Henri Cartier Bresson, and his decisive moment photography are usually associated with the idea, that this particular type of work is heavily dependent on timing. In reality, unless you work with still life objects, timing is always extremely important. HCB used to say, that you have to be sensitive to seize the opportunity. He shot a lot – there are stories narrating that he made around twenty films a day, when actively working. However, he underscored the need to shoot mindfully, and not simply machine gun a scene, as he said, that if you overdo it, the right moment is likely to happen when you were winding the camera. An acute observer might note, that it must have been before the advent of motor winders – in fact, when I want to shoot the street with a Leica, I have the motorised baseplate attached.
Timing is critical whenever the scene evolves. This applies to reportage, sports, portraiture, fashion and even to landscape. In the early days of photography, the time necessary to set up a camera and expose a plate has been so long, that it was almost always a race against the changing light, not to mention moving subjects. In my opinion, the real champions of speed have been the likes of Ansel Adams.
Another giant of reportage – Gianni Berengo Gardin, used to say, that the difference between a good photograph and a nothing, was often infinitesimal. This is totally true, and you can have a peek into it by looking through occasional books which show contact sheets of great photographers – most of the shots on them look as if they were taken by one of us…
This is also a title of a known film with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, but here the association has rather been with this surprising view I run into on my way to office. The ladies never fail to perform multitasking whenever possible – here they stretch and inhale the sea breeze, while admiring the view on Roquebrune and Cap Martin. BTW, one of them is also talking on her mobile at the same time.
I’ve spotted this somewhat melancholic lady in one of little Nice restaurants I like to drop in on the weekends. It’s called “Attimi” and it serves a nice range of quick Italian specialties, ranging from various types of focaccia, through pizza, pasta, salads and second courses. All made with genuine and selected Italian ingredients – highly recommended for a simple meal. You will find it at the end of Avenue Jean Medecin, where the tram turns into Avenue Felix Faure.
One typical impulse I find myself possessing, is the urge to take photos of characters. The characters are people like us, but in one way or another they seem to have some unusual or exaggerated tract. Even in areas like the south of France, where you find a broad diversity of human types, the overwhelming code of conduct, typical of continental Europe, is quite homogenous, unlike in truly unregulated multi ethnic metropolis like London or New York.
The first reaction to a character is usually a dose of disbelief mixed with a feeling of ridicule or contempt. It should be instead noted, that the characters are a very interesting part of society. They are what the statisticians call ” the wings of a distribution”, i.e. they represent a small percentage of cases that bear some extreme features. From the study of these special cases, one can learn a lot about how wide is the range of strategies available to us to go through life.
From a tribal point of view, we instinctively like to cling to people who are similar to us. While this can generate strong collective bonds, and was usually a prime condition for coexistence in a small hunter-gatherer group of individuals, as society and its problems become bigger, the diversity becomes an important resource. I’ve even seen lately an article how the Good Judgment Project makes part of the CIA toolbox for predicting future threats. The use of a collective wisdom of a well diversified and heterogeneous group of individuals, seems to perform better than conventional intelligence procedures. This counterintuitive fact finds it’s roots in an old model, which has become the basis for what we call today the prediction markets. Eventually, society needs not only the sheep, but also the peacocks.
I’m not sure, if curiosity and tolerance versus people different from us is something that intensifies with age – it certainly is happening in my case. Perhaps the reason being, that as you accumulate experiences and find yourself at hard edges of choices in life, like in a maze of a lattice tree, you start appreciating how little can separate outcomes, that eventually become extremely distant. I vividly remember a story told by a friend who was a chief FX dealer of Chase Manhattan Bank in Milan. He went once to Paris for an international Forex congress, and while he was strolling along the river Seine, he spotted a clochard sitting along the bank with a bottle of wine in hand. On a second impression, the face seemed familiar, so he stopped a moment, and exclaimed – are you Serge? (Serge used to be the chief dealer of Chase Manhattan Bank Paris). The clochard giggled and said: yes ! My friend said: but Serge, what happened, how come you are in this condition? The clochard bowed his head philosophically and said: do you remember that moment, when the Berlin wall fell, and initially it seemed like the Deutsche Mark was going to go down the drain because of the cost of unification?
– Yes !
– So I shorted heavily the DM, and then the Bundesbank came out and said they will never allow inflation to happen, and opposed changing the east DM into western ones at par, and my position started getting sour, even if the government has eventually bowed to the 1:1 exchange rate.
– So, when I was several million under water, it was already a loss I was not supposed to take, and at this point I told myself: “Serge, this is the moment of truth, you have to double – either you’ll make it, or you’ll break it”.
– And I broke it… And here I am with a bottle along the Seine…
Today I am a bit exhausted with my work, and I have this feeling as if something indefinite were about to happen. This photograph reflects it quite nicely: all seems to hang in the balance between a sunny day which will fill out with visitors all these tables and deck chairs, and a slight turn for the worse of the weather, which could prompt unwinding of all this meticulous stage.
I’ve been going through another brilliant psychology course on Coursera recently: “A beginners Guide to Irrational Behaviour” by Professor Dan Ariely. He is the man who has first investigated a cognitive bias that we display when assessing the output of our work.
Ariely has bought once a chest for toys from Ikea. He has struggled so much to assemble the thing, that once he put it together, that particular object, while not special by any objective standard, has become one of his favourite pieces of furniture. Intrigued by his own feelings, Ariely has set out to test scientifically, if we indeed ascribe higher value to objects we have produced ourselves, than what would be determined by an independent observer. His experiments have confirmed the suspicion: people were rating their own work higher than warranted, moreover, the more laborious and protracted the effort, the higher the rating.
This has rung a bell with me immediately. I’ve recalled, how almost any great photographer would stress the necessity to put a more or less lengthy period of time between the taking of a photograph, and its subsequent evaluation, printing and editing. The famous “marinating” of photos by Koudelka, or hoarding for years of thousands of undeveloped negatives by Winogrand, in attempt to distantiate themselves from the emotional “paternity” of that particular click, were certainly a way in which they tried to get rid of the Ikea effect bias, even before it has been discovered. Mike Johnston, editor of “The Online Photographer” has repeatedly advocated the need to look at one’s pictures for a lengthy period, in order to create an effect of visual tiredness. If you still like a particular shot after months of seeing it on your room wall, perhaps it indicates the photo has some real merit.
On the flip side, Ariely’s findings have also shed dramatic light on the digital photography revolution of the recent years. In the film era, you had a considerable amount of time between taking the shot, developing the film and printing. A technically competent image: well exposed, sharp and without motion blur, has been a high hurdle for most of the casual snappers for decades. I remember a friendly salesman at my local photo store in Milan, who was saying, that before the advent of auto everything digital, a sharp photograph was a rarity more than a rule among the prints they were cranking out for customers.
Suddenly, digital not only has allowed for this, but has also rendered photography exponentially cheaper. The results are under our eyes: The passage between making a photograph and showcasing it has become instantaneous. Everybody has mistaken technically acceptable pictures for good ones. The world is drowning in sharp but utterly banal snaps, and the status of professional photographers has imploded. This is consistent with the feeling, that if anyone can make a decent shot with their smartphone, making pictures is being perceived like making a cake from a powder mix, without even needing to add the eggs. Why on earth would you pay somebody money for doing a job even a child can do ?
As digital photographers steadily degrade the aesthetic quality of their pictures by underappreciating the difficulty of making interesting images, and unlearning how to edit them due to excessively short feedback, on the effort scale some interesting trends emerge: landscape, stitched panorama and HDR crowd is acquiring an elite status among snappers. After all, it takes some hiking or climbing, or at least some tripod lugging and fiddling with software in order to produce these images, so they “feel” better than other kinds of shots.
Among the die hard film traditionalists, those still labouring in the darkroom are at the top, and the very peak is steadily presided by large format and wet plate fanatics. Are there any lessons to take home from that? In my opinion, certainly yes.
First – learn to appreciate, that making good pictures is difficult. Train your eye on books of great photographers to understand what the art is about. Second – use a tool that is best suited for an output you desire to get, and avoid falling for the mythology about this or that camera or lens brand, format or process. Third – slow down. Once the shot is made, develop it or save on some safe support, and forget about it for at least a few months. Fourth – once you edit and make first proof prints, put them on a wall or board, and live with them for some time. In due course, you will eliminate the dudes. Fifth – find yourself a friend or two, and give them the photos for rating in no particular order. The proof prints should be all the same size, and no mention of the circumstances in which the photos originated, or gear and technique used should be made.
Finally – avoid the error made by Vivian Maier – if you are a photographic genius, don’t die before ever presenting your work to us. Help make it a wonderful world.
This is a view I enjoy from my apartment window often in the morning. When you direct your eyes to the west, towards la Tete de Chien ( dog’s head), a promontory overlooking Monaco and Cap d’Ail, you can spot at times a curious coincidence: the moon setting just above the dome of l’Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur. This creates an impression that the Earth has suddenly acquired another satellite… The building with long terraces in front, is strategically placed in front of the St. Devote virage – the first curve on the Monaco racetrack, and during the Grand Prix overflows with partying spectators. The diminutive tiled roof with a spike you see just in front, became famous several years ago, as the most expensive roof in the world, but that was before Cohen brothers have sold their attic apartment a couple of years back, and now it will most likely be again overtaken by what seems destined to be the most expensive apartment in the world – the Penthouse on top of the Odeon Tower – just 50 meters from my office.
The great North South divide in Europe could be reassumed by the following story:
A well off German manager takes a holiday and decides to visit some of the more exotic European destinations. He travels to Naples. As he walks close to the sea, he spots a beggar on the sidewalk asking for money. Irritated, he decides to unfold to the beggar some of the secrets of his work ethics:
– Instead of asking for offers, you should do like me. You should study, look for a job, make a career, earn the money, and then you will be able to afford to idle in the sun in the Golf of Naples !
– But Sir, protests the beggar, I am ALREADY idling in the sun in the Golf of Naples !
People who live in cold and cloudy climates fail to understand the importance of nice weather. It looks to them, that it is only a difference of several warm days in the summer, but for the rest, the year still has its long dark, chilly and damp spells. What you discover when you live on the Mediterranean coast instead, is that there are three elements that count: average temperature, average daily amplitude and number of sunny days in a year.
On Cote d’Azur, the average temperature is not very high, probably only just over 16 C, but the daily amplitude hardly ever goes beyond 6 degrees. In other words, you don’t need to wear multiple layers of clothing to be ready to face a long day. There are 62 rainy days a year here, around Monaco and Nice, that means statistically only one day out of every six.
This drives a lot of social life out into the open of the streets, promenades and parks.
When friends or families meet, eventually their common activities evolve towards one of the numerous establishments, when you can socialize more effectively over some food and a glass of wine.
What you see on the photo above, is one of the numerous restaurants along the market of Cours Saleya in Nice, and the elegant building in the background has hosted for several years the apartment and atelier of Henri Matisse.
One of the most inexplicable mysteries of the universe, is the source of complexity. The idea, that our environment is so full of incredibly complicated structures, beginning with inanimate crystals and ending with our brains, is simply mind boggling. This is why for so long people mainly believed, that the only possible source of this complexity had to be out of this world, or in other words, superhuman. It took a very long time, and a somewhat extraordinary person too, to arrive at an idea, that the secret could be disarmingly simple.
Alan Turing was the man, who during the war was deciphering the codes of German Enigma machine. It was a cryptographic device, first broken and reverse engineered by Polish matematicians, an achievement that has vastly contributed to the allied success during the WWII. After the war, Turing has directed his attention to a hypothesis, that a simple “encryption key” could be at the base of biological processes as well. The ensuing story is brilliantly narrated by Professor Jim Al Khalili in a BBC video “The Secret Life of Chaos”. It explains, how complexity is an integral part of all physical and biological processes, and how it can arise on basis of extremely simple rules. If you are interested to explore the subject more, you could play with Wolfram’s Cellular Automaton, and take a look at Solomonoff’s Induction.
When it comes to biological life, the game changing man was Charles Darwin. He developed the intuition, that forms of life evolve under evolutionary pressures of the environment. But he struggled all his life with discovering the mechanism, that could enable enough variability inside one species, so that the most fit individuals could be selected for reproductive success. This has only been understood, when people discovered genetics. Genetics demonstrated, that at the basis of all variation, lies a random process of cellular mutations of the DNA. In other words, most of the complexity of life could be explained with two simple concepts: feedback loop of chaotic growth, and rewarded random mutations. Obviously, in order to arrive at what we can observe today, it was necessary to let these forces play for several billion years.
The Theocentrics among you might ask : But how it all begun? The universe, the life on Earth?
I am not sure, that we will ever know these answers, although there are numerous hints, that biological life here has been implanted from the outer space through falling meteorites. We are most likely, children of the stars. This obviously would only shift the question a number of light years left or right.
Just like we accept as a given, that time only flows forwards, or that you cannot add any speed to the speed of light ( light emitted from a fast moving object will only travel at the speed of light, not a notch faster), we shoud probably accept, that there is no answer to the question: What existed before the origin of Time?
I find the scientific process to be extremely tiresome, almost like the workings of a democracy. Yet, when we manage to unfold some truth about ourselves and the world we live in, the results can often be disruptive and liberating. The amazing fact about our era, is that both the speed of the scientific advance, and of dissemination of new knowledge have become exponential. What is lagging behind, is the efficiency of adoption of this knowledge for the benefit of everybody. We still live in a world, where hundreds of millions of people are not even allowed to learn about Darwin.
However, we have come a long way. Looking at the photo above, I am not sure what is more amazing: the beautiful young lady, pinnacle of billions of years of evolution, or the books in this library, a monument to human genius ?
When I was young, I remember having watched a film by Andrzej Wajda, titled “Shadow line”. It was based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. The film was not a great success, but it planted in my mind the allegory of life as a struggle to emerge from the shadow into the light, in spite of all the adversities. Conrad’s adversities were the anonymous forces of nature, the oceans, but also the adversities we find inside ourselves.
I’ve begun to suspect that the shadow line will always make part of my life, when I reached maturity. What seemed like a feeble demarcation line, easy to cross once you can sail at full speed, has begun to look like a moving target, a carrot on a stick tied to your harness, which remains always just a few steps distant, no matter how fast you run.
At a certain point I’ve started thinking, that in order to enter the zone of light once and for all, it will be necessary to draw a line how far you want to go, to decide how much is enough. Certainly, it might be a relief, but wouldn’t it also be risky to think that happiness can be identified in a situation, rather than in a frame of mind? And what about the scope of our actions, the time that needs to fly while we perform our daily fatigues? – I don’t see myself basking idly in the sun.