Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why I Love Street Photography - The Emotional Kicker

The famous street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (photo above of Henri Matisse by HCB, 1944) said that his passion for photography derived in part from "capturing in the fraction of a second the emotion of a subject.” I couldn't agree more. There are probably dozens of photographic genres and hybrids of genres from wedding and portaiture to products to fashion. Yet, my passion is a subset of documentary / photojournalism more commonly known as Street Photography (SP). Cartier-Bresson was one of the forerunner’s of this photographic style, which has as its calling card candid, spontaneous representations of its subjects. When well done, the photo should be capable of telling its own story, and with incredible poignancy. There is not style of photography I find more compelling.

Despite the name, SP has nothing to do with streets or urban areas per se. The name derived from photographers such as Cartier-Bresson who were embracing the advent of portable (35 mm) cameras, which allowed them to take to the streets, so to speak, to capture day to day society, be it in homes, cafes or streets. Simultaneously, the emerging art movement at the time (Surrealism) underscored the idea that there was much unintended information to be discovered and appreciated in the spontaneous capture of a subject. We take much of this for granted today, but at the time it was novel and intriguing.

My point in this post is not to glorify early photographers who helped to create the style because that has been done ad infinitum, but rather to shine some light on contemporary photographers who I feel represent the soul of the style and have taken it to new levels. My minor addiction to Flickr has allowed me to seek out a network of photographers who I feel epitomize the just how good SP can be, two of whom are Telenous (photos above) and Raffee (photos below). Both photographers have a true signature to their work. I envy them in this regard because I don't feel that I've fully found mine yet, but it's coming. Telenous has a very cinematic feel to his work. His entire stream is impressive. I told him in a testimonial that I wished only that he produced more work to view. SP is often shot in black and white, as are these photo samples, which in my opinion helps to create the mood and tension of the shot. B&W eliminates the distraction of color. The viewer is left with a real emotive image. The image is either well done or it's not, but there's no crutch of color to lean on.

Raffee is based in Paris. He shoots mostly with Leica film cameras and fast lenses. His series on his friend Jordane (above and below) is powerful and sensual, as is much of his work. What I appreciate in this photo above is the movement. The subject is framed off-center. Her hair is swinging into her face. It looks as though she was running and paused to look back. This is visceral. It has a wonderful tension to it underscored by the contrast in black and white. She addresses the camera, yet she's not modeling for it.

What SP brings to the viewer is an emotion not captured in other photographic genres, or I would even argue other artistic genres. To continue with HCB's thought from above, I feel that it is only through the photographic medium that you can capture emotion like this. There is nothing else fast enough. In order to catch a fleeting emotional moment, you need to a) be present at the time it happens and b) have the right tools - a camera.

There are many other photographers whose work I anticipate regularly. Please take a look at their photostreams: Tommy Oshima, Ping Lin, and Ghost.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Communion Photo Shoot

I was asked (hired) to shoot a friend's son's Communion a few weeks back, and I agreed. We also agreed that in lieu of payment, we would just consider my photos as a Communion gift. This solved two important issues for me: I got to shoot a new crowd and I didn't have to shop for and buy a gift. But it's interesting the change in dynamic that takes place once you're "hired" to do something you usually do for your own satisfaction. I love exploring my own curiosities through a camera lens, and I shoot whatever strikes me at the moment. But the sinking feeling that came over me halfway through the afternoon was that I had to "produce" something. Suddenly this wasn't just about shooting at will - I needed to amass pictures to put together in some form of album - I needed a "package." And the problem with a package was that I just couldn't shoot the interesting people, I had to shoot everyone.

I likened this initial experience to being one of the paparazzi. Part of the problem in getting more thought-provoking pictures at events such as this is timing (people arriving, leaving, moving, etc). My comfort zone in photography is either staged, studio shots or very natural, street-style photography where people pretend to ignore me (after awhile they usually just do). This was somewhere in between, yet not really. I ended up getting a good amount of shots I was very pleased with, and a some good "snapshots."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Slash and Roll

I recently finished this book on Slash. I read a lot, but I don't frequently read biographies. And I've never read a rock biography. But I've always had a particular soft spot for Slash and GN'R based on my appreciation of their debut album way back in '87, Appetite for Destruction. In my opinion, one of the best rock albums ever recorded. The book was co-written (heavily, I think) by Anthony Bozza. At times, Bozza's influence is felt too much and at other times not enough.

My first issue was language and word usage. Not to nitpick, and no offense to Slash, but too often Slash uses words in the book that just don't seem like they would be in his usual vocabulary, which in a small sense, subtly undermines the "real" factor of the story. Frankly, I don't want to hear Slash use big words. I met Slash one time in a bar on Miami Beach where he was jamming with a group of friends (very cool, by the way) and Slash could barely utter "hello." It was more like a good grunt and a handshake. And that was ok. That's rock and roll. I don't want to hear his delicate musings on the state of the union.

There were also phrasings in the book that were just absurd, highlighted by an incident where Slash gets confrontational with someone and you're expecting some great, unnecessary use of the "F" word, and he gets up in someone's face and says "whatever." Whatever? That's the best you got? If there was ever a time for Bozza's poetic intervention, this might have been it - somehow a bit anticlimactic in the rock and roll sense, don't you think? Perhaps this weak reaction was a consequence of the fact that for about 15 straight years, Slash was high on a cauldron of drugs, mostly heroine, interspersed with frequent bouts with coke, prescription meds, and of course lots of alcohol. It was Slash's, and at least two other members of the band, addiction to these elements that allowed Axl Rose to gain legal control and musical influence over the band, pushing the remaining members into a "hired guns" scenario, which ultimately led to the band's demise.

Overall, the book is entertaining. I don't know if or how I would recommend it to others, though. You really have to be a fan of the band and their music to enjoy the book because this allows you put aside the oddities and frequent digressions (mostly on the unquenchable search for drugs) of the book and just enjoy the trainwreck. The book answered two questions that I've always wanted to know more about: a) how the band was born and b) why the band died. And I got sufficient answers to those questions.

The book also revealed and confirmed what I already had suspected - that Slash is an easy-going, down-to-earth guy who just loves to play music. He's a musician's musician. When I saw him in Miami Beach, he was there playing with a friend's band because he can't stand to be off stage. He considers himself a musician and when he's not playing, he doesn't feel alive. I saw Slash at this small club in Miami Beach in 1997; the club held maybe 100 people, at best. And yet there he was, cigarette dangling and guitar in hand. What's interesting is if you look at all of the original members of GN'R, Slash is the only one that has stayed in steady motion - appearing and collaborating on so many musical projects. This includes recordings with Lenny Kravitz, Ray Charles and Michael Jackson, as well as his own side gig, Slash's Snakepit, and numerous, and less recognized, appearances at jazz festivals and club tours, such as where I saw him in Miami. Also included would be his creation, with former Guns bassist Duff Mc Kagen and drummer Matt Sorum, as well as former STP singer Scott Weiland, of the band Velvet Revolver, which has produced two successful albums. By contrast, and Slash notes this in the book, Axl Rose, who fought so aggressively for control of GN'R, at the expense of everyone else, has produced absolutely nothing except for an expensive late 1990's recording of songs (album Chinese Democracy) that still has yet to be fully produced or released. My hat's off to him. I hope to meet him again.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Florence: Tourists, Cameras and Pigeons

I just returned from a trip to Florence, Italy. Outside of the more obvious and fascinating attractions of Florence, I was just as struck by a) the amount of tourists in this small city, and b) the amount of tourists with large DSLR cameras. I felt like I was in a music video parody (maybe old Van Halen?) where everyone was running around with sunblock on their noses, black dress socks with shorts, camera in hand, shooting anything that would move - this includes doorknobs, pigeons and other such nonsense (are Italian pigeons somehow sexier than other pigeons?). There was one man who was photographing his poor wife as she stood in the middle of a piazza with food in each hand as pigeons swarmed her. She's painfully forcing a smile as the pigeons beat the hell out of her face and her husband tries to focus. I am sure the reason I am fascinated by photography is because I am fascinated by people. I didn't have the heart to take the photo of the woman, but that's the one that would've counted.