Steve McCurry - Portraits

Something I'm going to try to be better about on the blog this year is writing about some of the photography books that inspire me. I love flipping through the pages of good monographs and I want to share some of the ones that I find draw inspiration from in my collection. This time I thought I'd talk about a neat little book by Steve McCurry called Portraits. While it's a smallish book, it is quite thick and packed with nothing but full page portraits and spreads. I'm betting a lot of people who don't recognize the name Steve McCurry will certainly recognize his iconic Afghan Girl photo on the cover.

While Steve is known for his photojournalism work, he's also quite an accomplished portrait photographer. Most of the photos in this book aren't photojournalistic per se, rather they appear to be posed shots of interesting people that he encountered in his travels. The reason this book is so inspiring to me is that the images cover decades and were taken across continents, countries, and cultures. Yet, there is a consistency to Steve's portraits. A lot of the look in many of these images comes from that wonderful Kodachrome film that he liked to use. The lighting is usually natural, taken in shade, maybe some fill here and there with a small flash - nothing fancy. As a photojournalist he wasn't running around with a studio strobe and soft box. The eyes are what are so amazing in his portraits to me. His lens seems to look deep into people and invites the viewer to linger. You want to meet his subjects.

Portraits is certainly a great book for anyone who photographs people. Even if you don't, it's a great example of how a photographer produces a unique look with simple gear. Steve is one of those photographers that when you see one of his portraits, you recognize his work.

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W. Eugene Smith

While reading "The Road to Seeing" by Dan Winters a while back I took note of some of the photographers whom he mentioned as influences. One of those photographers is W. Eugene Smith. I was familiar with his name but I couldn't visualize any specific images I might have seen. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon an Aperture Masters of Photography volume on Smith's work in a used book store. I love this little hardcover series and I have a few of them in my collection. I was quite happy to add this one to my shelf of inspiring monographs.

Smith is primarily known for his photojournalism work, from the World War II era through the 1970s. I remembered seeing some of his war time photos in this book before in my studies of WWII. This book includes samples of his diverse collection, spanning his entire career. As I looked through this book I was struck by the depth of Smith's images. While I've never worked in a darkroom personally, I have shot enough black and white film to know that the printed images reproduced in this book are a result of laborious effort. The chiaroscuro images with highlights in the most effective places to guide the eyes and deep black shadows that hint at just the right amount of detail can only emerge from film negatives through the work of skilled hands in the darkroom. 

The book mentioned that one of Smith's famous photos of Albert Schweitzer, which was captured on a photojournalism assignment for Life magazine, was actually a composite that he created in the darkroom. It stuck me as a very questionable thing for a photojournalist to do. Recently well known photojournalist Steve McCurry came under fire for arguably less extreme manipulation of some of his images. Interestingly, a quote by Smith on the back cover of the book reads, "My station in life is to capture the action of life, the life of the world, its humor, its tragedies, in other words, life as it is. A true picture, unposed and real." Jim Hughes wrote in this book concerning Smith's photo manipulation, "It was not the first time Smith had taken it upon himself to break the accepted rules of journalism, and it would not be the last - his poetic license might range from elaborate if invisible stage direction to printmaking magic that could turn day into night. Smith's objective was a 'truth' that sometimes transcended the facts of appearance."

Perhaps Smith's work is not photojournalism in the purist sense. Some of them tell a story beyond what may have been apparent in a snapshot. There are bits of his work that are as much works of art as they are a story. His work in documenting Pittsburgh's steel industry is a great example. Smoke and pollution are cleverly used to create a charcoal drawn aesthetic. Other images make use of silhouettes that invite interpretation on the part of the viewer. This small book has truly piqued my interest in W. Eugene Smith's photography and I plan to spend more time studying his body of work. 

Road to Seeing

Grateful. It's a word that appeared a number of times throughout Dan Winters' Road to Seeing. Dan is a favorite photographer of mine. There are few artists out there who when you see a photo or painting or maybe hear a few bars of their music, it is easily identifiable as that artist's work - even when it is your first exposure to the particular piece. Dan is such an artist. He has a look that comes about from his way of seeing. This book is a little about how that way came to be. As an accomplished artist, he has plenty that he could toot his own horn about. Yet as I read this book I was struck with his humbleness and the fact that he views his "road to seeing" as being made possible through the people and experiences along his way. He hasn't forgotten the journey - he remembers in these pages. And, he is grateful.

While this book approaches 700 pages, it is a concise story of Dan's path to becoming a professional photographer. There are plenty of photos and the chapters are actually fairly brief. If anything, I was wanting for more. The majority of the book covers some of Dan's favorite work, both professional and personal, and the stories behind the images. This is far from a collection of anecdotes. This is more of a glimpse into Dan's thought process. He is an incredibly thoughtful individual in his approach to his work and his consideration of his subjects. He plans things carefully but allows for spontaneity to enter the shoot. He leans toward the analytical without losing creativity. Some of his shoots involve construction of elaborate sets for his subjects. Here is a guy who doesn't just takes pictures, he envisions them and then he makes them a reality. There is a passionate approach to his work. A favorite quote of his from the book: "I make it a habit to approach every picture as though it were my last."

There are some amazing assignments discussed, such as Dan's coverage of the final space shuttle launches. My favorite chapters were some of the more human works. The story of Marvin was a particularly touching piece. Not every project is a complete success and I appreciated that Dan shared bits of his work that were not necessarily well received. His New York actor's portfolio is one body of work that received criticism. The images came from a desire to do something different and present some famous people as perhaps a bit more ordinary that would be normally done in a celebrity editorial. I actually like this collection quite a bit. There are some wonderful images that appear to be special little moments between moments - real, genuine, and unposed. 

My copy of the Road to Seeing is signed and inscribed by Dan. I've met him a couple of times at speaking engagements and shared a short walk and elevator ride with him once. He was wonderful to talk with in person, every bit the intelligent, well-worded, humble guy that he comes across as in his writing. I'm grateful that our paths crossed if only for a brief moment or two. The Road to Seeing is survey of the life work of a great photographer with a deep love and passion for the art. It's an inspiring and highly recommended read. 

Rocky Schenck - The Recurring Dream

Yesterday I was honored to meet one of my favorite photographers, Rocky Schenck. I've written about one of Rocky's monographs before, Photographs. When I heard that his new book, The Recurring Dream, was released I was thrilled. Then I found out Rocky was scheduled for a talk and book signing at an exhibition of his work at The Wittliff Collections on the Texas State campus in nearby San Marcos. I was so there.

The books are beautiful, certainly. But seeing the images in person...wow. I must have walked through the exhibit at least a half dozen times, pausing at length to study my favorites. The depth, tones, and texture of the large prints is remarkable. The exhibit runs through mid-December. If you are a lover of photography and in the area, go see Rocky's work as it should be seen. I was already a fan and I came away with an even deeper appreciation for his images.

Rocky's talk at his reception was as moving as his work. Having met him personally now and hearing him present to a large group, it is quite apparent that he is a humble and private person who isn't particularly comfortable talking about himself or his body of work. In his own words, he'd rather let the work speak for itself. He described himself as emotional and it was obviously difficult for him to present to a bunch of strangers about art that is so personal to him. His images have been special to me since I first discovered them and all the more so now. I'll admit I got a little emotional myself. It was a moving experience. I feel honored and privileged that Rocky shared a bit of himself along with his body of work. I don't think it's something he does very often.

The Recurring Dream is a collection of images that are created in Rocky's unique style. Dream is certainly an appropriate word. His work is quite dream-like, perhaps nightmarish at times, and as soothing as a fond memory at others. The images are meticulously created in a blending of Rocky's skills as a photographer and painter. His black and white prints are toned with layers of color to create images with deep mood and feeling. There are stories here if you take the time to ponder the imagery and allow yourself to become immersed in these snapshot dreams.

Rocky called himself emotional. I'll say he's passionate. I'm glad to have met him and to add another volume of his incredible work to my collection. Thanks for sharing, Rocky.

The Contact Sheet

I love finding interesting and inspiring photography books on the shelves of used book stores. Rather than scrolling through the photo feeds of social media sites, I'm much happier holding a well printed book of images in my hands. The Contact Sheet, edited by Steve Crist, is a really neat find that I stumbled upon while looking through a local book store recently. The book is a collection of contact sheets by various photographers. It's an eclectic mix that covers art photography, photojournalism, architecture, fashion, portraiture, etc. There are some favorite photographers of mine such as Danny Clinch, Elliot Erwitt, and Arnold Newman. In addition to the more well known masters, there is a good mix of photographers who are new to me.

The premise of this book is great. There is a short bit of background on each photographer along with some anecdotes about the photos. A select image is printed large on either a full page or a double truck spread. Then there are the contact sheets of film strips, slides or film sheets from the shoot. Once I started looking through the pages of this book I couldn't put it down and I read through the whole thing in one sitting. Looking through the contract sheets was a huge learning experience. It's a glimpse into the thought and creative process of the photographers and it was so interesting to see how different photographers worked to get that one shot.

Not surprisingly, the photographers who worked with large format or medium format films tended to get their shot in fewer frames. I'm sure that working with more complex view cameras and expensive film is a big incentive to work methodically and carefully. Or are they simply more likely to settle on something given the time and expense? The 35mm photographers tended to experiment more and really work a scene or subject. Not all 35mm photographers in this collection used the whole roll of film on the same subject. Some seemed to more quickly get what they wanted or needed and moved on. The general tendency to shoot more with the less expensive film with many more exposures available per roll got me thinking about where we are today with digital cameras. The less the cost, the more we shoot. Do we shoot too much? I tend to think so. When I shoot film I tend to be more considering of the subject and my technique. Being more methodical sometimes means missing shots. In general though the keeper ratio with film is much higher for me. What was once cheap photography, 35mm film shooting is rather pricey these days compared with digital capture once the equipment is purchased.

It was interesting to see some of the other shots on the roll of film in the case of some of the more famous images such as Dorothea Lange's Migrant Mother or David Hume Kennerly's image of President Nixon leaving the White House for the last time. Post production on some of the photos was also interesting to see. Sometimes drastic crops and extensive dark room work is evident in many of the final prints of the selected images. Even in film days, post production was a vitally important aspect of image production. A particularly amazing example of post production is the work of Jerry Uelsman in this book. Three sets of contact sheets were necessary to show the full collection of images from which he selected frames and composited them into a single image in his darkroom. 

There are some good nuggets of wisdom and back stories. My favorite quote is one by Art Kane, "There is something about a perfectly lit photograph that I find offensive. If the light happens to drop off, so be it. That might produce a certain mystery. I'm interested in withholding some information - in not spelling things out so clearly that they become dull and cold." Kane's select image of a photo shoot with Aretha Franklin is a unique pick. On casual glance it might appear as an errant shot with motion blur. If studied more carefully, the catch lights in Franklin's eyes reveal a pattern of deliberate movement - quite planned and purposeful.

This was a fun, inspiring, and educational book to look through. It's a rare glimpse behind the scenes in image making. It is insightful to see how each photographer got to that final image through the story left behind on their contact sheets. That's something that I wonder if we will regret years down the road with digital media. I know I tend to delete my rejects, leaving no trace of my process. After reading The Contact Sheet, I wonder if I shouldn't keep some of those rejects around. Shoot less, keep more? Might not be a bad thing. Food for thought.

Rocky Schenck - Photographs

I discovered this book on the dusty shelves of a used book store a while back. I'd never heard of Rocky Schenck. His book, simply titled "Photographs", struck me as an oddity at first. The images look little like photographs at first glance. I was scratching my head at first until I read the introduction. The images in this book were created with film and Mr. Schenck's process involves manipulation of both the negative and the print. The result is mesmerizing. His images are soft yet powerful. Dark and intriguing. Dream-like...perhaps nightmarish at times. They are unlike anything I'd ever seen. I simply had to have this book.

My collection of monographs has grown over the years. I love finding new books to add to my library. This one has become a favorite of mine and I look through it often. I love its dark imagery and I think there has been a subliminal influence in my own work since acquiring "Photographs." Darkness and lack of detail in shadows don't bother me anymore. Grain or noise is hardly a concern. Soft focus? Not an issue if the story is there. That's really what it amounts to - this book is a story book in pure imagery. There is just enough detail and plenty of abstraction for the viewer to create his or her own story from these images. Schenck gives you a starting place for your imagination to run wild in, a suggestion through light and shadow, a vague place or human form. 

The photos presented in this book have an appearance that I can imagine as a blending of photography with painting or perhaps charcoal sketching. They resemble hand painted works of art more than photographs. If not for the title and introductory text, one could be excused for mistaking this as non-photographic art. I have no idea how Schenck created these images - not to say I didn't try searching for the answer to that mystery. Perhaps it's just as well. They just are. It is one of the most creative and thought provoking works I have come across and this book is indeed special to me.

William Eggleston's Guide

It has been a while since I've written about any photography books. Call me old fashioned but I would rather get lost in the pages of a book of photographs than flick through an Instagram feed or online gallery. I enjoy collecting monographs by photographers who inspire me and I especially love finding such treasures on the cheap at used book stores. 

William Eggleston's Guide was such a find. I think I paid $5 for my copy. Eggleston is a name that I've frequently heard mentioned by other photographers. He is well known for his color photography using chrome slide film. While I had seen a few images online, I wasn't very familiar with his work when I stumbled across this book. After flipping through its pages, I almost put it back on the shelf. I have to admit - I just didn't get it. My initial impression was that the collection of images looked like someone had wandered around aimlessly snapping photos of random objects and people. Not really what I'd consider street, documentary, or journalistic photography. What the hell is this? Knowing that Eggleston is a photographer greatly respected by a lot of photographers that I respect, I put my initial feelings aside and came home with the book. Hard to argue the price and maybe it would have collector value someday, I rationalized.

I flipped through the book again that night at home. Still nothing stirred any sort of emotional response. Yawn. I put the book away on a shelf. As weeks passed, I'd get it out again and try to make sense of it. The only initial common thread to the images was the distinct look of the film Eggleston used - muted yet somehow vibrant. Certain colors stand out over others. The color is certainly a huge part of Eggleston's look. In fact, the more I looked at the photos, the less I could envision them being anything but those colors. I work a lot in black and white and I don't think these photos would work in monochrome. Maybe I'm wrong but I believe these photos have to be in color or they don't work - assuming they work at all for the viewer.

Why did he take these photos? Was there something of particular interest in these frames? Was he simply documenting the people, places, and things of his environment? The majority of the photos are images of things that are ordinary - almost incessantly so. Surely though, they must hold some special meaning to Eggleston. Or do they? Did he take these images because they captured a special interest or stirred a particular emotion - or were they simply the happenstance things that presented themselves in his environment, photographed simply because they existed then and there before him?

I reflected on my own photography, my personal work. Was I so different? My favorite thing to do is walk around town, preferably at night, and look for the interesting in the mundane. The more I thought about it, I tend to photograph things in my environment, sometimes without knowing exactly why. Maybe it's something unique or interesting that makes me stop and take the photo. Often it is something that apart from the way shadows and light interplay would hold no aesthetic value. Color can come into play as well. My Fujifilm X-T1 has a Classic Chrome film simulation that has some similarities to Eggleston's look. I've found myself using it almost exclusively for personal photography when I shoot in color. 

Maybe the real takeaway from Eggleston's Guide is that if you stop and look around there is something to photograph wherever you are. Maybe there is "something" there in the most ordinary of places. We photographers can often be overheard bemoaning that there is nothing interesting to shoot. Woe is me - if only I had a lovely model, a beautiful landscape, perfect light... Perhaps that is the mental block that Eggleston sought to knock down with his photography.