Almost a photograph

Waiting for a sign
Waiting for a sign

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.

Oui !
Oui !

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…

“Almost like being in love”

SINGLE SHOTS # 6

Two for the road
Two for the road

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.

Two For The Road”

SINGLE SHOTS # 5

Time on my hands
Time on my hands

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.

“Time On My Hands”

Characters

Visitor from fairy tale land
Visitor from fairy tale land

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 artichoke man
The leafy man

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.

Sleek philosopher
Sleek philosopher

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.

Uniquely human
Uniquely human

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?

– 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?

– And I broke it… And here I am with a bottle along the Seine…

A moment of defiance
A moment of defiance

“The Peacocks”

SINGLE SHOTS # 4

The stage is set
The stage is set

 

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.

” Come Rain or Come Shine”

The Ikea Effect, or why digital is dangerous for photography

Is this shot any good ?
Is this shot any good ?

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.

Perhaps this one is better?
Perhaps this one is better?

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.

I think, I Iike this one more...
I think, I Iike this one more…

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.

Yes ! That's the one !
Yes ! That’s the one !

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.

“They Say it’s Wonderful” – John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman

Two moons

Moon copy
Moon copy

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.

“Moonlight Shadow”

Magic moments

Street of dreams
Street of dreams

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 !

Sea, sun and me
Sea, sun and me

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.

Forever young
Forever young

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.

Celebration of eternal spring
Celebration of eternal spring

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.

“Momento Magico”