Andante: An Exhibition by Alex Majoli in Ravenna, Italy

Andante: An Exhibition by Alex Majoli in Ravenna, Italy

I just saw this announcement for Alex Majoli’s exhibition in my FB feed. This is so amazing.

EGYPT. Cairo. November, 2011. Mohammed Mahmud is one of the main streets leading to Tahrir Square. This street will remain a memorable space for the revolution because it witnessed some of the most dramatic and violent moments this past November, December, and February, including the gassing, killing and disfiguration of hundreds of protesters by Egyptian police forces.In the aftermath of clashes between protesters and security forces that took place between 19 and 24 November 2011, Mohammed Mahmud Street witnessed the erection of a cement block-stones-wall that cuts it in the middle and separates it into two different areas.

Mohamed Mahmud by Alex Majoli

The technical brilliance of the pictures is awesome but the emotional contents is overwhelming. I can cry when I see these pictures.

Naadam, Ulambaator, Mongolia by Alex Majoli

Naadam, Ulambaator, Mongolia by Alex Majoli

This is photography at it’s very best. I have some pictures of which I am really proud. But I am not sure whether I could ever compete with Alex.

Fishing with net, Republic of Congo by Alex Majoli

Republic of Congo by Alex Majoli

This is a true master!

Keith Johnstone on Improvisation

www.keithjohnstone.com

Keith Johnstone  is the most reputational teacher of improvisation and his books contain the most comprehensive and deep discussion of creativity which I know. They are a bit more difficult to understand than the book I recommended recently . It could be helpful to read the book of Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White first and then Keith Johnstone
In the end I think that Keith Johnstone’s books and videos, particularly „Improv. Improvisation and the Theatre” should be read multiple times by each and anyone involved in arts.

Keith Johnstone - Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone – Impro Cover

Keith Johnstone writes about his experience with children and adults and comes to the conclusion that creativity is natural for humans and children are all creative. But the socialisation process, particularly the educational system obstructs creativity brutally. He explains this very convincingly in his books. From this he developed his models on how to free our natural creativity again.
The willingness and boldness to fail big and trusting our natural, intuitive creativity and stopping to try to control what is happening are key steps in his method.

We usually self censor our thoughts because we are worried that they appear psychotic or obscene or unoriginal. At the core of spontaneity and creativity is developing the strength and ability to express our apparently crazy or obscene ideas freely. Without some psychotic and obscene ideas none of Shakespeare’s plays could have been written. Similarly in visual arts.
The fear of appearing unoriginal and the conscious striving for originality are similar blocks for creativity. Rejecting the first idea which comes to mind and trying to find something more original makes us less original. The things that come to mind uncontrolled and uncensored are truly authentic and as me and you are different they are different and with this original. But if we reject them and instead try to construct something better we usually all arrive at the same ideas. Keith Johnstone mentions that avantgarde theatre is remarkably similar whether it is in Paris, New York or Tokyo. They all end with the same ideas and get thoroughly predictable.

This is a small selection of ideas from Keith Johnston about spontaneity and creativity. I completely subscribe to this line of thinking which places the source of creativity in our subconscious mind. Creativity is not an active process and can not be forced or controlled. The trick is to learn to listen to what our subconscious mind wants to say. I think it is obvious how this relates to life in general to developing a more creative attitude and how this thinking will help creativity in photography.

Of course this does not mean we can never plan and must only shoot spontaneously. No, photography is not improvised theatre. I do planned shots all the time. I often go back to a certain place and see whether I can get a better picture than last time. The idea behind the picture is however always born from the mentioned natural, instinctive creativity.

 

I want to address another important concept from Keith Johnstone‘s teaching and this is storytelling.
When does a sequence of events qualify as a story? Something must be happening in this sequence. Now, very often think of something happening just as action, stunts, gags… There are countless movies which offer nothing besides this and they get boring very rapidly. All these are just substitutes. What happens in a good story is emotional change, someone gets changed. And this can be rather subtle.

This is something which is directly helpful to a photographer when shooting: what is happening in this picture? What happened before, what will happen next? Who got emotionally changed and how?
Visual art is not theatre and there can not be a lengthy sequence of events in a picture. The best we can achieve are hints to what happened before and what will happen next. But we should be aware of this and it should be part of our decision how to frame and when exactly we click the shutter. The question remains whether a each and any picture needs to express a story and most likely static scenes can work as art. But the vast majority of static scenes such as land- or cityscapes do not hold my attention very long.

Another way to look at storytelling is to think of breaking a routine. It does not matter how interesting the routine is, it will not be a story until the routine is broken. A brain surgeon doing a procedure might be interesting but it is still a routine until something happens. In photography a pretty sunset is just another pretty sunset unless there is something else in the picture. Not every picture must have something unusual or unexpected but it is a very helpful thought to make more interesting pictures.

Is it Art or Entertainment

What is Art? I am not sure whether there is any definitive answer to that question. But I feel quite certain that any artist must try to answer. Shirking on this question is not an option.
Here are some more thoughts about what qualifies as art. I find it easier to use examples from music than from photography.

If I go to a shopping mall or cafe there will certainly be some background music to soothe me. It requires absolutely no effort from my side to follow. Neither do the radio shows we hear when driving a car.
I love Jazz. But it is really impossible to do anything else when I listen to John Coltrane or John McLaughlin. It requires full attention and efforts from me to listen. Art is interactive whereas entertainment is a one way road and is quite a bit manipulative.

It is worth staying with the distinction of interaction versus manipulation a bit longer. Art is about expressing an opinion clearly and forcing the consumer to make a judgement about this opinion. Art is about involving the consumer. Entertainment does not want to force a judgement, entertainment wants to please a maximum number of people and wants to distract the consumer, stop him from reflecting.

In photography it is very similar. The pretty sunset photo in your hotel room is meant to calm you down but not hold your interest. Compare this to Saul Leiters semiabstract impressions. They invite us to come back again and again.

Looking out through a rainy metro train window on people at the station

Metro Station in the Rain

I acknowledge that these criteria are not absolute and there are plenty great pop songs which were primarily meant as entertainment but which are so emotionally rich that they have huge artistic value. For me the Beatles‘ „Magical Mystery Tour“, Heroes del Silencio, Jacques Brel… come to mind

 

The Improv Handbook By Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White

What is creativity and how can I be more creative in art and life?
People who can do improvised comedy are definitely creative and it is particularly marvellous that many of them developed frameworks to teach others this art and their creativity. Quite a few books have been written about Improv. I read years ago this book and found it invaluable resource for building a meaningful and creative life. We just need to substitute the words “game”, “theatre” etc with the word “life”

Cover of the Improv Handbook

Cover of the Improv Handbook By Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White

I highly recommend to read the whole book as a wonderful guideline to develop personal creativity for everyone and I do not think I can say it any better but want to provide a summary

The first step is to abandon control and perfectionism and stop trying hard to be good. Creativity is passive, our creativity is there and will find us but we can not control or force our creativity. The harder I try to be creative, witty, artistic… the less it will happen, I would just jam my creative flow. Instead curiosity is a good starting point. Curiosity knows no agenda and is open. I must be open and willing to explore anything that I find in my mind, in your mind and in my life and in my surroundings, no matter how small, unoriginal or trivial this appears. The less I try to find, the better. A good cue if we are looking for ideas is to assume that they are already there in my surroundings right here and now and in what I experience every moment. Usually exactly this is correct and my efforts to find them just obscured it. A good improviser always assumes that he or she or the partners already gave a starting point for a great story and just tries to develop the material.
Another factor is boldness. This means the willingness to be passionate about things, the willingness to take a position and the willingness to risk failure. We all learn in our adolescence that it is prudent to qualify everything and be outright pessimistic. If I tell my friends that the movie I just saw “was oK, but…” I am safe whether they liked it or not. If I take a position, I risk disagreement and it takes energy to solve disagreements.
But qualifying and pessimism are deadly for ideas. “Well…Hmmm…MAYBE it would be worth to submit a few photos for this exhibition , BUT I am not very talented and I am not sure if I am qualified for such an important exhibition. If you really think, I could perhaps TRY.” With this statement I predict failure and avoid getting hurt or embarrassed if I should fail in the end but I set myself up for failure. With such an attitude it is almost guaranteed that the result is just meaningless and boring.
“Wow, i love your idea. Of course I submit my pictures. I really want to be featured!” This is a strong statement and sounds much more like success. Of course a clear “No” is absolutely ok if this idea is not for me. The problem with the first statement is not caution, caution is good. The problem is the qualification “Yes, but…” In this statement I announce failure, because if I announce failure I could justify, if I really fail in the end and avoid shame. But this attitude almost guarantees failure. If I would be really worried, I should just address my worries, decide and then give a clear heartfelt “yes” or “no”. If we then go ahead with a big grin on the face and the determination to succeed in our heart, this will be just awesome.
Boldness is not recklessness, fearlessness or shamelessness. Boldness is the ability, the strength to proceed and take a position while using fear and shame to identify and control risks.
Curiosity and boldness are crucial for finding own concepts of a good and meaningful life but still do not give a direction. If I can not try to be good and must let things just happen instead of forcing and achieving, I have no direction and I am just lost.
The direction is achieved by a collaborative attitude. The direction is the other, the direction is you. Instead of trying to be good and witty and shine a good improviser tries to be good to work with and helps the partner to be good. If I am good to work with and you are good to work with, we have a great collaboration and most likely the result will be good.
Some boldness and optimism is required once more to trust in others, let their ideas invade our minds and with this to collaborate effectively.

I think this is generally a good instruction on how to live creative and helps to find us our place and what we want to do. With such mindset i can easily find out whether I want to paint or act or take photos. And I can find out what I actually want to photograph. This is the biggest difficulty for many photographers. Many photographers tell you they shoot everything. People who talk about everything waffle and people who photograph everything also waffle.

We can apply this more specifically to taking pictures. We need to move away from doing and from trying hard to make good pictures. Instead we need to perceive and let our environment guide us. What do I see? Why is this remarkable? What do I feel when seeing? And what is remarkable about what
I feel? How can I express that?
We need to let the picture find us.

I will soon write more about Keith Johnston, the most influential teacher of Improvised theatre.  He is deeper but more difficult to approach.

Vision and Fear

Of all emotions fear is much more directly connected to our senses vision, hearing, tactility and smelling than any other emotion. What we see can makes us angry, happy, ashamed etc but this is mainly learned, very differentiated and usually includes judgement and decisions whereas the fear response is immediate and often a reflex. And fear changes very much how we see. Happiness, anger, shame… do not.
Before I continue I want to clarify that fear is not a “bad” or harmful emotion but a very necessary part of being alive. It is what keeps us alive. Karla McLaren has an excellent article about fear (and about other emotions).

Fear and Contents of Vision

With the possible exception of a nuclear bomb the most dangerous thing we might encounter is a rabid dog or wolf. Chances to survive are very close to zero. Even a minor scratch leads to rabies and rabies is always fatal, even today.
Each and any human reacts with massive fear when we see an agitated dog or wolf with foam around the mouth as this is likely rabies. We even react to photos or paintings. This reaction is instinctive and inevitable, it is a genetic program to give us a survival chance in a very dangerous situation.
It is quite a complex reflex which includes identification of contents. Probably there are a few similar reactions in us but they are certainly less pronounced and I am not aware of them.

Peripheral Vision

Here is an experiment. Let’s go to a crowded pedestrian zone or mall and walk down. We focus with our eyes on a distant point or on a person walking in front of us at the same pace. Without loosing the focus and without moving the eyes we are mindful of the people walking in the opposite direction. We will notice that they all seem to accelerate the closer they come to the edge of our field of vision. In fact our vision exaggerates the motion the closer it is to the edge of our field of vision. It feels a bit unsettling, a bit scary to perceive this. And usually we feel an urge to look there.
The biological background is that we normally only see with a small area in the centre of the eye,the macula. The biggest part of the retina, the background of the eye, consist only of motion and contrast sensors.
We could greatly increase the emotional impact of this experiment by putting up headphones with loud music and just standing. We would still focus our eyes straight ahead and be mindful of the edges of our field of vision. If people now enter from behind and the side this would feel really scary (NOT RECOMMENDED!).
The background: hearing is our first perimeter scan and peripheral vision our second. They are part of base level fear scanning for danger all the times. In the millennia before headphones a sudden movement entering our field of vision with no audible advance warning meant ambush. Something or someone was hiding and is now attacking.
This is instinctive, a genetic program in our mind. Peripheral vision and seeing motion is part of fear. And so is hearing.
People override this all the time when they go for a jog or walk with headphones on. I doubt that this is a good idea. But the psychology of headphones exceeds this blog.

City Center in the Rain

City Center in the Rain

How Fear affects our Vision

In the foreground trumpet of a jazz player, in the background the saxophone player

Live Jazz

People who were in a really dangerous situation will all tell us how this affected the vision. I remember an online article by a police officer. He described in detail encounters with violent criminals. If the fear increased the field of vision narrowed down and on the other hand the resolution of details magnified massively. Sometimes even to a greatly magnified vision of just the gun wielding hand in slow motion.
This can be explained biologically. Seeing is not a passive recording of visual information, seeing is an active scanning process. Normally our eyes constantly scan everything in front of us, roughly the field of a 28mm lense. Fear concentrates our eyes on the most important part and instead of screening at random fear focuses our eyes on whatever seems most important. The field of vision diminishes but the resolution is greatly magnified if the eyes have to cover a much smaller field. So the resulting picture is greatly magnified and the concentration can even lead to slow motion perception.

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light

Dining

Vision, Fear and Art

There is one very good example how the interaction of fear and seeing was used in art. Sergio Leone and his cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli made extensive use of effects which are directly related our connection between fear and vision. In their movies „The Good , the Bad and the Ugly“, „Once upon a Time in the West“…they often use the extreme cuts from a very wide scene to an extreme close up, for example an eye or a hand or a gun. This reflects the emotional change from a danger signal in the peripheral vision to very concrete fear for life and the accompanying detail vision. This makes these scenes so compelling and memorable.

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Screenshots from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

Ethics in Street Photography

Ethics in Street Photography is a hot topic which everyone discusses at a certain point. After all we photograph strangers without asking. Spontaneity and real life are the topic of street photography.

Bruce Gilden is infamous for his style of mugging people with a flash gun and recording the reaction. His apologists usually argue that he is entitled to do that because he is such a great artist. I completely disagree. Nobody is entitled to harm over people in any way. The wellbeing of a human is more important than art. I do not like such pictures.

Also I do not like voyeuristic pictures of sexy girls who are completely unaware of being photographed and in which sexiness of the subject is the only thing which makes the picture. Or any pictures which show people in embarrassing situations. This includes particularly photos of homeless and beggars. As they are usually powerless and can not easily defend themselves against intrusive photographers this is really bad taste. It might be different if a professional documentary photographer takes such pictures. In my opinion it is very important to separate artistic street photography from documentary photography.

Here are my personal rules for taking pictures of strangers and publishing.

1. I am obvious and do not hide. The girls in this picture saw me with the big Nikon DSLR and did not turn away. They seemed to be proud of their great looks in this light and this leads to the next rule.

Two beautiful girls saying farewell in a brightly illuminated entrance in very heavy, dark rain, neon lights, Bladerunner athmosphere

A Farewell in the Rain

2. I want that my subjects look awesome and my very best to let them shine. I want that they are proud if they ever stumble upon their pictures.

3. Whenever possible I anonymise. A silhouette can tell more about a situation than a detailed face shot. Handscan tell more than full body shots. And blurriness and Bokeh can tell the emotional side as well.

Silhouettes of two strangers encountering by chance in front of a Cafe. The picture has two distinct halves formed by the red glass front and the entrance of the Cafe with a clear window.

A Chance Encounter

A black and white picture of the hands and chopsticks of two persons at dinner in selective light

Dining

 

 

 

 

Is Photography Art?

I just found these two articles published in The Guardian in 2014.

Here Jonathan Jones trashes Peter Lik’s picture “Phantom”, the one which sold for $6.5m and argues that photography is not art.

This is the reply by Sean O’Hagan in defense of photography. Naturally I agree with him that photography is art and always will be. Looking at one bad picture for which a ridiculous price was paid does not allow generalisations about a whole genre and proofs nothing at all. He raises some great points. Particularly that it is inaccurate to compare photography and painting as these are totally different art forms. Also the differentiation between financial and artistic value is important.

But I find it more interesting to discuss J. Jones’ arguments and reservations. I am as annoyed as him about this endless stream of photos of Antelope Canyon or similar spectacular scenes which add nothing new. There must billions of photos published on the internet. Everyone can go there and look at the beauty of these canyons him or herself and just another picture of a beautiful scene is not art. This is maybe the most widespread mistake of Photographers to just rely on the beauty of the subject. Art starts when the artist adds something personal, tells a story, has a unique opinion. And this is not the case in Most Antelope Canyon pictures or pictures of other famous sceneries.

I also share his reservations about the tendency to assume monochrome makes pictures artistic. It is very unfortunate that so many photographers convert mediocre pictures to black and white to pretend they mean something. I want to have a compelling reason for such an invasive manipulation of a picture as modern digital cameras by default take colour pictures. But I can see why Peter Lik took this picture as monochrome, to highlight the tonal contrast and emphasise textures in the wall and in the light.

His shock about such a price for a reproducible picture should be taken seriously and deserves some discussion. Modern photography is by default reproducible and I have reservations about limiting the number of copies artificially to inflate prices.

Approaching Photographic Art – Common Misconceptions

We are living in the the digital age and practically everyone has camera in the pocket with the telephone. There are now trillions of pictures all over the internet for each and any keyword. Which ones of them are art and which ones not?
Many photographers -and to a lesser degree viewers and colllectors- still mix up technical quality and artistic value and with this kill their own creativity. I wrote about this before. Now I want to adress a few more misconceptions, more from the viewers‘ point.

A photo showcasing the bright lights of Soho in central HK in the night. A man with a yellow binder and a car in the foreground

South of Hollywood

Quite common is the shortcut to assume only black and white photos qualify as art whereas colour photography is automatically disqualified.
In film times black and white had an advantage as the film and the print could be heavily manipulated which is impossible with colour film. This gave the photographer
the freedom to decide how much contrast would be in the final print or the possibility to lighten or darken certain areas of the print. This required advanced dark room knowledge and experience and ample time. Therefore original prints of great black and white photos are rare and unique. But rarity should not be confused with artistic value. Today photography is digital, with very few exemptions and with this nearly always reproducible art, just like literature or music. The reproducibility reduces the price of the individual print but does not affect the artistic value. How many copies of Tolstoy’s „War and Piece“ or Miles Davies’ „Kind of Blue“circulate currently? It does not affect the artistic value. By the way it is worth pointing out that black and white shooting is much easier than Colour as only one of two dimensions of light, tonal value, needs to be addressed.

In the digital age a few people now believe in the rule that only „unmanipulated“ pictures qualify as art. First, let me point out that this is somehow the opposite of the worship of Monochrome as explained above! All these classic BW pictures look so great because they were manipulated in the darkroom. Second, assuming that an „unmanipulated“ picture exists relies on the assumption of an unambiguous visual reality which simply does not exist. The manipulation starts when we decide for an exposure which could produce a very dark or a very light picture or everything in between. No, it even starts before, it starts when we take a phot. Seeing with a human eye is very different to photography. A camera passively records light whereas seeing is an active scanning process with interference and extrapolation of our mind. In fact, all digital pictures are already processed by the computer inside the camera. And this includes RAW files. If we skip postprocessing in Photoshop or other software we just rely on the standard settings of the camera manufacturer. And this is certainly only a disadvantage.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is widely considered to be one of the greatest photographers. He first voiced the opinion that only pictures taken with a focal length of 35mm or 50mm can be art. Later some people changed to mildly different rules such as 28-35 or 28-85 or … The rational behind is that these focal lengths are most similar to the human field of view. The angles and dimensions of around 80mm are roughly how we see things but as we actively scan our field resembles more a 28mm lense. So these rules assume that the more realistic a photo is the better it gets, which is a very restrictive approach to art. Painters and even cinematographers and their audience would find such an approach ridiculous.
Conveniently for photographers who follow such rules, these focal lengths are technically much easier to shoot than long tele lenses which are difficult to focus or very wide angles which are difficult to frame. I suspect that the proponents of a restrictive focal lengths follow their laziness and timidity.

Some of the most striking pictures violate all these quick rules. For example Saul Leiter often used tele lenses and usually shot colour. And he was certainly not inferior to Cartier-Bresson.
We should not approach art with rules. Art is about emotions, about stories about getting moved and changed. The artist should use her or his art to express who she or he is and her or his opinion about the subject of the art. The mindset of the viewer of art should be open and curious.
What did the photographer see? What did he or she feel? Why is this remarkable? Addressing these questions leads the photographer to great pictures and the viewer to appreciate great pictures and to differentiate them from random snaps.
And further, art is about the unusual. If we do not embrace the unusual, the diversity and the surprise we loose so much.

Requiem

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

The book Requiem is a deeply moving tribute to the photographers who died or disappeared in the Indochina wars. They are portrayed by their pictures and by articles of their colleagues and friends.

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

The editors Horst Faas and Tim Page are accomplished and highly regarded professional photo journalists who survived this war and are deeply involved in the fate of some of their colleagues. Tim Page tried to clarify the fate of Sean Flynn and Dana Stone who disappeared in Cambodia and Horst Faas was involved in identifying the remains of Larry Burrows, Henri Huet… on the crash site of their Helicopter in Laos. This deep involvement is clearly palpable and makes this book so moving. They made huge efforts to be complete and include biographies and photos of all photographers who became victims of this war. After huge efforts on their side the Vietnamese government gave the biographies the photographers accompanying the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong who vanished in this war. These photographers were professional soldiers involved in propaganda and psychological warfare.

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

The French army had similar military photographers and film makers. For example Piere Schoendoerffer took part as camera man and contributed a tribute to his colleague Jean Peraud to this book.
On the American side the army journalists never were a match for the independent press.

These 135 photographers left a huge collection of marvellous pictures which are shown in this book. As expected in a photo book about war there are true horrors depicted and many pictures are very tough and disturbing to watch. Some of them give me nightmares.
Other pictures however are deeply sensitive and human. The works of Larry Burrows and Henri Huet contain beautiful examples. The empathic quality combined with true artistic sense of composition inspired me and draw me to photography years ago.

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

Requiem – edited by T. Page and H. Faas

After Chinese New Year

Kumquat fruits spilling over the asphalt from a discarded Lunar New Year Tree

After Chinese New Year

A few  days ago I wrote about Chinese New Year and how much it reminds me of Christmas In Europe.

After the Christmas season ends in Germany I always felt this hungover, sombre mood, certain sense of emptiness and the longing for the next time. Today I usually celebrate Christmas in Singapore but I still feel it. My observation is that  many Chinese feel very similar after Chinese New Year celebrations.

After Christmas Germans usually discard their Christmas trees to collection points by the road. Chinese have Kumquat trees in their houses for Lunar New Year celebrations and discard them to collection points roughly a week after New Year.

The sight of these abandoned trees reflects the hangover mood. In this picture a tree toppled over and the fruits spilled over the road. Some are already crushed by cars and they seem to fade away like the memories of the festivities.