Monday, January 30, 2017

Photo Book Review: Edward Steichen: In High Fashion


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.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kodak Ektachrome Film Redux

Perhaps the most surprising announcement at this year's otherwise humdrum CES came from Kodak, the former giant of the photography industry.  In a move that has to cheer analog photographers dismayed to see one favorite film after another discontinued, the company stated that it will return Ektachrome color reversal film to production after a five year absence with the first batch set to hit stores in this year's fourth quarter.  According to the press release, a Super 8 motion picture film version will be produced in Rochester and will be sold by Kodak directly while a 135/36 version will be made available to still photographers by Kodak Alaris, a spinoff company headquartered in the UK.

And the reason behind this radical change of direction?  According to Steven Overman, Kodak’s chief marketing officer and president of the Consumer and Film Division:
"We are seeing a broad resurgence of excitement about capturing images on film. Kodak is committed to continuing to manufacture film as an irreplaceable medium for image creators to capture their artistic vision. We are proud to help bring back this classic."
As if this weren't enough good news for film enthusiasts, Overman went on, in a podcast recorded at CES, to further state:  "I will say, we are investigating Kodachrome, looking at what it would take to bring that back."  That's hardly a promise, of course, but the very fact that such a move is under consideration is heartening to analog photographers who know from experience that Kodachrome was the best color film ever made.

Meanwhile, for those of us who still shoot black & white film, Ikigai Camera, a Japanese film store headquartered in Australia, announced on its blog a "new" film designed to replace one long since discontinued by Fuji.  Described as the "brain-child of Bellamy Hunt of Japan Camera Hunter fame," the film supposedly recreates many of the most desirable features of Neopan 400.  According to the blog post:
"StreetPan 400, while not a new emulsion, is a modernized version of an out of production AGFA surveillance film that has been brought back to life (and back into production)"
I'm not quite sure how an Agfa surveillance film would come to have the same properties as a discontinued print film, but I have to admit that the sample photographs shown on the blog certainly look good.  Though I've always shot Tri-X myself, I'd love a chance to experiment with this film and see what prints I could get from its negatives in the darkroom.

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.