Friday, July 14, 2017

Photo Book Review: Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs

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It's difficult to believe now, so completely has she been forgotten,  that at the turn of the twentieth century Gertrude Käsebier was one of America's most successful and best known photographers.  So important did Stieglitz consider her work that he dedicated the first issue of Camera Work to displaying her photographs rather than those of his disciple Steichen.

Käsebier was lucky enough to have been born into a family of moderate wealth and then married, however unhappily, to a successful businessman.  As a result, she did not have to worry about earning enough money to pay the rent.  In fact, Käsebier was already age 36 and her children nearly grown when she first took up the study of photography.  While it's true that her social standing enabled her to secure many wealthy clients for her lucrative portrait business, Käsebier was a strong minded business woman who worked hard to make herself a success.  She also had enough foresight to ally herself with Stieglitz when he first began to seriously promote photography as an art form and she thus became a charter member of the Photo Secession.

If Käsebier is passed over today, it's most likely because so much of her oeuvre was given over to the celebration of motherhood and children.  Ironically, those photographs that first established her reputation, such as Blessed Art Thou and The Manger (both from 1899), are the same that now cause her to be rejected on the grounds that her work is too cloyingly sentimental to be worthy of serious consideration.  Actually, shortly after it was created, a print of The Manger sold for $100, at the time the highest price ever paid for a photographic work.  In contrast, the photograph for which Käsebier is best remembered today is her sensual portrait of Evelyn Nesbit, reproduced on this book's cover, whose cocaine addled husband gained notoriety when on the rooftop of Madison Square Garden he sensationally murdered the showgirl's former lover, the playboy architect Stanford White, who was also Käsebier's friend and patron.

The other reason Käsebier is given so little attention today is that her photographic style was unabashedly "pictorialist."  This term has been given a pejorative connotation since at least the 1930's when Ansel Adams and other members of the f64 Group began to relentlessly promote "straight" photography at the expense of all other forms of photographic representation.  Their closed minded insistence on their sharp and straightforward style as the only viable approach to the medium did incalculable harm to mid-twentieth century photography.  Käsebier was, on the other hand, the pictorialist photographer par excellence.  She had no hesitation at all in painting in backgrounds or details on her prints or in using alternative printing methods such as platinum and gum bichromate.  Although some pictorialists no doubt did go too far in their image manipulations, by and large they created works of incredible beauty that were far more imaginative than the literal, matter-of-fact reproductions of reality favored by the f64 Group.

Gertrude Käsebier: The Photographer and Her Photographs, is a highly sympathetic biography written by Barbara L. Michaels.  It is a short work, really not more than an extended essay, that would have benefited greatly from more detail regarding Käsebier's associations with some of the greatest artists of her time.  These included not only Stieglitz and Steichen, but also such seminal photographers as Alvin Langdon Coburn (who once worked as Käsebier's assistant), F. Holland DayClarence White and Baron de Meyer as well as leading painters and sculptors in both Europe and America, most notably Auguste Rodin whom Käsebier photographed extensively at his home near Paris.  The book, published by Abrams, is handsomely designed and filled with excellent reproductions of Käsebier's black & white photographs, including all her most famous works as well as many with which I had previously been unfamiliar.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Photo Book Review: Weegee's New York

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A quote by Walter Benjamin is used as an epigraph at the very beginning of Weegee's New York: Photographs 1935 - 1960.  In part, it reads:
"...is not every spot of our cities the scene of a crime?  every passerby a perpetrator?  Does not the photographer - descendant of augurers and haruspices - uncover guilt in his pictures?"
The quote is noteworthy for questioning the role played by news photographers such as Weegee.  After all, as becomes apparent when looking at these photos, he is not a mere bystander passively recording a violent moment he has accidentally stumbled upon; instead, by placing himself on the scene, he has willingly made himself a participant in the tableaux captured on film.  In the self portrait at the very end of the book (Plate 335), Weegee looks perfectly in place as he crouches behind his camera and stares almost defensively at the viewer from the back of a paddy wagon.  It is as though he were acknowledging that he belongs there just as much as the felons the vehicle is otherwise used to transport.

There is very little text in this monograph, only a four page introductory essay by John Coplans and little more than a page of biographical detail.  To a certain extent, that should be sufficient. A good photograph should always be able to stand on its own and require no explanation. Weegee's photos, though, were meant to accompany news stories that would provide a tabloid's reader with further information, no matter how sensational a form that reportage might take.  The absence of any details regarding the circumstances in which these photos were shot undeniably makes them more compelling, but at the same time the viewer is only getting half the story.  This omission can make the study of these images an unnecessarily frustrating experience.

The black & white photos themselves are well reproduced and each is placed by itself on a full oversized page.  They are not, however, grouped chronologically but rather by subject, for example "Coney Island Beach."  This makes it difficult to trace the development of Weegee's style over a period of time.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, although each photo is provided with a title (presumably supplied by Weegee himself), very few are dated.

In all, though, the book is highly recommended for providing a candid glimpse into the dark side of a big city in the mid-twentieth century.  No matter how horrifying the contents of his photos, Weegee never blinked when taking them.  He captured the ugliness of violent death and presented it in a straightforward manner with no trace of false sentimentality.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lab Box Film Processing



As digital photography continues its relentless drive forward, traditional photography has suffered accordingly.  Analog photographers have seen one film and paper after another discontinued as venerable companies such as Agfa have thrown in the towel and gone bankrupt.  Along with film products, services have disappeared as well.  Most of the custom film processing labs in New York City have by now gone out of business or else offer only digital services, thereby leaving photographers with no choice but to process their own film, often with mixed results.  It's heartening then to see the Lab Box Kickstarter project take wings.  It promises users the ability to simply and easily process 35mm and 120 film in a portable lightproof container that can be used in broad daylight.  I have no idea when full production will begin but the sponsors have already sold out their prototypes and, with almost a month left to run, have far surpassed their goal of $73, 636.  I definitely plan to buy a unit myself when it becomes available for ordering.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Photo Book Review: Edward Steichen: In High Fashion

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In 1923, Edward Steichen was struggling with what would today be termed a "mid-life crisis." Living in near penury in France, the photographer had grown disillusioned in his career as an artist.  He was then in his mid-forties and had long ago left behind the exuberance with which he had first traveled to Europe.  In Paris, he had succeeded in meeting the twentieth century's foremost artists, many of whose works he had enthusiastically shipped back to Stieglitz to be shown in the latter's 291 Gallery in New York City.  In so doing, though, he had had to face the painful realization that his own paintings would never reach the heights of genius shown by those artists, such as Picasso and Matisse, among whom he had moved so easily.  His discontent had only been exacerbated by the horrors of World War I, which he witnessed first hand, as well as the failure of his marriage.  It was no surprise then that he had no qualms in giving up the life of an artist and returning to New York City where he eagerly accepted a position at Condé Nast and quickly became the world's most highly remunerated photographer.

Edward Steichen: In High Fashion by William A. Ewing and Todd Brandow is a thorough documentation of the photographic work that Steichen created over a fifteen year period for both Vogue and Vanity Fair.  While it might be assumed that the photographer left behind him the art photography he had practiced so assiduously in Europe upon joining Condé Nast, this is not the case.  Although Steichen's portraits had even in his days with the Photo Secession shown a tendency towards unadorned naturalism (witness his famous 1903 photo of J.P. Morgan), he maintained the use of pictorialist techniques in his fashion photography for quite some time.  Indeed, it was only when Mehemed Fehmy Agha was hired as art director of Vogue that Steichen fully embraced straight photography in depicting fashion. No matter what his style, however, Steichen's mastery of technique and lighting never wavered.  One has only to look at White (plate 221) from 1935 to begin to comprehend the extent of his ability.  The photo is a study of three models all dressed in white standing with a white horse against a white tiled wall.  To anyone who has ever attempted a photo in which each element is pure white without losing any detail and all the while preserving a full range of tonal values, this deceptively simple image is a tour de force.

Looking at the photos themselves, one has the sense of having stumbled across a lost world. Here are the most newsworthy actors, writers and society figures of the 1920's and 1930's, the celebrities whose extensive fame was the primary cause of their appearance in such magazines as Vogue and Vanity Fair in the first place.   And yet so thoroughly forgotten have the majority of these once renowned personages become that it has been necessary for the authors to add a "Who's Who" as an appendix to the book.  In a way this is fitting, for Steichen himself has suffered a somewhat similar fate.  Though at one time he was, along with Stieglitz, America's preeminent photographer, his reputation has been so eclipsed in recent decades that he is little remembered today.  This is a great injustice and one that this book will hopefully help correct.

The book itself is an extremely handsome and well designed volume.  The photographic reproductions are all uniformly excellent and are generally shown in full page format.  There are three essays by William A. Ewing, Carol Squiers and Tobia Bezzola that are intelligently written and not only provide a great deal of information and insight regarding Steichen's tenure at Condé Nast but also display a deep respect and sympathy for Steichen's work and the creative processes he brought to bear upon it.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Panasonic Officially Announces the Lumix GH5

The big announcement at this year's CES show was Panasonic's official release of the Lumix GH5.  It didn't exactly come as a surprise.  Not only had I already seen the camera locked away in a plastic case at October's NYC Photo Expo, but the specs as given in the CES press release were exactly what I had been told by the Panasonic rep at the Javits Center.  The only unknown then had been the cost, and even the huge 33% increase in list price wasn't entirely unexpected.  At least not by me.

Panasonic already knew it had a winner on its hands with the GH series.  All along, these cameras have offered filmmakers the best option by far for video in a mass market camera.  The only way to get anything better has been to spend tens of thousands of dollars on specialized high end equipment.  And now Panasonic has improved on its lead by dramatically improving the camera's video capabilities.  As the press release states, the GH5 offers:
"...4K 60p/50p ultra high-definition, smooth, video recording for the first time in a DSLM camera. It is also capable of internal 4:2:2 / 10-bit video recording, which is the color subsampling commonly used for film production, for even more faithful color reproductions."
There are also significant improvements for still photographers, such as a larger sensor, a newly developed Venus Engine processor that Panasonic claims cuts noise by two stops even with the larger sensor, and the omission of the optical low pass filter.  Most significant is the improvement to the auto focus system.  The number of focus areas has been increased from 49 to 225.  Beyond that:
"If focus is not exactly as the user intended when the shutter is pressed, the LUMIX GH5’s Post Focus function8 enables users to select the specific focus point even after shooting – particularly helpful in situations like macro shooting where severe focusing is required. In addition, the camera also features a Focus Stacking function."
Is the GH5 worth the increased price?  For serious filmmakers, the answer has to be an unequivocal "yes" (always assuming, of course, that the camera performs as well in field tests as it looks on paper).   For still photographers, it really depends on the use intended.  When I picked up the GH2 back in 2011, I wanted a lightweight mirrorless camera for travel and street shooting, and the GH2 looked like my best bet.  I already had then, and still have now, a full Nikon DSLR system that would invariably be my first choice when going for the "money shot."  So, although it would obviously be wonderful to have the GH5 with all its many enhancements, I was perfectly happy to pick up a GH4 last month from B&H for only $1,200 (with a complimentary $150 gift card thrown in) since in my case the camera is really more for non-professional use.  But for other photographers - especially those, such as wedding photographers, who shoot extensive video - the improvements in design are so extensive that it's now become possible to forget about DSLR's altogether and to work solely with a mirrorless system.  I may go that way myself in the future.  Critical considerations will be the quality of available lenses (using Nikon or other third party lenses with adapters is not a viable option) as well as the camera's ability to withstand the rugged daily use given it by professionals.  In this regard, it's worth noting that my old GH2 began developing significant problems after only a couple of years of moderate use.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Blog Name, New Focus


Those who've been following this blog have probably noticed by now that I've given it a new name.  Behind the change is my renewed interest in street photography.  I've been doing a lot more of it in the past few months and am really excited how well so many of the pictures have turned out.  Now I need a forum on which to display them, and this blog is the obvious choice.  I'm planning on posting much more often in 2017 than in the past and would ideally like to be able to show one example of my street photography each day.

For the most part, the photographs I'll be posting here will be in black & white.  Years ago, I shot all around New York City with b&w film, usually Tri-X, and found that I could express my sense of the city's character much more clearly in monochrome.  To my own eyes, New York - no matter how gentrified - has always been the gritty milieu depicted in The Naked City and other classic noir films of the 1940's.  Now I'm finally giving in to the new technology and will be shooting digital on my Panasonic Lumix GH4 and making conversions to b&w in Photoshop using Nik's Silver Efex Pro2.  The exceptions will be the photos taken of street art since that really has to be seen in its original colors to be fully appreciated.  Besides, the occasional use of color will keep things from becoming too monotonous.

For the photographers among you, I'll be posting select industry news, my thoughts on camera equipment and software, and even reviews of photography books I've come across.

My greatest interest is in taking street portraits of my fellow New Yorkers.  I want to create a visual record of the vastly different people who make up this huge city in the twenty-first century.  The aim, as in any form of portraiture, will be to capture their characters in a single photograph.  You can decide for yourself when viewing the photos how successful I've been.  I hope you'll enjoy seeing my work.

I do hope everyone reading this has a wonderful year in 2017.  May you enjoy happiness and good health and may all your dreams come true.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Hi Life


I've never been in Hi Life on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 83rd Street even though it's only a block from my home.  Its lighting certainly makes it look inviting though.  Once again I used the Nik Duplex filter from Color Efex Pro4 to add warmth.