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Faces

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?”

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)

 

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

Village of Kamen Bryag, 2005. Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, 400 ASA C41 process b/w film, scan of print.

The woman in the photograph above arrived at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast during the Second World War during a forced exchange of populations between Bulgaria and Romania. Together with fellow uprooted “ethnic Bulgarians,” she spent weeks on the road, traveling southward from Romania by cart and on foot from the surroundings of Baba Dag — a provincial town named after high nearby ridge, the site of one of  five revered cenotaph graves of Sarı Saltık, legendary Balkan spearhead of the Bektaşi order of dervishes.

On arrival in Bulgaria newly “repatriated” expellees from Baba Dag were arbitrarily divided amongst several villages on the Bulgarian side of the border, often without the provision of shelter.  In the village of Kamen Bryag, the new arrivals eventually built a new quarter of their own off-grid from the original settlement.  In it, they constructed low-slung, L-shaped houses in the fashion of the region, starting with one room and, as needs arose and materials became available, adding additional rooms one by one, “railroad-flat-style,” as it were.  Like most villagers, they worked worked the fields by day and, after hours, tended vegetable plots, pigpens, and chicken runs in their courtyards, yielding peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, fresh eggs, and meat for curing.

The courtyard in the photo no longer exists; it and and the vegetable garden next to it were uprooted several years ago.  In their place: a large enclosed restaurant, open in tourist season only, surrounded by neatly planted flowerbeds on one side and a towering antenna of a local mobile telephony on another.  The grandmother still lives on the plot, however, and tends the little that remains of her garden.  She is in her late-eighties now and, at day’s end, often sits on the raised curb of the newly paved road next to her former farmyard in expectation of passersby, roadside benches of the sort shown in a previous post having been removed or left to crumble.

Photographic footnote … and, following it, a story

The photo above was shot in 6x6cm format on C41 process black/white film, a film sort that yielded magenta-tinted black/white negatives when processed in “drugstore” color film developing machines.  The film was fine grained and had a broad exposure latitude, enabling individual shots on a single roll to be taken at different ASA settings, usually within one stop of the rated ASA of 400.  I took the photo at a relatively slow shutter-speed, fast enough to enabled to shot to be taken handheld but not fast enough to take into account the sudden turn of the subject’s head.  Thus, while the neck and dress of the subject are well in focus, her face is slightly blurred.  As a result, I originally rejected the photo but, on examination years later, I felt that the combination of facial expression and setting outweighed any lack of sharpness.

From Ovid to Grandmother

For a long-ago somber treatment of the region of Kamen Bryag, Baba Dag, and surroundings one can flip through the pages of Ovid’s writings during his exile from Rome, Tristia and Ex Ponto (both available in a single file on Archive.Org).  For a somewhat humorous view, one can read a story I wrote a decade ago linking the great Roman poet with the grandmother portrayed above — the full text of the story can be found by clicking here or on “Read More,” immediately below:

Read More

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.

Musician playing tambur, Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Musician playing tambur, Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul. An  iconic urban promenade through which millions of pedestrians pass each week.  Street musicians huddle along its edges, polished and amateur, youthful and worn.  The music of some causes passersby to break stride, that of others attracts small crowds and elicits donations of coins and even banknotes.

Who are the musicians?  The business card of the man portrayed in the photo below contained but a phone number and a single word: Kemanci, player of the Keman — a statement of identity and essence clearer and more revealing than any given or family name.

Two Photographic Moods

The photo above is a literal rendering, with strong blacks and whites.  The photo below emphasizes grays and was shaped using the digital equivalents of what in the days of physical darkrooms was called dodging and burning, the channeling and blocking of light between negative and paper.  Black/white digital processing is both a blessing and a curse: the absence of the physical properties of film and paper and of the effects of chemical processing, broadens possibilities but also eliminates worthy constraints and renders mute a valuable language of expression.

Keman player, istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click on image to enlarge.

Keman player, istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. 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.

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.

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.