Off The Cuff And No Worse For It
Saturday, December 04, 2010
When I started out as a professional photographer in Vancouver I longed for a studio and its de rigueur studio lights. That took a while as lights used to be much more expensive then than they are now. For a while I depended on little flashes that then we used to call head-on-flash. These would slide on top of my Pentaxes. But as my income increased I was first able to get a powerful portable flash called a Norman 200B and from there I bought my first Ascor power pack with two flash heads and a Fresnel spotlight. I converted our Burnaby house basement into a studio. When I did that I could consider myself a full fledged professional.
Burnaby basement studio
I moved to better and bigger studios and my studio lighting got ever more complicated. For a long while I became obsessed with 30s and 40s Hollywood lighting and I would brag how I had managed to use 7 or 8 lights in one setup.
A local magazine is planning to do a spread of my pictures from my past. Of course I am flattered but I received, at the same time. a sobering shock which will, I believe provide me with a respite on what I though was shaping up as my definitive fading into the photographic sunset.
An designer told me, “I like all your photographs but my favorite one is the one of Elizabeth Smart.”
I photographed Elizabeth Smart in the CN Railyard in 1983. I used a Pentax MX with a small Sunpak flash attached to its top. There were two unusual elements involved. One of them was the use of a beautifully corrected (few aberrations) 20mm wide angle and the other was my choice of film. This was Kodak Technical Pan Film which was (it is no longer made) the sharpest film ever made by man.
The negative does not look quite like what you see here. I have done some digital vignetting. This digital vignetting is almost the same as the darkroom manipulation I performed on the original print that ran in Vancouver Magazine in 1983.
What the designer really means in telling me that he likes this image over the others is that the picture has the raw and edgy ( a couple of terms that are in vogue now). The beautifully lit studio photos for which I am more likely known have a patina of slickness that in this 21st century might only be tolerated in such magazines as Vanity Fair.
It was for one of the last versions of Saturday Night
that I was hired to photograph Gillian Guess
(a second time as I had photographed Guess
for an earlier incarnation of the venerable magazine). The art director told me they wanted a fly-on-the-wall shot with little production value and not studio lighting. In the end I used the light of one naked bulb of Guess’ bathroom. The photograph was well liked and I received kudos for it.
There is a pattern here that I have observed that comes and goes in what I do. Some years it is the edgy look. In other years it is the well lit Vanity Fair photo spread that art directors want. These trends come and go serving to keep me on my toes and warning me to not rest on the laurels of this or that.
If I am to believe the art director in question there might be new work coming my way in 2011 that will involve me fishing for my Nikon FM-2s or (I still have it) that Pentax MX
with that perfectly corrected 20mm wide angle.
Today I looked at the file of young lady whose boyfriend was a PA at the CBC. She was a nurse and I have forgotten her name. She had a face, such a face that I took her to the cliffs of West Vancouver and to Parthenon Place
(alas that Parthenon in miniature is now gone) and snapped pictures of her using my Pentax, Kodak Technical Pan Film. I never used the pictures for anything but I enjoyed taking them. Even then I knew I was lucky to photograph such a face. I chose to have her close her eyes for most of my snaps, she was much too dangerous when she looked straight at you.
I see in these pictures a romance and beauty that my studio photographs lack (at least a bit). Simplicity seems to spice these pictures up. I understand what the art director is driving at. And, best of all, I feel excited at the prospect of going back to my roots of 1983 when my photography was simpler, off the cuff and no worse for it.
Fred R. Barnard, William Safire & The Baltic Surprise
Friday, December 03, 2010
|William Safire by Alex W-H|
ON LANGUAGE; Worth a Thousand Words
By William Safire
April 07, 1996
ONE PICTURE IS WORTH TEN thousand words."
That, as we all know, is an ancient Chinese proverb. At least most of us think that's what it is. But in the Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Famous Phrases, the quotations sleuth Burton Stevenson exploded that myth, attributing the saying to one Fred R. Barnard. As helpful phrasedicks do, Stevenson included the earliest citation's source, which was first in Printer's Ink of Dec. 8, 1921, and again in that magazine on March 10, 1927.
I stumbled over this information in writing the introduction to a book of famous news photographs that have appeared in The New York Times, part of the celebration of 100 years that the newspaper has been in the Ochs family. (Adolph Ochs bought the struggling daily in 1896; welcome to the centennial.) That led me to the nefarious way the most famous remark about photography was coined, and it has never been told in full before.
Fred Barnard was national advertising manager of Street Railways Advertising, in the 1920's a sizable agency having offices across the nation and boasting that "the cars on our list carry more than 10,000,000,000 passengers a year," but it was derailed in 1941. Barnard took an ad in Printer's Ink with this headline: "One Look Is Worth a Thousand Words."
The copy block began: "So said a famous Japanese philosopher, and he was right -- nearly everyone likes to 'read' pictures. 'Buttersweet is good to eat' is a very short phrase, but it will sell more goods if presented, with an appetizing picture of the product, to many people morning, noon and night, every day in the year, than a thousand-word advertisement placed before the same number of people only a limited number of times during the year."
But his slogan didn't work; a look does not stand in sharp contrast to a word. He could have said, "A look is worth a thousand descriptions," which sounds more like parallel construction, but the adman was destined to do better.
Six years later, planning another ad to attract business to his agency, Barnard changed "one look" to "one picture," which contrasted nicely with "words," and while he was at it, escalated the "one thousand" to "ten thousand." The famous Japanese philosopher (whom nobody ever heard of because he never existed) fell by the wayside. The adman hired a calligrapher to put the words into Chinese characters, and under them captioned, "Chinese Proverb: One Picture Is Worth Ten Thousand Words." We do not know why he switched from Japanese to Chinese; perhaps the artist he hired knew only Chinese, and the picture of the Chinese characters was worth more than a lot of copy. Barnard later confessed he made that attribution to an ancient Asian "so that people would take it seriously."
He was right; we do slavishly accept the primacy of pictures over prose. Although writers could readily deride the wisdom of a mere car-card salesman like Fred Barnard, we are reluctant to take on Confucius or some other venerable sage when it comes to a subject as controversial as the derogation of the written word. The lesson in all this: As Diogenes used to say, one original thought is worth a thousand mindless quotings. Make that ten thousand.
When Wiliam Safire died in September of 2009 I felt I had really lost a friend even though my only claim to it is that I had met him when I interviewed him and photographed him in his hotel room in Seattle in 1995. During that interview we had shared chocolate covered strawberries and discussed his female ankle fetish. I had suspected he had one from several hints mentioned in his novel, Sleeper Spy
(the reason for the interview) based on the very interesting life of James Jesus Angleton who was the head of counter intelligence at the CIA. Safire admitted his fetish and he explained that the perfect ankle was one in which he could close thumb with index finger when encircling it.
We talked a lot about the power of photography and I remember him telling me about the idea that a photograph packed or was worth 1000 words. I had no clue as to the Mr. Barnard Safire refered to. But I was thrilled that he found the time to chat with me and I was particularly pleased when he ordered the strawberries from room service. I had brought with me one of the earliest books I had purchased from the Book of the Month Club
back in 1989 which was his 1980 On Language.
In the last couple of years I have noticed that I have upped the ante in this blog. In the beginning I had limited my daily blog to one photograph and a short paragraph. This has now become a multiple image deal with lots of writing. This can be a pain but I have not succumbed too often. Today I noticed that one picture (actually four) of Virve Reid (the Baltic Surprise) that served as my preliminary attempts at doing a series of women in tubs, could be cropped so as to be viewed by all here without offending. This one picture, to me, is worth many words and I would be inclined to run it with no copy. But some would say, Blogger Alex is getting lazy. Or they might not appreciate that through luck and a bit of talent Virve looks absolutely stunning here. Are words necessary?
The pictures that follow that one picture are variants where in one I used the technique of scanning the double negative with a sheet of paper on top (the defects and bits of the paper show up on the resulting image). In the other I simply scanned the double negative (one exposure after another in the strip of negative) normally and cropped out what might have offended some.
But at the very least this exercise has given me the chance to mention that friend, who as serious as he looks in my portrait was not at all like that. He had a wonderful sense of humor that I feel the On Language column of the New York Times now lacks. Sad to say I usually skip that page in my Sunday New York Times Magazine. I miss Mr. William Safire.
High Dynamic Range The Easy Way
Thursday, December 02, 2010
In May of 1995 the Georgia Straight
dispatched me to photograph or brand new Vancouver Public Library for an article by Sean Rossiter. One of the pleasures of working for the Straight in those years is that in spite of my having a reputation for portrait photography they powers at be at the Straight, in this case editor Charles Campbell, thought I could also do architectural photography that did not look like the norm of the day.
For these photographs I used a technique that was then called extended range night photography. The process (it could only be done with b+w film) involved using Kodak Tri-X exposed at f-5.6 for 35 seconds, right after sundown. I then had to develop the film in a slow working developer called Kodak Technidol. This resulted in pictures in which the highlights (such as street lights) were not completely overexposed while still holding some detail in the shadows.
This process had been digitized and it is now called HDR which stands for High Dynamic Range. Digital camera photographers take a series of pictures (usually 3) of the same scene with the camera locked on a tripod. The three exposures are of the highlights, the midtones and the dark areas. Then special programs mate the three exposures into one.
When I took my extended range night photos of the library, this method was the only game in town.
I rarely take architectural shots since I really do prefer the architecture of the human face. You will rarely see me walking in town taking pictures of buildings. But last week when I went to the Vancouver Public Library I took a few snaps with my iPhone. I was amazed at the overall quality and I love the subtle purplish cast of the pictures. But no matter how nice these pictures might be I will always return to the human face.
The contact sheet in b+w represents images I took with my Mamiya RB-67 and the 50mm wide angle. For the 6x7 cm format the 50mm is equivalent to about a 26mm wide angle in the 35mm format or the digital single lens reflex camera with a full-size sensor. For the two red-tinged photographs ( I scanned the b+w negative as four colour and then added red and yellow) I used a Nikkor 16mm F-2.8 fisheye lens mounted on a Nikon F-3.
Wednesday, December 01, 2010
|Me, left, and Enrique Serna, second from right.|
It was 1956. I was in the seventh grade at the Colegio Americano in Mexico City. I felt mostly left out because of my Argentine accent so I was a sort of loner. My friend David Harris was another loner so we became friends and got into the little business of making bombs with potassium chlorate and aluminum powder. Using long electrical wires to explode our mixture we blasted craters in nearby empty lots. When the thrill was gone we decided to make nitroglycerin. In those days the large chemical product/drugstores in downtown Mexico City sold all the necessary raw materials. That project never did have a conclusion because my mother told me we were moving. She had a new job which would take her to the northern state of Coahuila. She was going to teach at the school that catered to the children of the engineers and executives of the zinc mine and coke plant of the American Smelting and Refining Company. My mother had been suffering from terrible attacks of nausea because she suffered from Ménière's Disease which attacked the inner ear. Her doctor thought that going from the high altitude of Mexico City to a drier climate and lower location might do her good.
I woke up one Sunday morning in a very hot place with strange sounds. The trip on the Aerolíneas Mexicanas DC-3 and subsequent car to Nueva Rosita, Coahuila was like a bad dream. The next morning I was in school in the 8th grade with five other boys in a classroom which also included the 7th and 6th grades. My mother was our teacher. I knew this was not going to be easy. It wasn’t.
The five boys in my class, two were cousins, had been friends all their life and it showed. I was the interloper but they were still quite friendly.
On the other side of the aisle, to my right was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. She had a heart-shaped face with huge black eyes that had a slight Oriental slant to them. She emphasized it with brash eyeliner makeup. She stared at me (probably wondering from what hole I had emerged from) from the other side of the aisle. To me she was the very personification of Estella from Great Expectations
. Her smile had a little of the perverse of Estella’s (this is something that I understand only in retrospect as I was much too naïve to know that then).
A few weeks later a school dance was held and the Estella-like Ana María Ramos told me names had been put into a hat and that she was to be my date. I was tongue-tied with embarrassments and shyness and worst of all I could not dance if I wanted to. I became blood red in her presence. I have no recollection of the dance and the subsequent moments of sheer terror.
For close to a year I admired Ana Maria from afar but finally got enough nerve to accompany her after school. I shared this with another admirer, and my fellow classmate, Enrique Serna. The two of us would walk with Ana María down to the edge of the hill (the school and where the engineers lived, including he American Hotel where my mother and I had a little apartment were all on the hill). Below was the small town of Nueva Rosita. Ana María probably (I don’t remember exactly) went to her father’s office (he was the company doctor) and from there he must have driven them to their home in the nearby and even smaller town of Cloete.
At the edge of the hill we were relieved by a slightly older young man called Romeo. Probably his name did not help to endear him to me. I had a complete dislike for him. How could Ana María fall for such a dolt?
The fact is that after a year of admiring Ana María from my desk in which my imagination had me saving her from a fire breathing Romeo I was sent to a boarding school in Austin, Texas.
In 1970 I had been married to Rosemary for two years. My mother, who lived with us one day said, “Alex I am going to visit Ana Maria at her house. Can you pick me up later?” I did not have to ask as my mother volunteered, “She married her Romeo.”
I picked up my mother and got to see Ana María. She was a bit on the chubby side but her face was exactly as I had remembered it. She smiled at me and I felt like I was back in the 8th grade and I was tongue-tied.
My granddaughter is in the 8th grade and she has received a communication by phone text (that sounds mildly pornographic) that her would-be Romeo wants just to be friends. My granddaughter is sad. Perhaps I can sit down with her over coffee and ameliorate her grief. Nothing has changed even if the methods of communication have.
Someday she will come to understand of the bittersweetness of a loss never had.
Evil Can Seem Beautiful If The Uniforms Are Just Right
Tuesday, November 30, 2010
I have a very keen sense of direction except in cities with streets that are named with numbers. After all these years in Vancouver I have yet to figure out which is Number 3 and which is Number 5 Road in Richmond. I get lost in Richmond.
Yet I will be taking some detour to avoid a traffic accident, etc and be driving through some Vancouver side streets when suddenly I will feel the sense that I have been here before. And I am usually right. I might have been on that street to deliver some photograph perhaps 25 years before. I was there once but something in my brain tells me that the coordinates of this street and house are familiar. I believe that migrating birds must have the same sense for place coordinates but in a much more acutely sensitive manner than mine.
I have something similar for photographic poses even if the pose in question is not all like the one that it reminds me of. It was last June in Texas that my granddaughter Rebecca snapped this shot (I love it!) of her grandfather on the horse with his friend Michael East standing next to him. When I saw Rebecca’s picture I was nagged by its resemblance to another photograph. That photograph is one of my favourites (by now the photographer is unknown although at one time it was attributed to Mathew Brady). It is of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant standing by a tree in front of a tent at Cold Harbor, Va. June 1864. Those viewing both pictures might not notice the similarity. I do and that is sufficient to make me smile and marvel at my granddaughter’s natural perspicacity to shoot a picture that is just right.
I have written about artists looking into the past for inspiration here
. But what I am driving at in today’s blog is that accidental similarity can be just as interesting if noticed. Consider the photograph of Hitler in Paris taken in 1940. Who the photographer was who took it has now been lost even though the initial credit was given to a French image archive, Roger-Viollet which was founded in 1938 and then absorbed by an agency called Rex Features and from there credit and copyright seems to rest with the image thugs, Getty Images. If Getty gets their way someday we may have to pay to download an image of the Mona Lisa and they might even attempt to copyright the Holy Bible. Enough for that little rant!
If you observe the picture you will know the photographer was a competent professional with an eye for glamour and fashion. He or she was in a low position so as to get the Eiffel Tower behind. The photograph almost seems like some stylist was around to make sure all the coats were just right, which they are. In my opinion this image is one of the finest fashion photographs ever taken. As I explained to Rebecca who was much enamoured with Ralph Fiennes as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List
, “Evil can seem beautiful if the uniforms are just right.”
The picture of Hitler in Paris is evoked (purely by accident in my opinion) by Helmut Newton in his 1981 French Vogue spread. But isn’t it wonderful to see that similarity?
Andrew Taylor, Esquire - General William Tecumseh Sherman
Andrew Taylor, Esquire is my English friend born in Yorkshire. He is my eldest daughter's godfather and he lives in Guadalajara Mexico.
General William Tecumseh Sherman
The Winds Of War Flow In All Directions
Monday, November 29, 2010
Every once in a while my granddaughter asks me about WWII. I am certainly no expert but I still try to give her as balanced an opinion as I can muster.
For someone my age (68) who was raised in Western society, my knowledge of world events has a decidedly Western approach. I have lived long enough in the Northern Hemisphere to opine that my place of birth, Buenos Aires is “down there”. For many years far away in Spanish was to go to “la Cochin China” the ancient name for Vietnam. Yet if you think about it Canada is as far from Vietnam as Vietnam is from Canada. It’s the reference point that matters.
As a young boy I also suffered from an education that taught me ancient cultures in isolation. This week it was to be the Egyptians, next week we will study the ancient Chinese. It was as if all these ancient cultures lived between huge impenetrable and solid walls.
Little events in the 20th century pointed at the untruths. One that has fascinated me for years is the hearsay account of the finding of an ancient Australian boomerang in Chile.
Anybody who may have read Herodotus will know that the Israelites living in exile in Egypt adopted the Egyptian custom of male circumcision. Cultures and history cannot be studied in isolation.
As a product of Western-influenced history we were told that the Americans won WWII. Nobody will deny that the production of thousands upon thousands of Buick Dynaflow transmission Sherman Tanks helped to defeat the fewer in quantity German Panthers. Few may recall the allied convoys (pursued by deadly U-Boat packs) traversed the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean to deposit war materiel in the Russian port of Murmansk. But those who do recall that fact may then understand and tell you that a lot of the war was not fought from West to East but in the opposite direction.
A few weeks ago I told Rebecca about the famous WWII tank battle of Kursk. It was this battle fought in July and August of 1943, and in conjunction with the other earlier and also German defeat at Stalingrad (July 1942 to February 1943) that did more to end WWII in Europe than anything else.
Also forgotten but brought to my mind by my reading this the delightful and gripping mystery novel, Rag and Bone
by James R. Benn (which I finished in one day, it was so good!) is the role, a tragic one, by Poland.
Just about anybody knows that WWII began (what at the time was called the Phoney War) when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. What some may have forgotten is that when that invasion was over in October Poland was divvied up between the German and the Soviets. Poland ceased to exist even though they never surrendered.
Rag and Bone
|Copy of the NKVD memo from Beria, ordering the execution of Polish officers. Signed by Stalin and other members of the Soviet Politburo.|
is about a US Army investigator, Billy Boyle (an ex Boston cop of Irish extraction) attached to the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower through connections to Billy's aunt, Mamie Eisenhower (I have always had a fondness for Mamie because she and my mother both suffered from that terrible and debilitating disease Ménière's Disease.) Billy Boyle is sent to 1943 London to investigate the murder of a Russian Army officer.
From this novel I found out that the Polish government-in-exile (based in in London) was at odds with the British and the Americans because they and Churchill were trying to keep the Russians happy. They wanted to make sure the Russian army kept distracting the Germans on a second front with their terrible mischief as they, the Germans, invaded and then retreated from the Russian homeland. In this scheme of things the Russians and the Poles were supposed to be allies even though the Poles knew that when the war ended much of their country would be occupied and annexed by the Russians. The Britsh and the Americans remained silent as the Russians blamed the Germans for the Katyn Forrest massacre.
This terrible massacre happened between April and May 1940. It ended the lives of more that 22,000 Polish officers, scientists and other intelligentsia. When the Germans discovered the bodies in 1943 they, in spite of all their previous massacres and massacres to come) blamed it on the Russians, who denied it. The Russians said the Germans had killed these men in the deep of winter yet the bodies showed light clothing.
The Poles tried, in London, to convince the Americans and the British of the role of the Russian army in this massacre. But Churchill and Roosevelt were out to keep the Russians as allies if it meant alienating the Poles. The novel is about the fruitless Polish effort to change Churchill’s point of view.
It was only last week while driving in town that I heard on CBC Radio that in mid November the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre. What is interesting is that a document from Laverentiy Beria (in which Beria proposed the elimination of the cream of the Polish Army’s officer corps) to Joseph Stalin has been available for viewing for years.
Within the week I was reading the New York Times review of Bloodlands –Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
by Timothy Snyder. In the review I read:
Snyder punctuates his comprehensive and eloquent account with brief glimpses of individual victims, perpertrators and witnesses, among them the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who wrote about Soviet Ukaraine and Nazi Germany in the 1930s; Vsevolod Balystkyi, Stalin’s security chief fro Ukraine, who invented the “Polish Military Organization” to explain the famine and justify a roundup of Soviet Poles; and the frightful Vasily Blokhin, one of Stalin’s most reliable executioners, who wore “a leather cap, apron and long gloves to keep the blood and gore from himself and his uniform.” Blokhin is reported to have personally shot more than 7,000 Polish prisoneres in 28 days as part of the notorious Katyn massacre of 1940.
The wonderful mystery novel, Rag and Bone
is tinged with the melancholy fact that the poor free-Poles (whose Sptifire Squadron had one of the best kill records in Britain during WWII) really did not know what they were fighting for. Whichever way they looked at it, their country was going to be occupied by a hated enemy even if one of them happened to be their allies. I am not sure how I will explain this to Rebecca but at the very least she will know that the winds of history never just flow in one direction, from here to there.
A Baltic Reprise
Sunday, November 28, 2010
Anybody who might have found some level of enjoyment in yesterday's blog pictures might find a renewed
enthusiasm to find out that Ms. Reid has an equally voluptuous sister.
The second Ms. Reid, as well as the first, contributed to my exploration of the bathroom, and in particular, the bathtub as an interesting location. It was only after I photographed the sisters in their individual tubs that I found a handle for a theme that became women in tubs. Alas I did not include the sisters in that show to my detriment. But here are some that served me well in pointing me in the right direction.