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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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”.
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 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.
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.
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.
When I was a little boy, I did not go to the kindergarden. To make up the for the lack of contact with my peers in these early years, I went through all the common childhood infective diseases, one after another, during my first year of school.
While bedridden, I tried my hand at a number of pastimes: sewing buttons, making fabric on a miniature loom and drawing. Drawing was the least successful – evidently I knew that my destiny was to go into photography… However, the preferred occupation was reading fairy tales. If you like Grimm brothers, the “Prince Frog” will be a familiar story.
Yesterday’s reference to window shots by Sudek and Kertesz has made me realize, that from time to time, I like to play the game of transforming common objects into celebrities in my photographs. The difference perhaps, is, that in my case, I like to use the street as backdrop, and seek to find harmony composed out of a few non related elements. This is also why I like to use short macro lenses, as walk around “normals”.