why are most chargers and power supplies much larger and heavier than the items they feed?

Then you have the memory cards issue. Either you carry enough flash cards to last you the entire trip, or you bring some device to empty them and store the images. Not wanting to bring a lap top computer, I settled for a primitive Photo Bank box, that should cover the problem albeit with no preview capability. This of course also needs power, ie its own dedicated power cable.

Slowly but surely I began to realize that going digital didn’t mean travelling light. Once caught by the gadgetry bug I felt it a good idea to complement the expedition with a car navigation system (do I need to mention that this also needs a cumbersome power cable?) and of course the feeder for the mobile phone.

To make matters even worse, I need a reasonably good tripod this time (infrared requires long exposures) and I am partial to a Manfrotto geared head that adds considerably to the weight.
The rucksack has ended up feeling as if it had been filled with stones.

So the Leica won’t come along this time, and I will have to make do with a Minox 35 as film back up for black and white and an Olympus XA for colour negs. They both take about the same amont of space as a packet of cigarettes, and luckily I haven’t been needing them for many years now. As for the back up films, I guess I will have to sprinkle them among my underwear in the family suitcase and fish what I need for the day out of it, each morning.

If this doesn’t sound like holidays to you, I must admit that you are absolutely right. In fact, more than having taken some leave from work, it would appear that I have taken leave from my senses, driven mad by modern technology and the compulsion always to take photographs.

Let this be a warning, my friends.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

This film is an unlikely but extremely well made tale of redemption by music. Set in the German Democratic Republic at the beginning of the eighties, still in full pre perestroika era, it gives a convincing account of life in a small police state, where at least three hundred thousand were employed to spy on each citizen and indeed each other. A chilling convincing insight in the secret police methods of interrogation, of the corruption of the ruling classes, and the difficult balancing act of being an idealist and an artist subject to pressure and exposed to the detrimental action of compromise.

It is a deeply moral story. The corruption of the system is still a background against which the characters need to define themselves clearly and are forced to stand out, either good or bad. These people had to make choices, and face the consequences. Those who couldn’t take it were either trying to defect or ended up drinking or committing suicide. Now that the cold war is over, and the iron curtain has crumbled, it is important not to forget that it has been in many ways a shallow victory. Neither due to ideals strength nor moral superiority, but rather a continuous attrition that brought the eastern economies to collapse, starting from the Soviet’s Union inability to keep financing the arms race. We still could have made something of the situation if we had crossed the borders in friendship with some kind of West European Marshall plan to help them rebuild, but we didn’t. They were left to fend for themselves, prey to criminals and bullies, often the same people who had been leaders in the old regime and found ways to appropriate state funds and resources in the new era. Some freedom they got!

Let’s meet the characters: the policeman, the policeman’s boss, the powerful minister, the successful playwright, the talented actress, the playwrights friend, a western journalist. The plot in short: the playwright comes under investigation because the minister is out to seduce his girlfriend – the talented actress-. The policeman eagerly takes the task of prying into the life of this seemingly innocent subject (with typical police mentality, the absence of suspicion is in itself suspect), the minister forces the actress to have a sex with him, while one of the playwrights best friends hangs himself. They all come under pressure: the author decides to oppose the regime by writing an article for a western magazine, denouncing GDR’s suicide rate. The policeman has a change of heart, brought about by hearing a piano sonata through the headphones of his spying equipment, plaid by the writer, and decides to protect him. It will cost him his career. The actress chooses not to sleep with the minister any more, is arrested and forced to betray her man, and ends up committing suicide herself to escape the shame. Strong powerful stuff, a Greek tragedy in fact.

In the new order things need not get so dramatic. There is little need for secrecy in private life or indeed little to oppose. It’s a market place of casual commitments, pragmatic choices, retail deals, light entertainment, and nobody needs to get hurt. I suspect ministers can get laid so often as to get bored by it, actresses sleep around quite matter of factly and policemen are hired more often to cover up secrets than to pry them open. It’s the appearances that matter, the PR. We actually and gladly give away our civil rights to whatever agency asks for them in exchange for the illusion of safety and piece and the trimmings of a comfortable life.

So, as this good film plays some deep chords of our emotions and almost forgotten sensibilities, there is a subtle commotion that rises from the ashes at this historical reconstruction: could it be some kind of nostalgia?

Spencer in the Open Field, naked.

When pop group Queen came out with an album cover displaying a photograph of a crowd of naked women on bicycles it was quite sensational. Fifteen years later or so we were looking at the by then slightly discoloured record sleeve wondering, my boss and I, what it would take to produce a shot like that again. It was in the late eighties by then, and model rights and nudity fees were really quite a concern making the proposition commercially hardly feasible. Not to mention the inhibitions of those called upon to strip in public.

Now it’s 2007 and it seems things really have moved on a bit, since it has been possible for the American photographer Spencer Tunick to travel the world and shoot crowds of people in the nude in open settings for no other reward than a copy of the resulting photograph.
This is roughly how I could make out it works from newspaper articles:
You get the news on the internet and invite all would be photo-nudists to some location, apparently they turn up by the hundreds, and then transport them by buses into the actual secret spot where you want to take the photograph. This to try at least to limit the amount of curious bystanders and possibly parasite shooters that may want to crowd in on the happening, uninvited.
Then proceed as usual with large groups of people, directing and so on, and get the shots.

Now there are a few factors that make the production somewhat easier than in the Queen album days: first of all Spencer’s people aren’t photo models but a mixed blend of both sexes of any age and size. Good looks obviously not being a requirement he is in any way concerned about: he goes for sheer nudity and numbers plus unusual setting for effect.
Secondly the internet makes it a lot easier to recruit, spread the news around and collect volunteers from every walk of life for any project you can think of. In fact some maniac even found somebody who agreed to be brutally murdered and eaten through this medium. Whatever one gets a kick out of, I guess.

What really leaves me puzzled is why on earth should we be in the least interested in the photographs. They are not artistic, they do not mean anything, they are just slightly weird and thus amusing. It seems to me all the buzz really is more about the happening itself, the posing of so many in public, than anything else. As a news photo it has all the impact and value it will ever have. Just a curiosity, a trite PR gimmick to attract the attention of the media.
I leave it to the psychologists to explore why we keep finding nudity so intriguing - even though it has become to a large extent quite commonplace on any beach resort or health club - even in a display as totally devoid of sensuality or beauty as that of Tunick’s work. As a photographer, I am at a loss here.

While everyone on the set is in the nude, it’s Spencer Tunick himself, like the emperor in the well known tale, who stands out: talentless and naked.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Brainless in Paris

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, gives us an eye opening insight into the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst making a convincing case for changing some to the rules that made their life needlessly hard in his time. It is a concerned and journalistic autobiographic essay, but also artistic in the way it makes us feel what it must be like to fall on hard times as strongly as any book could.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs adds another dimension to our literary understanding of hard times, albeit a much lesser work in any other respect: that of being not only down and out but also half witted. I don’t mean this as an offence to Jeremy Mercer, the author. It’s just a fact so blatantly obvious that ignoring it would be an act of reading in denial. And now the good news: once acknowledged this, it makes for interesting reading, a real ‘page turner’ in fact. Jeremy’s effort is saved by his sincerity, telling the story of his time in Paris and at Shakespeare & co the way he saw it, truthfully, and even hitting on some deeper “truths” occasionally that really sound revealing if not intellectually challenging. So, Mercer is not a genius, but then: are we? Being honest will bring about the echo of recognition and ring true to our ears more than spectacular wit, for aren’t all humans by and large the same? I think so.

You might have noticed by now how I have omitted to dig into the meat of the book in any way, being extremely judgemental without supporting my opinions with facts and examples taken from its pages. I didn’t want to give any of the story away, somebody even gets killed…
Read it and you will find out how charmingly familiar the utopian blend of righteousness and self indulgence can be by yourself. You will rediscover what it feels like to be young maybe, or remember your hard times if you had any. The filth, the stench, the numbing sleeplessness. Maybe you also met your own ‘George’: the unlikely hero, an older man that pops up when you seem most to need him and deliver you from your predicament by giving you shelter and soup in exchange for listening to life lessons and showing a little deferential respect. Or more, occasionally.

After a while the volunteer bums of the upper classes like most of the guests at Shake. & co grow tired of being bohemien and reclaim their respectability and comfort by rejoining society: they get a job, move in with a rich girl or boy friend or simply go home to mum and dad. Not ground to pieces by a relentless and unjust system like the Orwellian characters, they inevitably fall back into place as it were, in the larger scheme of things, due to the gravitational forces that push us on from birth and whose dynamics are so hard to break free of.

If it is fair to judge a society on the basis of how the lower classes fare, it must be seen as some credit to France - if but a very meagre consolation to the unfortunate who have to endure it- that being homeless in Paris is reputedly better than in any other capital of the world.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Bokito and the Dutch (evil?) eye.

Bokito is a young – 11 years old – dominant silverback male gorilla. He has lead a relatively ‘normal’ zoo animal life in Rotterdam, provided with regular meals and what we perceive as an adequate complement of female companions and playground space at a distance reputed safe by experts from the general public. The very symbol of contentment, if not happiness, it would seem. As lives in captivity go, you could do worse, I guess.

Bokito has recently become instantly notorious for shattering many of our assumptions in a spectacular way. He has escaped, crossing the ‘safe’ 4 meter wide water filled ditch that was supposed to keep him inside, and caused considerable consternation and panic among the visitors, as can be imagined. While most were trying their best to get away, and some were taking shelter inside a restaurant, he brutally attacked a woman, and dragged her around beating and biting. Lucky for her, he then went for a snack and left her behind to survive this King Kong nightmare, although in very bad shape, while he made for the cafetaria. Those who were hiding inside had closed the door – a glass one – and soon found out the hard way how little this meant to a large angry gorilla with an appetite. He got in, obviously, and spent some time trashing the place, before settling down somewhat and eventually being shot to submission with an anesthetics filled dart. He has been brought back behind bars safely, and is now resuming his daily routine - reportedly: eat drink sleep mate - carefully monitored by his good caretakers in his inner lodgings. The ‘safety’ ditch will probably need a good rethink before he is allowed out in the open again, though.

After the first sensation, and widespread horror at this apparently random attack, more details started to seep through the media, and the evil animal brute is slowly starting to appear in a different and strangely fascinating light, gaining support by the hour. Turns out the worse victim of the violence had been a regular, coming to see him a few times a week for a while, and had been noted for trying to establish a contact with the gorilla. She was fascinated by him, and went about the flirting as humans do, smiling – her teeth showing - and making eye contact. Although this had come to the attention of members the zoo staff, who had duly warned her about keeping her distance, this behaviour went on to the point of driving the poor animal to distraction. He got stressed, and no human inhibition stood in the way of his healthy reaction to the stalking. He did what he was wont to do by his nature. Let’s hope his life will be spared.

This should serve as a powerful warning to the dangers of assumptions when different species, or indeed cultures, are brought in close proximity. A great deal of knowledge, caution and mutual understanding is required to make it work. Among humans we have at least the advantage of a higher intelligence on each side of the equation, and this should help although the many problems of our increasingly multicultural society would seem to challenge this idea. On one hand we must be open, in the way of wanting to find out about the others, and understand. On the other it is to be clear that this in itself positive inquisition has to be discreet. The only safe basic assumption, possibly, is that mutual respect is paramount. In principle accept that we are all equal and set out to learn about and - why not? - enjoy the differences. It will broaden our horizons.

Around the same time as this was unfolding, a large book has appeared, deemed to be the bible of Dutch photography by the publishers and titled “Dutch eyes”. Now this is in itself a dangerous start, as ‘sacred’ books run the risk of being perceived as dogmatic both by the faithful and the doubtful, and of offending deep feelings, again by the process of making assumptions – if only implicitly – that can be proven wrong.
This fatally seems to have happened. The brave effort of the experts was doomed from the start by its overambitious scope. After many years of work the result of their concerted scholarly fatigues has left out many photographers and even whole genres. In all fairness, there is so much going on that a comprehensive oeuvre wouldn’t fit in one volume or maybe not even in a room for that matter, but these omissions were easy to spot and have unleashed the anger of some and the aggression of at least one photographer. Namely Marrie Bot. She went about it the human way, true to her name – as “bot” is Dutch for “blunt”- and took a bite at the authors by writing an enraged libellous article on a national newspaper. Bottom line of her piece, and underlying emotion, is: why was I left out?

Now I feel for you Marrie, I really do. Many times I have experienced the burning pain of being left out and the sting of feeling a failure myself. It is cruel, especially since it has to be endured in silence. The question -why not me?- can’t be asked without appearing pathetic, and leads nowhere but to make one come across like a sore loser. Most selections and competitions won’t correspond or comment on their choices, the judgement of any jury typically being not subject to any form of appeal. It seems unfair and it is, but as we all want to be included, any selection wouldn’t work otherwise. I will not go into the merits of the book, I only would like to point out that being left out is painful, feels unjust and unleashes a reaction in any context. Can be depression, or violence. Would it be possible to write a sacred book that does justice to us all? I gladly leave the answer to the experts and keep up my hopes for the future.

One last word of advice to the publishers, from my humble self: promoting a book as the “bible of something” is asking for trouble. Especially in Holland, where people have been reading and questioning them since the middle ages, and not always peacefully.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Life after LIFE

By some coincidence the postman delivered at last a book I had ordered, a selection of LIFE photographers finest work edited by John Loengard, on the very day when I was to find out that LIFE magazine has at last and for good ceased publication.
Having spent many an afternoon as a boy during my summer holidays, sheltering in the shade from the midday Italian heat and going through my dad’s collection of old issues, he had been a faithful LIFE subscriber from the early fifties through to 1970, I had grown to love it. Apart from the Americana exoticism, inherent in the design of the magazine itself, the ads and the painstakingly slow deciphering of the English language and the captions, it was obviously the photographs that did it for me, as they were meant to do by the editors. Seeing some of them again, this time in a hardback book and separated from the story, brings about both the pang of recollection and a sense of loss, due to the fact that they have to live forth separated from the story and the format that they had once had. To me it is clear that a picture essay is a delicate thing, and needs its precise balance of pictures, captions and lay out to work its magic best. Still it is a pleasure to examine the photographs in their own right, and see how many stand the test of time and rightly qualify as icons.

It all works out as a powerful celebration of photography at its peak, evocative and nostalgic at times, but still stimulating and inspiring. It calls me - as a photographer - to do better, aim higher, try harder, not to give up on my youth’s dreams of excellence just yet. I really wanted to become a LIFE photographer. How about you?

It also made me think about photojournalism, and as coincidences seem to sum up in this unnatural premature summer of 2007, today I went to see the World Press Photo exhibition in Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (old cathedral). It is the most beautiful church in town, and happens to be dead in the middle of the immensely tourists infested and popular Red Light District, but it is well worth the effort of dodging the cheap squalor in order to walk on the worn out gravestones that make up its flooring, and enjoy the light filtered through the stained glass windows on the sober and yet not too intimidating gothic interior. It isn’t Cologne nor Chartres but sized down a little, more human than divine: an impression of suggestive vanitas without the chill of high heavens and humbling vertiginous spires.

It is still quite a vast interior and the organizers seem to struggle in the shrinking amount of work on show, to fill the space at their disposal and satisfy the steady stream of visitors that flock to see the well advertised event. Arguably, with the Rijksmuseum (National Gallery) at half strength due to renovations and half the city gutted open by the new Metro line works, possibly the attractions for the visitor are at a historical low point and send even more people to this venue than they would normally do. But it is nice weather, so choosing for a church interior is by no means a natural choice.
The public, we must hence assume, has come for the sensation, and this they get mainly from violence. If we are to believe this selection, almost every striking editorial image last year has been produced in a conflict zone, with a few sporting events and natural disasters on the side, apart from a few nature and dramatic animal shots. Can this be true? Or is it the consequence of the choices made by the jury? I don’t know, and would like to find out.
Certainly LIFE photographers were perfectly able to make striking photographs from every aspect of “life” including the daily and ordinary. Have we lost that ability? Have we become insensitive to the values or simply saturated by more robust imagery that has burned our visual taste buds to the point of appreciating only the hottest spices?
Apart from a few photographs the general impression is not overwhelming: too little work, not that good really. Maybe photographers aren’t sending in enough worldwide, and the organizers should ask themselves why and do something about it quick or this manifestation will not last longer or shrink to a very low level.
If there is to be a life after LIFE for fine photojournalism, and this I do want to believe especially since LIFE has lost its leading positon decades ago, it is important not to slacken the standards of the profession – or of the public for that matter-. Let’s look back with pleasure at great work of the past, summon our strength, and leap to the future. There is no reason why at least some shouldn’t do better than ever before, and I look forward to seeing that.

To end on a foot note, yet another coincidence as it happens: Yesterday evening I was present at the opening of a small exhibition, more a presentation, of a recently formed company called SKOEP – it reads like “SCOOP” to the Dutch-. The idea is that any one who happens to witness some event and shoot it or film it with a mobile phone built in camera, can market the images by sending them to the site of the company. They will eventually sell it to newspaper and TV networks and share the profit 50/50 with the maker. Whether you feel this to be a good deal or not it depends, but it sounds like yet another doomsday bell for serious photography. It all boils down to being there and then, regardless of ones eye or equipment. As digital photography already has made significantly less demanding to produce sharp or reasonably well exposed images, making it easier for "buccaneers" to elbow their way into the profession with no serious preparation, now we are to lower the image specification to the level of a telephone generated file, and that of the photographer to the ability of the average person that simply happens to be there. We can stuff every newspaper with these degenerative images, as the concept doesn’t limit itself to mere sensational events – these I could understand – but stretches to include and indeed encourage the submission of more daily stories made by the general public. I call on you not to buy any paper that indulges or encourages such work in any significant way: it’s a con and it is demeaning, not only to the profession of photojournalist but also to your taste and rights as the public.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Frida, Francisco and Michelangelo on one Easter weekend.

Having bought a DVD of the film Frida on Easter eve, lured by one of those deals one can’t resist (2 DVD for 4.99 thing) and having been given a free ticket to the new “Goya’s Ghosts” at the cinema for Sunday morning, it only took the quick reading of Andrea Camilleri’s “Il colore del sole” to bring this uneasy combination of painters to crowd into my mind in the span of a few hours.

What do Frida Kahlo, Francisco Goya and Michelangelo Caravaggio have in common? Not an awful lot. More interesting than the impossible comparison between their paintings, it is the thought of how the art of painting has been depicted in the movies, or the mind of the painter described in Camilleri’s unconventional study of Caravaggio’s tortured last months, and what it reveals about the perils of investigating an art form through the language of another, that kept me busy. It invariably falls short of the mark, I think, although it can produce an interesting result on its own merit. Fact is that although tempting, the approach of explaining paintings with the life of the painter, or with arty montage of cinematography and original painted images, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the medium and leads to great loss of content and simplistic readings of the authors. If this could seem adequate to the literal autobiographic approach of Frida Kahlo, in which the images directly reflect her own painful experience of life in the aftermath of a tragic accident that left her almost crippled, it is obvious that it cannot even begin to fathom the depths of Goya and Caravaggio. Painting is not a reproduction of reality, paint on canvas, but the result of an immensely complex intellectual effort that combines observation, thought and hand, to produce a result that simply defies any possible description in words, film or other language but its own. It can be partly described, but never fully translated.

Frida (the movie) is a soft erotic Hollywood feuilleton, proof that even a strong cast of good actors cannot make up for poor text and filming. It focuses on love and passion, nudity, and gives a superficial and historically not accurate vision of the Mexican avant-garde based on common places and trite clichés on communism and sexual promiscuity.

Goya’s Ghosts is a much better effort. Well filmed to start with, it attempts at showing how the unforgettable and dark vision of Goya’s etchings was formed, on the background of his land and times, with a sequel of powerful reconstructions. From the inquisition to the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, we follow the misfortunes of young Inez, one of Goya’s models, unjustly accused and prosecuted by a hypocritical and corrupt system, and the painter who tries to help her, somewhat naively (unbelievably so, in fact). After the “caprichos” etchings, one would imagine Goya to be a highly perceptive and caustic witness, not as easily fooled by appearances and the proclamations of innocence and good will of a devious monk, as the chief character of the film is. The story doesn’t end well, befittingly: Inez loses her mind, and hangs on to a baby she has found on the street as a surrogate to the daughter that was snatched from her at birth, and the hand of her dead torturer: quite a grotesque final image. Goya in pursuit, trying to recall his protégé but incapable, as all artists are, of changing things and condemned to the role of impotent if wonderfully eloquent witness. It is as good a time as any to remind us of the excesses of bigotry, the hypocrisy of power, the risk of fundamentalist religion, the ignorance and horror of dogmatism. This is not a costume drama, but a very present warning in disguise.

Camilleri’s effort is literary, strange, fantastic but somewhat unconvincing. Do not expect to gain any insight in Caravaggio, but to take another “trip” into the writer’s very own universe. For those who know his work, and they have to be Italian or extremely proficient in the language to appreciate his style that defies any possible translation, the book will come both as a surprise and a confirmation. He reconstructs a plausible baroque Italian, instead of his usual half Sicilian, but reconfirms some of his robust and picaresque themes: a southern obsession with bombastic libidinous descriptions with unbelievable sketches, stronger even than Boccaccio’s. The writer his also a refined intellectual, but other than suggesting the use of a dark room and a mysterious visual ailment that would explain the mistery of Caravaggio’s shadowy style- allegedly it made him see the sun as black- he does little to shed light or give meaningful insight in the great master. Furthermore he seems to suggest that Caravaggio was incapable of writing well, and makes him express simple thoughts as if the man had been a simple spirit. Given that thought isn’t necessarily composed of words, and that painting is the very expression of thoughts in images, we must come to the conclusion that the author of work like Caravaggio’s is a genius regardless of his written or oral eloquence. I cannot decide though whether this level of visual depth can be combined with shallow writing and simple observations in the same person. Even so a writer should fight the pretension of being the depositary of intelligence and thoughts, if this is only based on their ability of dealing with words alone, as if these necessarily were thought and intellect itself. Much of value is not verbal, including music and paintings, and it seems a great pretension on the part of writers and critics to value only that which can be said in words to the exclusion of things that simply cannot. Camilleri escapes my criticism, because I strongly suspect him never to have had any pretension as far as understanding or explaining Caravaggio is concerned, other than making up one of his typical stories in a new setting. And this he has done.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Blow Up (that elusive quality of the Real)

Antonioni’s film, based on Julio Cortazar, is in a way the quintessential portrait of the commonplace successful photographer, possibly accountable of having laid the foundation for the modern perception of the profession in the eyes of the public: from poor artisan to rich artist, the slightly ridiculous 19th century “look at the birdie” humble portraitist for the people turning into the present myth of the jet setter top photographer we all set out to become as we start in the profession. But having seen the film again, after many years, I am starting to think that all this is more than anything accidental, a set dressing, the backdrop to another story that the master film maker is trying to tell us. Photography can be a life style, but also a quest for reality, a phenomenological representation, the collection of proofs of authenticity and, especially in its failure to deliver – based on the false assumption of its objectivity, therefore inevitable - the perfect way to tell us that nothing is real but what we choose to believe in or can prove beyond reasonable doubt. Proofs are difficult to get by, though, and we are left in doubt more often than not.

As a movie it does have many funny elements to a modern photographer.
Imagine speaking to a model that way now? Call them Baby? Photo sex with Veruschka – or Kate, or Naomi - on the set?

The protagonist is horribly arrogant, absolutely politically incorrect, macho male chauvinist. Cynical, bored, totally obnoxious: utterly believable in fact. Based on the stories and accounts that I have happened to collect in my early years as an assistant, working for photographers that were active in that era, I am tented to believe that life was more or less like that, to a certain extent. You do lose the daily feel of the past, always in hindsight, but as a detailed sketch of a moment in the sixties it is fairly plausible. Is it David Bailey? Maybe.

This photographer is also an idealist. Regardless of his success in fashion photography and with women, his fancy car and money, he is still courting the friendship of a serious writer and working at a socially engaged photo book. Obviously hasn’t lost the sacred flame as he excitedly pursues the proof of a murder that he has inadvertently recorded with his camera while stalking a couple in a park, in an increasingly dangerous quest for reality that will lead him to finding the body of a dead man only to lose all evidence but one print with an almost indiscernible grainy abstraction on it.

Having it all and not giving a damn, then finding the spark and setting out in hot pursue of what we really care about.
Failing to do that, we might as well go through the motions of our life in mindless stupor, as a man playing tennis with an imaginary ball.

So let us redefine the very notion of top photographer in the process, shall we?

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Viva Casasola!

Having shortly lost the will to live at viewing yet another gruesome book by Jürgen Teller I stumbled upon a volume of photographs titled: “ Mexico, the Revolution and Beyond” which immediately restored me to good spirits. Intrigued by a photograph on page 3 showing a photographer in his darkroom, the as yet unknown to me Miguel “Miqui” Casasola, holding a plate in his hands, wearing a stained white apron, high heeled cow boy boots and a large revolver (!), I was drawn into the fascinating world of the Casasola archive.

This is not a nostalgic sepia collection of romantic grandmothers and fathers in their youth, but a vibrant impressive miscellany of great photojournalism, actual and fresh as the day it was taken in his authenticity and intensity. You get to meet the gaze of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa as if you met them in person, ride with their fighters in a cloud of dust, stare down the barrel of an automatic pistol held by a federal army officer, stand between the firing line and the falling bodies of the executed as they fall in the dirt. As it happened, Miqui temporarily took to the other form of “shooting” as he joined one of the revolutionary armies as a soldier. Not exactly the impartial witness with a camera, more like very concerned with the issues at stake: Land and Freedom.
But there is more, as the collection consists of some 480.000 negatives, collected in a 40 year span, beginning from the birth of photojournalism in 1900 – the moment when halftone reproduction of photographs was possible in newspaper printing – to the forties.
It is the work of more than 400 photographers, besides the founder of the Casasola Agency, Augustín Víctor Casasola, his younger brother Miguel and his son Gustavo, who contributed to the news of their times and whose negatives were then preserved to form a collective historical memory of Mexico and a huge contribution to world photography. They have done it all, and earlier or at the same time as other better known European or North American photographers. Maybe it is the editor’s choice to cause this impression, but echo’s of other masters are found all over the publication, and in no way of lesser quality than the “originals”, by the way. Brassaï Paris night life work? They had done it before. Capa’s war? Done that too. August Sander? Yes! Weegee? Sure they have! And many many more. They did not set out to produce art, they were journalists during turbulent violent years of their modern history of which we Europeans seem to know far too little.
Fortunately their work has been preserved, a great legacy for the world of photography, and is to be found in the San Francisco convent, city of Pachuca, state of Hidalgo. Having been to Mexico, even if only for a few days, I strongly believe that it might be more than worth the trip.
As I go through the pages of this fine book I think about the title of a great photograph by the famous Mexican master Manuel Alvarez Bravo and repeat to myself, smiling in delight:
Qué chiquito es el mundo!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Josef Sudek's recipe for survival.

My first reaction on reading Sudek’s biography was of dismay, as were many of the photographs in this book entitled “poet of Prague” disappointing at first sight. He came across as an opportunist, a many of many faces, astute and cunning more than the dreamy artist that some of his views would make you expect him to be. I was of course missing the point: Sudek did what it took to survive and work in difficult circumstances, and was still able to achieve great poetic results eventually. He had to be resilient and cunning to withstand the troubled history of his country and times, take care of his mother and sister, and cope with his invalidity.

Bohemian hero.

Like the unforgettable soldier Sveijk, Josef was a very reluctant recruit of the Austro Hungarian army as it went to war in 1914. He did all he could think of to avoid combat duties, pleading with the authorities on the grounds of some illness. He is by that time the only son and surviving male of his small family. One can imagine how his mother and sister might have been rather overprotective of him, he might have been a little spoiled then, as he was later taken care of by his sister throughout his whole life. But still he had to go, his lax military attitude landing him into the trenches in the worst possible position, damp and next to the latrines. Paradoxically it was this punishment that saved his life, when a bombardment happened to spare his spot and kill all his comrades. More absurdity and tragic irony as faith strikes, again a la Sveijk, when the eleventh offensive starts along the Italian front. Josef is hit by Austrian shrapnel (the so called friendly fire) as he is exhorting his fellow soldiers to take cover. Truly the anti hero, totally un rhetorical common sense in the heat of battle. No victorious march here, just a bunch of men trying to save their skin against all odds. By 1916 his war is over. He comes home wounded, leaving his right arm on the field.

Bohemian bohemien.

This would have sealed many men’s fate: destined them to the life of an invalid, a pension, maybe begging. Sudek wasn’t above all that, he applied for every possible state financial aid and claimed not to be able to make a good living or pay taxes. At the same time he was doing very well indeed as a free lance photographer, from a humble wooden shed where he had installed his studio, charging five times more than his colleagues for his prints and doing also nicely paid advertising jobs including the enjoyable odd female lingerie shoot. Hardly completely pitiable and helpless, wouldn’t you say? This was to become a pattern: like a modern bohemian Robin Hood, he would cheat on his taxes and try to milk the state any way he could while maintaining a low profile, and sponsor his poor artist friends with a generous part of his good income. If not in a strictly commercial sense by selling him things, these would repay his financial support by giving him their works of art. Sudek ended up with a considerable collection, largely amassed in the studio that was to be eventually filled to the ceiling with papers and things of all sorts.

Bohemian Raphsody.

Before settling down for good in Prague, his home and inspiration, Josef was to live another Sveijkian adventure in Italy, as he toured along with an orchestra in 1926 (music was the other great passion of his life). Apparently he disappeared for two months, unaccounted for, and reappeared in Prague as if nothing had happened. Nobody knows where he went or what he did, but I for one would love to read that story. He did go back to the old battle field, this we learn from a letter he wrote, possibly looking for a missing part of him: his lost arm or his youth? Those he didn’t find, obviously, but the farm where he was first brought to, just wounded, was still standing. He was never to travel again.
His high commercial times were ended by the annexation of Bohemia Moravia by Nazi Germany and the second World War. Bleak times for Prague. Sudek retreated into his studio and his own thoughts, working on still life and introspective views from his window. The frosted or steamy windowpanes diffusing the light reflected by his sisters laundry hanging to dry, a tree, a wall. Arguably among his best work, I think, the true unique contribution to world photography, are not the studied monumental views of St. Vitus Cathedral or other formal studies, outdoors landscapes and views, but these intimate simple details. He endured, he worked, he survived the Nazis ending up in post War Prague, under communist rule. He went on working as best he could, his images better than ever and true to his style.

Paradoxical situation again. The new regime would harshly criticize his work, albeit in the preface of the good books lovingly devoted to his photographs that where being printed with its endorsement: the equivalent of illustrating a libel against pornography with saucy pictures. It means that even Marxist official critics recognized his value, albeit in conflict with the orthodoxy of their ideology, and were prepared to compromise. Eventually, maybe malgre’ lui, Josef Sudek became an important influential figure in Czech Photography and was to attain a quite unique status in his country that kept him in a way above politics, as well as international recognition in Europe and America. He worked hard well into his seventies and died in 1976.

The photographs.

Prague panoramas are among the best. He must have found a way to tune his vision to this odd difficult format, and used an old Kodak camera he had found and repaired, to produce the most impressive series. In his own words: ‘I had to learn to look like the camera’ [don’t we all? I wonder] in order to come to terms with the cylindrical perspective of a rotating lens. This can make things to look different than to the naked eye: the important can become unimportant and the other way around. He obviously got his priorities right, the work is enchanting.

The intimate views from his window, the little still lives, the delicate moments of poetry in the interior. Not so much the studies of light and structure, that relate too much to photographic studies of the visual grammar common to most photographers of the era, but those who rely on a quiet instant of revelation: simple objects unassumingly telling their silent story.

Prague in the mist, trees silhouetted in the foreground. Not too perfect, simply right.

One photograph in his studio, of a female nude reclining on a shelf seen from behind. Untypical, a little strange. I can’t help thinking that this might be his sister, Bozena Sudkova. Not enough to have been his faithful confidant, nurse, assistant, washwoman, cook and cleaner all her life, she might have been asked to bend over naked in front of his camera as well. I hope I am wrong for her sake. Not a bad picture, though.

Favourite photo of him: next to his camera, on a rooftop, with Sonja Bullaty. Both looking up, Josef tense and focused, Sonja slightly bored, a tint sceptical. Sonja was a survivor like himself. She came back alone from the camps, her family gone, and worked for him before emigrating to America and becoming one of the advocates of his photography there, as well as a success in her own right.

So Mr. Ray Mears and followers, this is Sudek’s recipe for survival: poetry won’t pay the bills or keep you afloat like a canoe of tree bark, but it can make life worth living when times are hard.

Bohemian first impression.
(footnote, a childhood memory)

When I was about seven years old, in the late sixties, I was given a puppet of soldier Sveijk as a present by a girl from Prague. Dana Lukaskova was staying with us for a while, an exile whom my mother had instantly taken under her wing and brought home. Her shy gentle smile is a fond unforgettable memory, as well as her kindness and her quiet pride and deep love of her country. She also gave us a photo book on her home city by another master: Karel Plicka. Powerful dramatic black and white work.
This first good impression was only to be confirmed when in 1995 I had the pleasure and privilege to spend an afternoon with Jan Hnizdo and the Polaroid 20x24 inch. super camera. A good photographer and a nice man, we understood each other well. To my regret I still haven't made it to Prague, but it can't be far off now! In the meantime there is more Bohemian photography that I would like to comment on. I will keep you posted.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Street photography: years of wasted time, split seconds regained.

“Paris est un théâtre ou l’on paye sa place avec du temps perdu.”
Robert Doisneau

Doisneau was a humble man, and a great photographer. The time he spent on the streets of Paris, observing the life of his city as it went by, he would regard as wasted, were it not for the split seconds in which the shutter of his camera was left open. Those significant instants alone would matter to him. On that account he would estimate to have worked only a few minutes in the course of his lifetime. If we consider that these few minutes were all it took him to create his unique brand of urban photographic poetry, hundreds of moving and beautiful pictures that have come to be everlasting symbols of his city, his people and his culture all over the world, we can begin to grasp what a massive understatement this is on his part. He worked hard and was eventually to be recognized after long years of toil as he truly deserved.

“On ne devrait photographier que lorsque l’on se sent gonflé de générosité pour les autres”.

Typical of his work and his attitude was a keen eye, and an interest in his fellow men. He was more than sympathetic to his subjects, in a way he was one of them and regarded the opportunity to meet new people as one of the true joys of his life. In their midst, often simple people in the outskirts of the capital, he would find a sense of poetry that was to become his trademark. You will not find one image by Doisneau less than respectful and loving to his subjects, sometimes with friendly irony but never sarcastic or detrimental of their dignity. And this attitude was possibly felt by them and rewarded with trust, as can be seen by their candid poses unaffected by the camera even when, as we know, some of the shots were obviously staged. I do not mind that at all. He has made enough real snapshots, possibly missed thousands more, and developed a sense of which image would be more tale telling. Look at his work, you know immediately that you are not on the set of “Irma la Douce” (no Lemmon and McLaine in cardboard streets here) but in real life Paris. Authenticity galore. So when LIFE magazine and his agency RAPHO asked him to do kisses, as a theme of Parisian life possibly suggestive to the American public, they got among others the legendary “Baiser de l’Hôtel de Ville”. If it was staged, at least in part, then it was very skilfully done. The shot feels spontaneous, real, full of love, and we “bought” it by the millions.

“Les photographes sont devenues suspects.”

By 1992 Doisneau confessed to a friend that he felt the magic had gone. Photographers were not welcome any more, somewhere along the line the trust had been broken and he was not to collect the treasures of the street any more. He might steal a few, possibly, but that wouldn’t have been his style, would it? NO, to him the joy was gone by then. He would die two years later.

So where does this leave us?
At the beginning of the sixties a new word was coined by the famous film director Federico Fellini: Paparazzo. Originally it was the name of the photographer attached to the journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni in the film “La dolce vita”. At that time Hollywood found it cheaper to stage productions in Rome. As the American film stars spent their evenings in the fashionable Via Veneto, they would be pestered by a new breed of photo reporters, keen on feeding the sensationalist press with saucy shots that would command high fees. Fellini thought of the name “paparazzo” for their sort because in Italian it sounds vaguely like some annoying insect, always buzzing about and most irritating.
They prowled at night, often in packs as wolves on scooters, armed with their cameras and flash guns to stalk the film stars, ignite the occasional fight – often on purpose – (one of the photographers would provoke an attack and suffer a broken camera by some butch male actor so that his friends could photograph the incident and make the news). Ethics were gone for good, these guys played hard. Their bunch still has acolytes and recruits, and they are all around. Worldwide.

I guess the profession of photographer never recovered from their damaging image. It went all the way down to the death of princess Diana as the absolute lowest point. Now I want to reveal to you my theory about her death: she died in a tragic accident caused by her careless driver going too fast in a tunnel. No secret service conspiracy, no murderous paparazzi in hot pursuit.
Yet, as I happened to be taking photographs on the streets in the evening two days later, perfectly innocent architecture shots, I was to suffer verbal abuse by passers by as one of the alleged murders of their darling Princess. And this in Amsterdam! Globalization for you.

If we ever are to regain some of the lost paradise of street photography we should work from two different directions: on one side photographers need to be more respectful and ‘loving’ of their subjects, like Doisneau was, and refrain from the visually sadistic, harsh and vitriolic style that has been adopted by so many lately, in the wake of the good but to me needlessly cruel Martin Parr. Their work, crudely flashed in instants of people mercilessly frozen in mid action exactly when they look at their worst and weakest, is not likely to spread goodwill among potential future victims. Let’s face it: if you have ever been photographed like that, and seen the results, you are probably ready to wave a baseball bat at the next photographer ever to cross your path, and with good reason (!). Are these ordinary people the bad guys, to deserve such a treatment that makes them look a lot worse than they actually are? What is the point, really? To create a sensation at the expense of those who can’t help being what they are or living like they do? Are they to be deprived of their dignity in the photographs as well as so many other things in life? It is an exacerbated description of reality that is wont to awaken a cynic laugh maybe, or a sense of humiliation, but never could any good come from it other than the commercial success of the photographer. This is a predatory way of going about the business at the expense of others, based on an arrogant assumption that we are somehow superior, and have a right to do so. It may be the way things are, but it seems unethical to me, and ugly. To stress the grotesque is a responsible thing to do only when you are defacing the pretence and arrogance of the privileged and the powerful. Exposing their true weakness, undermining their authority, challenging their accurately staged self image could do some good. It is also more dangerous, since these people are more likely to protect themselves with either real or legal fences. They should be fair game for sarcasm, not the poor. Come on Mr Parr, aim higher and higher up the absurd social steps that make up the British class system! Take on the big guns! That would purge your own ethics in the process, and avenge the poor seaside dwellers and working class people to whom you owe so much of your present success. Make them laugh, for a change!

On the other end the public should be a little more patient with these “annoying insects”, people who put themselves through a tough life of cold hands and feet, and endlessly long hours, not to mention the uncertain income, driven by a genuine fascination with life, people and light. Just think that the pleasure we all feel at looking at good photographs, either news, documentary or archive, largely out weights the irritation caused by a few occasional flashguns or bad photographers.
I find it quite hypocritical of people to complain about the present situation when both the stars and the public either benefit or seem endlessly to enjoy the products of the very attitude they pretend to detest. If everyone were to stop buying the magazines, the paparazzi would very soon disappear. And so, possibly, would the stars fade a little.

I have a feeling that the quality of our photographer’s life on the streets as well as the results could change according to our attitude, and for the better. Let’s try wearing our hearts on our sleeves, be honest and direct and “shoot” along the straight and narrow, shall we?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bacon for Breakfast

No, don’t worry, I am not about to go culinary on you. Furthermore, as a continental European, I was only once in my lifetime confronted with the smell of eggs and bacon in the early morning, on a fateful day in South London. This memory goes so far back that to recall it is almost a Proustian effort on my part, and far from a happy one. Fact is that this morning, as I was enjoying a perfectly wonderful huge slice of French brioche along with my Italian coffee, I happened to be going through the pages of a monography on the painter Francis Bacon.

He is one of my favourites.
This being something of an acquired taste, like that for blue cheese, that one is not likely to develop early in life but whose revelation often happens accidentally or by instigation of some initiated acquaintance. Once tried though, the sensation is not likely to be forgotten but usually calls for more and more in a spiralling descent in the hell of addictive vice or an ascension to the heavens of a higher level of adult life. The latter in this case. He did the descending, as it happens, and we can do the enjoying of his incredible vision, distilled in restless intriguing great paintings.

It was one of the studies on Velazquez’s portrait of Innocentius X that triggered my first reaction and got me hooked. Not often have I felt so strongly about a painting at first sight. I was surprised and positively struck by the screaming prelate, in his cage of yellow lines, his white gown almost lit underneath like a rocket chair, or maybe an electric one, as his mouth stands open in an anguished scream. This was different, special, very intense. Also it was very unusual to produce a study of this originality and level while based on another great painting by another master. The two works differ a great deal, although apparently similar in subject matter and composition. Diego Velazquez painted the portrait of a Pope: a powerful inquisitive man, his eyes almost piercing through the soul of the beholder. Not a man of piety, it would seem, but a king of the temporal as much as a prince of the Church of Rome. Torquemada’s boss, as it were, cautioning us for our sins.

Bacon’s pope is rather different. He looks either possessed by a devil or imprisoned in his role by bars of paint and invisible ropes that keep him tied up to his throne. Is he ascending or falling? Screaming or shouting? Is he aggressive or frightened? Or both? Thanks to his effort we have broken into the formal space of Velazquez, bypassed his virtuosity, crossed the distance in space and time and entered into Bacon’s world: the pictorial depiction of his and our own troubled human fate.

In his own words:
"If anything ever works in my case, it works from that moment when consciously I don't know what I'm doing."

This sounds like heavy fare for breakfast, and it is. Personally I wouldn’t want a Bacon in my living room to look at every day but, when the time is ripe, there is simply nothing else quite like him.

Monday, February 5, 2007

El Guerrillero Heroico (1960)

We have all seen it, many have worn it on their t shirts, some have had it tattoed on their skin, a few embroidered in their underwear and who knows where else. It’s the icon of the liberty fighter, the legendary Che, photographed by Alberto Diaz Guttierez – Alberto Korda – in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution.

It’s the subject of an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum, a (post) colonial institution that has turned into a politically correct information centre about the third world, specifically the tropical part of it. It looks more like a huge school facility than a museum, actually, and on Sundays it is graced by the presence of many youngsters and children plus respective parents, all of them mostly misbehaving. A nice family outing it is, in case of bad weather, and combines educational values with the thought of eternal summers. So it is a huge success. Braving the noise and the crowds, I climbed three steep monumental flights of stairs with revolutionary verve and entered at last the small section that was dedicated to the famous icon, dodging all the rest. I went in looking for food for thoughts and came out with a fierce appetite, still there is much to be said in favour of stimulating instead of quenching one’s thirst for knowledge, I guess.

The display starts well, with the original frame, not cropped, exactly the way Korda took it with his Leica M2 and 90 mm lens, on that faithful day in Havana. Furthermore we are treated to the contact sheet of the very film, Kodak Plus X Pan, and the fatal frame number 40 followed by 41 shot in vertical. On the same roll many times Fidel, and also unexpectedly but not surprisingly, Sartre and de Beauvoir. But none of these have the power of the two, no, the one frame showing a young and bearded Che Guevara fiercely looking in the distance. The full frame shows more than that, there is also a palm tree in one corner and a face in profile on the other side, so still and statuary that I can’t make out whether it is made of flesh or stone. Korda cropped these potentially distracting elements out of the picture, and turned it into a portrait that was to become hugely famous.

What is it about this photograph that makes it so special?
Instead of getting entangled into a complex reconstruction of Che Guevara’s life and politics, I think we can approach this image on another level, as it is safe to assume that many of those who wear the t shirt don’t have but the faintest idea of who Ernesto Guevara de la Serna really was. So this image works on a more subliminal level and requires really little background information to be appreciated. It is exactly what the title says it is: a portrait of a heroic guerrilla fighter. We might add that it is the portrait of a young heroic guerrilla fighter, or even a young heroic guerrilla freedom fighter and we have all the elements we need to make it a success. It appeals to the ever present ambition or hope of each generation to face the future, change things, shape its destiny. The fact that most of us, and indeed of the generations, fail in this respect doesn’t deter new ones from being born and wishing for the same, firmly believing to be the first ever to have thought their thoughts and wished their wishes. Che Guevara also fits the hero expectations in another respect: true to the classic Greek tradition, a hero gives his life in pursuit of his goal. This is the ultimate test of his worth, the only possible closure of his adventure, the seal that conclusively proves his virtues. Regardless of how one feels about his politics, die he did, young at that, fighting a lost cause in the mountains of Bolivia. Still all this is factual background, doesn’t account for the image. In fact there are more photographs of him, and none have the same magnetism, some are quite boring, or show a somewhat arrogant man smoking a ridiculously enormous cigar and wearing combat fatigues in an office. Those look incongruous, and not so inspiring. It’s the fighter become minister, the same man but not shown in his essence.

So let’s look at the image itself again: taken from below, it has been said, in accordance to Soviet propaganda style. That is not true. The low point of view is by no means a prerogative of soviet style at all, but is used by any regime or system wishing to enhance the status of a personality, from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia to some glamour shots of Hollywood stars. Besides, this is a reportage shot taken by a photographer from street level, of authorities standing on some kind of stage, making speeches. What other angle would have been available to him? So this is probably not staged – call me naïve but I intend to take Alberto's word for it-. He cropped it all right, but still his shot retains something unpolished and authentic about it, not retouched. Soviet style would probably have called for a haircut, maybe even a shave at the hand of some brush artist to give it the distinctive mummy like communist hero look which has been so well translated in western homo eroticism by Gilbert and George or later in some ads for Jean Paul Gaultier. No, no. This is rough, more true to life, simple and therefore effective and believable. It has the smell of truth.

Now I want you to be brave and follow me over the top on a huge leap from Cuba to Florence. When Michelangelo gave life to his David, carving the huge marble block into the young hero, he decided to set the action at a particular moment: a revealing instant. David is a young man, at the dawn of his manhood, faced with a great danger and a serious challenge. He is not shown holding the giant’s severed head like in Donatello’s gracious bronze boy, the feat accomplished, but in the moments before the battle. His body is a classical combination of tension and relaxation, strength and calm, but his gaze is determined. It’s an image of defiance: a symbol of the young republic of Florence faced with external enemies, about to rally its citizens in defence of its newly acquired freedom. David is measuring up his enemy, confident of his own inner strength, focused on the task ahead and sure of his ultimate victory.

A great artist like Michelangelo has created something that will stand forever not only as a celebration of male beauty but also as a symbol of youth and its generous commitment to the fight for liberty. This will in practice mean very different things for different times and places and hopefully will not entail the use of violence in the future, but the intensity of the moment, the look of the eyes, is the same through the ages. The intense gaze as devised by the “divine” Michelangelo was captured by the quick Alberto Korda in a split second, maybe in instant recognition, certainly in confirmation, that the revelation of good photography and that of art must eventually come together, being, by definition, both moments of deeper truth.

I like to think that this is what we respond to in the image of “El guerrillero Heroico”: it’s an ageless symbol of the relentless effort to realize the ambitions of our youth and the legitimate will to determine our own faith defying those who want to control it or the history that has preceded us.
Hasta la Victoria, siempre!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Archetypal Teutons (?) August Sander at the FOAM

Thanks to a brave and most commendable effort by one of my local photo museums, the oddly named FOAM (light and frothy?), I was at last able to confront a good selection of vintage prints by August Sander at close range. These are part of that famous large project of his called “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts”: People Of The Twentieth Century. I have known many of these images for years, as they have been published often, and had developed a personal perception of what they meant and what they were. My opinion was based not so much on documents or a declaration of intent by the author, but on my own reaction to the images and a few bits of information. It is known that the Nazis didn’t like them, and this somehow gives one the impression that August Sander himself might have been trying to prove some point about humanity, and that this point must have been against Hitler’s ideology.
Then, on visiting the show and reading one quite factual an uninspired letter by August Sander himself, plus more comments on his work, I was confronted with another interpretation. Most of all the concept of Archetype is frequently mentioned, as being at the root of Sander’s effort. In other words: August Sander was “collecting” his fellow Germans, in order to establish a typology based on their role and place in society and not on their individual personality or identity. Furthermore, maybe due to archival limitations, maybe intentional, only the name of those belonging to the higher classes is mentioned in the captions to the images, while the peasants and other workers are only identified by their profession. All my life I had thought that this was meant to be subtly ironic, corrosive of Nazi idealism, and the very opposite of what a study like this might imply: that people are not unique but a mere number in a larger scheme of things that we call society. And that in this society some are on top of others, this due to their intrinsic qualities and not a mere accident of birth, luck or other factor. Now I am left to wonder at the intent of August Sander, and I am starting to suspect that he himself might have been more a man of the twentieth century himself than his photographs might have implied to us in the 21st. Is it possible that the power of persuasion of his fine work resides in the capacity of his photographs to provide later generations with documents open for interpretation, despite the underlying personality of the photographer and his original intentions? I think it is.
Archetypes are either original ideas of which everything else has derived as a copy, according to Plato, or the more modern concept of an unborn subconscious idea deposited in our minds in evolutionary fashion, as part of Jung’s psychology.
If you want to prove that people adhere to some pre-existent concept or notion, than the right methodology would be to confront the viewer with a great number of people that do the same thing. Give me one hundred bakers, a thousand soldiers, fifty architects, and I will be prompted to look for and eventually recognize those common traits that connect them to the archetype. Or would his series have been meant as a collection of types that other Germans from his time would have recognized as archetypes? Then I am afraid but the effort would be lost on everyone who hasn’t been there and then to share this common notion. Or did he mean to tell us something about his people by saying: “Look, this is what we expect a baker, soldier, architect, bricklayer or whatever to be like”, thereby trying to convey a deeper understanding of the way the Germans in the thirty’s thought about themselves more than what they in general looked like? I have to admit I am quite lost here.
Some of these photographs, many in fact, are great. They are revealing, as good photographs always are. They show us individuals, original people, posing for the photographer in mostly dignified and self conscious way. In the best examples the pose is not the traditional portrait studio photography kind, but more spontaneous. Those are mostly taken outside, and have clean unobtrusive backgrounds. The higher classes tend to be more conventional, they sit indoors and are either directed to take or have of their own accord adopted some truly archetypal (and in this context the word seems adequate) attitude. They also display some outer show of personality in their haircut, or glasses, or handle a pipe for example, the better to define themselves from the grey masses. Funny that these unoriginal people should be granted a name and surname in the caption – now that their position in society, as the name itself, is completely meaningless to us – and that the powerful young brick layer, for example, is left without name. The irony is that the latter wins: he is still alive and modern, and speaks to us vividly, while the others are dead and buried. But was this the way Sander planned it to be? I don’t know.
What these, I insist, INDIVIDUALS have in common is not belonging to some profession or station in life but a somewhat fixed energetic earnest gaze. They give one the impression of belonging to a stern strict society, a world of hard toil, of authorities and unquestioning subjects, of rules. It may be suggestion, knowing what these people eventually ended up being a part of in hindsight, or maybe the warning was there at the time and was felt by some and by Sander himself. I can’t tell.
It is not difficult to see why the Nazis didn’t like them: hardly the master race these subjects are, really. They are real people, like us. And this we should bear in mind, if we are to avoid the risk of remaining men of the twentieth century ourselves, or worse still, slightly nazist. (Do we find it natural that some should be named and others not? Logical that the photographs of the mentally ill or handy-capped should be shown in a small room at the back? Their prints smaller than the others? Is this all just accidental?).
No person is an archetype, regardless of how hard we try or are lead to conform. We are all individuals, each important to the whole in his/her own right. The more one tries to fit humanity into a mould, the more pieces and bits just keep sticking out of it. That’s the beauty of it, and it shows in Sander’s work. Whether he meant it or not.

One last remark: I have noticed some of the visitors who couldn’t refrain from laughing at the people in the photographs, they made fun of them. Maybe it was the types, maybe the expressions. Beware! We are quite funny ourselves, you know?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

HCB, GB, TM, WES: a few of my heroes in the shopping bag.

January is a time of sales. I had to buy four books in one go, a feast of self indulgence in the spur of the moment: A propos de Paris – Cartier Bresson- , ITALY Cross Sections of a Country - Gabriele Basilico -, Photographs –Tina Modotti-, The Camera as Conscience –W. Eugene Smith-.

A PROPOS DE PARIS photographs by Henri Cartier Bresson.

Paris is a sure bet, bound to work for you, can’t miss it. Large and varied enough to accommodate anyone, special and typical and yet cosmopolitan, unmistakably French and still you can claim it your own wherever you come from. It is a great culture, welcoming in a way if you are willing to pay it its dues in respect and attention. There are more than one way of approaching it – from joining the legionnaires for a minimum of five years to a brief if totally absorbing tasting of a petit pain au chocolat- you can get in if you try hard enough. Either fact or illusion, I don’t care. When you are in Paris do like the French do, or watch the show of its life unfold around you never to stop. Many are moved to take photographs by what they see and feel there, others are possibly trying to emulate the great masters of Parisian street photography like Doisneau or even –who would dare?- HCB. It is a very hard act to follow though, as this book shows.

A propos d’Henri

Henri Cartier Bresson is like Mozart: a master composer, a very likeable genius. One is never left to wonder about the point of his photographs, what they are about or why he took them. There is something almost daunting and off putting in the apparent ease with which he has produced so many exceptional images. Most of us would be happy –with reason- to be able to claim one tenth of his oeuvre as a worthy lifelong achievement. The problem with talent like that is that it can make you feel like Salieri: the lesser gifted. We all seem to be well meaning, hard working and somewhat struggling ducklings in the wake of a giant most elegant swan. Ever paddling and toiling with modest results, while he effortlessly glides. It is more sensible to avoid any comparison and let go, look at the photographs and enjoy them.
In general you can recognize a Cartier Bresson by a combination of perfect composition and the presence of some element of surprise or compelling detail that gives it poignancy. In this in perfect accordance to Roland Barthes’s theory of a photograph consisting of a combination of “studium” –objective descriptive and circumstantial elements- and “punctum” as the crucial point of interest, possibly individual to each viewer, but in his case clearly dictated by the author. [Getting this blend right is the key to any interesting photograph, of any genre]. In his conception it all revolves around the famous instant, the freezing of the sudden moment in which elements combine to mean something. Capturing that requires devilish skill, or monumental amounts of hard work. He probably did the latter, thus acquiring the first. Eventually he has become a legend, but never seems to have let that get to his head. He kept his composure, stuck to his guns, refused to be interviewed too much or allowed his face to become well known to the public. He needed anonymity to work the streets, and this he safeguarded against the trappings and temptations of celebrity. When you look at any one of the relatively rare photographs taken of him you see a very serious , intense and intimidating person. It is not hostility or a bad temper though, it is focus. The man seems deeply absorbed, relentless, concentrated, his attention somewhere else. It’s not the portraits that someone took of him but his own work that show us who he was: it is deep and beautiful, but also gracious, light and at times ironic. Often poetic, never in bad taste.

Modern Italy by Basilico.

The first photographs of Gabriele Basilico that I have ever seen were published in the early eighties, in Photo Tecniek International. Black and white deserted wind swept French villages, seaside places in the winter. His series was being presented as the work of a purist on the road, with a 4x5 inch Linhof. This he still was fifteen years later, judging by the series Cross Sections of a Country done in 1996. Something has changed though: his more recent work seems more subdued, calm, pensive and less dramatic. This he accomplished without any loss of intensity, at least in my view, but possibly gaining in subtlety. These are not just documents, albeit they fit this role perfectly in this urbanistic quasi scientific survey of a few stretches of Italy set by architect Stefano Boeri, author of the text. When you send somebody like Basilico – who was himself trained as an architect - on a survey you get more than mere registration, you get great photographs. This thanks to and not in spite of the sharp and transparent diligent collection of details. Very clever.

Seamstress, Actress, Photographer, Spy.
Assunta Adelaide Luigia (TINA) Modotti PHOTOGRAPHS

This cahier of prints is not really a book, it’s the catalogue of an exhibition organized by two galleries in New York. It is proof that the revolutionary Modotti is at last accepted in the art world of northern America, her communist past defused of its bitter aftertaste by the fall of the soviet regime, I would think. So even these photographs that she has made for the leftist press are acceptable, publishable, saleable in NYC. She is not dangerous any more: she is history of art, beautiful and suggestive but hardly subversive . She is dead and buried, let’s sell the prints. It might be pretentious of me, but I find it easy to imagine what she would have made of this.
The story of her life reads like a novel. She has really been all of the above mentioned and more. She comes across as a passionate involved human being, a vibrant woman who has inspired Pablo Neruda those verses that seem to condense the very essence of every woman, as experienced by us bewildered lucky men, lovers and brothers. Strong and delicate, like steel and foam at the same time. In light of this romantic assumption, after all corroborated by the facts of her flamboyant biography, a few things strike me. First of all her best work has no political meaning whatsoever. The callas and the roses, that to me sums up Modotti’s contribution to the art of photography. And some contribution it is, they are amazing. Then a few portraits, although not as strong as that. Her political work was meant as propaganda. Her intentions were certainly sincere, but propaganda simply isn’t art. Even the great Neruda touches us best in those verses that are humanly universal, and leaves us cold with the description of soldiers in the snow, possibly marching to avenge her at the end of the poem. This is not Modotti’s legacy at all. What she stands for is total and honest dedication to whatever is most important to you wherever in life you may be, be that photography or any other pursue. In this light it does her credit that she has decided to give it up, when she felt unable to give it the attention that it needs. She chose love, life, revolution, the party and who knows what else as they crossed her path. Did so with integrity, fully. By the age of 46 she was dead, struck by a heart attack although a political murder was alleged by the Mexican press. Short it was, sadly, but what a life! “Fire never dies”, as Neruda put it.

Mr. Smith’s conscience:
W. EUGENE SMITH the camera as conscience

The only reason why anyone should be apologetic about someone else’s principles, is when this other person might be assumed of being righteous, a bore or too confronting to people who miss the guts or the circumstances in life that allow one the privilege of being pure and free of the need to compromise. Not having known W. Eugene Smith personally I couldn’t possibly make that call, and was therefore surprised at detecting something of this attitude in the text of this book. Fact is that however you look at the man, he seems to have paid in person, and dearly, for his choices as well as his exceptional images. Just by looking at his photo essays –Spanish Village or Country Doctor - you realize the power of his images, and also their great influence on photo journalists since. So many modern award winning shots remind one of some archetypal earlier shot by Eugene Smith, this being in my opinion always better than its modern descendant. Difficult to deal with he may have been, but place him in his time or any time for that matter, and you see a giant. Do I like all of his work as well? No. Would he have gone too far in some respects in pursuit of his vision? Most probably. Did he make mistakes? Absolutely,
I feel it is regrettable that he left LIFE when he did. Given the means and support of such a great organization he would probably have produced more work of that calibre, and the intelligent and critical support of an editor would have prevented him from producing the obsessively long, time and energy consuming series that were his next career step, after he (briefly) joined Magnum. If there is one big contradiction in this saintly beatnik, it is to be found in the puzzling ease by which he would consider it perfectly all right to set up shots, if it was instrumental to what he was trying to say. He seems to have been perfectly unbothered by the authenticity of his apparently documentary photographs and would direct anything, from an explosion on ahillside for a war shot, being even ready to pose himself as one of the soldiers, to arranging any other prop or character in later work. Not to mention his dark room habits, very far from straight printing, more interpretative and creative. He did after all see himself as an artist and not as a journalist, he was in the business of making as much as taking photographs. Would this make him less interesting? Only if you still believe photographs ever to be slices of truth. But they are not, are they? This thesis is convincingly advocated in the comprehensive semantic study that goes with the images in this book. Personally I am starting to suspect that every perfect shot in the history of photography could be the result of fabrication. And the better for it. This is why I am starting to be interested in “bad” photographs. This will be another story though, not Eugene’s. They are easy to spot, the real ones and the set ups. Some are great, some aren’t, in both groups.