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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.
JJ: 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?
JJ: 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?
JJ: 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?
JJ: 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?
JJ: 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?
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.
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?
JJ: 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.
I 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.)