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35mm Photography

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?”

The late Dimo Kolarov playing accordion for the last time, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1996. Reflected in the mirror, Georgi "Johnny" Penkov. Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, 400ASA b/w negative film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print. Click to enlarge

The late Dimo Kolarov playing accordion for the last time, Sofia, Bulgaria, Winter,1996-7. Reflected in the mirror, Georgi “Johnny” Penkov. Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, 400ASA b/w negative film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print. Click to enlarge

Seventeen years ago, I joined Georgi “Johnny” Penkov (Bulgarian acoustical scientist, filmmaker, and locally renowned pundit and humorist) in a project that we abandoned on its second day.  Our goal was to photograph people who worked, lived, and felt at home in the midst of seeming chaos.  I write “seeming,” because some environments that at first glance appear chaotic are actually elegantly and systematically mapped and navigated by those who create and live their lives therein.   Indeed, that which is random and illogical to one person to another might be ready-to-hand and brightly illuminated, whether by intent or the personal logic of individual psychopathology.

Johnny and I were well qualified for the project.  Johnny has a life-long propensity for balancing his innate engineer-like precision by including in his surroundings a continuously refreshed assortment of chaotic acquaintances.  As to me: although I am skilled at generating crystal-clear work output, I am equally adept at generating chaos in my wake.  (On a less whimsical note, I am also a long-time student of the intentionality of thought and behavior as forces in shaping urban agglomerations, infrastructural systems, and the amassing and application of personal and collective knowledge).

Samples of the output of Johnny’s and my barely-begun project are posted herein: A single snapshot of a disordered worktable at a Bulgarian acoustical engineering institute (see below) and a portrait (above) of the late Bulgarian cinema cameraman Dimo Kolarov at home playing his beloved accordion.  Dimo’s apartment was as neat as a pin but some of its walls were ever-changing collages of newspaper clippings, photographs, and reproductions of art works torn from magazines and books, each pasted next to and atop one another in no immediately perceivable order.  Sadly, the day after we visited him, Dimo fell victim to a stroke and slipped into a coma from which he never emerged. He died several days later.  Out of respect for Dimo, Johnny and I stopped the project.

Work bench, acoustical institute, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter, 1996-7. (Nikon F3, Nokkor 35mm f2.0, 400ASA B/W neg film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Work bench, acoustical institute, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter, 1996-7. (Nikon F3, Nokkor 35mm f2.0, 400ASA B/W neg film pushed to 800ASA, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Biproduct: The symmetry of friendship

Some weeks ago, Bulgarian documentary filmmaker Svetoslav Draganov asked me for copy of my portrait of Dimo.  Braving my way through my own chaos, I located a small print amidst my disordered stacks of photos, negatives, and transparencies.  Together with the photo, I found others that I’d taken the same day but had forgot about in the intervening years.  In the photos (below), Johnny and Dimo, colleagues and friends for decades, are talking intently, each slipping into poses and gestures mirroring those of the other.  A physical manifestation of friendship, shared experience, and mutual regard; or simply an elegant, symmetrical embodiment of coincidence?

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Photographic footnotes:  Chaotic lighting …

How did I light the scenes portrays?  Simple: Soft ambient daylight shining through translucent window curtains augmented by a motley assortment of borrowed non-photographic lamps and spotlights, each arbitrarily placed but purposefully aimed ceiling-wards.

And a worthwhile upcoming exhibition

For two weeks beginning January 16th, the Goethe Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria will host an exhibition by photographer Simon “Moni” Varsano, a brilliant and charismatic photographer with the ability to draw out his subjects and capture the movement of theater and dance.  After the collapse of communism in Bulgaria, some of photographers, like others, attempted to make capital out of promoting themselves to western embassies and foundations using spurious, self-spun tales of past suppression and dissidence.  Moni, however, never flaunted his own truly courageous deeds but simply continued photographing, producing memorable work and conjuring delicate, medium-format quality out of a beat-up 35mm Pentax, whatever film stock was to be had, and his mastery of ambient light and exposure.  Later, when many photographers in Sofia competed in a stereotypically Balkan fashion to promote themselves as “the best,” Moni confidently and openly shared his knowledge and encouraged others, this writer included, in improving their work and fulfilling their potentials.  I have much to thank him for, thus, and wish him success with the upcoming exhibition.  Visitors to Sofia are also advised to visit the Gradska Galleriya to see the current retrospective of beautifully printed bold photographic portraits by the technically masterful Bulgarian duo Bogdanov and Misirkov.

Ivo Papasov, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1996. Nikon F2, Tri-X 800ASA.

From the Archives: Bulgarian-Turkish-Roma Clarinet Virtuoso Ivo Papasov, Sofia,1996. Nikon F2, 105mm f2.5, Tri-X 800ASA.

Over the past months, several friends and former colleagues have suggested that I resurrect one or more of my old weblogs.  I’ve chosen to begin with Bubkes.Org, in part because of its emphasis on images and in part because, as its name implies, it allows me to concentrate on the minor and the peripheral rather than on real-time events or definitive pronouncements, things beyond the ken and resources of a part-timer blogger.

As a talisman of sorts, I’ve prefaced this first entry with a photo that appeared in one of the first entries of the original Bubkes.Org: Balkan clarinet legend Ivo Papasov, as I photographed him in a Sofia night club in 1996 (more photos, taken in 1992 at a wedding in Novi Pazar, Bulgaria, follow after the break below).  A chance meeting with Papasov and his orchestra a quarter of a century ago set me off on an odyssey that, indirectly, propelled me into a trajectory of events, some of which I intend to treat in subsequent posts.

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Below, Papasov, then-sidemen Yuri Yunakov and (rear) Neshko Neshev, followed by bride, groom, and others, on the first day of a three-day-long wedding celebration, complete with attendant drama), Novi Pazar, Bulgaria, 1992.

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(Photos copyright Stephen Lewis. Nikon F3, 24mm f2.8 and 105mm f2.5, Tri-X 800ASA, scans from color xeroxes of of 8″x10″ b/w prints)