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Monthly Archives: March 2016

Local residents, fishing village, Sunda Strait, Western Java, mid-1970s, 35mm b/w neg, scan of print. Click to enlarge.

Further to my recent post on eye contact in photography, two photos taken two decades apart on opposite halves of the globe …

Java to Brooklyn

During the second half of the 1970s, while working from the Netherlands for a large international engineering company, I spent repeated months-long stretches in Indonesia documenting oil- and gas-related construction projects, organizing participation in technical conferences, liaising with government agencies, and using my seeming abilities to “go native” and step into the worlds of others to build mutual understanding and confidence and help to win project contracts without resorting to the flagrant corruption that was the calling-card of Western business at the time and that plagued Indonesia in the Suharto era.  When I had weekends free, I joined Indonesian colleagues in escaping the noise and congestion of Jakarta.  In those days, camera-bearing foreigners were few and far between in non-touristic locales in rural Indonesia and a word of a sincere smile and word of greeting and on the part of an outsider brought very hearty responses in return.

Two decades later, in the mid-1990s, I spent a few years based in my native New York.  At the time, American clients and employers were underwhelmed, and even condescendingly contemptuous, towards work experience gained abroad, a reaction seemingly cut from the same cloth as present-day America’s counter-factual preoccupation with denigrating the economic, social, and technical achievements of the European Union.  And so, between work assignments and research projects abroad, I temporarily stepped back into the world that had shaped me in the first place —  the pre-service-sector, pre-financial-sector New York of small, low-overhead businesses and of heavy physical work, skilled and unskilled — a nostalgic retreat that would be impossible in the face of the high-rent, high-cost-of-living, low-chances-for-mobility economy of present-day New York.

The woman in the photo that follows had just arrived in America and was about to enter the bottom rungs of laboring New York and care full-time for an elderly couple lost in the fogs of Alzheimer’s.  An unusually heavy blizzard provided her with her first view of and outing into snow. Indeed, the snow blanketing the great lawn of Prospect Park was so ample and so pristine as to even attract cross-country skiers, one of whom can be seen in the background just to the left of the subject.

Brazilian immigrant encountering first snow fall, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, winter 1995-1996, 35mm b/w negative. Click to enlarge.

Two ways to focus

The fastest way to focus?  Well in advance!  The photo of the woman in the park was taken with a camera that I miss tremendously: A Minox 35, a tiny 35mm camera, not much taller or thicker, but appropriately wider, than a film cassette and resembling a black plastic, small-scale reproduction of a Zeisss Ikonta, fold-out lens and all.  The Minox had an excellent 35mm-focal-length optics and a very accurate aperture-priority metering system, but it offered absolutely no optical focusing aids of any sort, neither split-image nor matte-glass.  One focused the Minox by estimate, setting the perceived camera-to-subject distance on the numeric scale on the lens barrel or using the depth-of-field scale to match aperture to hyper-focal distance.  The benefits: An uncluttered viewfinder and absolutely no focusing or shutter lag, focus having been set prior to lifting the camera to one’s eye.  As to the two ways to focus? One could chose to estimate and set the distance in feet … or in meters!

Two fallible cameras

The downside of the Minox 35 was its delicacy. I went through three in a decade and a half.  The metering system failed in one, the shutter in another, and a light leak and faulty film advance mechanism crippled a third.  Even less robust, however, was the camera with which I photographed the Javanese villagers, the first iteration of the Olympus OM-1, a camera that was not up to the rigors of the heat and humidity of Indonesia.  Within weeks of purchase, the rubber focus grips on the barrels of the Olympus’s lenses (35, 50, and 100mm, as per the classic combination of the time) had come loose and the lens elements of each were obscured by a proliferation of fungus — this quite unlike the medium-format Mamiya and 35mm Canon and Nikon equipment that I’d before and after.

Two worthy links

In my recent post on eye contact (linked to above), I weighed the balance between eye contact drawing out subjects and prompting them to manifest themselves vs. manipulating and overwhelming them with the presence and persona of the photographer.

Last week, I witnessed the transcendence of this dichotomy in an exhibition at Gallery Photosynthesis in Sofia, Bulgaria of near-life-size prints of magnificent, technically-masterful, full-length portraits taken by Bulgarian (Plovdivian/”Filibelı“) photographer Sonya Stankove.

Sonya Stankova took the photos in the late-1980s/early-1990s.  At the time, the period immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, Stankova was working in a photo studio in her native city of Plovdiv, where hundreds of queued each day to have their photos taken for  passports required to leave Bulgaria in search of opportunities, real and fantasized, abroad.  Every now and then, when a customer struck Stankova’s fancy, she asked if she could take a second photo for her own collection.  She would then slide a fresh full-frame sheet of film into the large-format wooden view-camera the studio ordinarily used for passport-sized photos, engage the subject, and squeeze the shutter release bulb, keeping the lens open for an amount of time estimated by intuition.  The resulting photos captured the individuality of the subjects and, displayed together, provide a documentary view into the place and time they were taken.

To close, I (figuratively) zoom-out further to consider the ultimate question underlying photography in the digital age, via a link to the eclectic weblog of “The Online Photographer,” master-printer Michael Johnston. The subject: “Why take more photographs at all?”

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Mannequins in Black and White, Istanbul, 2013. Fuji X100.

The image above is from a series of photos treating mannequins in Istanbul, their manufacture and display, part of an in-depth look into the urban geography of a traditional sector.  Mannequins, as I discovered, are designed and produced according to a complex web of typology and hierarchy — price-wise and according to the class, incomes, tastes, beliefs, cultures, and aspirations of the “markets” targeted to purchase the garments in which the mannequins will be clad.  In a future entry, I hope to post more photos from the series and comment further.

Saturday’s bomb attack

For now, in light of the murderous bomb attack this past Saturday on Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi, I am posting this photo as an all-too-obvious metaphor for the dualiities and contradictions that enrich but also plague Istanbul — its peace and its violence, its tolerance and its hatreds, its physical location straddling two continents, and its seeming temporal spanning of the world views of multiple centuries.

Metaphor

The black-white duality of the mannequins’ garb also suggests the extremes of Istanbul’s and Turkey’s ruling AK Party and its leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan — a propensity towards confrontation, bluster, and intimidation that yields and masks a polarized polity at home, failed ambitions in the middle east, failed outreaches towards the west, and dual failures in dealing with complex conundrums of Syria and predominantly Kurdish eastern Anatolia.

Black-white contrasts also characterize the history and transformation of Istiklal Caddesi and surroundings. In Ottoman centuries Istiklal was a street of palatial Ottoman homes and western embassies and, by the early- to mid- twentieth century, a western-style avenue of shops, cinemas and entertainment, with backstreets sheltering tenement housing and offering drink, music, and food, as well as bordellos, “straight” and transvestite.

In recent years, Istiklal continues to change, becoming less and less upscale on the one hand, and less local and bohemian on the other, and more and more like an open air shopping mall, with rising rents forcing out independent merchants and restaurateurs in favor of chain operations with deep pockets and with historic buildings gutted, their restored facades masking modern shopping emporiums.  In the backstreets, “vice” and seediness fade and “cute” coffee shops take their place. The flow of pedestrians, locals and tourists, up and down Istiklal increases each year, with the noticeable changes that the crowds seem progressively younger and the tourists as often as not (mid-)eastern as western.

Even in the midst of such changes, Istiklal remains the site of political demonstrations and of symbolic acts, both democratic in aspiration, ala the summer of 2013 (scroll through the following group of posts) and, tragically, murderously anarchic as per Saturday.

The black-white metaphor also points to another of the city’s contradictions.  Istanbul is marketed as “multicultural” and “tolerant,” but the reality plays out otherwise.  Few Istanbul Greeks remain in the city, its Armenian population stagnates, and its Jewish population ages and declines year by year as younger Jews leave for abroad. What remain of all three of the city’s traditional minority populations have moved to the comfort, anonymity, and security of neighborhoods far afield from the surroundings of Istiklal.

Irony

By chance, three of the victims of Saturday’s bombing were Israelis and the attack took place within fifteen minute’s walk of the lower reaches of Istiklal, the neighborhood of Galata which, a century ago, had been home to a large Jewish population and that still houses three of Istanbul’s regularly-functioning synagogues.  The three synagogues operate under extreme security, precisely due to eventualities such as Saturday’s attack — indeed, one of the synagogues was bombed fifteen years ago and attacked by machine gun and hand grenade wielding murderers fifteen years before that.  Ironically, at the time of Saturday’s attack, the visiting Israelis would have been far safer attending one of the nearby synagogues than enjoying the sybaritic luxury of a peaceful Saturday morning stroll on Istiklal.  This too is amongst the contradictions and ironies of Istanbul.

Paint store workers, Perşembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8.

Paint store workers, Perşembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2013; B/W negative; Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8. Click on image to enlarge.

I have not posted to this site since mid-year, 2015.  Conceptually, long-form reading (for research purposes and for its own sake) caused me to push short-form writing to the side. Visually, failure of digital photographic equipment , the increasingly complex logistical chain of purchasing and processing film, and a search for new photographic approaches and subject matter led me to reconsider both the worth of my backlog of images and the processes for sharing them.  But now, for the moment at least, I’ve decided to pick up the thread …

The connection

The photo above provides continuity with my last post.  It was taken in the Perşembe Pazarı (the Thursday Market), the centuries- (millennia-, actually!) old ship’s chandler and metal-working market at the mouth of the Golden Horn at the waterfront of the old Galata neighborhood of Istanbul, in one of the narrow streets just behind the buildings fronting the water at the left of the photo featured in my last post.  The street in question contains the narrow stalls of paint merchants, competitors grouped together as per the practices of traditional markets.  The paint merchants test and display custom-mixed colors by painting pointillist brush swaths and and Jackson-Pollack-like spray bursts onto exposed retaining walls in the increasing number of vacant lots that scar the neighborhood as  developers race to position themselves for the windfalls of inevitable gentrification.  (For a closer view of waterfront street-life elsewhere in Perşembe Pazarı click here.)

Eyes to eyes … or squints to squints?

For years, I have shied away from candid photography, especially (per my lifelong contrived contrariness vis-a-vis  fashion) the recent rage for so-called “street photography.” To me, hidden cameras and surreptitious photographers manifest cowardliness, trickery, and exploitation.  My take is (was?) that achievement of direct eye-contact shows force of personality and attentiveness on the part of the photographer towards the person-hood of the subject.  Eye contact enables the subject to manifest him- or herself in a manner either inherent to themselves or as they themselves wish to at the moment.  It leads to willful collaboration of subject and photographer.

Objectivity or self-deception?

Recently, I’ve begun to question my stance.  I ask myself how much the achievement of eye-contact and the seduction involved therein are true techniques of environmental portraiture versus how much they are techniques of projection, surrogate self-portraiture, and/or transcendence of loneliness on the part of the photographer?  Or, more abstractly, whether for eye-contact is a means for capturing transcendence rather than subject?  Or, more banal, how much the search for eye contact is a but a hangover from, and nostalgia for, for the family snapshots of my childhood?

As to what spurred my questioning … several things:

1. The suggestion of a collaborator on a proposed joint research project that I reread Photography and Sociology, a 1970s essay by the octogenarian one-time jazz musician, innovator in participant research into “deviant” behavior groups (beginning with one of the first detailed studies of marijuana-smokers!), and, to this day, still active sociologist, Howard Becker;

2. The suggestion of the same colleague that I re-examine the detached, clinical but nonetheless telling and powerfully moving portraiture of August Sander (the full collection of which can seen on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and

3. My recent reviewing — in the context of a proposal for a retrospective exhibition — of photos of a series of architectural details (balconies, doors, windows, caryatids, stairways) that I took in Sofia, Bulgaria during a winter of political upheaval and economic collapse nineteen years ago.  How much, I now ask myself, did the Sofia series actually portray their inanimate subject matter? How much did my choice of subject matter, viewpoint, and framing actually represent the grim pessimism and insecurity of the society at the time? Or, how much were the photos simply expressions of my own inner state and preoccupations, independent of subject matter and context?  Did the photos tell larger tales of the objects portrayed, their contexts, and the times, or merely express the narcissism or autism of me, the photographer?

More on this — and a sampling of photographs from the series referred to — in subsequent posts.

(Disclaimer: I have not worked or resided in Istanbul since January, 2015. Since then, I have only returned to Istanbul for a two-week stay during which I did not visit Perşembe Pazarı. Thus, I do not know how much of the market area has been razed since nor have I attended to my usual practice of trying to return to provide the subjects of photos with prints of their own, regardless of intervening time. Anyone more up-to-date on the present state of Perşembe Pazarı is welcome to comment)