HCB, Leica and the DMCR

If you are into photography at least a bit, most likely you have read about Henri Cartier Bresson, and the definition, through which he has described the philosophy of his work:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

Caught in the act
Caught in the act

While the underlying philosophy was formulated in the 17th Century, HCB has been thrown into photography after he has abandoned the study of painting, and was looking to find a stimulus that would clarify his interest in life. The image which made him understand, that a camera could bridge his aesthetic and social interests, was a photo by Martin Muncacsi “Three Boys at Lake Tanganiyka”. Apparently, it was the only photograph that has ever adorned the walls of his apartment.

HCB has bought his first Leica camera in 1931. What ensued, has been the most important body of photographic work of his time. In fact, he has been dubbed: “The eye of the 20th Century”. His style, later called “decisive moment photography” can be intuitively recognized by a confluence of compositional harmony, and human presence, often caught in the midst of an important event or an expressive gesture.

All reporters and street photographers who came after HCB have been influenced by him. Even today, you will find multiple photo groups on Flickr, dedicated to the decisive moment photography. When I started shooting with a rangefinder camera, and eventually bought a Leica as well, the temptation to step into HCB’s shoes was too big to be resisted.

Man walking, tree falling
Man walking, tree falling

This led to the development of   DMCR (decisive moment conditional reflex), where a street scene reminiscent of one of HCB’s images would spur me automatically into compulsive action, or where a compositionally interesting background would freeze me for several minutes, with the camera ready at the eye, waiting for some human event to unfold, and “trigger” the picture.

Tripping the trigger
Man meets shadow

I can’t help to like street photography, harmonious compositions and shooting people. While I am certainly grateful to HCB for how his art has enriched the world, I have realized, for today’s photographer it has become a burden you have to shake off, or at least relax substantially, if you want to find your own expression.

Man in a shooting range
Man in a shooting range

Some escape into ugliness or banal framing, others voluntarily create an impression of random timing. I find it intuitively more natural, to look for photographs that above all tell you stories. But, perhaps, our photos are simply not good enough?

Summer games in the city
Summer games in the city

Keeping your eyes open

Eye jogging
Eye jogging

Photography is foremost about seeing. Seeing is a capacity, that benefits from frequent exercise, just like any other human endeavour. It pays to have a camera with you when you are around, and you should switch the perception to a scanning mode, like a plane pilot, when  looking for inspiration. Today most people have a camera inside their mobile phone, which gives them a handy tool for practicing.

Peter Turnley, a great  photo reporter, wrote in his photographic biography about the advice, which was given to him by Edouard Boubat: “Peter, if you keep your heart and your eyes open, there is a gift waiting for you at the corner of every street.”

Peter Turnley is known for many memorable and award winning photos, but the one I like the most, is precisely a child of Boubat’s recipy.

Secret life of living forms
Looking for vantage points

 

 

The Clash

Fingernails on the drawing board
Fingernails on the drawing board

No, it’s not meant to be about a punk-rock band.  it is about a reaction I get, when something I see feels completely out of place. Search for harmony is in our cultural heritage. When you think how much effort painters, architects, musicians, or even philosophers and mathematicians have put into the quest for harmony over the centuries, it becomes obvious why we react to something, which destroys it. Italians have a great term to describe it : “Sfregio alla bellezza” – a scarring of the beauty.

BTW, if you speak Italian, take a look here: http://www.ifioridelmale.it/. Seems a great source for inspiration about art and culture.

The misfits
The misfits

 

Betrayed before dawn

 

Against all odds
Against all odds.  – Anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw.

When I took this image, I felt it was strongly symbolic. It was August 15th, anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw, most likely one of the most important battles of the 20th century.

The Poles have a very particular relationship with their history. They consider themselves part of the West , stalwarts of values born out of Christianity, Renaissance, Enlightenment. Their attachment to personal liberty and national freedom has few equals. Yet, historically, they were unable to construct a strong state or an empire, and fell between the grinding stones of Russia and Germany.  They believe to have saved the western civilization more than once: from the hegemony of Ottoman Empire  during the Battle of Vienna, and from the spreading of the Bolshevik flood in 1920. In both cases, decisive, or important part of the victory was obtained thanks to the cavalry.

They perceive “unfairness” in their history, having often been attacked from all sides, and left alone to combat hopeless wars, while remote allies stood pat. One of famous Polish poems, “Mr. Cogito” by Zbigniew Herbert, relates to this, when he wrote about “those betrayed at dawn”.  Apparently against all odds, they have finally scored their greatest victory, overthrowing communism and  becoming the catalyst of the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989.  When I was a boy, much earlier than I heard of geography or biology, I was taught, that my first duty was to fight for the freedom of my country, no matter the cost. The figure of a cavalry soldier bearing a naked sword, and words: “Bog, Honor, Ojczyzna” ( God, Honour, Fatherland) have been imprinted in my brain.

Bog, Honor, Ojczyzna
Bog, Honor, Ojczyzna

I know of no other capital in the world, where the sense that history is a constant battleground, is so pervasive as in Warsaw. Should you be interested to explore Polish history more, there are numerous excellent recent books available, particularly by a British historian Norman Davies, whom I had a pleasure to meet when I studied in London, and by Adam Zamoyski , who also has a great talent for narration.

Change of light

Change of light
Dappled shade

Travel is usually a great resource for photographers. Looking at unfamiliar surroundings sharpens your photographic senses. I think the explanation is simple and comes from evolutionary psychology: when you are in unknown territory, you are well advised to watch out for unexpected dangers. In other words, we probably owe our enhanced perception performance to historic lions hiding in high grass.

When I travel every summer to my city of origin, Warsaw, the first thing that hits me, is the change of light. The light there is softer, comes from a more oblique angle, and most of the trees around are leafy, creating continuous plays of dappled shade.

Swiss valley
Dolina Szwajcarska

The unlikely name: “Dolina Szwajcarska” (Swiss Valley) has been given to this small park in the center of the city in circumstances now lost in history. When I’m in Warsaw I often pass there, on the way to take a coffee in one of the best pastry shops in Europe.

City of parks
A city of parks

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Le Chat

I still vaguely remember the last scene of that famous 1971 film, with Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret, based on a book of the same title by Georges Simenon.

Cats are present in Monaco, albeit not very numerous. One day, the municipality decided to sterilize the street cats, and since that time their population is well under control.

One of these “resident” cats, has chosen as his base a passage under a high speed lane, which I take every day on my walks to and from the office. It’s a lovely dark grey siamese I greet every time I pass by.

Cat's domain
Cat’s domain

La belle de nuit

Cold beauty
Cold beauty

Perhaps not many of you have seen the famous 1967 film by Louis Bunuel: “La belle de jour”, with Cathrine Deneuve  in the role of a “glacially cold beauty”. While uploading photos of Monaco, I can’t help noticing, how many have been taken at dusk or night.  ( La belle de nuit = The beauty of the night) There are a couple of reasons: I work till late, so I can only shoot  in the evening, and the subject itself, in my opinion, has a special appeal when it gets dark.

The Monaco night scenes you normally see, are offering sweeping views of the whole town, or of  the Port Hercule.  I prefer to look for less popular angles, trying to show the place, and some human detail at the same time.

A peculiar feature of life here, is the “multilayering” – literal and symbolic. On multiple levels, often one directly above the other, you can see a sandwich of natural beauty, exuberant  social life, and secluded moments of contemplation. Continue reading

JAZZ !

Harmony, vitality, improvisation.
Harmony, vitality, improvisation.

Jazz, parallel to photography, is my second big passion in life. In some ways, I perceive jazz and photography to be siblings, but this should be a theme for a separate story.

When I wrote a few days ago about the shadows and Rayographs, it was just a superficial treatment of a subject, which has much more to offer to an inquisitive art lover.

The making of camera-less photographs is as old as photography itself.  The golden period of photograms (this is how most photographers were calling them) starts around 1920 and ends before 1946, when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy died.

In 1941 Henri Matisse was diagnosed with cancer, and had an operation. This gave him another lease of life, but weakened substantially his forces. He decided to let go the painting and sculpture, and concentrated on the cut outs – often making them in his bed, or bound to a wheelchair. In 1946 he put together an album of twenty collages, and presented them as a book of printed plates, titled: “Jazz”. Matisse’s friend and editor Efstratios Teriade  executed the work in only 270 copies. Teriade was also publishing an art magazine called “Verve”, where he already presented some of Matisse’s early collage works.

You will have a chance to read about the importance of Matisse’s “Jazz” elsewhere. What has struck a note with me, was the coincidence of timing between the photograms an the cut outs. The coincidence does not end here. Although I have not found any proof of the direct link between Teriade, Matisse and Norman Granz, the latter has founded in 1956 a jazz record label called “Verve”. The first release, was a double LP of Ella Fitzgerald, singing the “Cole Porter Songbook”.

Anything goes
Anything goes

The record had become an instant success. Ella Fitzgerald, dubbed as the “Voice of an Angel” is one of my favourite singers, although, I prefer  the middle period of her career, before she jumped into scat , and before her voice acquired a somewhat higher pitch. This is my preferred track from this album – not too slow, not too fast, and without the annoying company of strings.

I get a kick out of you
I get a kick out of you

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The unbearable lightness of being

A Dick Fossbury phone call?
A Dick Fossbury phone call?

I remember being struck by certain photographic images, that were weird to the point of being unreal. It was like seeing life stepping out of its tracks. The title, borrowed from a known novel by Milan Kundera, underscores that sensation.

The two most famous examples, that come to my mind, are “Tree and Chicken” by Edouard Boubat, and “Boy, Valencia 1933” by Henri cartier Bresson. In reality, these photographs are a revenge of the photographer on the normalcy of the ordinary. In both cases, a passing illusion, or momentary coincidence,  has been served as if it was something making part of a special type of reality, reserved for the initiated few.

Boubat, has found a trick to transform two dimensions into three (or, maybe it was the other way round?), while HCB has shown us what looks like a  moment of clearvoyant ecstasy, but in reality was a boy following his ball in the air.

Is that legittimate? I don’t have doubts it is.  The importrant part of photography, is to show us how life looks like , when we have the time to actually analyze the image inch by inch, rather than get a pre processed message from our brain, which has categorized the image for us.

Struck by mourning?
Shot by paparazzi ?

My friend, the shadow

 Shadow parade
Shadow parade

Black and white photography, with all its simplicity and purity, has serious limitations.  There is a restricted range of tonal values, between the pure white and complete black, and to be quite frank, the absolute values of the extremes are somewhat limited by the medium, both at the stage of the negative, and particularly at that of the print. To make up for this, B&W photography has to play out all the visual tricks, to persuade us, that we look at something that closely resembles things and people we like to look at, and to try to create an emotion.

Perspective has been at various stages discovered, at times forgotten, then taken up anew and finally perfected, beginning with the Antiquity. It has been diffused during the Renaissance, and a couple of centuries later Vermeer has  developed it to mastery. By the way, it looks, like he was not unfamiliar with the instrument  that eventually gave birth to photography itself. If you are interested, there is a very fascinating story behind his alleged use of Camera Obscura.

Only during the renaissance however, the painters have discovered Chiaroscuro – the three dimensional effect they could create on a flat surface, through careful placement of brightly and dimly lit elements of reality. The most renowned “inventor” of the shadows in art has been Leonardo da Vinci. Subsequently, Caravaggio, and above all Rembrandt,  have further developed the technique. But the shadows have always been secondary to the subject, were only an attribute.

I think, the first artist, who gave up the subject and shadow link, limiting his visual narrative to two dimensional shapes on simple background, has been Matisse, notably in his cutouts. In photography, his equivalent has been Man Ray, with his Rayographs.

Today, shadows have an important role to play in photography, and I often find, that the shadow itself, rather than its source, can become a key element transforming an ordinary scene into a space filled with poetry and mystery.

Walking lantern
Walking lantern

A particularly interesting and difficult use of shadow consists of incorporating primary subjects and shadows in an interplay, where both elements acquire equal importance in the final image. To my mind, one of the photographers, who has used this technique to a great effect is Ralph Gibson.

 Confluence
Confluence