How many pictures of people in the street can one take? – Many.
Gary Winogrand, the famous American street photographer used to shoot several hours a day. When he died, he left several million negatives, several thousand of which not yet developed, and that was long before the invention of digital and 12fps cameras.
At a certain point though, anybody will get tired with typical poses and straight verticals. You need to animate the scene somewhat. Wide angle lenses and instinctive framing create some dynamism and more unexpected points of view.
I’ve noticed, that you can use the verticals to your advantage, also when you want to convey an alternative notion of mass, with people climbing with difficulty or rolling down with ease.
If you spot kids playing, they look ready to fly.
The liberated diagonals can quickly become a canon in their own way, and start looking like a classic. Unlike free jazz or modern paintings, they still retain order and structure. Perhaps it would take a collage, photo montage or simply a Photo Shop manipulation to deprive a photograph completely of its original substance. I prefer to work on what I can obtain on the negative through experimentation with lenses, framing and exposure techniques.
Over the last several days we have seen substantial drama and confusion going on in Ukraine. While the perceptions about who is right or wrong, what is legitimate or not and how relevant this is to you, will vary, I feel most commentators are missing the essential point: what does this mean to humanity?
Humanity? Who is: “humanity”?
– Humanity is us, the people.
If you embrace the concept of life as a journey among countries, cultures and languages, and top it up with some fondness for lifelong learning, it is easy to develop an attitude towards the world, which I would call a min-max dichotomy. It means, that you tend to look at human problems on the lowest and largest scale at the same time.
The problems need to be addressed on these scales as well. Any macroscopic development affecting the lives of people, needs to be placed in the context, of how well it fits in the vision of the world becoming a united, friendly homeland for all of us. These macroscopic events bear on each individual in a different way, and the personal problems have to be solved using a balanced contextual assessment and judgment.
In my perception, Ukraine’s events are mainly interesting for one reason: it looks like at least to some degree, people there have gotten fed up with a state based on kleptocracy. It is yet to be seen what will come out of it, but one cannot help thinking that Putin’s nervous reaction to events could have been caused by a perceived geopolitical threat from losing control over the southern flank of his empire, as much as by a realization, that Maidan’s scenario could be replayed soon on the Kremlin square.
Perhaps instead of debating if a region of the world should have this or that flag waiving above its parliament building, wouldn’t it be a more intelligent question to ask : how does this matter to us, the people?
As scenes from the Russian take over of the Crimea were shown on CNBC, a journalist commented: we, in America are outraged at income inequality here. I looked up the numbers: richest 50 Americans make 4% of GDP. In Russia this number is 17%, in Ukraine it is 47%. Then I have also found this figure quoted: richest 100 Ukrainian oligarchs plus the Yanukowycz “family” were making for 80% of GDP.
At this point some of you might wonder, if by any chance I might be an advocate of equality at all costs ( communism, collectivization, etc). Not in the least, but if our ultimate goal is both to make people happier and more productive, it has to be done in a context of a society, which is inclusive and cares about developing our human potential. Extractive social models and high inequality are socially unjustified and economically wasteful.
While you might look different from the gentleman on the photo above, or have nothing to do with Crimean Tartars, we are all biologically remarkably equal. There is no reason to exchange our rights to life, health, education and pursuit of happiness for any nationalistic or religious notion, served by populist politicians, who attempt to play on our primordial emotions in order to divide, manipulate and exploit us easier.
After the revolt of Spartacus against slavery, French revolution borne out of defiance of the divine right, and the Bolshevik revolution carried out on behalf of the proletariat, perhaps finally a time has come to call for revolt against any power, which does not stand up to a test of respect for ALL the people it governs.
My photo shoot routine is mainly revolving around weekend strolls in Nice or other localities close to Monaco. These are some of the most densely populated areas in Europe. Highly evolved civilization, beautiful landscape, warm sea and the most glamourous city-state in the world conspire for a mixture conducive to attracting multitude of people to this notable “Joie de vivre” experience.
Yet, solitude is always present. You notice it, because it is unnatural. The essence of our species, is not only that we are social animals, but that we live in collective “imagined realities”, where we interact for mutual benefit. Social interaction has to be dosed just right.
Excessive overcrowding can lead to conflict, excessive solitude to depression. Both shorten our lives. In particular, longevity is, among other factors, linked to maintaining a good social network, although I have read somewhere, that even as little as a single 20 minute conversation per month with someone you like and trust, can make a huge difference to your well being.
Women tend to live longer, and apparently it is because of their different hormonal functioning. But what if their real secret is, that they gossip so often?
Just like we tend to categorize easily other people on basis of their physical features, dress or language, we also do that on basis of their behaviour. Taking pictures of people taking pictures is instinctive and has its appeal .
It is normally easier to catch people unaware, when they are concentrated on doing something which commands all their attention. Nowadays, we are almost back full circle to the times, when field cameras with their big ground glass needed to be set up on a tripod, and black cloth over the head of a photographer was isolating him from the outside light, so that he could focus and frame correctly. I am actually surprised, that nobody sells this type of cloth as an accessory for the Ipads.
All the small sensor cameras have also made the “selfies” much easier and more popular, as the almost infinite depth of field helps to place everything in focus, including the shooter, and he can often control the framing by looking at the image as it forms on screen. Thus, the environment probably benefits, as we see less of these incisions : “Joe was here”, made with a pocket knife on monuments, benches or trees. On the other hand, a new way of thinking is emerging, in which making a “selfie” in close proximity of something/someone of value or interest, should somehow elevate the status of the shooter through an implied mechanism of osmosis.
The French have a happy relationship with street music: street performers are numerous, there are also lots of open air festivals, performances and parades with participation of municipal bands. A particularly nice event takes place on the anniversary of WWII liberation day, when open military Jeeps from the times of war exit from the cover of local barns, fill out with people dressed up in US Army uniforms, and roam around playing Glenn Miller tunes from the loudspeakers. It all usually ends in a great party involving large quantities of food, wine and jazz music.
Wartime and post-war jazz melodies get associated here with the joy of returning to peace and freedom, and are a kind of American heritage, which is well assimilated and accepted.
I’ve been following for the last few weeks, on Coursera, a very interesting course about human evolution. The incredibly difficult anthropological and genetic research, to find out about how we became human, is performed on basis of scant fossilized fragments of bones, sometimes pieces of stone tools and even calcified plaque on the fossilized teeth.
A whole hitherto unknown chapter of the history of Homo has been opened only recently, when thanks to cold climatic conditions in a remote Siberian cave, some insignificant bone fragments (tip of a pinky finger) have yielded good enough genetic material to let us discover a previously unheard of type of man, called Homo Denisova. The scientists have to attempt to reconstruct the anatomy, cognitive characteristics, area of activity, and the timeline of evolution of these beings, with practically only forensic tools. How much easier it could have been, if there were some documentary traces, a stone tablet, a book, a photograph?
In 1977 a spacecraft “Voyager” has been launched by NASA into the deep space, with a Golden Record, containing sound, video and other forms of encoded information, about who we are, how and where we live. Voyager will pass in a proximity of the next star in about 40.000 years, and who knows if this “message in a bottle” will ever be read by any intelligent being.
40.000 years??? Let’s have a look, what happened in 1977:
Elvis Presley died, Steve Jobs founded the Apple Computer, Jimmy Carter became president of the USA, and a cannibal named Jean-Bedel Bokassa crowned himself Emperor of the Central African Republic. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union held firm grip over half of Europe, and over the minds of millions of people worldwide. On a more hilarious note: Rover Sd1 was voted the car of the year.
Discussing lately with a friend about various aspects of society, I could not help noticing, how easy it is to think through stereotypes. This is moral, that is immoral, taxes are theft, freedom is good, this is white, that is black.
I normally do not like taking pictures of people lying in the street. It hurts me to see humans in pitiful states, and I find no kick out of showing hardship or misery for the sake of entertainment. I always strive to see some beauty in my shots. So?
Generalization is dangerous. Take the picture above. How on earth did he get under this bench? How come his knees are bent like that if he is asleep? Finally – did he get the kick from the bottle of Evian water, or was it something much stronger? Questions start popping up, while the entanglement of the body with the bench makes for an interesting composition.
This little kid was mounting a desperate scene, but his parents were a few steps away, and one could reasonably suppose, he was probably protesting against a denial of an ice cream. Again, it might not really be what it seems.
During the summer on the Cote d’Azur, you see a multitude of people out and about, in various states of careless conduct. More than clochards by vocation, a lot of them are seasonal free birds: usually young men that decide to roam around warm beaches and enjoy total freedom with only a few euros in their pockets. This one, captured along the Croisette in Cannes, epitomizes the same spirit found in Ginzberg and Kerouac, plus, he looks much more fashionable.
After several narrative posts, it’s time to refocus on the “thing itself”, the presence of simple forms that surround us. Our visual map of the world, close and far, is made up of numerous “ready” images, which we have absorbed, and which we store in our brains for quick retrieval, whenever necessary. How many times, a simple foolish scratch on a wall, road sign or a distant silhouette of a church tower or high rise building, tell us we are in familiar surroundings, make us instinctively find our way, feel comfortable?
The idea, that commonplace can be beautiful, ordinary can be interesting, that my personal environment can become full of universal signs is not new in art or photography. It is not so easy though, to avoid falling into banality, by claiming that casual randomness becomes artful through brute force of endless repetition. The inspiring and eye opening images that come to my mind, are those of Edward Weston or George Tice, on the other hand, the river of banal ugliness has been opened by William Egglestone, although some of his early work has the merit of uplifting colour photography by a notch.
Milan is the unofficial world capital of fashion. Obviously Florence Rome and Naples should also be ranked high, but they lack the sparkle given by milanese haute couture crowd. I’ve seen occasional elegance in Paris, Monte Carlo, London or Vienna ( I shall magnanimously gloss over other metropolis), but nothing compares even remotely.
When you stroll in the center, and assuming you are not going to be shocked by the quantity of immigrant street vendors, you can’t help noticing, that people both take great care in the way they dress, and also share a generally high standard in aesthetic choices of style and how to combine it all together. Even this young gentleman playing the saw in the street, took a great effort in setting up his stage, and if you look carefully, not only is he wearing a three piece smoking, but also the shoes are extremely artfully assorted, given the early time of day. Admittedly, he does not wear a tie, but I could say in his defense, that he was performing on a notably hot September morning.
“I fighettoni” could be liberaly translated as ” mature but still young guys that like to show off”. Milan is full of them, as well as of the young ladies who do much of the same, with the difference, that they know very well of the power they exert on the males, and thus pretend not to notice the” fighettoni”, in order not to appear too easily approachable – just like the girl passing here with the never missing mobile phone in her hand. If you are intrigued by the Italian way of dressing, particularly clothes for men, then I warmly encourage you to watch a wonderful recent film by Paolo Sorrentino: “La Grande Bellezza” (The Great Beauty), which is not only a great piece of cinematography, but also exhibits spectacular camerawork and shows closely the Italian obsession with aesthetics of everyday life. BTW it is shortlisted among the Oscar Award candidates for this year.
Even casual styling can be sophisticated. Note the tortoise sunglasses, gilet, recent haircut, trimmed beard, well cut and ironed shirt, classic loafers and impeccable socks “Filo di Scozia” plus the stylish bicycles. The well visible signet ring may, or may not please, but it could indicate noble origins, if somebody would care for that.
We will terminate again with a photo dedicated to the working people. Just like a gynecologist – who, as the joke goes, has to work, where the others are having fun – this lady is a window decorator. This is the display of the flagship shop of Fratelli Rossetti – one of the most stylish Italian shoe makers, and I am sure she is a heck of a professional. I’d like to drop a print of this photo for her at the shop, when I will be in Milan the next time.