Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Taken today

Untitled, Embarcadero BART Station, San Francisco, October 2009.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Voyeur: getting close from a distance

Untitled, San Francisco, September 2007.

I admit: I'm a voyeur; not by design but by happenstance. Any person who spends time like I do to observe humanity on the street is bound to become privy to intimacies displayed on the street. These publicly displayed intimacies are compelling subjects for me (what can be more human than affection?); and for a few seconds my camera and I become arm's-length participants in a private moment between non-complicit subjects, a third wheel, an intruder. In short, a voyeur.

A delectable book on peeping-tommery, entitled, what else, Voyeur, traces photography's long history and inevitable relationship with voyeurism in its many forms. From photography's earliest days, circa 1910, heads turn (the photographer's included) when a woman accidentally exposes a leg as she boards the tram, and her skirt gathers tightly to shape a most un-Victorian bum. Lartigue's sunbathers may or may not be aware of his camera, and that is the point. As critic Luc Sante wrote in his afterword to the book, "our very speculation on the matter itself [is] an additional voyeuristic seasoning." As cameras became smaller, the watchful eye entered the most private sanctums to capture the most private of acts, as in Henri Cartier-Bresson's shaky picture (blame a quivering mattress I suppose) of a Mexican couple entwined in bed. Bruce Davison's picture says more about the leering patrons than the stripper herself, a wry comment on the ludicrousness of voyeurism itself.

Luc Sante noted wonderfully that blackmailers and private detectives assigned to divorce cases -- the rogues of pulp fiction novels -- practiced the purest form of voyeuristic photography. Nowadays we have the paparazzi, who wreak havoc on the lives of celebrities with their telephoto lenses in order to titillate the masses. The picture of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in an adulterous clinch in Italy spawned a scandal, two divorces, threats of excommunication from the Vatican, and happily for Liz, two weddings to Dick. Jackie Onassis' bikini photo taken in Skorpios Island was the precursor to her infamous topless sunbathing pictures, which caused legions to cry foul and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt to laugh all the way to the bank.

Behind every voyeuristic image is an anxious photographer in cloak-and-dagger mode, wracked by anxiety, the thrill of the kill, even ethical conflict. The high pressure (and oftentimes illicit) moment can result in blurry and unusually framed pictures. Behind Velio Cioni's image of a Roman brothel is a photographer shooting from the hip as he lurks in the shadows, fearful of being caught.

One can almost imagine the photographer shushing the dog as he snaps a picture of its mistress' resplendent rump. Larry Clark, in his book Tulsa, chronicled the intimate lives of his teenage subjects as they spiraled through angst, sex, drugs and guns. His subjects were totally complicit and allowed Clark to take his revealing and often graphic images of them. But in the picture on the right, Clark keeps his distance, an unusual choice for him, and lends the image a decidedly voyeuristic and illicit quality.

Perhaps no other body of work deals more squarely with the subject of voyeurism than Japanese photographer Kohei Yoshiyuki's The Park. In the 1970s, Yoshiyuki prowled Tokyo's public parks with his camera, flash and infrared film to capture the nocturnal and clandestine sex, both gay and straight, that took place on the park grounds. The controversial series, which was exhibited at the time underground and at one point almost destroyed by the photographer, gained renewed interest more than 20 years later after being championed by critics and other photographers.

A curious aspect of the park phenomenon are the spectators who lurk like predators behind bushes to spy on the couples, and sometimes force themselves into the action. Yoshiyuki takes as much interest in this act of voyeurism as the actual sex that is taking place, a photographic voyeur stalking sexual voyeurs.

Finally, a post about voyeurism will not be complete without an image of a woman getting dressed while she is spied upon from the proverbial keyhole.

Unknown, Untitled, circa 1910.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Couple entwined on a bed, Mexico, 1934.
Jacques Henri Lartigue, On deck of Dahu II, Bibi and Denis Grey, July 1926.
Bruce Davison, Stripper, California, 1965.
Marcello Geppetti, Liz Taylor and Ricard Burton, Ischia, Italy, 1963.
Settimo Garritano, Jackie Onassis, Greece, 1970.
Velio Cioni, Brothel in Via Mario de'Fiori, Rome, 1958.
Roswitha Hecke, Airport, Zurich, 1979.
Larry Clark, Untitled, 1972.
Kohei Yoshiyuki, From The Park, circa 1970.
Unknown, Untitled, circa 1951

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Leica M9

The Leica M9 is here and it's a beauty. The camera's full-frame sensor, the first of its kind among digital cameras, renders the full 35mm format (24x36mm) in high resolution. It has the look of the classic M, and offers a few welcome changes to its predecessor, the M8. Most notable are the handy ISO button, several shutter sound modes, and the ability to eliminate infrared light contamination without the use of an external filter. The video below gives a tour of the M9's new features. You can also read more about it in the special Leica website featurette.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Shadows and light

Lunch Outside Safeway, Oakland, California, September 2007.

"Every picture has its shadows / And it has some source of light / Blindness, blindness and sight." Joni Mitchell wrote this in her 1980 album Shadows and Light. Joni knows about shadows and light. She is, by her own admission, a painter first and a musician second, "a painter derailed by circumstance," a lonely painter who lives in a box of paint.

Or consider the shadows and light of photographer Saul Leiter, a painter like Mitchell, who used 1950s New York City as a canvas for his silhouettes and splashes of color. Leiter's experiments in color photography have been spectacularly reissued by Steidl in the book Early Color. His elegiac photographs of mid-century New York is a world of acutely observed fragments seen through oblique angles and reflecting surfaces.

Leiter's New York has none of Weegee's morbidity, Meyerowitz's frenzy, or Bruce Blanchard's grotesques. His street photography is imbued with an unlikely serenity, as if the urban madness has temporarily been put on hold so we can savor the cracks on the wall or the "T" on the glass pane. Even a densely packed image like Reflection (1958) has a feeling of repose.

The gossamer lightness of Leiter's painterly images has been compared to the impressionist works of Bonnard or Vuillard, colorists whom Leiter admired very much. Through Boards (1957), however, with its lively street scene peeking through the flat planes of red and black, is reminiscent of Mark Rothko's No. 14 which was painted three years later.

Saul Leiter is without doubt the most underappreciated photographer of his generation. His poetic street photography is unlike anyone else's who worked the genre. Photographs are not reality, he says. "... they are little fragments of souvenirs of that unfinished world."

Joni Mitchell, Four Paintings.
Saul Leiter, Taxi, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Phone Call, 1957.
Saul Leiter, T, 1950.
Saul Leiter, Harlem, 1960.
Saul Leiter, Reflection, 1958.
Saul Leiter, Near the Tanager, 1954.
Saul Leiter, Pizza, Patterson, 1952.
Saul Leiter, Cracks, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Man Reading, 1957.
Saul Leiter, Through Boards, 1960.
Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Farewell, Irving Penn

Irving Penn, 1917-2009.

Irving Penn, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, died on October 6th at the age of 92. Andy Grundberg recalls his life and celebrated career in this obituary for The New York Times. In his fashion photography for Vogue or the iconic portraits seen here of Jean Cocteau, Collette and Pablo Picasso, Irving Penn brought elegance of line, stillness of expression, and dramatic simplicity that have become unmistakable signatures of his style. He remains peerless and shall be missed.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

We interrupt this blog ...

. . . to post a song-and-dance number from "Glee," the happiest show on TV today.