In looking at the work of Peter Dombrovskis over the last few weeks I couldn’t help but wonder about how we engage with the work of the ‘photography masters’. My preference of course is through books. Based on my Peter Dombrovskis experience this is a challenge.
Not every photographer has the kind of machinery behind them that Ansel has. What about the others. Is there space for periodic ‘remastering’ of classic books in the way that classic records are remastered. A very different undertaking but certainly possible.
I feel like one of my favorite photographers, Eliot Porter, received this kind of remastering in 2012 when a new edition of ‘In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World’. was published to mark the 50th anniversary of the first edition.
The Getty Museum also published a collection of Eliot’s work at around the same time, ‘Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature’. This book rather than a new edition is a great survey of Eliot’s work and for me is reminiscent of the Peter Dombrovskis book I recently acquired.
I wonder how many of the masters will get this additional chance to reach a new audience through a book, how many will achieve something similar through the internet and how many will fade away.
I quite enjoy looking at photobooks whether they are produced by friends or by icons of photography or both. While I may not be able to own the great works I can live with them through the books.
The quality of photo books has certainly evolved in recent years, the color reproduction being an area of most significant improvement. For instance, some of the Eliot Porter books I have do not come close to the colors of the original prints, I was blown away when I saw an image of his at the Farnsworth Museum, or even to images in the more recent books of his work (see here and here). On the other hand black and white reproduction seems to have been consistently of a high quality, certainly amongst the books that I own.
Even with the relatively high bar that I have for black and white photobooks I was pleasantly surprised with Paul Caponigro’s ‘The Wise Silence‘ that I found recently. A former library book, my copy is a little battered and grubby, clearly having been enjoyed by many before I found it! It is however a great collection of Paul Caponigro’s images, perhaps my favorite of the books of his that I own, printed on a nice heavy textured paper (Mohawk Superfine) and the text is letterpress on the same paper. All this makes for a great package – I wish there were more books like this and perhaps there will have to be if books are to exist as physical objects.
As we move increasingly towards digital formats it seems to me that there will be a real reason for books to exist in a physical format. Physical books will need to have something that sets them apart from their digital counterparts. That something could be size, or high quality fine art paper, a vehicle for letterpress printing, but will need to be sufficient to move people towards paper rather than sticking with there electronic devices.
Rolf Horn‘s work caught my eye when I was recently poking around on the Soulcatcher Studio website. I had been looking at the Paul Caponigro images that they have displayed there and decided to spend a few moments looking at the work of some of the other artists that they represent.
Rolf’s square black and white images, often long exposures, are reminiscent of the work of the other photographers that I enjoy – especially Michael Levin, David Fokos and of course Michael Kenna. I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised, although I was, to find that Rolf had worked as Michael Kenna’s assistant for a while.
Like Kenna, Rolf uses medium format cameras (Hassleblad) and film for his work, producing silver gelatin prints. He is very much committed to this mode of photography, in fact if his comments regarding digital photography in this Black & White article when taken at face value are quite inflammatory – ‘thems fightin’ words’ as we would say where I grew up. In addition the Black & White magazine feature, Rolf’s photography has been featured in a number of other magazines. A full listing can be found here.
Rolf’s website is well worth exploring, there a large number of his completed bodies of work to dig into. What I find interesting is that some of the portfolios date back to the early 1990’s and so as you look through it’s interesting to track Rolf’s aesthetic evolution. His most recent work has a quiet energy that I particularly enjoy and I have to say it – his snow monkey picture (below) is one of my favorites to date.
With the review event as a deadline, I’m now working though my archives for a set of photographs that hang together as a cohesive set. I think that I have a reasonable nucleus of images that would work and I’m considering including the one above in the group. I believe that this was taken on the morning that I ended up in the water with my camera. As is the case with many of the photographs that I ultimately end up liking, this was a throw away shot. Not something that I tried hard for or thought too much about. I saw the wave, thought it was pretty interesting and made the photo. It took me longer to type that last sentence than it did to go through the process. I like the motion blur that I got in this image and also that the horizon is ambiguous.
I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about it too.
The deeper that I delve into photography the more I realize how hard I find it to create a successful photograph using just a rules based, intellectual approach. The successful images come when I apply the technical understanding to capture the scene that really stopped me in my tracks. Being able to be stopped in my tracks happens when I slow down and quiet the chatter. This kind of slowing down and taking time to quiet the chatter is something that I’ve come to naturally but is something that I have heard both Michael Kenna and Paul Caponigro refer to. Michael Kenna has called this communing with the land, while Paul Caponigro refers to his stance of silence and to having to shut up when the subject calls to him.
Some call this contemplative photography. It was this phrase that caught my eye when I was browsing amazon.com and that led me to The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Kerr and Michael Wood. The focus here is on seeing clearly or as Cartier-Bresson puts it ‘putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis’. Kerr and Wood break down contemplative photography into 3 distinct phases: The Flash of Perception – the recognition of something special that is likened to ‘being awoken form sleep by a loud noise’: this is then followed by Visual Discernment, maintaining the contemplative mind after the flash of perception and then finally, Forming the Equivalent, taking the picture that is equivalent to your perception. Each of these stages is explored in detail with their own chapters that include assignments to help you practice and example photographs to provide inspiration. The example photographs aren’t exemplars or templates to be repeated since we all will respond to our environment in different ways and as a result make very different photographs.
I must admit that I enjoyed reading and working through the book. I also find the connection made between photography and Buddhism interesting too. Kerr and Wood argue that both contemplative photography and Buddhism are concerned with clear seeing. They argue that clear seeing is the ultimate antidote for confusion and ignorance, freedom from which is a key tenet of Buddhism.
The book is not all sunshine and roses – I can’t help but take issue with the notion that the use of telephoto lenses and filters adds an unnecessary artifice resulting in plasticky photographs. Does this mean that we should only be using ‘normal lenses’ that mimic the human eye? Hardly. One of the reasons that I’ve been disappointed with my results in the past is that I haven’t been able to simplify the scene to a point that makes me feel satisfied when I see the image on the computer days later. Similarly using a filter to ensure that I don’t blow the sky out, to compress the dynamic range of the photograph is increasingly important to my being able to capture a successful image. I would argue that you should use whatever tool or tools it takes to be able to render the image that you felt and that the key is to reach a level of fluency with those tools such that the technical doesn’t get in the way as you move to making the image that stopped you in your tracks. A minor quibble with a book that I have enjoyed working through over the course of the last few months.
My copy of the catalog for Paul Caponigro’s exhibition ‘The Hidden Presence of Places‘ arrived this week. I was of course familar with, and particularly like, ‘Running White Deer‘ and aware of some of his still life studies but otherwise largely ignorant of much of his work. This was an attempt to fill in that gap in my knowledge. I was very pleased that I did. The collection in ‘The Hidden Presence of Places‘ has a number of images that resonated with me – quiet and contemplative, exactly what I am striving towards. The essay that leads off the book has a number of references, many of which I will add to my library over the next few months. In the meantime I’m going to study the images in the catalog and plan a visit to the exhibition at the Farnsworth Gallery in Rockland before it closes Oct. 9th.