A while back, in mid-September, I posted a collection of 14 photographs from the old masters and asked anyone to offer their comments on any of them. Two readers offered their comments, thank you, Sal and Jude. There is another point worth speculating here. I say speculating because I don’t want to generalize too much based on a lack of comments. However, the idea of reading photographs, spending the time to review them and then offer considered comments seem to go against the current common online photographic culture where “congrats,” or “great shot” are deemed enough and appropriate. I was talking to a friend about the photo competitions in camera clubs and told him that taking photographs for 5-second appreciation did not make much sense to me. I suppose that would be the equivalent of “congrats.” That said, I would like to offer my comments some of which will follow what Sal and Jude offered.
One of the photographers on the list, Ray Metzker passed away about 10 days ago and in the New York Times, they happened to use the same photograph of the kayaker in Frankfurt. So, I will start with that. The formal symmetry and the stark graphic nature of the photograph are gently disturbed by the slightly curving rope and the slightly asymmetric positioning of the rower’s hands. The cut off of the kayak touches it to the frame thus assigning it even greater importance. The formal symmetrical structure of this photograph is repeated in the Mapplethorpe’s Irises. The formal and symmetrical structure is giving the photograph somewhat of a monumental presence and a lower camera position gives greater emphasis and dignity to the flowers.
Another similar pair is the Kertesz’s Melancholic Tulip and Sudek’s Still Life. Both feature a drooping flower from a container. But where Kertesz presents the tulip with elegance, Sudek seems to prefer a more down to earth, ordinary look in his photograph. They are similar in their tonal structure as well, with rich blacks and well-defined highlights. Their containers may look different but they both contain the essential element in the photograph. (More on the Melancholic Tulip in a dedicated post.)
Josef Sudek mainly photographed in his hometown Prague and was known as the Poet of Prague. His photograph of Saint Vitus is one of many he took of the cathedral and is certainly a very strong architectural photograph in his lyric style. I also wanted to include this photograph because of the strongly visible shafts of light which owe their strong presence to the ongoing construction and accompanying dust in the environment. His control of the highlight and shadow detail is quite remarkable.
Eisenstaedt shows the joy and exuberance of the children at the puppet theater, this is the “puppet’s view” if you think about it. The photographer and the puppeteer almost become one as nobody seems to pay any attention to the photographer although he was directly looking at them. This is one of several he took at the same place, the small thumbnail on the right will show you a color version with some of the same characters with no change in the intensity of their attention. Looks can tell a lot about what is being looked at, the kids at the puppet theater exemplifies that very well.
Alma Lavenson – Carquines Bridge is a study in lines, straight, curved, crossing, and celebrating the industrial age. It is also a sharp (pun intended) deviation from the earlier pictorialism to modernist photography with sharp focus, strong lines, and unadorned reality whether she photographed landscapes or industrial structures. She was one of the f/64 school photographers. It is hard, for me, not to appreciate the crowded but orderly structure she captured in this photograph.
Taken under strong sunlight at what appears to be a mid-day, Ansel Adams’ Church Santa Cruz defies several current photographic advice. “Don’t shoot at mid-day,” they say, “harsh light does not make good photographs.” Apparently, Adams, the master of control of the negative and the print, liked the strong shadows. Another current wisdom teaches us to “avoid edge mergers.” Adams ignores this rule as the peak point of the archway touches the top edge almost at mid-point. Not only does this emphasize the strong angular structure of the archway, but it also creates a cascade of archways towards the back. These become the main motif for the main church building which remains as a background object with partial visibility. I am sure he was not thinking to break the rules, but he was simply beyond the rules in his thinking.
I included two photographs by Berenice Abbot because of the contrast they provide. She is best known for her gorgeous photographs of New York City. Yet, the George Washington Bridge provides a strong contrast between nature and man-made and maintains the similarities in both. The second photograph is more in keeping with her better-known style and gives us a nice comparative view of her work. She was also instrumental in saving almost all the negatives of the French photographer Eugene Atget who has become one of the great names in photographic history thanks to Abbot’s efforts.
The sheer elegance of Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn in Irving Penn’s photographs is undeniable and makes for great fashion photography. That said, the strong graphic nature of the dresses she is wearing and poses Penn captured add more complex layers in these photographs. Look, for instance, at the black dress and try to focus mainly on the dress. You will likely see the knot and the bow the black areas create. I don’t think for a moment that it was accidental! A similarly strong graphic adorns the second photograph as well. This kind of multilayered photographic structure is the hallmark of a master.
Lee Friedlander is one of the great names of street photography and he delights in juxtaposing elements to give the viewer a double-take. In photographing this rather elaborate house, he hides the main structure behind a spring-flowering tree and then hides its trunk behind a lamppost as if the lamppost were blooming. Also, note that the lamppost is exactly in the middle of the frame. Oh-no! In one of his photographs not shown here, you will see the photographer’s shadow cast on the woman in front of him, as if he was autographing the photograph. You will find his cityscape photographs highly complex, divided into sections, and each section almost able to stand on its own.
Last, but not least Margaret Bourke-White’s A DC-4 Flying Over New York City is remarkable in technical and photographic excellence. On commission to photograph the DC-4 for an airline, Bourke-White was on a smaller plane at a higher altitude to capture this scene. The strong verticals created by skyscrapers are balanced by the diagonal streets. The buildings that would normally be considered tall, with 10-20 stories look simply dwarfed by the likes of the Chrysler Building and the perspective. The inclusion of the Chrysler Building is probably not accidental as Margaret Bourke-White had her studio on the 61st floor, above the gargoyles. You can find her photographs of the gargoyles as well as photographs showing her on top of them. Brave woman!
This post too welcomes comments on the photographs as well as the comments themselves. At the risk of repetition but for the sake of convenience, I am including the same photographs here as well.