Film-based Photography

A Portrait: The late "Belleto," cardboard box scavenger, Women's Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter 1997-8. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Tri-X 400 ASA, scan from print) Click to enlarge.

The late “Belleto,” cardboard and scrap paper scavenger, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter 1997-8. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Tri-X 400 ASA, scan from print.) Click to enlarge.

Two informal portraits taken late one winter afternoon a decade and a half ago with an old Rolleiflex Tessar 75mm f3.5.  For years after photographing in and around the outdoor “Women’s Market” in Sofia, Bulgaria, I found it difficult to photograph faces in Western Europe and even in my native New York.  Faces in the latter locations appeared less marked by life and labor and more  by fashion and pose.  When looking at these two portraits anew after many years, I remembered phrase from a poem by the great Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, something about “faces carved as if by plows.”  A quick browse through the bookshelves and I tracked the words down to his passionate poem about the Virgin Mary and the faces and eyes of women, “The Faces of Our Women” (“Kadιnlarιmιzιn Yüzleri”).

The photos also reminded me of three photographers. The first is Austin, Texas based professional photographer and prolific writer and weblogger, Kirk Tuck, whose kind comments about the photo below in the course of an email exchange a year or so ago led to my relaunching Bubkes.Org.

The second is Pieter Vandermeer, a rough and tumble Rotterdam-based professional who, in the midst of his continuous flow of assignments, was the official photographer of the Rotterdam Film Festival in its initial years.  Piet had learned photography in the Navy and not, like most Dutch photographers, at an art academy.  Piet had the courage and integrity to look subjects (and clients!) in the eyes, engage them, and enable them to be themselves. Even when photographing people “on the street,” he would invariably track them down and present them with a print of their portrait, a confirmation of their and his person-hood.  Piet’s approach was part of what prompts me every now and then to blow the dust off one my Rolleiflexes and set them to work.  With a Rollei, I can lock eyes with a subject and, at the same time, compose, focus, and shoot.  Because I am tall, the ability to use the Rollei at waist or chest level rather than eye level keeps me from looking down on subjects, literally and figuratively.

The third photographer is Elena Nenkova, a very fine Bulgarian studio and music event photographer who, back in the 1990’s, was also a printer of custom photographic enlargements.  Many of the older photos I occasionally post on this site are scans of prints she made from my negatives.  Thus, they are her work as well as mine and incorporate her vision, care, and excellence.

Baker, side-street of Women's Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar, Tri-X, 400 ASA, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

Baker, side-street of the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, winter1997-1998. (Rolleiflex f3.5 Tessar, Tri-X, 400 ASA, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

Broom sellers,

Roma broom sellers, Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar 𝘧3.5, Tri-X 400ASA, scan of print.) Click on image to enlarge.

Due to the length of this posting, I’ll invert the usual order and begin, rather than end, with a somewhat dry “footnote” on photographic technique; some reflections on the content of the photo — the Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria — follow thereafter …

The Virtues of Slow Lenses

A good number of photographic sites I skim through on the internet betray an out-sized preoccupation with the virtues of fast, wide aperture lenses and their ability to create  narrow planes of focus and patterns of background blur.  As a counter to such, the photo above shows the virtues of slow, narrow-aperture lenses, in this case the 75mm Tessar f3.5, the built-in lens in a second-hand twin-lens Rolleiflex that I bought used more than three decades ago.  The Tessar is one of the simplest designed and lightest weight lenses ever produced but when used properly it is second to none in sharpness, detail, and contrast. The Tessar’s 75mm focal length is a tad wider than 80mm,  the usual “normal” focal length on 6x6cm medium-format film cameras.  This 5mm difference enables the Tessar to deliver slightly wider coverage when used up-close, an advantage in environmental portraiture. The extra 5mm also provides a tad more depth of field and a slight exaggeration in perspective.  The depth of field provided by the Tessar’s maximum aperture of f3.5 reduces the likeliness of focusing errors and keeps background details recognizable.  In the photo above, thus, the main subject is in crisp focus while his wares and female colleague and the pedestrian traffic and architectural features of the market street behind him are sufficiently out of focus so as not to detract from the main subject but still clear enough to provide meaning and context.

Now, on to the subject at hand: the urban dynamics and historical tales the photo reveals …

The Women’s Market, Sofia, Bulgaria

The Women’s Market — located on broad curved street, following the course of a one-time riverbed, just west of the present-day center of Sofia, Bulgaria — has a history that stretches back to the centuries when what is now Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire.  Following Bulgaria’s independence from Ottoman rule in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, the Women’s Market was Sofia’s main retail produce outlet.  Nearly a century later, during the final years of the communist period, the Women’s Market provided a buffer of private enterprise and a reliable source of seasonal produce. Following the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989, the Women’s Market remained a chief source of fresh fruit and vegetables in a city in which old distribution systems had collapsed and new ones had not yet formed.  Over the last decade, however, the Market has been in a state of decline.  Supermarkets and shopping malls have taken root throughout Sofia, tastes have changed, and those of the city’s inhabitants with disposable cash and pretensions to mobility have moved from the urban core to the urban periphery taking their purchasing power with them.

In recent years, a large percentage of the Women’s Market’s street stalls have been removed by the municipality. At the moment, new modern multistory stall complexes wishfully described as being built for “tourists” and “artists” are under construction.  What they will look like upon completion and the exact functions they will serve is anyone’s guess.  What remains for now are rows of small enclosed kiosks selling local cheese, cured meats, and fish, plus scores of open fruit and vegetable stands under large brightly painted utilitarian canopies. Each stand is manned by vendors, some morose and silent, others vigorously or halfheartedly hawking their wares.

The endurance of the 19th century

In a lifetime of working in and observing cities in many places throughout the world, I’ve noticed that late-nineteenth century neighborhoods are amongst the last to be regenerated.  This is due in part to the resilient endurance of their economic and social functions during the twentieth century and into the early-twenty-first.  In such neighborhoods, cheap rents and high vacancy rates in storefront occupancy enabled the provision of inexpensive goods to those whose budgets constricted their choices.

The same interstice of factors offers opportunities for marginal entrepreneurship and a shot at mobility to those who might otherwise fall outside of the economy.  The low profit-margins inherent to such entrepreneurship, however, can also make for dubious goods and equally dubious practices.  Thus, shopping in the Women’s Market calls for a taste for sharp-tongued banter and a quick eye ever on the lookout for rigged scales and for good looking produce on display but underweight and damaged goods placed in one’s shopping bag.  Still, where else can one buy, for example, persimmons or grapes, albeit on the last legs of their shelf-lives, for a third of the price of elsewhere and serviceable tomatoes for even far less?

Layers of unwarranted blame

There is a fine ethnic division of work and functions at the Women’s Market.  Meat, cheese, and fish  kiosks and stands offering wild herbs and mushrooms are run by ethnic Bulgarians. Fruit and vegetable stands and peripatetic bootleg cigarette operations are run by Roma (Gypsies).  Storefronts in adjacent streets include honey and bee keeping supply stores run by Bulgarians and rows of “Arab” shops — halal butchers, spice stores, barbers, and low-cost international telephone services — run by and catering to increasing numbers of legal and illegal immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Many Bulgarians, their weak self esteem shakily bolstered by contempt for “others,” blame the shoddier commercial practices of this wonderfully vibrant marginal neighborhood on the presence and “inferiority” of such outsiders.

Several years ago, I attended an open town meeting on the future of the Women’s Market and its surroundings.  The meeting degenerated into hysterical, racist tirades against the presence and practices of Roma stand-holders and market laborers, this despite their being hardworking people trying to extract a semblance of a living from admittedly marginal trade and low-value added labor.  Banish the Gypsies, the sense of the meeting implied, keep the neighborhood “white” and Christian, and the market area with magically become upscale and all will be well.  Not a thought was given to viewing the attempts at entrepreneurship on the part of Roma as social and economic assets to be incubated, this whether out of commitment to equal opportunity or to the  insights of developmental  economists such as Albert O. Hirschman.  The neighborhood’s “Arabs” were denounced with equal rage.

Bulgarians complain that Roma do not work, but when Roma do work and commence to gain economic stability, the majority population reacts vengefully.  Rage and blame have deep roots at the Women’s Market.  On a symbolic level, blame even muddies the market’s name.  During the communist period, the market had been renamed after Georgi Kirkov, an early Bulgarian left-wing trade unionist who died soon after the First World War.  Following the collapse of Soviet-bloc communism, Kirkov’s name was expunged and Kirkov himself anachronistically assigned a share of blame for the mistakes and misdeeds of a neo-Stalist regime that came to power almost three decades after his death.  Today, only a unkempt bust of Kirkov remains, mounted on graffiti-daubed pedestal in a small triangular park in which idle market day-laborers, elderly Roma mostly, congregate to smoke cigarettes, drink cheap alcohol from half-pint bottles, and while away the hours.

Festering blame that has never been resolved

There is another level of blame and contempt, however, that festers under the surface of debates pertaining to the Market.  During the Second World War, the Bulgarian army rounded-up and deported to their death 18,000 Jews from Macedonia and northeastern Greece, areas ceded to Bulgaria by Nazi Germany in reward for favorable trade terms and a lion’s share of Bulgaria’s gold reserves.  At the same time, within the boundaries of the Kingdom of Bulgaria proper, 50,000+ Jews were socially and economically disenfranchised and legally robbed of their real and movable property.  Tens of thousands of Jews were deported from Sofia to the countryside; the younger and fitter male deportees were sent to work as slave laborers on road crews and the rest were left to fend for themselves without means of support in isolated villages. As a boon to ethnic Bulgarians living in Sofia, the deportation freed up hundreds of businesses (most of them marginal), thousands of dwellings in a city short of housing stock, and tens of thousands of places in the workforce.

From the post-war period on, Bulgarians called the seizure of Jewish property and the deportation of Jews from Sofia “The Saving of the Jews,” giving a self-congratulatory spin to the large percentage of Jews in Bulgaria that came through the war alive, something that can be more accurately ascribed to Bulgaria’s being knocked out of the war by the Soviet Union in mid-1944. The reaction of more than 90% of the Jews in the Bulgaria to such a “saving,” was clear enough: emigrate en masse, mostly to Israel, not long after the war ended.  Prior to the war, Sofia’s Jews had formed the bulk of the residents of the market quarter.  Their  deportation and post-war emigration created a vacuum in the midst of the city’s center and led to discontinuities and dislocations from which the streets surrounding the Women’s Market have yet to recover.

Rag-sellers, “çıfıtcı,” and voting with my wallet

Today, in a country almost without Jews, Jews remain an obsession for many Bulgarians and a target of their hostility and condescension.  This especially holds true for populist agitators and amongst Bulgarians with higher incomes and social standing, whether real or self-ascribed.  In such circles, Jews are blamed for communism and for capitalism and for imagined secret cabals that subvert Bulgaria and steer the world.  The poisonous, fraudulent “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remains a best-seller at outdoor book stalls in Sofia, as do conspiracy theory books involving Israel’s Mossad.  Walls are daubed with antisemitic (and anti-Roma and anti-Turkish) slogans, the work of bands of neo-fascist football (soccer) supporters.  Few social gatherings of upper-income or self-styledly cultured Bulgarians are complete without the telling of “yevreiski vitsovi” (“Jewish jokes”) — jokes about Jews rather than by them, usually with story lines about rich but stupid Jews outsmarting themselves in avaricious schemes.

In truth, prior to the Second World War, most Jews in Bulgaria were marginal shopkeepers and low-income craftsmen, laborers, and peddlers. Like today’s Roma, Jews were blamed for the inherent defects of the economic niches in which they labored and the social niches in which they lived.  Early in the twentieth century, many Sofia Jews were old-clothes and rag vendors, literally, thus, members of the “lumpenproletariat.” To this day, in Bulgaria, Jews — be they doctors, scholars, merchants, or ordinary folks like this writer — are contemptuously referred to as “chifuti,” a Bulgarian-language bastardization of the Turkish term “çıfıtcı” or old-clothes- and rag-seller.  Personally, as someone who has worked for others since my 13th year, and whose roots are in a world not dissimilar to the that of the Women’s Market, I am quite willing to wear the label of “çıfıtcı“with pride.  For this reason, when in Sofia, I happily continue to  do my shopping in and around the Women’s Market and loyally patronize its Roma vendors …  this regardless of any and all bruised and overripe fruit or real or imagined thumbs on scales!  As to antisemitic, anti-Roma , anti-worker “cultured” Bulgarians, as we used to say in the Yiddish-English patois of my native Lower East Side of Manhattan: “Geh’n’d’r’ert!” (“Sink into the ground”).  After years of listening to their racist hatefulness  and class-condescension of , I’m always available to lend a helpful push.

Anchors, Cables, Ropes. Perșembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2011.  The waterfront site of Perșembe Pazarı (The Thursday Market) has housed the workplaces of ships' chandlers for more than a millennium.  (Toyo field camera, Rodenstock135mm f5.6, medium format color negative in 6x9cm back). Click to enlarge

Anchors, Cables, and Ropes. Perșembe Pazarı, Galata, Istanbul, 2011. The waterfront site of Perșembe Pazarı (The Thursday Market) has housed the workplaces of ships’ chandlers and hardware makers for more than a millennium. (Tripod-mounted Toyo field camera, Rodenstock135mm f5.6, 6x9cm roll film back, drum scan of color negative). Click to enlarge

Some “meta-reporting” further to my recent post entitled Istanbul Conflicts From Afar: Issues and Aspersions, Headscarves and Rambo

Kudos and “Great Expectorations”

Over the past two weeks Istanbul Conflicts From Afar received some attention and even kudos.  On July 10, WordPress (the hosts of Bubkes.Org) featured the post in their “Freshly Pressed” listing of read-worthy blog activity.  On July 20, Doc Searls of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the law school of Harvard University included it in a string of quotes summarizing a selection of my postings to date.  More important, Doc  tracked down the US Public Radio broadcast (“Great Expectorations”) that revealed the suspect origins of the malicious and overused “spat upon Vietnam vet” urban legend.  To read the full transcript of the the broadcast click here.

Linux Journal and Working Class New York

By coincidence, only a few days before Doc posted his review of Bubkes.Org, I received an email from the urban, water, and infrastructure expert mentioned in my post Istanbul: Water, Fountains, Taksim, and Infrastructural Tourism.  In his email, the expert included this link to another mention of me by Searls in a 2008 piece for Linux journal.  In the 2008 article, Doc referred to a posting to my old weblog Hakpaksak in which I quoted from Joshua Freeman’s excellent book Working Class New York on the appeal of what remains of the unique character, ethos, and capabilities of New York City as it was prior to the rise and fall of the financial sector.  The collision of the New York of heavy lifting and manual skills with the New York of trading floors and computer screens remains for me a subject of ongoing observation that colors my portrayals, written and photographic, of cities my native New York, Istanbul, and my very own private bench-scale urban laboratory of sorts: Sofia, Bulgaria.

Scrap dealers' handcarts parked and at rest, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, 2012.  (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Scrap dealers’ handcarts parked and at rest, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, 2012. (Fuji X100) Click to enlarge

Derelict fountain, Galata, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, Ilford HP5, scan of print.)  Click to enlarge.

Derelict fountain, Galata, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar f2.8, Ilford HP5, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Further to my previous post on water, fountains, et. al.

Processes of decline and abandonment

Two decades ago, I began to photograph the historic water fountains (çeșme) and water kiosks (sebil) of Istanbul.  I began, not with the grand and monumental, but with obscure and abandoned — those in backstreets, alleyways, and courtyards, functioning and non-functioning fragments of legacy urban infrastructure, overlooked by scholars,  their features surrendered to the elements, decay, and neglect. The forgotten origins and gradual disappearance of many of these structures seemed symbolic of larger urban processes of decline and abandonment — processes that are as central to the functioning and continuity of cities as are restoration and (re)development.

Fountain, seemingly from late-18th-century spolia, Zincirli Han, Kapalı Çarşıı, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, Ilford XP2, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Fountain, seemingly from late-18th-century spolia, Zincirli Han, Kapalı Çarşı, Istanbul, ca. 2000. (Rolleiflex Xenotar 2.8, Ilford XP2, scan of print.) Click to enlarge.

Aesthetic rather than documentary

At the time, my approach to fountains and kiosks aesthetic rather than documentary.  My eye was drawn to single planes as much as to entire structures, to textures as much as to decorative elements, to materials and much as to settings, and to the marks of time as much as to original appearances.  The joy of finding in the focusing screens of my Rolleiflexes the tensions and calming balances inherent to subject matter was paramount.

Frontal detail of the early-eighteenth-century Iskele (quayside) fountain, Uskudar, Istanbul, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Ilford HP5, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

Frontal detail of the early-eighteenth-century Iskele (quayside) fountain, Uskudar, Istanbul, 1997. (Rolleiflex Tessar f3.5, Ilford HP5, scan of print). Click to enlarge.

Musicians marching in protest demonstration, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, winter of January,1997.  In the winter of 1996-1997 the Bulgarian Lev plummeted, store shelves empty, and the prices of food and utilities soared beyond the means of most people.  Weeks of protests ensued.  (Scan of print, Nikon F3, 35mm f2.0, Tri-X.) Click on image to enlarge.

Musicians marching in protest demonstration, Plovdiv, Bulgaria, January,1997. (Scan of print, Nikon F3, 35mm f2.0, Tri-X.) Click on image to enlarge.

Antecedent to my previous post: In the winter of 1996-1997 the Bulgarian Lev plummeted, store shelves emptied, and the prices of food and utilities soared beyond the means of most people. Weeks of protests ensued.

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.


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.





(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)