A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Henri Cartier-Bresson Befriends Fred Herzog & Lifts My Ennui
Friday, December 19, 2008

I have never been able to find the wonderful story (in a Penthouse Magazine) that I read some 25 or more years ago about Domenico Scarlatti being time machined into a modern times Los Angeles and how he abandoned his harpsichord and became a member of a rock band. My search into Google today to find that story only got me this which is my own blog from March 17 where I mentioned it

Yesterday I was invited to a pre-Christmas gathering in the studio of Van Arts on West Hastings. I arrived a few hours late but early enough to watch projections of the digital images taken by many of my students. The photographs were sharp, had good composition, and some were most interesting. But in the end I became bored, and not necessarily, because the photographs were boring but perhaps simply due to the cynicism of an old man who has seen too many pictures and taken too many in his time. I heard another teacher near me say, "I just cannot get excited over photographs that don't elicit an emotional response in me."

I am not going to label my excellent students as boring or state that they take pictures devoid of feeling. That would be unfair. I felt confused but I wanted to keep silent in their presence. They were cheerful and excited. I explained that I was a tad bored and within a few minutes one of my students, Patrick Young told me, "Alex you should lighten up." I countered with a, "Telling me to lighten up is like telling a nervous person to relax. It just doesn't work." But the smile on his face was almost catching.

I had a chat with a much older photographer, Alan Jacques, whom I taught some years ago at Focal Point. He is a very good street photographer. He showed me some of his work which had appeared in a reputable photographic book. I looked at him in the eye and thinking of Domenico Scarlatti in Los Angeles going bonkers over a Moog synthethizer I asked him, "Do you think that if Henri Cartier-Bresson were brought back from the dead and brought to our present world that he be able to sell his photographs? Would anybody notice them?" I was afraid of Jacques's answer. I was right. He replied, "He would be ignored."

As remarkable as Cartier-Bresson's photographs are and if you add to that the knowledge that to my generation (the pre-digital camera generation) his photographs are embedded in our memory, the fact is that when he was taking his photographs few had cameras and took pictures in the street.

From my vantage point I divide photographers into two types. There are those who with camera in hand go out and look for pictures. They walk, they fly, they ride bicycles and when they see something that strikes their fancy (it could be funny, serious, whimsical, scary, ugly, beautiful, graphically arresting, etc) they take the picture. These photographers react to a situation that can either be an accident or one that they think will happen if they wait. In a border-line of this category would be the great landscape photographers like Ansel Adams who waited for the perfect light and discovered and or adapted methods of improving that light through negative processing control and master photo printing.

In the other category are the photographers who don't wait for decisive moments. They create them and more often they create them in a studio where they can control the light and their subjects. I am a minor member of this second category. But all photographers dabble in both categories. Some do both well others choose one or the other and then specialize.

The advent of the all-in-one digital single lens reflex has changed the playing field. You can take some pictures at 100 ISO and then, at will, shoot others at 3200. You can take all photographs in colour and convert any into b+w if you want. You can further get b+w infrared results(with relatively inexpensive programs like Paint Shop Pro, that mimic it to perfection. Pre-digital age the photographer wanting to do all that would have needed several cameras and lenses and facing the impossibility of reacting to a situation with more than one of them!

The ability of the DSLR to react to any situation, with ample help from the human holding it, gives the photographer a sense of comfort and control even if it is a reaction, after the fact, of what has been noticed that has to be recorded or "captured" by the sensor.

What that means is that we are getting tons of bad, good and even excellent Cartier-Bresson "decisive moment" pictures that are in bold and sharp colour. After seeing a few of these projected, ennui sets in.

Vancouver's Fred Herzog has at long last received recognition (before his death, and yes he is still alive, and he went on record to point that out!) for his work in capturing a Vancouver long gone, with the Kodachrome. Those colours, the neon the places that Herzog photographed are gone and the same thing can be said, almost, about that Kodachrome. There is no way that modern digital cameras can take anything that remotely looks like Herzog's photographs. Perhaps Cartier-Bresson in our contemporary Vancouver would admire and become Herzog's friend. Perhaps both would go out and shoot in colour.

In 1963 I roamed the streets of Mexico City alone or with friends. We had cameras. They were early SLRs, Pentacon-Fs, Edixas, Pentax S-3 and Exaktas. The lenses we used were of questionable optics. Our light meters if dropped became innacurate. They had springs and moving parts. We took pictures of anything that we thought was interesting. Most of our pictures were boring or were badly taken and or cropped with no sense. The picture that leads this blog is version 3 of a negative I took in 1963. I have scanned it three ways here. It replicates what I originally did in the darkroom. Back in 1963 I had yet to discover the pleasure and discipline of cropping inside my viewfinder. I opted for cropping the negative with my enlarger. You see here how that image progressed. In this last, at the bottom, is the roof of the car on the other side of the street. I must have been behind it. I did not have zoom lens and was stuck with the lens on my camera.

I am almost sure that had I run into someone like me now, then, I would have been told how my work was sloppy, unsharp, unimaginative and plain boring. My students now have far more challenges to face than I did then. Film technology was hit or miss and when pictures turned out we said just that, "They turned out!" as if it were a miracle. Now images are captured routinely and unless there is some digital malfunction they turn out every time. The pressure is on originality. It is this pursuit, originality, with competition from so many that makes 2008 and 2009 so much more difficult than 1963.

My inability to give any sound advice to my students makes me sad and helpless. It makes me jealous of that Penthouse Scarlatti who did just fine with that Moog synthethizer in LA and never looked back at his crude harpsichord and the music of his past. Perhaps my students as they look at their future with a smile on their face know something I don't know. If they are right this is indeed a good thing.


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