4"x5", 6x7, Afghanistan, analogue, black and white, color, documentary, Pakistan, Pentax, portrait, Sinar

Izabella Demavlys . Photographer

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Izabella Demavlys Without a Face

Without a Face

Izabella Demavlys started out as a fashion photographer. Years later, she is still interested in beauty; it’s just her definition of beauty that has changed. As I was looking at her portraits of acid attack victims in Pakistan, I realized: certain pictures you take (or see) and then you move on. But certain images you take (or see) and they pull you into themselves and stay with you.

GL: You photographed this woman in what seems like a traditional, painterly ‘Virgin Mary’ pose. Head slightly tilted, looking gently away. Her face is horribly disfigured. What is it like for you now, years later, when you look at it?

ID: I shot several women before I met Bushra. So, I was rather calm and focused. Bushra was also very comfortable with herself and we were actually joking around before I took this picture. She was one of the most grounded of all the women I shot for this particular project; she made me feel at ease.

The decision to travel to Pakistan had changed how I view things in life. I have an emotional connection with the ‘Without a Face’ series, more than with any other series I have done. It marks a huge shift in my life both spiritually and professionally.

GL: When talking about portraits we seldom discuss what they meant for the subject of the picture. There’s always a ‘contract’ between photographer and subject and a classical studio portrait is a combination of the photographer’s vision of the subject and of the subjects’ ideas about how they want to see themselves. Do you know how these women felt when you took their pictures?

Izabella Demavlys Without a Face 2ID: Because I was shooting with my Sinar 4″x5″, I was taking Polaroids as well, so all the women whom I shot for this project had a choice of seeing the picture before it was taken. Some of them didn’t want to see the Polaroids, some of them did and then changed their hair or make-up. Bushra, who is portrayed in this picture, actually changed the scarf and wanted the white scarf for the picture in instead.

I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to shoot her as the Virgin Mary. I think growing up and being surrounded with and collecting catholic iconography might have subconsciously made me portray her as the Virgin Mary when she put the white veil on.

To me Bushra represented a woman who, after so many years after her attack, had achieved a state of acceptance. She was smiling in all of her pictures and was hugging me and chatting away afterwards. She embodied everything that I went to look for in Pakistan – beauty and what that really meant to me.

GL: How do these pictures fit in your opinion into the centuries-old tradition of portrait painting/photography?

Bronzino - Eleonora di Toledo col figlio Giovanni - Google Art ProjectID: I grew up in a household where both my parents were interested in the arts and both of them painted a lot – I was surrounded by art books from all kinds of artist and painters, such as Van Eyck, Bronzino, Vermeer, to name a few, and they are painters that still inspire me today. When it comes to portrait photography I am inspired by Paul Strand, Alec Soth, Rineke Dijkstra. The interest in the tradition of portraiture and the aesthetics of the large-format camera will always be present in my work.

Looking back on my old fashion work, most of my editorials were portraiture/fashion stories inspired by other great portrait photographers and painters. I once did a whole black-and-white fashion editorial inspired by Bronzino’s – Eleonore of Toledo & her Son Giovanni de Medici – but it wasn’t too popular. Magazine editors always wanted my images to be sexier, when I wanted it to go the opposite direction. No wonder I got tired of the fashion world.

GL: An image, technically, is just the surface it takes up on paper or on a screen. These portraits simply do not allow you to stay there. It’s a vortex that pulls you in and I really cannot describe it in any other way, that what I feel is pure, unbearable pain. So, in a way, these are photographs that ‘undo’ themselves: they stop being stills, moments in time – they become an event, a history.

izabella-demavlys-ss3_8bitID: I didn’t want to reduce these women’s existence to one single event in time – though their stories and their scarred faces are parts of their identity. I want people to see this – as a reminder of what is wrong with our world and what needs to be changed.

I think when you look at the series of Saira in her home it forces you to try to understand what life after such event can look like, and that life still can mean happy moments spent with your family. Because life does move on for these women and they are forced to embrace and deal with these horrific events and they do that with so much grace and courage.

GL: You are also shooting a film about this topic. Instead of still images, you have decided to use moving images.

ID: I felt I needed to continue this project within another medium; I wanted to explore it even further and see if I could make a film about the same issue. Making a film is a totally different ball game and requires even more planning, structure and funding than working with a photography project. Suddenly, sound or what people are saying become a lot more important. I can shoot hours of film, beautiful cinematography, but without any interesting dialogue going on it stays just that – images. Editing is also a complicated process when it comes to film and I can already see that this part will be much harder than I have previously anticipated.

Someone told me once: “Forget about still photography, it has nothing to do with filmmaking!” He was right.

GL: What equipment did you use for these portraits?

Izabella Demavlys Afghanistan Pool 2ID: For my portrait work I use a Sinar 4″x5″, 150mm lens, f/5.6, shutter speed between 1/60-1/125. I used the natural light in the office of the NGO I was working with at that time. I always use film with my personal projects, and yes it’s an aesthetic choice. I like the 6×7 and the 4″x5″ format, I have problems with the 35mm format, it feels too cropped to me.

GL: What about post?

ID: In my previous work as a fashion photographer there was a huge amount of retouching. Now there is none, just some dogging and burning, that’s all. I never crop my images in post.

GL: What motivates your choice of black-and-white or color?

ID: I mostly work in color but sometimes I pick up a roll of black-and-white or two after I’ve shot all my color film.

izabella-demavlys-saria-2GL: In most of your other images from Pakistan and Afghanistan, e.g. in the Saira images you never go as close to your subjects as you do in these portraits. You stay ‘politely’ at a slightly greater distance; you’re close but not intimately close.

ID: I wanted it to be a traditional head and shoulders set of portraits. Working with a 4″x5″ camera and with the lens I had I needed to be careful not to get too close in order to avoid any distortions. But, out of respect for these women, it was never my intention to get closer than this. They are close-ups but not intimately close. I wanted details of their skin but made an artistic choice to keep the aperture wide open to keep parts of the image softer.

GL: The picture of the young woman feeding her child is another painfully beautiful religious icon. It is almost idyllic but there seems to be a deep shadow under the mother’s right eye. As a viewer it makes me uncomfortable, the idyll is broken. Am I making this up? Or is it really in the image?

Izabelle Demavlys Afghanistan Woman Feeding Her Child

ID: I travelled to the Bamyan province in Afghanistan where I visited the Bamyan Hospital founded by the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS). I took this photo at the female ward where mothers came in with their malnourished babies. In this particular case the baby was dying. (Afghanistan has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world; almost 20% of children die under the age of five.)

When I met the mother and started to communicate with her through the translator – she smiled while her baby was passing away. She did have a black eye – probably due to domestic violence. It was a sad and awkward moment. She couldn’t even have been 20 years old.

We saw a lot of very young mothers at the ward with their very sick children that day.

GL: You move a lot between color and black-and-white. At what point do you decide if color is something you’re interested in or not? Do you always have two film cameras with you?

izabella-demavlys-afghanistan-ii-5No, in Afghanistan I worked with a single Pentax 6×7 camera. When I felt that I was ready with my color shots I moved to black-and-white film. I always start with color. This image was shot on T-Max 100 film, f/4, shutter speed between 1/30 -1/60 with a 55mm lens.

GL: What do you think about beauty? Do you think that this portrait is beautiful? (Or is it just pain organized into a frame, into color and grain?)

ID: I would like to ask you the question – what is beauty? Why can’t this portrait be beautiful? Can this woman change someone’s perspective about beauty?

I went from the fashion world where beauty is only ‘skin deep’ – what you see is what you get and people in this world will only judge you by that. But there has to be something more to it all doesn’t it? I think so. For me beauty radiates through how you make an example of yourself to others. How you directly or indirectly inspire others through your personal struggles and through your accomplishments in life.

But I guess as much as I tried to convey this in these images, I am the only one who can truly understand this because I have met these women in person and have felt their beauty. Most people will see only sadness and pain. I guess all the dimensions of a person cannot be viewed in one single photograph.

(To see more of Izabella Demavlys’ pictures visit her website at www.izabellademavlys.com. All images © Izabella Demavlys and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard
35mm, 5D, 6x6, analogue, black and white, color, digital, Ektachrome, iPhone, New York, Rollei, street, studio, USA

William Coupon . Photographer

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Coney Island, New York City

Coney Island, New York City (Rolleiflex with Tesar Lens, 400 ASA Kodak B&W film)

GL: You’ve worked with every possible format that photography can offer. What motivates your choice for a given project? Is it a practical decision or an emotional one?

William-Coupon-Miles-Davis

Miles Davis (Rollei 6006, Kodak PanX 32 ASA)

WC: Completely practical as I am looking for the viewer to firstly view the content. Of course, that tends to become an emotional decision but I first want to see the information and not whether or not it is a platinum print or digital one. I have done both and it’s the information that you need to convey first and foremost.

I have two distinctly different approaches to photography. For one of them, I am a traditional studio photographer doing painterly like studio portraits. I set up one of my backdrops (that I painted in the early 80’s), set up one light source shot through a Chimera lightbox, set up my camera (this could be a Rollei 6006 or a Canon 5D) and the sitter has to be in one consistent setting: comfortable. Often, especially with the ethnographic images, the sitter is a bit bewildered but settles into their own quickly. A celebrity often has “set” poses – they’ve done this before, and often. Especially in the earlier days, I had always used Polaroid SX-70’s to give to the subjects. It was not only a “gift” and a record of the shoot, but it also gave them a clear idea of how I was depicting them in the studio setting.

William-Coupon-IMG_3607_2

Coney Island, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

I also do street photography: see it as it appears, and with photography, appearances are pretty much everything.

GL: What catches your attention?

WC: It depends. In the studio I look for something classic, something where the light hits the subject in a new way. With the street work, I look for irony and sometimes, edginess.

When I started in 1978, with Studio 54 and Coney Island and then on to my earliest Punk portraits from the Mudd Club, I thought I was really on to something. At that point I realized I could photograph the world. I got off to a pretty good start, but I realized it would take a lot more work than originally anticipated.

GL: Street photography is about ‘catching’ moments. How do you feel about this metaphor?

Coney Island, New York City

Coney Island, New York City (Rolleiflex with Tesar Lens, 400 ASA Kodak B&W film)

WC: I don’t hunt – I gather! You know it when you see it, and you don’t see it much. This process is more like learning to see. And then learning how to see again in the edit process. I am not a techy. I have my ‘tricks’ and they serve me well. It is, as I said, all about appearances.

GL: Technically: what cameras do you use? What motivates your choice?

WC: I started with the old Rolleis then went to Hassleblads then to the Rollei 6006’s and now I do digital with my 5D. For the street work I often just use the iPhone 4, or these days I have the Sony RX100.

William-Coupon-IMG_3823_2

Coney Island, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

The reasons? Content over ingredients, i.e. I am really only looking to get substance with design, and if that means the iPhone, then so be it. Of course, for street work there is the unobtrusive element to the camera size and the inherent dismissive nature to the fact that it’s a phone. People wouldn’t suspect I am getting the kind of quality I achieve on it – it’s not a “real” camera.

GL: Does holding an iPhone as opposed to a medium format film camera ‘change’ you? Does it change your relationship to your subject?

WC: I like to be as gadget-free as possible. The “tool” defines the moment. Therefore, an iPhone, being ‘flippant’ is a more disposable perceptor to both the subject and the photographer. It’s easy. It’s quick. And these days, it has good qualities so it’s very difficult to dismiss its capabilities.

GL: How do you perceive the iPhone? Freedom? Severe technical limitations?

William-Coupon-iPhone America-Betlehem-Steel-Pennsylvania

Bethlehem Steel Plant, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

WC: It’s a device that is quick with quality and leaves content intact. The phone is, from my experience, only good in VERY good light. It is not good in low light so I do not use it then. That in itself is a certain big limitation, especially when working with people.

GL: How do you measure light?

WC: In the studio I have the settings fairly well in place after 35 years. I do use a longer exposure to capture some of the ambient light. I like the aperture to be down to near f/16 to get decent depth of field. For the street, it’s a guessing game. I haven’t used a light meter in ages.

GL: Has the amount ‘post’ you do changed with the transition from film to digital?

William Coupon Neil Young

Neil Young (Rollei 6006, EPR 120, Ektachrome 64 ASA)

WC: I never like to crop. For decades I only did square format, the older Rollei black and whites were shot as straight as can be with 400ASA film. The studio portraits are shot on low-speed film, like EPR120, and Ektachrome 64 film. I use an app for the iPhone shots called Plastiq. I love it as it gives the impression of a 50’s technicolor veneer but retains depth and grain in the dark areas.

In the digital darkroom I hope to do very little and I stick to that generally speaking. It is about the content and the contact that has already taken place that determines the image. I am not particularly a technical person and I don’t think that will change going forward.

GL: Could you imagine doing a ‘classical’ studio portrait session with someone well-known on the iPhone? How do you think that would work?

WC: Not so good. For the studio work, when there is that option, you may as well go with more quality in your film. After all, there you are not constrained by time or space, so what would be the point, unless for some stylistic choice. And for that alone it may be intriguing. But for the studio I like the tightest grain possible with a camera that gives me the greatest mobility.

I usually use the iPhone for candid shots and street images. I could use it for studio work but the dynamics don’t really work there as the studio is a controlled environment – the cameras in that environment should also be of greatest quality to take advantage of the lighting.

William-Coupon-iPhone America-Manhattan

Freedom Tower from Fulton Street, New York City (from the series ‘iPhone America’)

It’s more important to see it than to photograph it. Of course, without documenting what you see, you would not be able to share it.

(To see more of William Coupon’s pictures visit his website at www.williamcoupon.com. All images © William Coupon and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard
35mm, canon, color, documentary, flash, Kodachrome, leica, Lumix, New York, point-and-shoot, street, T90, transparency, USA

Jeff Jacobson . Photographer

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Jeff Jacobson Melting Point New York City 2003

GL: Looking at the image of the red dog I can’t decide who was more surprised, you or the dog. But you were definitely the faster one.

JJ: The picture of the red dog, which became the cover image of my book, Melting Point, was made in a split second. I was walking along Houston Street, in New York, with my wife and a friend, when one of us noticed the dog, who was standing in a doorway next to a bar with a yellow incandescent light over its head. I had my camera with me, as always, raised it, took two quick exposures, and walked on. What initially grabbed my attention was the stance of the dog and the ghostly light pouring over it from above. I shot quickly so the dog did not have time to react and change position.

GL: One aspect of street photography that fascinates me is the need to be constantly alert. I often find myself thinking about it in terms of hunting.

Jeff Jacobson The Last Roll Deer in HeadlightsJJ: This kind of intuitive, responsive photography is crucial to someone like me who photographs the world as I see it, not as I create it. I don’t approach photography like a hunter. I think this metaphor is way overused, and damaging. There is a big difference between going out into the world and “hunting” photographs as opposed to being in the world in a state of mind open to receiving images that the world presents to you, almost as a gift. The hunting mode is way more aggressive, and often leads the photographer into the morass of his or her own ego which creates photographs in the mold of the photographer. When you are in a more receptive state I feel the photographs go deeper.

It’s a problem for working photographers who shoot on assignment. When you are being paid to produce photographs you must come back with the goods, so the tendency is to push, push. But even on assignment I’d argue it’s better to put yourself in the physical space of the assignment and then wait for the photographic moments that are presented rather than trying to push reality into your own photographic mode. Space and time, those are the essential, unique elements of the medium.

GL: What camera did you use? Film? Digital?

Decorative-Grass-Reflection-HottubJJ: The picture of the dog in the doorway was made with a Canon T90 camera, 50mm lens, and Kodachrome 200 ASA film pushed 2 stops. This was the photographic formula I used on most of my pictures from around 1990 until all processing of Kodachrome ended at the end of 2010. I had worked exclusively in Kodachrome for 35 years when the film was discontinued. I published three books, My Fellow Americans, Melting Point and The Last Roll, all shot on Kodachrome.

GL: How did it feel when Kodachrome, ‘your’ film was discontinued?

Girl-in-Chair-PurpleJJ: When Kodak announced they were discontinuing Kodachrome, I was very angry and sad at first. I knew that Kodak had destroyed the market for Kodachrome in the 90’s when they tried to make a new processing machine for Kodachrome so that more labs could afford to use it. They convinced A&I, in Los Angeles (where I was living at the time and processed my film) to junk their perfectly operating processing machine and go with the new one. A&I was the largest processor of Kodachrome in the world at that time. The problem was that the new machine did not work, A&I’s Kodachrome processing was down for many months, all the large institutional users of Kodachrome in LA switched to E-6 film and never went back. The market for Kodachrome never recovered, digital technology just finished the job Kodak’s own mistakes began.

But my anger and sadness passed. Nothing lasts forever. Photography is an industrial art, dependent on the capitalist market for its tools. We live by the sword and die by that same sword. Technology drives the market and we photographers must move on, even though we feel buffeted by those market forces. I am still taking pictures and still love the photographic process. I never would have dreamed I would be using a glorified point-and-shoot digital camera, and be happy with it. I have learned to never say never.

GL: What kind of digital camera do you use nowadays?

My Fellow Americans-42JJ: Since the end of Kodachrome, I have been using a small point-and-shoot digital camera, a Lumix LX-7. It is a 10 megapixel camera with a Leica lens. It is a very complex machine masquerading as an amateur camera. I love it because no one pays any attention to me when I have my Lumix as everyone assumes I’m a tourist. I can, and do, shoot anywhere. I dislike the hyperreal, plasticity of digital photography, and the smaller end digital cameras, like the Lumix, or even the iPhone, have a funkier, grainier (or more pixellated) look.

GL: How do you go about setting your exposure?

JJ: In my Kodachrome work with the T90, I always had the camera on shutter priority and focussed manually. The Lumix has an auto-exposure/focus button that, once set, allows me to shoot rapidly without any delay. It is slow to manually focus the Lumix, one of the drawbacks of this camera. But the autoexposure/focus button allows me to quickly choose my point of focus and exposure and go forward.

GL: What about lighting? Do you use flashguns? And what is your attitude to flash photography in general?

My Fellow Americans-9JJ: When I first started working in color, in the 70s, I pioneered a technique of using flash combined with long shutter speeds. At the time, I was making my way as a photojournalist, having joined Magnum in 1978. My technique was considered very controversial there at that time as it directly violated one of Cartier-Bresson’s hallowed dictums against the use of artificial light. My framing was more influenced by the Americans, Frank, Winogrand and Friedlander than Bresson, so, that too was considered controversial in that world at that time. I continued use of this technique after leaving Magnum and throughout the 80s and it resulted in my first book, My Fellow Americans. Since then I rarely have used flash. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and was captivated by the light and space. I was also getting older with a more fragile back and didn’t want to schlep a flash and battery around. I never use flash with my Lumix. Digital doesn’t like flash as much as film does.

GL: What attracted you to using flashlights initially? The technical possibility? The quality of the light? 

My Fellow Americans Superman

JJ: I initially started working with flash by accident. I was experimenting with slow shutter speeds and just got the idea to pop a flash off in the middle of it. The effect created a foreground/background differential which added layers to the picture plane. It also seemed to add layers to the time in the photograph. I could see the moment just before the flash went off, and the moment after. Time in the photograph became more fluid, or so it appeared. I also liked the way flash mixed with artificial ambient light. Whatever the flash covered in the frame was balanced for daylight and was highly illuminated, popping off the incandescent or fluorescent background. I loved the weird mix of colors at that point in my life. When used in daylight, especially at dusk, I loved what the foreground/background separation did to the sky.

GL: How does using a flashlight change a photo? Apart from the obvious technical aspect you, as a photographer, make your presence obvious. Is this something you liked to do? Or simply didn’t mind?

JJ: The flash made it impossible to be invisible as a photographer. It announced my presence. I tended to work in situations where people were not surprised to find cameras, often public events. I was photographing the public life of America so it worked for me. I could still make photographs where my presence did not change the situation too much, but I had to announce my presence and then get people to relax and forget about me. It was good training.

My Fellow Americans-17

GL: How much do you work with your photos in post?

JJ: I don’t do much post-processing. I was never very good in the darkroom when I started out and shot transparency film for 35 years where I never printed my own work. My skillset in the technical realm is extremely limited. But one thing I do like about digital technology is that I can now make my own prints, at least the work prints. I’m good enough at Lightroom and Photoshop to get my images into some recognizable form where I can evaluate them, if not hang them on the walls. Digital is more like negative film than transparency, in that with digital, as in a negative, you look at the image as a starting point and make decisions about how you want the final image to look. With Kodachrome, it was more of what you see is what you get, in that I always wanted a print to refer as closely to the original Kodachrome as possible. So I find that digital post presents me with questions I never had to consider in Kodachrome. I like that as it forces me to learn and keeps my work fresh.

GL: What does technique mean to you? Initially, we experiment with the technology that’s given to us and then, certain people at certain times come up with something novel or exciting. And then, in their own photographic (artistic) lives it becomes technique. How do you see this process?

Red-SilverwareJJ: Technique in photography is important but it only works if the picture underneath the technique is compelling. What I love most about photography is what makes it unique as a medium, which is that it can render a still image in a specific moment in space and time. That’s it. No other medium does that. All the art world hullabaloo over images which are created and staged by the photographer leave me cold for the most part, with a few exceptions. That kind of work is usually more about the ego of the photographer than the meeting of one photographer with the world.

I became known for the flash and long exposure technique. I could have kept doing it the rest of my life and had a safe, predictable career. But at some point I became bored with it. I was repeating myself. I could go into an event with a Leica and a Vivitar 283 blindfolded and come out with pictures that looked interesting. Some photographers find one way of making pictures and stick with it the rest of their lives. Others constantly change. I have always been attracted to the ones whose work varies in form and content, like Andre Kertesz, and Josef Koudelka.

Jeff Jacobson The Last Roll Sundance, Mt Tremper, NYI never made a conscious decision to change technique, it just happened. When I finished My Fellow Americans, I started photographing outside the United States, especially in Mexico. I moved to Los Angeles and was photographing more in the American West. I became more interested in landscape, or cityscapes, where people were less central to the image and I didn’t need flash to illuminate a dark environment. I was aging and didn’t want to schlep so much equipment. I began using an SLR instead of a Leica because it became important to me to know where the edges of my frame fell. I slowed down. All these factors mitigated against the use of flash. There are very few flash pictures in my second book, Melting Point, and none in my most recent, The Last Roll. Since the end of Kodachrome, I have been using a small digital camera, a Lumix with a Leica lens. It has four aspect ratios. The camera is spurring a new change in my work, one that I can’t, and don’t try yet to define. It will emerge.

 

(To see more of Jeff Jacobson’s pictures visit his website at www.jeffjacobsonphotography.com. All images © Jeff Jacobson and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer also teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

Standard
black and white, digital, documentary, Hong Kong, leica, M9, monochrome, street

Jonathan van Smit . Photographer

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Jonathan Van Smit Heart of Darkness 4

I keep staring at Jonathan’s pictures on my screen.

I cannot take my eyes off them.

*

JS: A friend of mine in Phnom Penh runs a charity helping the disabled, and is a musician too. I was touched by the words in one of his songs, and started a project loosely based on the lyrics.

she no like but she do
no money, no eat
love you like monkey
I no lie, I speak true

I spent a few days simply walking the back streets of central Phnom Penh, taking lots of photos as I usually do, and one day plucked up enough courage to speak to Phouk, a girl who worked a corner where a slum alley led onto Street 51 which is a notorious red light area full of girlie bars and clubs.

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-3

She spoke good English, and was quite happy for me to take photos provided that I gave her money so she could get her teeth fixed. I explained that I wanted photos related to drug use and also her work, and we arranged to meet the next day. The next day, Phouk introduced me to her friend, and took me to their room which was a small plywood shack reached by a ladder on top of the slum shanty buildings.

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-6I eventually did two photo sessions with them. I wanted a blurry, ambiguous nude photo and some that were more explicit about drug taking. Both the girls must have been beautiful once but drugs, poverty and their work have taken their toll. They smoke the local cheap methamphetamine ‘yama’ to cope and sometimes mix it with heroin.

GL: How do you pick your subjects?

JS: Like most photographers, I had this dilemma of what to photograph. A turning point for me was a trip to New York a few years back. I took ten rolls of Tri-X, and pretty much randomly shot anything that my eye lingered on for more than a few seconds. I tried not to have too much intent and part of the plan was not to use the viewfinder and to just guess focus. Many of the photos were rubbish but I also ended up with some that were blurred or out of focus but still had plenty of meaning to me. I was then able to edit these down to a small set that seemed coherent. I was surprised by the outcome, and even now, many of my favorite photos are the result of serendipity or instinct. I still estimate focus most of the time, and rarely use the viewfinder.

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-5

I mostly take photos in a fairly aimless sort of way. I just walk the streets endlessly at weekends or on holiday. I like walking, and watching people too. If I’m lucky, I might have a handful of okay photos out of two or three hundred frames. I try to work within some loosely defined themes. For example, how people overcome adversity, or anything that has a ‘noir’ feel to it. I find the more deprived parts of towns more interesting. They’re the opposite of my professional experience working in wealth management, and visually more interesting too.

GL: I don’t think I have seen many nudes that have shaken me to the extent that this photo of Phouk has. I am still trying to understand why.

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JS: I was quite disappointed with this photo as it was very hard to process. The room was very dark, and I had under-exposed many of the shots so the set was mostly unusable. I was using a high ISO, partly because of the low light but also because I like to degrade my images. I’m okay with grain, blur and digital noise. I just shot on continuous mode until the camera buffer filled up. I was using a slow shutter speed, and was hoping to have a shot with enough blur to provide meaning & context but without being abstract. If I’m taking photos like that then I might have one or two usable frames if I’m lucky.

GL: Looking at your pictures it’s clear that there’s some deep correlation between your personality, your shooting method and the emotional impact of your images.

JS: I use a rangefinder as it’s faster than fully automatic cameras. I always try to be pre-focused, usually at 1.5 metres or even at one metre depending on the location as I use very wide-angle lenses. I don’t like to have the camera in front of my face as it limits my peripheral vision so I usually shoot at shoulder height. This way I can anticipate people’s movement, and time the shot more precisely. I set myself targets like shooting 200 or 300 frames over a weekend. The more we shoot, the more likely we are to have a ‘lucky’ shot. Mentally, I usually have to psych myself up especially if I’m taking photos in difficult or challenging situations. It’s easy to let fear take hold and run away!

Jonathan van Smit (10)

Taking photos can be a lot of hard work. I walk for hours at the weekend, and often late at night or on uncomfortably hot, humid days here in Hong Kong. I don’t often have the luxury of being ‘in the mood’ and frequently have to consciously motivate myself to go out and take photos. It’s a discipline thing for me, and not always easy.

The technicalities don’t interest me very much. I’m not trying to take photos that are technically ‘good’, and I’m not trying to take ‘pretty’ photos of the type so often seen in photo magazines. It’s harder, I think, to take photos that are technically ‘bad’ but still have meaning.

GL: What camera did you use? Film or digital?

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JS: I’m not really into this film versus digital thing. Digital is easier and more flexible so I use it. I mostly use Leica digital rangefinders and small Ricoh point-and-shoots. I like small cameras as they’re lighter to carry all day and less conspicuous. If there was a cheaper rangefinder alternative then I’d use it as I’m not hung up on Leicas and the poor quality is frustrating. I black out manufacturer’s logos and lettering with a permanent marker.

Currently I’m using the M9 and Monochrom, and sometimes the Ricoh GR. More importantly to me, I use wide-angle lenses: 15mm, 18mm, and 21mm. I do have longer lenses, 28mm and 35mm but don’t often use them. I’m used to the Leica form-factor so I can change focus or shutter speed without having to look down at the camera. I don’t have standard settings though I usually shoot at high ISO between 800 and 1600 as I want to use smaller apertures to avoid bokeh (which I hate!) and have good depth-of-field.

GL: How do you measure light?

jonathan-van-smit-and-pass-me-by-2JS: I’d love to be able to use auto-exposure all the time but the metering on Leicas using wide-angle lenses is problematic so, unless the lighting is uniformly flat, I often have to set exposure manually especially at night. I can quickly change the aperture or shutter setting as I walk from shadows to streetlights.

GL:
How do you focus?

JS: I usually pre-set focus and then adjust either side from that if there’s enough time. I don’t like auto-focus as it’s too slow in poor light and sometimes I want the subject out of focus, for example, I might focus on a dirty, tagged wall while a person walks in front.

GL: What about lighting? Based on your images it’s clear that you take pictures all the time. What’s your relationship to daylight and artificial light?

JS: I only use ambient light, not flash, and prefer shooting at night or towards the end of the day as the light is more interesting then. I’ve nothing against flash though, it’s just that I’ve never got around to using it.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

JS: Photographers have a tendency to focus on camera choice but I think post-processing tools are equally if not more important. Not that I spend a lot of time on it. I mostly use contrast controls as that can have the biggest impact on the photo’s emotional content or implied narrative.

jonathan-van-smit-flickr-2I use Nik Silver Efex after RAW conversion in Lightroom. Basically, I just play with sliders until some meaning or implicit story emerges from the photos. I might dodge and burn too as well as using the red and yellow filters. Every camera responds differently to post-processing so I don’t have a generalized workflow but treat every frame differently.

GL: Most of your images are black-and-white. Why? Do you shoot on film or on digital?

JS: I haven’t used film for years. I like black-and-white. This is partly an aesthetic choice but also because restricting subject content can have a greater emotional or narrative impact. For example, increasing contrast also darkens a photo which in turn withholds detail, and something that is implied can have more meaning than something that is explicit. Sometimes, I’ll use colour but this is usually because I want to break out of my usual routine. Importing the photo into Nik Silver Efex automatically turns the photo into black & white.

GL: You have lots of extremely wide-angle shots and I haven’t really seen pictures that you’d take with longer lenses. Why is that? What does focal length mean to you?

Jonathan van Smit (2)JS: My favorite lens is my 15mm Zeiss though I mostly use 21mm as the 15mm is very extreme. It’s hugely expensive too and quite heavy but can focus down to 300mm, and I can shoot someone head-to-foot at 1.5 metres away. I like being close to the subject but I don’t usually want interaction. I just want to be an observer or passer-by rather than a participant. Being close to the subject results in a very different emotional context compared to using a longer lens but it’s much harder to use in practice.

GL: You don’t want interaction but you want the energy and directness that comes with being close to your subjects. How does that work?

JS: Occasionally I’d like to to be invisible or merely a shadow! D’Agata, for example, wants to be a participant, and that’s central to his work but I’m often taking photos of a world that I don’t generally belong to. Appearing to be a participant would be a contrivance on my part. This notion is ambiguous though, Sometimes though I do want interaction or at least a direct gaze into the camera lens. I guess a lot of this is instinctive on my part, and not something I think about much There’s also an adrenaline thing going on sometimes. Photo-taking can be potentially dangerous, and that can be exciting.

GL: How do you feel about having paid Phouk? Is this something that you generally do or are willing to do? Or is it simply a last resort?

jonathan-van-smit-heart-of-darkness-8JS: It’s something I’m uncomfortable with unless they’re a model in which case I’m paying for their time. It’s just an emotional thing on my part. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with paying someone but it does change the dynamic in a way, and perhaps risks diluting the authenticity of the photo.

GL: When you get as close to your subjects with your camera as you have to with your wide-angle lens, you become part of their world for a little while. What impact did your ‘Heart of Darkness’ series have on you?

JS: The experience has shaken me a lot, and I’m not sure if I’ll continue. As well as the normal human concerns about the two young women’s well-being, I’m left with nagging questions. Was it ethical to agree to pay them money for the photos? Should I be taking photos like this? Was I exploiting them? I don’t know the answers but the questions remain awkwardly in my mind.

I’ve been back a couple of times since. One of the young women is clearly very sick, and the other has disappeared.

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(To see more of Jonathan van Smit’s pictures visit his website at www.jonathanvansmit.com or follow his stream on flickr. All images © Jonathan van Smit and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

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L1ghtb1tes is moving!

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L1ghtb1tes is moving to its very own domain: l1ghtb1tes.com

The new site is up and running. What has been published so far on l1ghtb1tes.wordpress.com will stay here and for a few weeks, until you all get used to the new address, I will keep posting articles here, too. The new links posted on l1ghtb1tes’ facebook page will, as of Monday, August 5, point to the new domain, so if you have ‘liked’ that page, you have nothing to worry about, you will be always notified of the latest developments.

Those few hundreds of you who have subscribed to l1ghtb1tes here, I’d like to ask to please visit l1gthb1tes.com and sign up there again, so that you’d be notified via email of future articles.

Sorry for the hassle, but you’ll see, it is worth it.

See you all at l1ghtb1tes.com!

György

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black and white, color, compact, D700, digital, documentary, Lumix, nikon

Annalisa Brambilla . Photographer

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L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com. This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive. Please read this article HERE and visit l1ghtb1tes.com to subscribe and receive regular updates.

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The more pictures I look at, the less I am able to say why I feel attracted to some images. Sometimes the answer is not so much in the image itself but in the emotional attachment that forms between me, the viewer and the photo. It’s a strange umbilical cord that ties me to what I see, it has the power to turn me into the photographer who took the picture.

GL: Two pairs of feet, one black and white, the other color, two pictures from two different series but there’s some playfulness and intimacy that they share.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 9AB: These two images are parts of completely different works of mine, and also from very different phases of my life, both personally and photographically. There is not connection between them, at least not at a conscious level. The black and white image was taken at a spa in Argentina a few years ago. I decided I was going to work on my first proper photojournalistic story. I took a month and a half unpaid leave and I went off following a story about water, water scarcity and abundance. I had both a DSLR and a compact digital camera, for which i had a waterproof case. That’s what I used for this photo.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 5

As If, the series this picture is part of, came together when I decided to format my hard drive and bin it all. I ended up being caught up in a crisis about the meaning of photography. I could not find myself in what I was doing and I didn’t like my photographs. I started looking here and there more with a nostalgic feeling than anything else, and all of a sudden I looked at some images in a different way. I had my little humble epiphany and As If came out.

GL: A photographer about to ‘burn’ her pictures? May sound romantic, but it must have been a huge crisis.

Annalisa Brambilla As If 1AB: I was feeling defeated in my hopes, dreams and ambitions. I was about to press ‘confirm formatting’ when a friend of mine phoned me inviting me out. I told him what was going on and he suggested to leave it there for the moment and go out. I did. I took the camera with me. I got drunk. I took photos and the following day I turned up at the last day of the workshop that I was attending that week with my series. The series wasn’t bad, and I never formatted the hard drives.

Annalisa-Brambilla-My-Star-Wars-Family-18The color image is from My Star Wars Family. I took all the images mostly during the three months I lived with this family in 2011/2012. In this case the subject was quite clear from day one, even though it became clearer while in the process. As far as I remember I was helping one of the children taking a bath and Ibu, the little one, was messing around with us.

GL: How do you respond to the situations around you? How do your pictures get taken in the technical sense?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family AsleepAB: I don’t have any mantra, any exercise. Sometimes I am luckier than other times. More often than not, when I really think I got a picture situation and all is there the result is pretty disappointing. At other times, as I go through what I shot, I find something I like. I see something that I didn’t really realize the moment it happened. But in all honesty, I wish I could draw and make all the pictures I didn’t take. I have the feeling those are the best ones.

GL: What are some of the best pictures that you didn’t take?

AB: Moments and portraits, some situations. Mostly portraits of people, interactions…. Those things you see and surprise you. You have no time to grab the camera, but also you may feel you’re intruding. I have this. And I let it go, I guess.

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family kitchenAs for technicalities, I’m not so fussy about that. I try to get the best possible file so that afterwards I can work on it more easily. Having said this, I don’t post-produce much and if I think a picture works I get over the fact that it is maybe overexposed or underexposed, badly composed or focused and use it anyway.

GL: Technically: what camera(s) did you use? Film? Digital?

AB: A digital SLR, a Nikon D700. I mostly use a 50mm, f/1.4 and sometimes an old 35-70mm, f/2.8 lens. I used to have an old Nikon film camera, darkroom and all and when I moved on to digital I thought of getting a Nikon so I could swap lenses and carry on with both digital and film. I, regrettably, never did. The color image was taken with this camera, I don’t remember the settings, probably high ISO, around 1600 or so, and maybe f/2.8, but definitely no more than f/5.6 and 1/60.

The black and white image was taken with the Lumix GF2, which I use with the 20mm, f/1.7 pancake lens. The settings were on auto. The waterproof case wasn’t the most perfect and I could not control the camera at all.

GL: How do you choose what camera to use for a given story?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family picnicAB: So far, I have mostly used my Nikon D700. But I used the GF2 a lot during the family project. I really had to try to be ready all the time. I was staying with them as an au-pair, so I was also working and looking after 4 children. No time at all to plan anything and the house was quite big, three floors. So I would leave a camera here and the other one there and grab the one that was closer to me when I needed it.

GL: How do you prefer to operate your cameras?

AB: I rely on the camera’s light meter, shoot one image, check it, and compensate exposure accordingly. I mostly use aperture priority, or manual mode, depending on the light situation.

GL: You’ve mentioned that you don’t like to do too much in post. How much is that ‘not too much’?

Annalisa Brambilla My Star Wars Family mouthAB: I don’t retouch my images very much, I get bored quite quickly so I do an overall adjustment and some details, depending on the photo. The color image is very close to the original, I balanced the white a bit better and added a contrast curve, just to adjust the image’s depth.

The black and white is a different story, I cropped it a bit and turned it into black and white. The series this picture is part of was my first attempt at translating feelings into images. In a certain way black and white simplifies your life, it’s both direct and evocative. I wanted the light in the upper side of the image to be like an explosion, so I stretched the contrast there playing with layers and masks.

GL: How do you feel about color? With the My Stars Family you are sticking to color. With the As If series, it’s all black and white.

AB: I think color and black and white. I’m not at all a fan of the strict rules some have about photography, about styles, signatures and all. Different stories deserve different approaches and require different expressions. My Star Wars Family had to be color, it was such a strong element in general, it would have been crazy to erase it. As If had to be black and white, and not only because the pictures came all from different series/times/places. Black and white and a few shades of grey were the right colors for transposing what I was feeling, and this is what it was all about.

GL: In my mind, there are two kinds of photography. One is more about the individual image: you happen to create something that is just right. The other is more about the act of photography: the beauty is in the series, in the repeated act of taking pictures.

AB: Yes, one is more about aesthetics and the magic of photography in itself, and the other more about the process. Evocation vs narrative, unless you are someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson and you get the two to marry and ‘live happily ever after’. I find fewer and fewer single images that ‘prick’ me. It’s more often series. Also a story on a page, the layout/design, the sequence and size of images – all that, which belongs to making a book grabs me more at the moment.

GL: How do you feel about photography now?

AB: It’s like an intense relationship. There’s always tension.

(To see more of Annalisa Brambilla’s pictures visit her website at annalisabrambilla.com. All images © Annalisa Brambilla and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

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black and white, digital, Johannesburg, nikon, street

Yolanda van der Mescht . Photographer

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L1GHTB1TES has moved. Its new permanent home is at l1ghtb1tes.com. This wordpress site will be discontinued in the coming weeks and will serve only as an archive. Please read this article HERE and visit l1ghtb1tes.com to subscribe and receive regular updates.

Thank you! See you there!

Yolanda van der Mescht 1GL: When I first saw the picture of the Man on the Bridge, I thought he was a preacher calling to God. And there was some intangible contradiction between his formal gesture and the informal urban setting that I found very exciting.

YM: While the majority of my photographs are unchoreographed, this was part of a conceptualised shoot. The photograph was taken on the Nelson Mandela bridge in Johannesburg at 9 o’clock on a winter’s morning. I wanted to connect with the post-apartheid spirit of South Africa. The man (a friend of my sister’s) is a business analyst who holds dual citizenship of Nigeria and South Africa. I was interested in exploring the dichotomy of being a successful foreign black man in South Africa.

GL: How did you come up with the shot? Was it all prompted by the location? Or was the primary force his body posture?

YM: The location and posture were incidental. I wanted a city landscape as a backdrop, we happened to pass the bridge and I was immediately drawn to it. Initially he was just walking along the bridge and then as the shoot progressed that barrier between subject and photographer disappeared and he was no longer playing a part but just being. For me photography is more about feeling than thought. Words that come to mind are intuition, premonition, magic. I see photography as a form of metaphysical alchemy.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 2I have always been drawn to photography. I got my first film SLR when I was 21, but at the time I couldn’t afford the cost of film and developing. The camera ended up gathering dust and I eventually sold it. When I moved to Hong Kong in 2006 I started taking photographs with my mobile phone camera. I took photos of anything, whatever caught my eye. I was smitten. I bought a Canon G7, then upgraded to a Nikon D7000 and now I have a Nikon D800. Photography has become a way to express my personal thoughts and feelings and I find that it is a lot less incriminating than words. It also speaks to anyone anywhere in the world as it transcends the constraints of language, it is in itself a universal language.

GL: What equipment did you use for this picture?

YM: I used the Nikon D7000. At the time it was my latest acquisition and I was keen to try it out. As I am self-taught I am cautious to spend a lot of money on equipment. The picture is uncropped. I used a Nikkor 18-105mm DX VR Lens, which is the standard lens that comes with the camera. Shutter speed: 1/400; f-stop: f/5.6; ISO: 100.

GL: How much do you usually work with in ‘post’ with your stills?

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 1YM: It definitely depends on the shot. With this picture the ‘post’ was limited to a black and white conversion and some minor adjustments in the brightness, contrast and midtones. As I find post-production rather tedious and I would not entrust it to anyone else, it has definitely motivated me to become a better photographer in the sense that I try to minimise the need for post-processing.

GL: Most of the images on your website are black and white. What draws you to it?

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 4YM: I took this picture with the intention of turning it to black and white. I have nothing against colour, but I love black and white. If the composition and perspective are not perfect the picture might succeed as a colour photograph but definitely not as a black and white photograph. In a black and white photograph there is nothing that distracts the viewer from the emotion, the message. I think Robert Frank said, “Black and white are the colours of photography.”

GL: Do you ever work on film?

YM: I don’t work on film, but if I was not faced with time, space and financial constraints I would absolutely love to. I have succumbed to the instant gratification of digital photography.

GL: I noticed that in your street photography you are usually quite far from your subjects. You observe from a distance.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 3YM: I am an introvert by nature, so I am acutely aware of personal space. When I shoot portraits there is certain level of familiarity and intimacy. The subject is obviously aware of me and my camera, the subject has to let me in, connect with me. For a few hours we become emotionally involved and I am allowed to enter his or her personal space, I can get up close and personal with my subject. But with street photography I am just a passive observer, I don’t want my presence known. I don’t want to alter the course of events, I don’t want to influence anything. I am just an outsider looking in, leaving my subject unaffected, untouched. Distance definitely makes this easier. I guess there is a certain amount of voyeurism attached to my street photography.

GL: What do you like about the Man on the Bridge the most?

YM: I like the lines and his expression, to me we stopped the time-space continuum at exactly the right moment. I take pictures because I want to. The feeling of capturing a moment that will never be repeated again is unlike anything I have ever experienced.

Yolanda Van Der Mescht - Street 5

(To see more of Yolanda van der Mescht’s pictures visit her website at www.yolandavandermescht.com. All images © Yolanda van der Mescht and are reproduced with the permission of the author.)

György is a cinematographer teaching photography courses in London. To book a class or for more information visit www.dslrphotographycourses.com.

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