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Music

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.

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.

"La Reina." The Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz.  Wall painting, low-100s between Lexington and Third, Manhattan, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

“La Reina.” The Queen of Latin Music, Celia Cruz. Wall painting, low-100s between Lexington and Third Avenues, Manhattan, 2012. (Fuji X100). Click to enlarge.

The great Afro-Cuban singer Celia Cruz, one of the voices of Latin Music during the second half of the twentieth century.

The portrait above graces a tenement wall at the western edge of Spanish Harlem.  The tenements of Spanish Harlem were built more than a century ago to capitalize on flows of immigrants and their children attempting to escape the  congestion and degradation of the Lower East Side. (One of own grandmothers lived for a few years only a block away from the wall on which the portrait above is painted.)  Most of the first wave of East Siders to arrive in the neighborhood (Jews and Italians, mostly) soon moved northwards following the routes of new subway lines to housing that arose in the Bronx in the years after World War I.

By the 1940s, Spanish Harlem had become the main destination for migrants to New York City from Puerto Rico.  In the 1950s and 60s, some blocks of Spanish Harlem were amongst the poorest, most crowded and densely populated places on earth.  In recent years the population of the neighborhood has thinned out and, in places, gentrification has begun. Nevertheless, the voice of Celia Cruz still echos resonantly.

Marchers carrying the banner of a folkloric dance association, Istiklal Cadessi (Avenue), Istanbul, , 1 June 2013,  The hundreds of thousands of other marchers that passed through Istiklal that day ranged from trade unionists to nationalists, to fringe leftists, to lesbians and gays, and to just ordinary people. Marching phalanxes from Istanbul's football (soccer) fan clubs added a tough working-class edge. (Fuji X100)

Marchers carrying the banner of a folkloric dance association, Istiklal Cadessi (Avenue), Istanbul, , 1 June 2013, The hundreds of thousands of other marchers that passed through Istiklal that day ranged from trade unionists to nationalists, to fringe leftists, to lesbians and gays, and to just ordinary people. Marching phalanxes from Istanbul’s football (soccer) fan clubs added a tough working-class edge. (Fuji X100)

As of yesterday morning, I had planned to write a reflective post on the significance and of the confluence of urban issues that sparked the present protests in Istanbul.   I abandoned this idea at 9:00pm last night, when Turkey’s self-styled “Leader” — in a manner redolent of European diplomacy Anno 1938 — unilaterally broke the agreement he had reached on Friday with an umbrella organization of protestors and let the police loose on the occupation encampment in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, at the time packed with a Saturday night crowd of visitors and well-wishers.

A police riot ensued.  I watched scores of protestors and bystanders overcome and burned by tear gas being hand-carried by their fellows to a nearby hospital.  In a side street, I stood with the front-line of peaceful, albeit very vocal, demonstrators as the police, without provocation, sprayed them with jets of chemically tainted water and fired tear gas into their midst as they retreated.  Last week, an acquaintance told me that when the police come to clear the Gezi he and his friends would stop them with “smiles and hugs.”  Sadly, neither worked well against police batons and chemical weapons.

So, instead of focusing on  urban issues, the next several posts to this site will comprise a photographic tribute to the millions of Turkish citizens who peacefully demonstrated and occupied parks and streets these past weeks.  Despite stereotypes presented in the Turkish and Western press, these were demonstrations and not “riots” (the only rioters I saw were the police themselves).  Also, not all demonstrators were young or naive and not all were from the left or the privileged middle class.  And, not all protestors demonstrated or camped in Gezi Park; some simply took to their balconies in residential neighborhoods across the city, banged together pots and pans and shouted: “Tencere, Tava, Tayyip Istifa” (Pot, Pan, Tayyip resign.)

A word on the approach behind the photos in this and the next subsequent entries:

Photojournalists tend to work with extreme telephoto lenses to capture dramatic and “decisive” moments and isolate iconic images.  I photograph mostly up close-up and with moderate wide angle lenses.  I look for context and for ordinary, prosaic moments.  Thus, the photographs that follow attempt to portray the ordered and optimistic nature (to date!) of the present protests and show the diversity of ordinary citizens unjustly accused of looting and rioting.

The Turkish Prime Minister announced that he would never kneel before "looters/freebooters" occupying Gezi Park and the marchers demonstrating on their behalf.  This marching folklorist carries a sign liberally translated as: "Even when we dance Zeybek (a traditional dance involving crouching steps), we do not kneel!"

The Turkish Prime Minister announced that he would never kneel before “looters/freebooters” occupying Gezi Park and the marchers demonstrating on their behalf. This marching folklorist carries a sign liberally translated as: “Even when we dance Zeybek (a traditional dance involving crouching steps), we do not kneel!.” It remains to be seen who, in the end, will be the one(s) kneeling. (FujiX100)

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)