Monday, April 28, 2008

Adams, Freedman in Sunday NYT

One of the first things I checked out on the internet Saturday morning was an audio slide show about photographs by Ansel Adams taken in Yosemite National Park. It was in the Travel section of NYT. The headline for the story was pretty straightforward: "What Ansel Adams Saw Through His Lens." The commentary was done by Andrea Stillman, development director at the Morgan Library and Museum, who used to be an assistant for Adams in the 1970s. The full story and slideshow can be found here. There was one especially noteworthy anecdote by Stillman that I wanted to share. She explains that Adams was hired by the Kodak company to go out and make some color shots in the park. According to Stillman, he was paid $250 for every 8x10 Kodachrome he took. In particular, Kodak apparently was looking for shots of waterfalls and rainbows. When Adams found a suitable waterfall/rainbow scenario he wouldn't just expose the Kodachromes, he'd also shoot black and white. Stillman explains "As an artist he felt that he could not make a creative statement in color, because people would expect the color photograph to exactly mirror nature. Whereas when he was working in black and white he could create what he called 'a departure from nature.'" I liked that. Many photographers get exposed very early on in their careers to masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. For me, Ansel Adams was the first famous photographer I ever discovered. And this was right at the same time I was just learning the basics of photography, in my pre-photojournalism years. Indeed, it was the landscape of my hometown, the trees and creeks, the grain silos and abandonded railroad tracks, that I responded to, long before I ever had to photograph other people. I emailed a nice comment to the Times' interactive team that put the piece together.So then again yesterday morning I was looking at the NYT online when I saw the word "Weegee" in a headline that read "Through Weegee's Lens." A few moments later I discovered it was a feature on Jill Freedman, whose name I immediately remembered (she had been nice enough, a few years ago, to reply to an email I had sent her complimenting her book of Ireland photographs, and one picture in particular in it, that gripped me at the time). After going through that story, slideshow and video I was somewhat distracted by the headline with Weegee's name in it. I know, I realize I shouldn't take the headline so literally as to infer she's the second coming of Weegee (or that she used his glass). And I suppose a comparison of some of Freedman's pictures to Weegee's is apt. But looking at her work as a whole, Weegee is definitely not the first photographer I think of. Granted, the article also mentions the influences of André Kertész and Diane Arbus. But Freedman's New York pictures in particular are much different, much more "35mm," much more wide angle, much more subtle and nuanced than Weegee's 4x5 in-your-face flashbulb. Personally, I would align her work more beside that of Bruce Davidson, Leonard Freed, Richard Kalvar and a few others. In the article there's a mention of how, at the time, her style "fell out of fashion," which I found disheartening. Freedman says "As far as work, you have to be good at hustling. I've just never been good at that." That made me laugh. In the end, I was happy the Times had given her some exposure. I enjoyed learning that's she's back in New York (and healthy). In the video she alludes to an upcoming book of her New York photographs from the 60s through the 80s. That should be excellent.

Monday, April 14, 2008


This past Sunday I decided, somewhat last minute (and with definite encouragement from Yvonne), to go up to the Park Avenue Armory and check out the last few hours of the AIPAD show. AIPAD stands for the Association of International Photography Art Dealers. As the name suggests, it's basically a big gathering of many of the world's top photography galleries. Imagine an indoor sports arena filled with about 80 exhibitor booths, all immaculately decorated with gorgeous photographs of every genre imaginable. My only reluctance in going at all was that I would have to fork over $25 for admission and only get three hours out of it. It turns out that even just a couple hours of taking in so much photography is pretty exhausting.

I would divide the whole show into roughly three kinds of photography. First, and probably of the least interest to me considering my limited amount of time to see everything, were the exhibitors who showed primarily old photography: daguerreotypes, tintypes, glass plate negatives and things of that nature. Wanting to take a quick pass through everything and then go slower on my second walk-through, I pretty much just walked right by these without stopping in to look. The second group I really don't know how else to describe other than just "plain ol' contemporary photography." A lot this stuff was montage/landscape and also there was a lot of portraiture. Most everything seemed to have some sort of conceptual feel to it. All of it was printed very large and in most cases I could get a good look from the main walkway areas. Nearly all of this work was color.

Lastly, and by far of the greatest importance to me, I'll just describe as "20th Century Silver Gelatin." We're talking--and this is so totally in addition to all the "big" names--Faurer, Levitt, Croner, Grossman, Heath, Stettner, Ronis, and so many others. My favorite of all these was the gut-wrenching and iconic Bourke-White that I spent an entire minute looking at in an attempt to recall who shot it (NOT Evans or Shahn) before giving up to look at the title card. Needless, there was very little in this third group of photography that I hadn't seen before.

There was a photographer I came across whose name was only vaguely familiar: Paul Himmel. The booth for Keith de Lellis gallery had a gigantic print of his that I immediately fell in love with (at right, snapped with my cellphone camera). The print was huge, maybe five feet across, and there was just something dreamlike about the image, of a man standing on the Brooklyn Bridge. There was something about it that evoked memories of some 1940s New York movie I've heard of but never seen. The more I looked at it, the more I felt off-balance, almost dizzy. My eyes kept moving from the railing, to the bridge cables, to the buildings, to the direction of the sunlight. But my bearings on the image simply weren't snapping into place. The towers of 70 Pine and 40 Wall Street looked correct (though I must admit I can never remember which one is closer to the water; they're close enough to one another as it is, such that their east/west orientation kind of changes based on what angle they're being viewed from). It was the vantage from the bridge that was throwing me off. It was as if the image was made from some different bridge that connected to Manhattan much further down, via Broad or Whitehall Streets. Or if you didn't know any better it could have been made from the deck of a huge steamliner about to go up the East River.

I went up to the woman working the booth and asked "Is this photo flipped?" She didn't immediately know, and I started asking others nearby but nobody seemed to care. I took a quick snapshot with my phone and went to the next booth. Anybody curious enough to know what it looks like flipped back to normal can click here. Coincidentally, I have a widelux picture taken from just a few feet away, in 2000 or so, that I've posted here. FYI, Keith de Lellis is going to have a killer show of vintage Italian street photograpy starting next week, April 24th.

In all my dealings with people at the show I probably talked to maybe a dozen people. I had a great chat with Vicki Harris from Laurence Miller, who seemed delighted by my previous post about Fred Herzog. I spoke with Paul Berlanga and Stephen Daiter of Daiter's gallery in Chicago, which is where I bought my copy of "The Decisive Moment" ten years ago (that's a very interesting story, some other post). I spoke with Terry Etherton, who had lots of interesting things to say when I asked him about the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. He gave me a great poster promoting his gallery's publication of a limited edition print portfolio of John Loengard's "Celebrating the Negative" series.

Lots of other tidbits from my two-plus hours at the armory, not all of which is worth getting into. Afterwards I decided to take a little walk eastward on 65th Street toward the M15 bus on Second. Finally on board and able to give my feet a rest, I opened the AIPAD catalog, which until that point I had been using only to mark pages with business cards I had collected. It was nice to soak in everything and a good time to review my notes. Most of all, however, I was touched to discover an opening welcome message from the Museum of Modern Art's Chief Curator of Photography, Peter Galassi, titled "Saluting John Szarkowski." Accompanying it was a 1975 photo taken by Lee Friedlander, of Garry Winogrand photographing Szarkowski, just around the corner from MoMA.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Fred Herzog

On my way out to get some lunch today, I stopped in my lobby to see if the mail had come. It had, and during a cursory glance through this week's New Yorker, a photograph on page 12 really jumped out at me. It was a nice-light shot of a man walking on the street near a corner grocery store. The photo (right), was taken by somebody named Fred Herzog. The name didn't immediately ring a bell, and I certainly don't know of a Powell Street anywhere in New York. So after I got back I looked him up on the Internet. I quickly learned that most of his work was taken in Vancouver in the 1950s and 60s. He's got a show up at Laurence Miller Gallery on 57th Street, actually it's a two-man show along with David Plowden. I will try to get up there as soon as possible. I am especially encouraged to do so because I was able to find so many of Herzog's images online. And I will certainly be on the lookout for a book of his work, Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs, published by Douglas-McIntyre Publishing Group.

What interests me most is how I came across a couple statements about Herzog being overlooked as a photographer back then because of his use of slide film, mostly Kodachrome. Supposedly this "marginalized him somewhat" because most "art" photography back then was in black and white. Conversely, I read elsewhere that he "bucked the norm" by shooting slide film. On a different-but-not-totally-unrelated-note, I have to mention one of my favorite photography books, one that I have shot many copy slides from to show to students, Americans in Kodachrome, which came out several years ago. Anybody who knows me knows that I am passionate about how photographs "age" over time, how our perceptions of photographs change, etc. As for the idea of Herzog being overlooked, I'm very curious to find out how he got "discovered." At any rate, I cannot help but wonder what they'll say in 50 years about a photographer shooting early 21st Century NYC with black and white film at the dawn of the digital era.I want to link to some slide shows I found online. There's one at Douglas McIntyre's site. Another one at a Vancouver gallery, Equinox, has a great selection here. Finally, the Laurence Miller site has another one here (currently posted as "currentexhibition.htm" so I'll have to update the link in a few weeks).

Some reviews speak glowingly of his work, "brilliantly coloured photographic slides [which] still look as fresh today as they did the day they were snapped.” He captured "the buzz and energy of a young, emerging West Coast city." Another declares "the photographs themselves are the star of the book and Vancouver – mostly downtown Vancouver, showing its modernist past like a piece of torn lining dangling from a tattered sleeve – is the star of the photographs." Finally, he is proclaimed "the city’s premier street photographer… Replete with vacant lots and abandoned cars, his images invite the adjective authentic." I was happy to see Herzog as a wikipedia page. And his official website says very little, other than his work comprises "the only comprehensive body of documentary/art photography of Vancouver in existence." I read somewhere that this exhibition and the book were taken from 80,000 pictures he had taken. I divided that by 36 to come up with approximately 2,222 rolls of film. While the vast majority of his work is from the 50s and 60s, I did see a date from as early as 1953 and as late as 1984. So over thirty years, give or take, that's 74 rolls per year. That's much more along my pace (I'm averaging just over 100 rolls/year), compared to Winogrand, who had 2,500 undeveloped rolls at the time of his death.

All photos by Fred Herzog. From top, Jackpot, 1961; Crossing Powell, 1984; San Francisco, 1962; Flaneur Granville, 1960.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I am happy to report that I spent last week in my hometown of Wichita, Kansas getting to know my Father-in-law, Roman Sobczak (photographed above with my Mom). The week was culminated by a belated wedding reception for my wife, Yvonne, and I (we were married here in New York last year). Sadly, Yvonne's mother, Genowefa, passed away January 16 of this year as plans for the reception were just getting underway. Yvonne's father and her sister, Joanna, both live in Warsaw, Poland. I had met Joanna last fall when she visited us in New York. So hopefully she put in a good word for me to her father in advance of his trip to Kansas. While Roman speaks extremely little English, I must say his English is much better than my Polish. But communication with him was very enjoyable. More on that in a bit.

Their flights were in three segments: Warsaw to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Denver, and Denver to Wichita. Door to door their trip took nearly 24 hours. I was expecting them to be pretty tired when they arrived in Wichita, but they both seemed pretty upbeat and chatty. That first night, Monday the 24th, we pretty much just got them settled in at their hotel. The next day we took it easy, mainly just checking out Wichita and having dinner with my brother and his family. On Wednesday we drove up to Kansas City, where we spent several hours piddling around. I've been to KC many times, but never to Union Station. I heard it was pretty touristy, but I'm glad we went because they had a "Segway Experience" booth where you could rent a Segway ten minutes for five bucks. At right is a picture of me that Yvonne took. Before my Segway experience I was tired and I could have sworn I was coming down with a cold. Afterwards I felt pure exhilaration, it was awesome. I would say it was hands down the best money I spent all day (although the $7 open-faced pulled pork sandwich I ate at Arthur Bryant's was also phenomenal). After a quick pint at an Irish pub at The Plaza it was back through the Flint Hils into Wichita. Thursday and Friday were both pretty relaxed (bingo, bowling, etc.) and Saturday the 29th was our reception, which was lovely. Sunday was a chillout day for everyone, and on Monday we all left town.

As for the Polish/English dilemma, actually it wasn't a dilemma at all. Of course Yvonne did a ton of translating. But there were times when it was just Roman and I by ourselves. We had our own system of communicating. We would hammer through our gestures and there really wasn't a single time that I couldn't at least figure out what he was talking about. Obviously there are many words that sound like they're English ("dokument" "fotografia" "rekord" "telefon"). Whenever I heard one of these words I would repeat it back to him and he would sort of rephrase what he was saying and I'd eventually figure it out. I like that he would still talk to me, directly, even though I don't speak Polish. My favorite language moment was when we were in our backyard just sort of wandering around and he noticed this big black cast-iron kettle my parents have, it's almost like a planter. It was overturned so that three little legs on the bottom were sticking up. And he was talking about it, pointing at the legs, going on and on about something. Eventually he made a gesture where he slammed his hand into his fist and said "Boom!" I immediately got what he was referring to, one of those floating underwater mines. I immedately said "Ahh! Woda" (Polish word for water) and he seemed glad that I understood him. Anything pertaining to gears or machinery really caught his attention. I liked that. On the last night in Wichita he gave me his pocket utility tool that he brought with him (it's called a "Leatherman" here). Sadly, it was confiscated from my checked luggage by TSA.

Eventually we'll get to Poland, hopefully later this year, and maybe we'll have a reception for all of Yvonne's friends and family there. I'll have to get cracking on my Polish skills. Below is a picture of the "groom's cake," which my mom had the idea of fashioning after a camera. Naturally it would have to be a Leica M6. The cake was made my Cheri and Dave Kovacic. The photos from our actual wedding, seen here printed on edible icing cards, were taken by Aris Economopoulos.