Archive

Film-based Photography

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, 1999. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Cick on image to enlarge.

Gravestone, Vinohrady Cemetary, Prague, Autumn, 1998. Roleiflex Tessar ƒ3.5. Digital scan of black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In the late 1990s, work on a series of projects for Dutch and Czech national telephone companies took me regularly to Prague. My workdays were long and pressured but, evenings and weekends, while many of my expatriate colleagues drank beer, I took to the streets of Prague with camera, light-meter, film, and tripod.

The Emotions of the Living; the Passivity of the Dead

The photo above, taken in the immense cemetery in the late-19th/early-20th century residential quarter of Vinohrady, portrays a gravestone tableau of life-s emotionized figures that reveals the ways that those in the comfort and safety of the home-front consciously or unconsciously sanitized, rationalized, and ennobled the senseless carnage of World War I.  At the upper left of the tableau, a stylized two-dimensional Jugendstil angel leads a fallen officer away to another realm.  At the right, the officer’s pleading, grieving mother is restrained and comforted by no less a person than Kaiser Franz Josef I himself.  The focus is more on the emotions of the living than on the sad fate of dead.  The soldier, who no doubt died in agony, is portrayed as physically intact and unmarked by his miserable end.  The Kaiser is is portrayed as fatherly and gentle.  The only emotion to be seen is in the griefcontorted face of the mother.  The entire ensemble portrays a social structure and value system that would collapse by war’s end, when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell victim to military defeat from without and economic collapse and nationalist demands for ethnic geopolitical autonomy from within.

Guns of August/Books of August

This month is the one hundredth anniversary of the tense and, in retrospect, gruesomely euphoric weeks of mobilization prior to the outbreak of World War I, the weeks that Barbara Tuchman documented in her now-classic book, The Guns of August.  This month been a stiflingly hot one in southeast Europe, and the high temperatures led me to restrict my movement, limit my work, and increase my reading.  By seeming chance, I turned to books portraying life in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and/or by writers marked by the sensibilities of the Empire or by its implosion and aftermath.

I began with Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Post Office Girl and continued with Joseph Roth’s proud and moving portrayal of the westward migration of Eastern European Jews, The Wandering Jews, followed by his epic novels Radetzky March and The Emporer’s Tomb and his Kafkaesque Hotel Savoy.  I then turned to The Burning of the World, the newly published early-World War I memoir by the minor Hungarian artist Bela Zambary-Moldovan.  I am now in the middle of Martin Pollack’s German-language Kaiser von Amerika: Die große Flucht aus Galizien, a book that strips away sentimental idealizations of the lives of Jews and Christians in the the poorest and eastern-most province of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and shines that light on the economic manipulation that empoverished Galizia and on the deliberate exploitation that characterized the emigration “industry” of the time.

The Wandering Jews, The Emperor’s Tomb, The Burning of the World, and Kaiser von Amerika touched me particularly close to home.  Three of my four  grandparents were Galizian Jews who arrived in New York in the decades prior to World War I.  The Emporer’s Tomb gives ample attention to the wartime lives and travails of Galizian Jews and Christians.  The battles and wartime devastation described by Zambary-Moldovan took place in and between Rawa Ruska, Hroniec Zdroy, and Lubaczow (towns straddling the present-day border of Poland and Ukraine) the very area from which my maternal grandfather hailed and where his parents, brothers, and sisters somehow survived the carnage of World War I only to be murdered by Germans and their local helpers a quarter century later.

Afterthought: For more on the theme of wartime devastation of civilian life, see another title in my August reading list,  The Gallery, by John Horne Burns, a thinly fictionalized eye-witness indictment of the callousness of the American occupation of Naples during the final years of World War II, an antidote to sentimental tear-jerking pap about America’s World War II soldiers being “the greatest generation” and to  exultation of the volunteer soldiers of “The War on Terror” as “warriors” and “heroes.”

Church of St. James the Martyr, Poduyane Quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-1990s. (Toyo field camera, 6x9cm back, 55mm Rodenstock lens, b/w negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

Church of St. James the Martyr, Poduyane Quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, late-1990s. Note the concrete panel block apartment house in the background, a late-Soviet-era solution to urban housing shortages and a parallel to the red-brick “projects” that rose to pockmark US urban landscapes during the 1940s-1960s.  (Toyo field camera, 6x9cm back, 55mm Rodenstock lens, b/w negative film (probably 400ASA), scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

The photo above shows a curiously Italianate-looking church in Poduyane, a suburb of Sofia, Bulgaria, annexed to the city late in the 19th century.

A Careless Assumption

When I took the photo, fifteen or so years ago, I  assumed that the church dated from the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, a time when the newly-formed nation-state of Bulgaria was inventing “national styles” of its own.  It was not until last winter that I returned to the church to take a closer look.  My initial assumption turned out to be far from correct.  According to a  dedicatory plaque in the vestibule of the church, the edifice was built in the 1950s on the site of a church of the same name  that had been destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.  The plaque in the present-day church, however, neglected to say why the site had been bombed or by whom.  During the 1930s and up to 1944, when it switched sides following occupation by the Soviet Union, Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany.  The country gave the Nazis access to its gold reserves and  an overland route through which to solidify the occupation of Greece and, with it, an opening to the Mediterranean — this in return for support of Bulgaria’s irredentist land-grabs at the expenses of Greece, Romania, and that part of Yugoslavia that is now Macedonia. For good measure, Bulgaria also glibly adopted German “racial” policies and passed and enforced a “Law for the Protection of the Nation” that was even more stringent than the Nazi’s own anti-Jewish Nuremberg Laws.

A Careless Bombardment

Poduyane, as the etymology of its name suggests, is a high, plateau-like area.  Tracks leading from Sofia’s main rail-head eastward towards Thrace and on to Istanbul beyond have, since the rise of the railroad, traced the borderline between Poduyane and Sofia proper. My assumption is that one or more planes tasked with destroying the rail-head released their bombs moments too soon, flattening the original Church of St. James the Martyr and its surroundings in the process.  But, as shown above, my assumptions are, as often as not, equally off-target.

Photographic Footnote: A Once-Strong Back

Years ago, when my back was stronger and time seemed more plentiful, I regularly took to the streets with a metal tripod slung over one shoulder and a heavy bag containing field camera, lenses, and roll-film backs over the other. The photo above was taken with such a rig on a freezing mid-winter Sunday.  Technical limitations of my field camera, together with the effects of the cold on my un-gloved fingertips, led me to adjust the camera less rigorously than I might have done otherwise … thus the oval-shaped “yaw” distortion deforming the crow’s nest atop the church’s bell-tower.

Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgaria, 2004.  Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, scan of 400ASA black/white negative.

The Last Generation of Congregants, Congregationalist Church, Meriçleri, Bulgarian Thrace, 2004. Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, digital scan of a 400ASA black/white negative.

In all likelihood, I’ll never stage nor capture a photographic moment as important or memorable as Art Kane’s  “Great Day in Harlem.”  On an afternoon in 1958, Kane assembled several score of the founding and emerging masters of jazz, plus a dozen or so young passersby, on the stoop and sidewalk fronting a tenement on East 126th Street in New York’s Harlem.  The photo was published in Esquire Magazine and became a legend in its own right.

A “Great Day” of My Own

The closest I’ve ever come to a “great day” shot was one cold winter afternoon in the small town of Meriçleri alongside the eponymous Meriç River (Maritsa in Bulgarian) in Bulgarian Thrace.  The subjects in my photo: The aging parishioners of the local Congregationalist Church.  The occasion: A misunderstanding.

A decade ago, I was working part-time, on behalf of an obscure commission of the US Congress, implementing a survey of religious and secular monuments associated with the histories of several minority groups within the boundaries of what is now Bulgaria, amongst them Protestant Christians.  As part thereof, I tracked down and visited every single Protestant church in Bulgaria built between the 1860’s and the late 1940’s — the church in Meriçleri included.

A Congregationalist pastor in Sofia had called in advance to Meriçleri to arrange to have the church open for me to inspect.  Due to a bad phone connection the request came through garbled. Instead, the local contact called fellow church members to announce that a visiting pastor from America was coming to deliver a sermon.  Elderly congregants took put down their work, donned their provincial Sunday best, and turned out in force to greet me, a quite secular non-Christian.  Amongst the outcomes was the group photo above, taken on the steps of the church building.

“Reading” the Photo

The church  and congregants portrayed in the photo point to a complex tale of nation-, identity-, and community-building during the final decades of the Ottoman Empire and the first years of its successor states, Bulgaria and modern Turkey included. They also point to a more obscure but no less interesting story: the symbiosis of aims and actions between American Protestant missionaries and the schemings of US foreign policy more than a century ago. But I’ll save both of these tales for another time and another context.

For now, I’ll end with a cautionary photographic confession …

Step Forward First; Focus Second!

I took the photo above late in the afternoon on a dark, rainy day.  To maintain a sufficiently fast shutter speed, I set the aperture of the camera’s taking lens in the near-open range, thus compromising depth-of-field — a poor choice considering the multi-layered subject matter.  After focusing on the row of people closest to the camera, for some now forgotten reason I took a step or two forward to recompose but forgot to re-focus.  As a result, the plane of focus shifted rear-wards, leaving the front-most subjects slightly fuzzy.

Regardless, a decade after its taking, the photo still touches me and still seems to manifest the solid presence and stance of the final generation of guardians of a once-vibrant, now-forgotten Balkan community.  Perhaps, thus, there is more to photography than sharpness alone.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

Street Vendor, Vicinity of Egyptian Spice Market, Eminönü, Istanbul; +/-2000; Rolleiflex Xenotar ƒ2.8, black/white negative. Click on image to enlarge.

In a late-day moment of exuberance — or might it have been desperation? — a teen-aged street vendor of shmattes (forgive me the Yiddish-ism) suddenly punctuates his sales shpiel by tossing part of his stock of clothing into the air.  I caught the moment while working with a manually focusing twin-lens Rolleiflex and a handheld light meter — no mean feat if I might say so myself.

I took the photo almost 15 years ago.  Where is the the street vendor today?  I have no idea, although another generation of vendors still line the narrow street running behind the Misr Çarş (Egyptian Spice Market) in Eminönü, Istanbul.  I do know, however, where his photo can be seen: Large  prints thereof hang on the walls of (my only two!) “collectors” (close friends, actually) in Istanbul, one, in Çukurcuma,  a talented emerging cinematographer, and the other, in Kuzguncuk, a corporate executive with an uncanny eye for photographic composition and emotionality.  Both of these friends also share a visceral feeling for the pressures, uncertainties, and seeming absurdities of commerce at the street level.  Both also know that — in our age of urban gentrification, rising income disparities, and hegemony of “big-box” retailing — the roles and presences of urban street vendors and the people they serve are being made increasingly marginal and becoming fated to near or full extinction.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge over the Golden Horn, Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film.

Metro tunnel under the neighborhood of Unkapani prior to the construction of the metro bridge spanning the waters of the Golden Horn; Istanbul, early 2012. Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, color negative roll film. Click on image to enlarge.

The development of a metro line connecting Taksim Square and the northern reaches of Istanbul with the new rail terminus at Yenikapı along the Sea of Marmara changes the perception of distance and proximity and the flows, and and promises to shift the inner maps and trajectories of millions of commuters and visitors to Istanbul.  The juxtaposition of the new metro line and the neighborhood perched atop it in the photo above reveals another aspect of urban dynamics: the presence of neighborhoods and structures in decline is as essential to the social and economic lives of cities as is the infrastructure that facilitates agglomeration and mobility — in my view, two defining aspects of urban settlements.

The photo above was taken on expired film stock and was poorly developed and not very well scanned.  Nonetheless, it seems to have caught a moment of quiet and unhurried movement in the midst of the rush and activity endemic to Istanbul.  (Note: the spots in the sky at the top of the photo are not dust marks accrued during development and scanning, but the “signature” seagulls that crowd the skies and contribute to the urban cacophony of Istanbul.)

Houses and apartment blocks, wooden and concrete, at day's end.  Taken on a back street near the commuter rail tracks along the Marmara, Samatya (Psamatia) quarter, Istanbul, 2011 or 2012.  Toyo field camera, 55mm Rodenstock lens, color negative roll film in a 6x9 cm. back.  Click to enlarge.

Houses and apartment blocks, wooden and concrete, at day’s end. Taken on a back street near the commuter rail tracks along the Marmara, Samatya (Psamatia) quarter, Istanbul, 2011 or 2012. Toyo field camera, 55mm Rodenstock lens, color negative roll film in a 6×9 cm. back. Click to enlarge.

Every time my strained back — and equally strained wallet — prompt me to cease photographing on film using my heavy, tripod supported, time-intensive, medium- and large-format Toyo field camera, I ultimately find cause to reverse my decision.  Last Friday, while walking through the center of Sofia, Bulgaria, I spotted a photographer busy at work behind a beautiful, Chinese-made, wood and metal large-format view camera fitted with a wide-angle Schneider lens.  Later, at my desk, I reviewed some recent scans I had made of selected negatives shot over the years with my heavy but rock-solid Toyo.  The image above struck my fancy.  It was taken in the one-time Greek and Armenian quarter of Samatya (officially re-dubbed Koca Mustafa Paşa) along the suburban railroad tracks that follow the European coast of the Sea of Marmara. The mix of well-used buildings, the rugged urban greenery, the frontal portrait-like view, the absence of people, and the late-day light struck an emotional chord that I hope resonates.

The Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa, Istanbul (view towards minber). +/-2000.  The figure at prayer at the lower left and the figure seated at center provide scale. (Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5, 400ASA B/W negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

The Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa, Istanbul (view towards minber). +/-2000. The figure at prayer at the lower left and the figure seated at center provide scale. (Rolleiflex Tessar 3.5, 400ASA B/W negative, scan of print). Click on image to enlarge.

Sometimes, I try to picture the growth of cities and the evolution of architectural styles as short stop-motion films or animations that capture at high-speed centuries of morphological change as unbroken flows rather than as fixed “chapters.”  Envisioning in this manner helps me extrapolate and better understand processes and trends.

Creation of Space

In terms of Islamic architecture (or, more precisely,  three-quarters of a millennium of Ottoman tradition and its immediate predecessors, the facets of Islamic architecture with which I am most familiar) my animated imaginings reveal a striving for larger, more open and unobstructed interior space and, finally, for the transcendence of enclosure itself.  As to how to visual this in terms of design and technique, imagine a transition from flat-roofed or multi-domed structures supported by rows and rows of interior columns and/or piers to dome-on-cube structures made larger and larger in footprint, height, and volume by the addition of cornices, intermediate drums, and half- and quarter-domes to support central domes of greater and greater diameter, and to distribute their weight further and further outwards and downwards.  At the same time, imagine interiors becoming more and more open, with supporting columns and piers banished first to the sides of structures and later integrated into interior and exterior walls.  Finally, imagine walls themselves being perforated and made gossamer by rows upon rows of windows.  The total effect: an illusion of the elimination of enclosure — of architecture itself, thus — and a metaphorical return to the original Muslim place of prayer, the open-air courtyard in the home of the prophet and founder of Islam.

A Floor-Level View

The photo above shows a late example of an open and soaring interior and walls made lace-like by fenestration: the Mosque of Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa (1734) in the Haseki quarter of Istanbul.

The photo was taken with a Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5 mounted on a small pocket tripod with ball-head.  At the time, I was experimenting with the use of normal focal-length rather that ultra-wide angle lenses to capture interior space.  The challenge thereof was to select and portray a “slice” of interior that would conjure up the entire space; the benefit was the preservation of natural perspective.  The use of a pocket tripod not only made me less obtrusive but also enabled portrayal of the mosque from near-floor level, the height from which the mosque is viewed at during prayer.  Many years ago, a well-known European scholar of Ottoman history and architecture (Machiel Kiel) taught me the value of viewing mosque interiors as they were meant to be viewed, i.e. leisurely and contemplatively while sitting cross-legged on carpeted floors.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 540 other followers