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Puglia, The Church, Smiling Eyes, Road Martyrs and the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm 1:1.8 Lens

Thu, 2017-04-27 14:44

The old port in Monopoli. I looked everywhere for the Thimble, the Boot, and the Wheelbarrow, with no luck.

Initially, you don’t worry about what traveling is for, because it’s obvious. Somewhere new! Adventures! Beautiful things! Take pictures! Beautiful pictures! Then you get older, and it may occur to you to wonder what the hell you’re doing on this street in a city you’ve never been in, where you know no one, and have no particular place to go. One answer is just that difference makes it easier to notice what’s around you and feel awake, and subsequently alive, and so we went to Puglia, or Apulia, on the Adriatic coast of the heel of Italy’s boot. Along with my wife and child, I took the Olympus M.Zuiko Digital 17mm f1.8 with me. Unlike them, it fits unobtrusively on my E-M10 and weighs almost nothing.

Before I had a kid, I traveled a lot, and I knew that a traveling man needed a good zoom. Mine was Sigma’s 17-70 f2.8-4.5 for APS-C cameras, which is a nicely wide to gently telephoto range. My attraction to primes coincided with the birth of my daughter and the abrupt end to extensive international travel that entailed. But now she’s three years old and has a bit of endurance, so we took Ryanair to Bari, a city I’d never heard of in a region I’d never heard of, because my wife read about it on someone’s blog. And I took the 17mm (34mm, i.e. 35mm, in real camera terms) because I now believe in primes and the Olympus 25mm 1.8 that ordinarily hangs on my digital camera (50mm-equivalent) seemed like it would be too tight for the vistas I imagined I’d be wanting to record. I didn’t bring my Leica because I figured the trip would be complicated enough without the extra weight and fuss, and I don’t have anything wider than 50mm for it anyway (NB: this the last time I mention Leica or film in this post, so if they're the only reason you're here, I release you to browse on).

I don’t zoom, but I crop. This is part of an ongoing series called “Lions by Sculptors Who’ve Never Seen Lions.” We take it for granted now that we know what everything looks like, even the scads of things we’ve never seen in person. Thank you, photography.

The widely available facts about the 17mm: it’s a compact, light-weight, fast-focusing lens in a classic (eqiv) focal length. It has a “Fast Focus Clutch” feature that involves pulling the focus ring back to switch to manual, which sounds much cooler and (for me anyway) more useful than it actually is. The depth-of-field scale is more homage than functional, and the focus ring overshoots infinity, which is lame. I feel like the lens relaxes when I put the cap on because then no one can judge its comically small entry pupil.

This Olympus M.Zuiko 17mm 1:1.8 lens has just noticed a staggeringly racist restaurant logo in Bari. It furtively looks around and is relieved that there are no black M.Zuiko 17mm lenses around. I personally don't see the appeal of the silver Olympus lenses unless perhaps you have a silver-bodied Pen. Leica has taught me that miscegenation is only permissible between silver bodies and black lenses, not vice versa. 

Until this trip, I’d only sporadically used this lens. I met it on eBay and we got together to see if a wider-angle prime suited my street and family work, and it didn’t. I’d also imagined, because the lens is nominally made of metal, that it would make using my Olympus E-M10 more romantic, but it also didn’t. 

Flying Ryanair out of Beauvais (hilariously called “Paris” Beauvais – it’s practically in Belgium) is also relaxing. Now that all economy air travel is basically shit, budget carriers seem less shitty than they once did. Ryanair seats have no seat pockets, and though I assume barf bags are available on request, I wonder about the logistics of getting one in a hurry. The seats don’t recline, and the plastic blue and yellow color scheme makes you feel like you’re riding in a Playschool toy, but the plane flies through the air all the same. We had minimal carry-on baggage so I didn’t need to bash in some old lady’s gourd to get overhead storage space. Beauvais and Bari’s airport seem like provincial bus stations when you’re used to CDG and LAX, and that is wonderful.

I didn’t take any pictures of the seats or airport. They’re serious about recycling in Puglia.

We had a good week to explore the region. If you find yourself in Puglia, with or without a decent 35mm-equiv lens, these are some places you should go:

Matera, a city like the missing link between our millennia as cave dwellers and our recent surge of architectural extravagance. Folks lived in caves here until the 1950s (albeit caves fronted with man-made walls), and they only stopped because the Italian government got embarrassed and forced them into housing estates. Fun fact: they heated their caves, which also housed their animals (a few feet from the bed, in some cases) with animal dung. As in, the heat from the composting dung warmed the cave. What smell?

Visiting a former cave home in Matera, the Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario, at f/1.8.

-Alberobello, with its conical houses that look like something dreamed up by a 19th century travel writer describing a place he’s sure his readers will never visit to fact-check him. Unfortunately the Trulli town is irredeemably touristy, but if you squint and the crowds are light, you can see the magic.

Trulli with Kodak sign: signs of other times.

-Locorotondo, a hill-top town where the light ricochets between white-washed walls with spectral abandon.

Lecce makes a beautiful base for exploring the southern vasts, though it seemed like half the famously baroque churches were modestly draped in plastic for restoration when we were there.

The light, in general, is something special in this region, at this time of year (spring). Not yet carrying too much heat, it’s nonetheless screamingly vibrant, setting color thrumming. It reminded me of southern France, the Mediterranean coast, but each time you see it it feels like a new thing, freshly discovered. It leaves some impression but there is something ultimately unrememberable about it, so that the next time you see it you’re startled again with the way it lashes the physical world into being, how it livens stone, how it cuts narrow streets into blue shadow and warm, warm illumination.

This of course inspired the use of the 17mm, though with some restraint, because in my many years of photographing while traveling, and my time in the south of France and similar climes, I’ve come to accept that this lightning cannot be bottled, not really. At best you get a scribbled reminder of what it was, and the lens did that just fine.  

Locorotondo, blinded by the light. Time was I’d have a hundred largely indistinguishable photos like this.

 I shot the lens wide open in the dimness of the many churches we visited, with their extravagantly agonized Christs and brutally martyred saints, their reliquaried bone chips and macabre ossuaries. Unfortunately, we missed both the human remains of the Turkish slaughter in Otranto and the mummies in Monopoli because of the vissicitudes of mass and closing times. There is a sense of the Catholic church, The Church, as a going concern in this part of Italy, the kick drum in the daily rhythm of life, totally different from the vibe in France, where the profusion of churches feels more vestigial than vibrant. It made me want to watch The Young Pope. I can attest the lens does fine at f/1.8.

God, like most powerful, busy folks, outsources the cleaning of his house.

In my very limited experience, Puglians are more friendly than average toward strangers. People stopped to chat with us and wanted nothing in return. People offered help unbidden. People cooed ostentatiously over my daughter, which isn’t exactly friendliness but made me feel good.

That friendliness evaporates when they get behind the wheel or cross a street. Italians locomote like they’re desperate to be martyred for the god of traffic, but we didn’t have to pay the collision deductible on our rental or hush-money to any families of smashed pedestrians, so I can’t really complain. On the plus side of driving, the roads between the Puglian cities are strangely empty: a post-apocalyptic image is tempting, especially given the many abandoned and half-constructed buildings, but the actual impression is of a place built for people who haven’t arrived, a Langoliers-future of open asphalt.

If you’re worried about how sharp the 17mm is, just keep taking photos for another ten years, or start shooting film now. I’ll tell you that it’s not as sharp as Olympus’s 25mm 1.8, but that lens could cut a Ginsu knife in half and still neatly slice a tomato. The 17mm is a tiny bit soft wide open, and less so closed down.

Matera at f/8. Sharp like old concrete and tile.

Color and contrast? Modern lenses with anything more than the most ruthless design budgets are largely indistinguishable to me along these lines, and the most subtle digital post-processing creates changes in the image that outweigh the subtle imprint of glass. 

The bokeh doesn’t seem as nice to me as that of the 25mm, but as a wise friend of mine once remarked, how many great pictures have you seen with a lot of background blur? I’m not going to be shooting a lot of portraits with a lens this wide, so I don’t worry about it. 

EMBER CALL UR OTHER (little Magicians ref there, eh): This crop shows some background blur, which doesn’t often happen at this focal length without some effort. It’s not buttery. Is it salty? A bit of vinegar? A hint of macha?

One possibly legitimate nit I found to pick with the lens: it flared several times in the bright Italian sun, with a little spot appearing in the center lower part of the frame. But I refuse to use lens hoods, so maybe this is my fault.

An unremarkable photograph that wasn’t ruined by a spot of flare.

I could also pick nits from Puglia's well-oiled pompadour, but this would be similarly pointless. There is more trash blowing around than is ideal when pondering the depth of human time. Things don’t always work as well as you might like them to. Italy is, after all, the founding “I” in “PIGS,” and just think about how long Berlusconi was gumming up the gears. Italy is not Norway. That's why the food is so cheap. 

PIGs. "They're not very friendly," a friendly Puglian warned me.

The Olympus 17mm, on the other hand, works very well. Traveling with just a 35mm-equiv prime is something I now consider workable, at least for city trips, and the kind of travel photography I now practice. I no longer aspire to capture every moment, every spectacular view at its maximum spectacularity. I just want some nice reminders, and the chance at making one or two meaningful photographs if I’m lucky enough to spot them.

Josef Koudelka: The Making of Exiles at the Pompidou Center, Paris

Thu, 2017-03-23 19:09

I went to see The Making of Exiles at the Pompidou Center the other day because I heard Koudelka used a Leica. I’m kidding. I went because it was free and the internet has conditioned me to not pay for things. I jest. I went because Koudelka is, if not a god, a kind of John the Baptist of photography, or at least a Caine of Kung-Fu of photography. And like I said, it was free.

Koudelka recently gave the museum a bunch of prints from which this show is drawn. They’re from his Exiles work, which I’d heard of but never seen seriously (I was more familiar with his photos of gypsies [or Roma, or Travelers, or what have you], which, I learned, he shot with an Exacta and a 25mm Flektogon, which must have seemed insanely wide at the time). I also learned that Koudelka is still alive. Not that I’d heard he wasn’t, but I just kind of assumed, you know. Not only is he alive, but he’s active.

He has always been active. I knew, vaguely, something about Koudelka’s personal story, but it seems my mind refused to retain the full incredibleness of it. Between the show notes and some heavy Koudelka creeping online, I am now reacquainted. You may know that he is a Magnum photographer, a friend of the great (late, this I knew) Henri Cartier-Bresson (in fact, I read that HCB got him those Leicas I mentioned). Quite firmly ensconced in the firmament. But so, Koudelka had (has?) this magnificent process. He spent his arguably most fruitful years, or at least the years he’s most famous for, wandering the earth (the western European part of it, anyway). Like Caine. But I mean, really a lot more like Caine than other photographers who get around. Koudelka wandered, with just his cameras and film and a sleeping bag and his ideas. He owned nothing unrelated to creation or survival, had no fixed address. He would photograph during the spring and summer, sleeping where he was when the day ended, outside or on the floor of an obliging friend or stranger, which this show gets into in some novel detail. In the winter he fell back to London or Paris (crashing in the Magnum offices at times) to develop and edit his work. He did this for years, decades. He never married, but has three children with three women in three countries. And claims to abhor spending more than three months in one place. That is a lot of threes. I have seen nothing to suggest that this breathless account is untrue, or even a stretching of truth.

And did I mention that his first and last piece of photojournalism was the single-handed documenting-for-western-eyes of the brutal Soviet-led invasion of Prague in 1968, which won him (anonymously, so the Reds wouldn’t thank him with free and permanent underground housing) the Capa Gold Metal for excellence in photojournalism? Not bad for a guy who up till that point was fixing airplanes and taking pictures of theatre productions and rootless Roma, who were no doubt rough around the edges but rarely shot at anyone, unlike the Warsaw Pact troops, who managed to kill over a hundred of Koudelka’s countrymen while liberating them from the grips of imperialist infiltrators. Well, consider it mentioned.

So, the show. Obviously, it’s good. Duh. If you don’t find something that engages you there, we have nothing else to say to each other. But this is supposed to be a review, so let’s review.

There is, to start, one of Kudelka’s most iconic photos, the dog, the black dog, that was on the cover of Exiles. They used it for the show’s poster, but there’s a real print inside.

What is it about this image? It’s a dog picture. A dog in a park. It does not start well. But then, it is amazing, and it’s quite a treat to see a real print of it. I think it works because of the way Koudelka pushes the abstracting power of black and white film. If it were printed to show the documentary truth, it would not be as interesting. But the unrelieved blackness of the dog makes its outline the primary element of the image, the freakish jowls, the knobby, demonic tail. There is a strangeness that would not have been apparent in the moment to someone without vision. I have been there, the Parc de Sceaux, dozens of times, in the snow even, and of course I never saw anything like this, because you have to be someone like Josef Koudelka to see it in the world. Then he shows us what he saw, and we understand that one cold day the dog comes for all of us. In the show print, for the first time I noticed a human figure in the distance. With the blank snow obliterating the separation of foreground and background and little else to guide our understanding of perspective in the image, the person makes the dog feel enormous.

Then there’s something like this:

The photographer always inserts himself in the photograph, especially when shooting other people's highly reflective photographs.

I don’t think of Koudelka as being (even before he got into panoramic landscapes) really a “street photographer” – that’s much too tight a box to squeeze him into. But he did manage some blistering street photography all the same. What’s going on in this shot? What’s the point? I sure as hell don’t know. Is that old man creepy or kind? What’s the deal with that kid? Koudelka isn’t going to tell us. He just drops the moment on us. The rest is in our hands. Here we have some desperation, some hope, some every-day-getting-along. Look at that lady’s stockings: they speak whole soliloquies of getting along. The subject is something, but compositionally we’re also in fresh territory, with the halving of the man, the division of the whole image.

How about this?

The black silhouettes again, the incredible light on the rocket plume, the timing, the way the smoke doesn’t just obscure the man but calls into question his very form, I mean, holy shit. This moment did not look like this, but it was this, could be shown to be this.

Not everything got me this excited. There are several images of rough cloth, studies of texture or comments on the fabric of lives, I don’t know.

Then there was this grouping:

The top photo, gulls presumably following a boat, doesn’t seem far off from plenty of stuff on Flickr. But considered as part of the tryptic it says more, a progression along the track of animals’ relationship with man, from relative freedom through pathetic captivity to exploited death. That crow is quite something, though I wonder if back then people tied up dead crows (a scarecrow of the most pointed variety, I assume) all the time, and the subject’s impact is a trick of anachronism. The clever corvid was not always as appreciated as today.

There are two series of photos that are explicitly marked as being never-before-seen: one, a collection of makeshift outdoor sleeping places presumably used by the man himself, and the other, timed selfies of Koudelka pretending to snooze. The leaflet describes these as not merely unpublished but “secret,” and I can almost believe it. But they don’t come completely out of left field: there is, for example, a picture in the original collection of Koudelka’s legs stretched out before him that prefigures a million Instagrams. And the apparently famous arm-with-watch in Prague (which I couldn’t recall ever seeing, to the utter astonishment of the friend I went to the show with). But their inclusion is certainly a departure in tone and subject, and arguably puts more emphasis on the artist’s nomadic, ascetic lifestyle in a new way, in a way he never did back in the day.

Let’s just stop and marvel at this, here in 2017. People now can’t resist talking up the whole nomadic monk thing because it’s just awesome, but the really amazing thing is Koudelka just did it, near as I can tell, not to make a point about materialism or show girls how woke he was, but because he wanted to make certain kinds of photos so he got rid of everything that wasn’t about making certain kinds of photos. He wasn’t selling a book about simplifying your life, and you don’t need to know anything about the guy’s process to see what’s good about his work. His lifestyle makes the work possible, but it isn’t part of the work. A young photographer showing the same disinterest today is nigh unimaginable.

But, those beds and selfies. This is a rare treat, a lifting of the curtain, and interestingly shows that Koudelka himself was, on some level, interested in his process/life-style. Did he just want to preserve those one-night-stands for his own recollection? Did he like the visual of those empty beds? Did he wonder what he looked like, sleeping there with no one to see him but the stars and night-creatures? Did he want proof that he wasn’t sneaking into a hostel every chance he got? Characteristically, he doesn’t drop any metatextual hints in the show apart from a quote about how he managed to sleep anywhere.

So, see the show. Ponder the man’s vision, and his meanderings, and his refreshing non-performativeness.

[A side note: last year I saw another free show at the Pomp, Louis Stettner. Great show. “Free” is not the word that comes to mind when I think of this museum, but there’s a space downstairs called the “Galerie des Photographies” and as far I can tell, it’s always free. They’ve been putting up shows there since at least 2014, but I only just heard of it recently, at least in part because the events there don’t show up on the list of expositions on the museum website. They are listed, separately, but are incredibly hard to find from within the site – Google does a better job. In fact, you could easily visit the Pompidou Center in person and miss these things. To make sure you don’t, go straight to the back wall from the entrance and do a 180 to take the wide stairs down into the bowels of this boweliest of buildings.]

And a closing note: I’ve come across a number of mentions of notebooks that Koudelka kept during his wanderings, but have never seen anything purportedly excerpted from them. I imagine he still has them, they’re probably in Czech, and probably no one knows what’s in them. But if English pearls have been extracted from these presumable oysters, I’d love to know about it.  

Finally, let’s watch a video. This by all rights should be cultural ephemera, but it has been amber trapped by the INA, an utterly French sounding-institution dedicated to “the preservation and promotion of our audio-visual heritage,” which I’d never heard of but is clearly wonderful. This was French public television just before the wall came down. Look at that lady’s outfit. I was not only alive in 1988, but sentient. I lived this (albeit elsewhere) yet it looks like a period piece, or a punchline. You can skip to 00:15 for a deliciously awkward long pause as they cue up the next segment, and then marvel at the glimpse of Koudelka’s gloriously trashed, rough-sleeping Leica hanging around his neck, set to an ominous drone that calls Werner Hertzog to mind. Then you can stop it and go on with your life as if every moment didn’t contain miracles.