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Tag Archives: Atget

As a photographer for nearly 40 years, now approaching 60, I began making photographs in the “dark ages” of photography—when the act of making a photograph required a darkroom.  A photograph was made on film, exposing a negative, which was a physical object, used to make a print, also a physical object.  The creation of a print required time and materials.  The making of a good print also required experience and skill.  Once a photograph was created, it persisted for a long time—I have, hanging in my home, at least a dozen photographs that are close to or more than 100 years old.

Objects 1

Atget, Friedlander (press photo), and the ass

There were some major disadvantages to the making of photographs the old way.  The process was time consuming, the materials were relatively expensive, and most photographic prints tended to be small.   My recollection is that a roll of black and white film in the early 1980s cost about $1, (about 3 cents per 35 mm negative) a package of 25 sheets of paper cost about $12—this is after the Hunt Brothers attempt to corner the market on silver—so not terribly expensive by my standards today, but sufficiently expensive to limit my ability to make lots of pictures, especially when I was young and poor.

Objects 2

Double Evans (LOC), loon, and pine cone

Even more limiting was the way the photographs looked—a black and white silver print looked a certain way, and it was relatively difficult to change the appearance of the photograph in any significant way.  Most photographers embraced the idea of a “straight print”, meaning that an image would be created by the optics of a lens, recorded on film, and converted to a print though a second lens, but with no attempt to change the content or the look of the image.  A “good photographer” was one who understood the materials he was working with, and managed to create beautiful objects.

Objects 3

Clockwise from top, Friedlander (press photo), Loman Brothers, anonymous, and Evans (LOC)

Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I witnessed the beginning of digital photography, during the space program in the 1960s.  TV had been around for a few decades before I was born (it was invent in 1929), but the resolution was pretty bad.  Only during the space program did NASA begin to create higher resolution sensors in order to create still images that could be sent in a digital stream back to earth.

Now, almost all photographs are digital.  There is no film, no negative.  Memory chips have become incredibly cheap.  When I first began making digital photographs in 2001, memory chips cost about $1 per megabyte, so a 3 megabyte picture created by my first digital camera cost $3 of storage to hold it, roughly 100x more expensive than a film negative in the 1980s.  But the chips could be downloaded and cleared, so used over and over again, and storing images as Jpegs allowed more images to be stored on a chip.  During my first few years of working with a digital camera, my shooting was limited by both the small size of the chips and the high cost of the rechargeable batteries—at first I could shoot maybe 50 pictures a day.  I eventually discovered that I could buy disposable batteries for about $10, and chips started getting cheaper, so I soon found I could shoot more pictures—I remember going to the Grand Canyon for the first time in May 2002, and shooting a few hundred pictures in one day (just checked my Lightroom database—I could do about 300 pictures per day then).  Now I buy 16 GB chips for $6 each, each one holds about 2000 Jpeg images   When I went to China in 2011, I shot about 6,000 pictures on a seven day trip.  I don’t even clear the chips anymore.  Chips are cheaper, per image, than negative sleeves.  And, yes, that was a test of your age—at one time negatives were stored in plastic or glassine sleeves, which you hand wrote the “metadata” on—the date and place the pictures were made.  They cost about a penny per negative.  At current chip prices, an image costs about three tenths of a cent to store on a memory chip.  300 for a buck.  Not bad.

Back in the dark ages, all photographs were made with cameras.  Now, the majority of digital images are made with cell phones.  People used to pull out their wallets to show pictures of their kids.  Now they pull out their cell phones and show pictures of their cats.  It used to take days or weeks to get film back from the drugstore—now people text or tweet an image to the world in seconds.

Object 5

Neil and Buzz, a week before the moon, July 1969

I remember watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon in 1969 on a black and white television at a neighbor’s house—an event that had been anticipated for a decade—probably the most expensive piece of television broadcasting ever made.  It was news, but only because somebody finally did something that required heroic amounts of money, brains, and luck, something we weren’t sure that humanity was capable of.  I remember the first news event I learned from the internet—the death of Princess Di—my wife was puttering on the net and saw the news come up only minutes after the event.  And then there was the live video feed from the wing of Sully’s plane in the Hudson…  Some untrained non-journalist with a $100 cell phone broadcasting news to the world.

My 20 year old son has convinced me to make an Instagram account.  I don’t really know what to do with it.  My one instinct is to use it to post pictures instantly—to see something, to make a picture, and to post it within seconds—isn’t that what the instant thing means?  I’ve done that a couple times, but somehow it seems a bit unsettling—to commit an image that quickly to the world. Maybe I could have done better.  Maybe I look like a fool.

On the other hand, in following several younger photographers, it is apparent that many people, or at least some of the ones I follow, don’t do posts that way—they shoot images with a “real camera” (a digital camera, not a cell phone), then load them to their Instagram account days or weeks or months later.  A lot of the photographs are manipulated in some way—one photographer always reduces the color saturation, another does major shifts to the hue of the color, and makes composite images.  A lot of the photos look like model shoots.  My son goes out and poses for pictures that appear on Instagram.  I only follow a handful of people, about the same number follow me.  I don’t “like” that many pictures, and my audience apparently doesn’t “like” my pictures that much either.

Object 4

Anonymous Itinerant Photographer

OK, so maybe it’s time to discuss my Luddite tendencies.  Over the past year or so, I tried hitting the “send to iPhone” button on my Sony Camera, but even though my Bluetooth connection was established between the two devices, the camera just got stuck, the picture never got transferred.  After several attempts over several months, I eventually discovered that I needed to download “the app” from Sony onto my phone.  To download “the app”, I had to use the iPhone App store.  My “Apple ID” didn’t work.  I reset my password, tried to download the app.  My phone went into the Apple version of the Windows “blue screen of death” mode.  I had to go to my computer, google the magic reset combo for the phone (I kept trying to do a reset with a paperclip—discovered the absence of a reset hole).  I just tried it again—after a 30 minute struggle, I managed to get my phone to talk to my camera—and transferred one picture.  Not sure I could do it again.  Not sure I want to do it again.

What I have been doing with my Instagram account is occasionally making an IPhone picture of a print I’ve made—kind of like the long way around to get to an instant digital picture that will immediately vanish into the infinity of all the other digital images out there on the internet—but somehow it helps me knowing that somewhere in the process, the image exists on paper.  It is, or at least it was, a real photograph.  It is an object. Like the photos on my wall.  Maybe that image will still exist in a hundred years.  Or maybe not.

OK, to join the endless self-promotion—which my son tells me is the point of all this–I Instagram at dennis_witmer_photo

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My son is a high school student, participating in the debate team.   I recently volunteered as a judge at a debate tournament, with one of the events being a “dramatic interpretation”, where high school students performed a piece that someone else had written, but that they had memorized and performed.   My first round involved five high school girls, and the readings they gave were shocking:  child abuse, sexual molestation, murder, suicide were all covered, in passionate detail.  Fortunately for me, my wife was in the room, and after the last girl finished, my wife asked them where they had found the pieces, were they in any way autobiographical?  And the girls started to giggle—no—they were not autobiographical—they were selected, perhaps because they were effective emotional stories.    A few weeks later, I judged another event where students read a piece of their own writing, and mixed in with some first crude attempts at fiction were at least two clearly autobiographical pieces, one dealing with the effects of a crippling emotional disorder, the other with the death of several high school friends in car accidents.

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Walnut tree, March 23, 2014

Life is not fair.  While a few lucky individuals seem to skate through life unscathed, there is no denying that sickness and death are part of life, and must be confronted.  More troubling is the suffering we bring down on each other, or on ourselves.

What is the connection between suffering and art?  It is very apparent that suffering can and mostly does happen in the ugliest of ways:  the history of the last century is full of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, genocides, and the news is full of mass shootings.   The rational response to events like these is despair:  why does the world need to be like this?

Of course, suffering is a topic that arises in religion.  The atheists strongest argument against a benevolent supreme being is suffering:  how can a god that loves us permit (or cause) so much suffering?  And perhaps the greatest example of art arising out of suffering is the example of the Christian church—if the hand of god cannot be summoned at will to relive the suffering of the people, perhaps pictures of miracles from the mythical past can convince them that it is their own sins that cause the suffering.   Art has been used by the church to render the old miracles into physical forms through painting and sculpture.

Robert Adams, in his essay “Beauty in Photography” published in a book of the same name discusses the connection between art and suffering, between truth and beauty.   He argues that beauty is based on Form, and that Form is beautiful  “Because it helps us meet our worst fear, the suspicion that life may be chaos and that therefore our suffering is without meaning.”   He also asks the question, “is art a sufficient consolation for life?”  and goes on to point out that art can help, but it alone is not sufficient, that we also need human connections—“an anecdote, a jumping dog, or the brush of a hand.  All these things are disorderly, but no plan for survival stands a chance without them.”

What strikes me about Robert Adams’ essay is how he argues that art has a critical function, to convince us that our suffering is not without meaning, and are lives are not better off simply being ended.  In the end, art must be an affirmation.

Of course, the “art world”, still abuzz from the record price paid for a Francis Bacon triptych, seems to be interested in something else, namely, money and power.  There is no question that Bacon’s paintings reflect anguish of the 20th century, that his popes are images of powerful men in hell, but the question remains, why do collectors value his work so highly?  On the other end of the spectrum, the mass market seems equally committed to the work of Thomas Kinkade, who died recently of a drug and alcohol overdose, who called himself “the painter of light”, painting sentimentalized images of homes and churches bathed in unnatural glows.   Both men may have suffered, neither seem to have arrived at a truth that is affirming—Bacon fails by painting monsters, Kinkade though eye candy.

But there are examples of people who have suffered and transformed that experience into great art.  Shostakovich, the great 20th century Russian composer is one—his music is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.  Timothy O’Sullivan began his career as a photographer on the battlefields of the civil war before heading west to make sublime views of the landscape.  Frida Kalo suffered an unfortunate accident as a young woman, and a difficult marriage, but made compelling paintings.  All of them made great art.

John Szarkowski noted that the pictures that command our attention the longest are the ones that seem to hold some mystery.  Eugene Atget made amazing photographs, but it’s hard to know how much he suffered—he may have been a failed actor, but he made a living as a photographer.  He did have a very productive period at the end of his life, after his wife died, when he was facing his own mortality, but he made many great photographs before then.

Suffering is part of life—to live is to suffer—and life is not fair—but there are things that help, including art.  High school kids dealing with sickness and death are looking in the right place–sometimes, looking at a painting or listening to a piece of music or encountering a poem can convince us that we are not alone in our suffering, and allow us to experience moments of grace—where the suffering remains real, but finds a balance with beauty.

When I went to China, now just over two years ago, one of the things I experienced for the first time was the Chinese political speech.  These speeches were shouted from written scripts, one word at a time, as loudly as possible.  During the conference (which I and nine other American photographers participated in), many of the speeches were simultaneously translated into English for us foreigners.   I don’t remember much of what was said—I’m not sure if this is because the speeches seemed so trite when translated into English, or if the translation into English stripped all speech of subtlety, but either way, sitting through the speeches was moderately annoying, though the tea they served was very good, and the speeches ended soon enough.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I think all of the English speakers were somewhat concerned about how what we had to say might be translated into Chinese—one of my first moments after meeting my host at the airport was being asked if I would like any snakes—I politely refused—I’m not especially fond of snakes, and being offered them in plural form after 30 hours in airplanes and airports is not what I expected–but the offer was repeated until finally I understood that what was being offered was, in fact, snacks…

And one of my favorite moments in the conference was when one of my fellow conference attendees made a comment in his talk in which he stated that “the landscape is my mistress”, which another, more experienced international traveler, noted was probably translated as “I fuck the earth”.

Whatever.   I’ve had enough conversations with Chinese friends to appreciate the difficulties in translation.  What we say and think in English may or may not translate into Chinese or the Chinese mind…

But one thing I do remember from the speeches—the Chinese repeatedly referred to “great Chinese photographic theoreticians”.   In America, I’ve never heard of any photographic theoreticians, let alone a great one. We have ph0tographers, we have curators, we have gallery directors, we have photo editors, we have photographic critics–but none of these positions correspond with “photographic theoretician”.   It apparently is a title that offers neither salary nor tenure, at least outside of China.  I always assumed that photography was an empirical enterprise, defined by observation rather than by theory.

But, of course, just because there is no official title does not mean that we are lacking in photographic theoreticians.  In the short lecture I was expected to give, I referred to Robert Adams as a “great American photographic theoretician”, a title that I’m sure he would object to with vigor, but one I hoped would translate into whatever status was given to the Chinese photographic authorities.    I can think of no better discussion about the meaning of photographs and their importance to our lives than his wonderful essays.

Houston, 2008

Houston, 2008

I once studied Physics (let me be clear—I am not a Physicist—I once referred to myself and several other students as “Physicists” in front of one of my professors—he corrected me to point out that we were, in fact, not Physicists—I asked him what made someone “a Physicist”—he stated that it was when one had actually “done some Physics”—I asked him how one knew that they had “done some Physics”—he told me that someone would tell me when I had “done some Physics”—something that I can state with certainty has never happened—so I am not “a Physicist”—but I once was student of the discipline)—where theoreticians were many and experimentalists were few (due at least in part to the huge cost of experiments in high energy particle physics)…

But I know there are photographers that are working with photographic theories that I don’t understand.  Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Timothy O’Sullivan, and, of course, Eugene Atget have all made photographs using formulas beyond my comprehension.  But I do sometimes try to replicate their results…

I became aware of the work of Eugene Atget when I was about 20—his work was accessible and promoted in the US, especially by the Museum of Modern Art under John Szarkowski—and I was aware of the flow of his influence—to Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander and Robert Adams, and to my own work.

Josef Sudek is a European photographer of about the same era as Walker Evans (about a decade older),  a photographer I knew by name and a few images—but he was not an artist I paid much attention to, until the past few months, when his work was brought to my attention by Bruce Haley.  His work has not been published much in the US—there is a book by Aperture—“Josef Sudek, The  Poet of Prague” that  was published, so he has not been completely ignored—but not until I purchased several of his books published in Europe—“Sad Landscapes” and “Prague Panoramic” did his work come alive for me.

Part of the charm of Sudek is the economy of his methods—he limited his finished work to contact prints (like Edward Weston), and he worked exclusively in Prague and the nearby regions (like Atget with Paris).    But the beauty of his work comes from something far deeper than his choices of photographic methods or from working in a limited geographical area—it seems to come from a deep sense of love for his home.   Some of his pictures come from views from his window—of a lovely misshapen tree in his yard, viewed through the condensation on his window in winter.

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1951 from "Pigment Prints"

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1950 from "Pigment Prints"

But Sudek’s grandest work is his panoramic views of Prague—pictures made over many decades that describe the city in all kinds of light and weather.  Sudek brings a coherence to the work by the use of landmarks on the horizon—churches, smokestacks,  the shapes of hills—to provide the viewer with a sense of continuity between pictures, a way of reassuring the viewer that he has not traveled far between pictures.  In book format, this creates a sense of coherence to the entire collection—like listening to a grand symphony, where all the parts are connected, all working towards a grand finale.

The fact that Sudek lost an arm during World War I, lived through the Soviet occupation after WWII, and witnessed the failure of the Prague spring of 1968 before his death in 1976 makes Sudek’s work all the more poignant.  His work in “Sad Landscapes”  (published only after the fall of the Soviet empire) is of panoramic pictures taken in a mining region north of Prague, and shows a landscape abused and damaged by mining.  It now reads as a metaphor of the oppression of the occupation—but he includes, even in the middle of this injustice, glimpses of beauty, of humor, of hope.    And, always, beauty.

The arrival of the “American Monuments” book, with photographs from the 60s and early 70s has me thinking about my memories from that period, my childhood.  I was born in 1957, my first memories are from the 1960s, and those memories are all in color, a little grainy and sharp and maybe faded, but always in color.  I remember seeing photographs from the 1930s, how old everything seemed—the cars, the clothes, the way people carried themselves, all in black and white.  It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that the distance between the 30s and the 60s is only thirty years—the distance between my father’s childhood and my own.

I’ve been photographing since 1977—thirty five years now—and recently began thinking about my own son, how things in my lifetime must seem so old to him—especially since I’ve mostly photographed in black and white.  Looking at the Friedlander monuments made me remember some photographs I made shortly after moving to Philadelphia, in the spring of 1981, after I bought my first medium format camera, a Bronica S2.  The camera was intended to look like a Hassablad, but the camera was heavy and had a huge mirror that slammed into the top of the camera with sufficient force to vibrate the camera, and the pressure wave would rotate the focus ring on the lens.  But at fast enough shutter speeds, the Nikon lens was sharp.  I was a graduate student, and so broke after buying the camera that I could afford a little film, but not paper, so I never even made contact prints of most of the pictures from the first couple months.  They’ve sat in a box for 31 years, untouched.

Image

Image

Of course, these pictures are in response to Atget (too simple for Friedlander)—what strikes me is how  square and forward they still feel—I’m not sure I bring the same energy to the frame anymore—I’m not sure I could make these pictures now.

Later that spring, I saw the Robert Adams show “The New West” show at the Philadelphia Museum—an eye-opening experience for me—one that changed the way I saw the city that was my new home.

Image

Image

The young begin by imitating, by borrowing, by stealing from those that came before—it’s the way one learns what is possible, what photography can do.  Now, looking back at these images—I know who I was trying to steal from—but these pictures are mine.  Philadelphia was not Paris or Denver–I am not Atget or Adams–but their visions, their pictures helped me find a few of my own, a way of making the strange city I found myself in something closer to home.

Eugene Atget never traveled to Alaska (and I’ve never been to Paris or France), so on one level it is impossible to directly imitate his work here.  But sometimes, when looking at an image I’ve made, I recognize how looking at his pictures has allowed me to see something in this landscape that I think I would have missed were it not for the gift of his pictures. Sometimes I’m even so inspired by him to digitally “tone” the images to something resembling the gold toned albumen prints he made…

Lake in Ran, Richardson Highway, 2004

Lake in Rain, Richardson Highway, 2004

Lake and Mountains, Tok Cut Off, 1994

Lake and Mountains, Tok Cut Off, 1994

The influence of Atget on my work include the selection of the 8×10 camera as the weapon of choice for my landscape work.  While this camera can be incredibly slow in the field, it allows (forces) contemplation during composition, and also rewards the effort with a robust, meaty image that carries the precision of the light.