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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.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell's Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi "Johnny" Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, "in camera" JPEG.)  Click on photo to enlarge.

In the center, in one of his signature Hell’s Angel-style caps, polymath and newly-minted octogenarian and maker of his own documentary films, Georgi “Johnny” Penkov, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, 1600ASA, “in camera” JPEG.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Wednesday evening I attended the premiere of two films in Sofia, Bulgaria, timed to honor the 80th birthday of Georgi “Johnny” Penkov — acoustical scientist, film sound man, humorist and raconteur, and, more recently, documentary film maker in his own right.

“My ‘Mahalla'” and a “Filibeli” guitarist

The first film was one Johnny shot, edited, and produced solo: “My Mahalla,” a characteristically humorous and touching, commentary-free sketch of details, rhythms, and sounds in the street in which he has lived his entire life (Mahalla being Turkish and colloquial Bulgarian for neighborhood).  The second film was one in which Johnny had served as sound man: “One Rainy Day,” an emotional and delicately shot  portrait of the brilliant, energetic, but, in recent years, reclusive, Bulgarian guitarist Ognian Videv, an autodidact and eternal “Filibeli” (after the Turkish word for a denizen of the city of Filibe — Plovidiv as it is now called — in Bulgarian Thrace).

Legendary guitar Virtuoso and life-long "Filibeli" (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of bear, December, 2013.  (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Legendary guitar virtuoso and life-long “Filibeli” (see body text for definition), Ognian Videv, wearing an English-style Kangol and holding, in lieu of his signature guitar, a signature glass of beer, December, 2013. (Fuji X100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

“Tvortsi” and polymaths

The premiere drew an older audience of past-generation Bulgarian “tvortsi” (“creatives,” as they were called during the communist period).  Some had been self-indulgent hacks and pretend former- dissidents in days gone by, contemptuous of ordinary people who work but incapable of working themselves. Others, however — like Johnny, Ognian, and the great Bulgarian-Jewish comic and dramatic actor Itzko Finzi (whose photo I unfortunately neglected to take) — were and remain hardworking, productive, world-class talents. They are also people from whom I learned much.  It was  Johnny, for example, who taught me that being a polymath is a specialization as worthy as any other (!) and who gave me the courage to continue on the path towards becoming one.  Not least, Johnny also honed my search for humor and insight in the small details.

Hats

In the days when many attending the premiere were far younger, hats were de rigeur for Soviet bloc “creatives” and were worn by some as a signature sign of their talents and by others as surrogates for real personae of their own.  Thus, five hats, each representative of people in the first category, are featured in the accompanying photos.

One-time cineast and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his eternal right to a "Greek fisherman's" hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world.  The faux-fur "kalpak" atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added a "Ninotchka"-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click in photo to enlarge.

One-time cineaste and eternal charmeur Doncho Papasov earned his right to a “Greek fisherman’s” hat by actually having once sailed solo around the world. The faux-fur “kalpak” atop the head of blonde hair in the foreground added to the evening a “Ninotchka”-like touch of nostalgia and elegance. (FujiX100, specs as per above.) Click on photo to enlarge.

Photographic footnote: A confession of photographic laziness …

It was either laziness — or preoccupation with conversation with dancing, conversation, and decent wine at the reception following the screening — but the photos posted herein represent some uncharacteristic cutting of corners on my part.

First, my photo of Johnny is blurred and with no recognizable plane of focus.  Johnny would quite likely excuse this by saying that this actually makes  the photo more accurate, life itself being blurred and with no recognizable focus!  Second, instead of falling prey to my usual foible of thinking that the most complicated solution is the most worthy, I took an embarrassing post-processing short cut. Rather than converting my RAW files to b/w in Lightroom and carefully manipulating color sliders to achieve the look I desired, I converted them from RAW to monochrome JPEGS in-camera, using the raw conversion feature of the X100’s firmware.  The results, by the way, were far better than I had expected, especially considering that the files were shot at ISO1600.  All that was needed was some slight shifting of brightness, contrast, etc. in Lightroom,  plus a tad of added clarity and a drop of vignetting, the latter to draw the eye to the main subjects.  Luminance noise was — to borrow an adjective from internet photography pontificators — not unpleasantly “film-like.”

Music at the premiere was provided by a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, with the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma name of "Jimmy."  Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hate.  Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby.  It was Jimmy's fault that I danced rather than photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

Music at the premiere was provided by Jesus Kotsev, a high-spirited, virtuoso Roma (Gypsy) accordionist, who goes by the very non-Bulgarian, non-Roma stage name of “Jimmy Accordeon.” Jimmy reinforces his seemingly American moniker with a seemingly American cowboy hat. Johnny invited Jimmy to the premiere after hearing him play on the street nearby. Blame it on Jimmy that I danced more than I photographed! (Fuji X100, specs as per above). Click on image to enlarge.

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River.  Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that underlies the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known.  Anderson Avenue, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

The streets of the west Bronx meander upwards on their ascent to the heights above the Harlem River. Their winding curves are transected by linear alleyways and stairways that reveal the brash geometry and uncompromising textures that comprise the reality behind the stylized art deco facades for which the neighborhood is known. Anderson Avenue, Bronx, NY, 2012. (FujiX100) Click to enlarge.

In the headline above, I’ve intentionally left out Miss Gladys’s family name.  No matter.  Even if I’d included it, you wouldn’t find Miss Gladys on the internet or in books or newspaper archives.  You can, however,  find Miss Gladys deep in the hearts and memories of scores of people in the Bronx and in Harlem.  And, to search these, no last names are required.

Miss Gladys passed away two years ago yesterday.  As per the title of this post, her life was one of ascent through a world as stark and roughly surfaced as the stairways and alleyways of the Bronx.  In it bare-bones outline, Miss Gladys’s biography was paradigmatic of many African-American women of her generation: Born in the south, traumas at a young age, a move north, single motherhood, years of hard work while studying to become a nurse, disability from an on-the-job accident, and a final earthly rise into the rarefied world of Alzheimer’s.  Miss Gladys’s ascent through life was as steep, deliberate, and demanding as that of the stairways that slice through the west Bronx.  Miss Gladys climbed her way upwards with outspokenness, arch humor, and energy, and with love and devotion to her daughter, a magnificent, courageous woman in her own right.

I met Miss Gladys only a few months before her death, at a party celebrating her daughter’s 50th birthday.  From the rarefied heights of Alzheimer’s, Miss Gladys introduced herself to me over and again, each time explaining that it was actually her own birthday party and asking me to bring her her first slice of cake, since she hadn’t yet had one. Between a growing tally of first slices, she conversed with adult guests and passed life’s lessons and worthy admonishments to the children present.

Several weeks ago, a lengthy and extremely read-worthy article on the treatment of Alzheimer’s appeared in the New Yorker magazine.  The article framed Alzheimer’s, not as an aberration, but as a higher, possibly purer form of being, in which parts of the cognitive self peel away and allow personality to shine through in a manner closer to the origin of self and of human antecedents.  The article also documented a “new” and “novel” form of treatment: regarding of Alzheimer’s patients and their whims as normal and prescribing their full integration into social contexts.  It seems that the author, Rebecca Mead, never searched for Miss Gladys, her daughter, fellow church-goers, or myriad of friends and former co-workers.  If Ms. Mead had, she would have found to her surprise that what she called novel and innovative is simply the way life is lived within at least one tightly-knit circle of African-Americans and a sprinkling of “whites” in Harlem and the heights of the West Bronx.

What did I learn from Miss Gladys?  Something quite simple: That if I live life as if I am ascending the steep steps of the west Bronx, that if I protect those who I love, remain outspoken, truly believe in the worth of things beyond the boundaries of my own self, and continue against growing odds to try to “get ahead,” I might yet find that I still have a goodly number of slices of cake in my future.