Thursday, April 30, 2009

. . . then something happens.

Anne Hathaway, San Francisco, November 2007.

I have a secret fantasy: I’m a Magnum correspondent. I'm not in front of the Gap, I'm in the trenches of Cordoba in '36, buried in mud, dodging enemy fire with Capa. I'm not shooting a flower stand on a windy spring day, I'm with Koudelka covering the Spring Invasion of Prague. This thing before me is not just a boring red wall, it's the barbed Wall of Berlin, and when it comes crashing down I will beat Nachtwey to the punch.

Then something happens: a man walks by with a Pixy Stix in his mouth. Suddenly I'm back in front
of the Gap, poised to catch the exact moment the Pixy Stix points to the air, and I nail the shot with dogged determination like it was the Falling Soldier himself. It has been a good day for waiting.

The French photographer Robert Doisneau knows a thing or two about waiting and the theatricality of everyday life. In his book, Paris, he said:
Seeing sometimes means constructing a little theater with the materials at hand, and then awaiting the arrival of the actors.

Which actors?

I don't know, but I wait.

I just keep hoping and believing real hard – and damned if they don't finish by showing up.
Even in the lowly theater of the Gap or a flower stand, actors could show up and something could
happen. A man could enter with a Pixy Stix in his mouth. A sudden gush of wind could create a little human crisis. An old Chinese man with hands on his back could enliven a boring red wall.

Not exactly Capa, but human moments just the same. An
d they will do very nicely until the first war assignment comes along.

VIDEO: Robert Capa, Photographs of the Spanish Civil War

Robert Capa, Falling Soldier, Cerro Muriano (Cordoba Front), 1936.
James Nachtwey, Berlin Wall Comes Down, 1989.

Josef Koudelka, From Invasion, Prague, 1968.
Robert Doisneau, Diagonal Steps, Paris, 1953.

The lost negatives of Robert Capa and Chim Seymour


More than a year ago, the International Center of Photography (ICP) received three cardboard boxes, collectively called the Mexican suitcase, containing 4,300 negatives of pictures taken during the Spanish Civil War by Magnum photographers Robert Capa, David (Chim) Seymour, and Gerda Taro. The tedious process of scanning and organizing the negatives has begun, and the ICP has announced its plans to hold an exhibition of the Mexican suitcase pictures in 2010 along with a retrospective of Chim Seymour. New York Times article is here. Slide show is here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

If I take your picture on the street, do you have the right to hit me?

Untitled, Powell Street, San Francisco, October 2007.

This homeless person was either having a bad day or had a very sharp bone to pick with authority figures. Whatever it was, he was taking a major dump on one of San Francisco's Finest. As he circled and taunted the cop, spewing gibberish at full spit, I snapped away from the sidelines. At one point, he screamed directly at the officer's ear, with no more than an inch separating their faces. (I missed the shot.) The cop remained remarkably stoic throughout his ordeal and didn't utter a single word to his raving tormentor. After the homeless man moved on, the policeman approached me. "The next time you take a picture of a police officer," he said, "ask for permission." I was dumbstruck. The man was just cursed at and spat on by a lunatic, in his ear, and he let all that slide, but he was annoyed that I took his picture.

The question of street photographers' rights, which is discussed here, lies at the heart of this incident. Did I really need to ask the officer's permission? US legislation says no, but even that fact gives no comfort. How can an amateur photographer arm himself with the law in the face of a very annoyed subject? Or worse, a very annoyed cop? He can't. He simply apologizes, or as I have done before, say "I wasn't taking your picture, you were actually in the way of my shot."

Other countries like the UK or Australia have adopted photographer bill of rights. UK photographer Stephen Griff, who photographs the night life in his native Leeds, carries a copy of the document whenever he shoots his nocturnal revelers, just in case. Fortunately, he and his fellow Leeds photographer, Lloyd Spencer, have such easygoing styles that their subjects are just too happy to mug in front of their cameras.

When my daughter was in fourth grade, I volunteered to design the newsletter of her English class. I was photographing children in the school yard for the newsletter when I saw an after-school teacher rushing in panic towards me. With both hands on her hips and speaking in her best Miss Hannigan voice, she said: "Why are you taking pictures of my kids?" As I was explaining my purpose to her, my daughter arrived. Convinced that I was a legitimate school parent after all, the teacher calmed down, headed back to her classroom, but threw one last suspicious look in my direction. It was only then that I realized the full meaning of her insinuating tone, and I felt the blood rush to my head. Although it reassured me to know that teachers in my daughter's school cared for the safety of their wards, the incident gave me pause. That evening, I looked at myself in the mirror just to check if I really looked like a creep.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

After you, sir

After Meyerowitz, Berkeley, March 2007.

A kind-hearted person would call the picture above a hommage; someone less generous would call it a rip-off. The truth must lie somewhere between the two. Joel Meyerowitz took this b&w picture of the lady in the ticket booth in 1963, a year after he left his job as an ad agency art director to become a full-time street photographer. The grill floating on the woman's face reminded him of Magritte's paintings. So he fell in line and pretended to buy a ticket so he could snap his very own Le fils de l'homme. In the case of my lady in the ticket booth, it was the memory of Meyerowitz' iconic image itself that compelled me to push the shutter.

It's fascinating that the sight of the ticket lady instinctively
reminded me of Meyerowitz even though I haven't looked at his pictures for many years. Perhaps he experienced the flashback with Magritte similarly. Consciously or not, memory of images begets other images. For the street photographer, there is a hundred years' worth of photographic tradition and iconography to inform and influence what one chooses to capture. A boy looking out a tram window is not just a boy anymore, but a Robert Frank tableau. Every man on a bike seen from a staircase is also seen from the prism of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Women gossiping on a bench conjure Garry Winogrand.

As for our ticket lady picture, there must be thousands of ladies behind ticket windows at any given time and place, each one waiting to be photographed. But it was Meyerowitz who captured the image first and tattooed it in our minds. So after you, sir.

René Magritte, Le fils de l'homme (The son of man), 1964.
Joel Meyer
owitz, Untitled, New York, 1963.
Robert Frank, Trolley, New Orleans.
Garry Winogrand, World's Fair, New York City, 1964.
Henri Cartie
r-Bresson, Hyeres, 1932.


Man on Train, San Francisco, March 2009.

There are many things about my personal appearance I don't like, but what rankles my vanity most of all is that I look silly wearing a hat. More than any other fashion accessory, a hat has the power to summon images from our memory. Most of them, of course, are movie images: gangster shootouts from the 30s, Cary Grant, Preston Sturges screwball comedies, Indiana Jones on horseback losing his Fedora again and again, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown saying "I'm just a snoop." My own memory of hats takes me back to Philippine cockfighting arenas in the 1960s, where hundreds of men wearing straw hats and closed-toe leather slippers screamed and hollered in the bleachers while two fighting cocks decked it out in the center of the sandy ring.

The sight of a man in a hat never fails to put my photographer's instinct at attention. Add a trench coat and I hit the ground running. It's almost impossible to take an uninteresting picture of a man wearing a hat because the drama is right there, sitting on top of his head.

In his book, The Ongoing Moment (a must read for photography lovers), Geoff Dyer said that the story of the Great Depression can be told simply by looking at pictures of men's hats. Poring through Dorothea Lange's portfolio of the depression years, Dyer looked at all the pictures with hats. He discovered that the hats, once signs of affluence, became more and more battered with each passing year until finally, in photographs of Skid Row, men slept on sidewalks using their hats for pillows. Dyer observed that by the 1950s "the great era of hats in photography has passed" and "it was no longer a reliable indicator of the ravages inflicted on men by economic forces..." As in the picture above by Garry Winogrand, "the hat was [now] just a hat."

Garry Winogrand, Untitled, 1950s.
Dorothea Lange, White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1937.
Tina Modotti, Workers Parade, 1926.
Saul Leiter, Harlem, 1960.
Dorothea Lange, Ball Game, Migrant Camp, Shafter, California, 1934.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A gypsy in the city and some thoughts about Flickr

Paul Passes Through, Bush Street, San Francisco, September 2007.

I was stepping out of my office building to have a quick smoke when I saw this man playing his accordion across the street. Awash in harsh light with wild shaggy hair, moustache, goatee, and a bright orange kerchief wound tightly around his neck, he looked like a gypsy lost in the city. I took out my handy Leica and started snapping pictures of him from afar. In my viewfinder, I saw him staring at me, and I mimed him a wordless "may I?" and he nodded yes and motioned me to come closer. His name is Paul, a Polish musician from Syracuse. I mistook him for a busker and offered him money, which he refused. He was just passing through, he said, on his way to San Diego where he is writing and playing music for a troupe of street actors. You look like a gypsy, I said. He slapped his accordion and guffawed. "Well, in a way I am," he said.

This picture of Paul was cited in The Online Photographer in an article by New York Times writer Howard French. In his thoughful essay, Howard writes in defense of Flickr, the online photo sharing community. Flickr has been ridiculed as nothing more than a repository for children's pictures, flower macros, and overexposed holiday shots of sunsets. Howard disagrees and so do I. Unlike Photobucket or Multiply or Picasa, Flickr is a real community. I've been lucky to know many Flickr photographers who share the same passion for creating images and looking at photographs. We critique each other's works, share tips and techniques, exchange Photoshop macros, trade prints, talk about gear and other objects of desire, call each other's attention to noteworthy books. We also talk about our kids, exchange recipes, and, on occasion, take pictures together. A Flickr photographer from Sardegna became a good friend and has invited me to his wedding. Two very talented Norwegian photo enthusiasts, buddies in real life, are my email pals. We talk about our work, our many frustrations, photographers, and Joni Mitchell.

I met Palanca prize-winning writer Willie Pascual through Flickr. His traveling notebook project, Lagalag: The Traveling Journal of Filipinos, brought together twenty Filipino photographers to tell their stories in pictures. Two notebooks, filled with photographs and mementos and confessions, journeyed to 10 destinations in the Philippines and 10 destinations in foreign countries. Two years later, the journey of the notebooks is almost complete.

So beware the snob who derides Flickr in my presence because he's in for a good fight. Nothing has inspired me more than the virtual presence of Flickr photographers looking over my viewfinder with their critical eyes.

Why do old Chinese people walk with hands behind their backs?

Hands, San Francisco Chinatown, April 2007.

Spend a day observing people in Chinatown, and you will see them: elderly Chinese men and women walking slowly, deliberately, eyes on the ground, shoulders hunched forward, with both hands clasped tightly behind their backs. I've asked friends who would notice this sort of thing, bugged co-workers from Hong Kong and the Mainland who all went "hmmm," googled and Ask Jeeves'd for a satisfying reason for this, but nothing. "It's cultural" (vague). "Back support" (but I don't see old Irish people doing it). "It's carried over from working in the rice paddies" (did you just pull that answer from your ass?).

So what do you think?


Commuter, BART Train, San Francisco, March 2007.

It's fitting that I start the first entry of my first blog with the first picture I took with my first Leica, the D-Lux 3. This also happens to be the first picture that I sold (full disclosure: the first of two pictures I ever sold in my life), and the first to be published by the mother ship herself (Leica Gallery's Picture of the Week). The picture was surreptitiously taken from across the aisle while I pretended to fiddle with the controls of my camera, flanked between two men in business suits on their morning commute to San Francisco's financial district. The old lady's face, lined by time, framed by white hair and Anna Wintour glasses, commanded attention. I responded dutifully. When she pursed her lips to the air, she seemed to say to me: "Here, boy, take your picture now. May I inspire you to take more."

So I did and so she has. This was the first picture that made me realize I could have fun doing this, running up and down the hills of San Francisco chasing subjects, waiting in alleys and street corners for "my actors" to enter the light.

As for the title of this blog: John Szarkowski, in his book The Photographer's Eye, summed up a photographer's visual vocabulary into (1) the thing itself, (2) the detail, (3) the frame, (4) time, and (5) vantage point. I like people. I like observing them. So this blog, like my pictures, is all about the thing itself.