The first photo book I ever picked out for myself was a Jeanloup Sieff monograph that had everything from fashion to portraits and reportage. I was 16, starting to shoot regularly, and discovering the medium with its various aspects – the technical, the stylistic, the different genres, etc. I‘d grown up with my Dad’s photo books, mostly Soviet produced, worn tomes with black and white images of mountains and grandiose landscapes that seemed to be printed with heavy, metallic inks that glared thickly on the fingered pages. But this was a book I had picked out and paid $40 (!!!) for and I spent long hours leafing its oversized pages and staring. I liked his style, the serenity and loneliness of his fashion work, the contextual ambiguity of his journalistic pictures, the pithy sentences at the bottom of each photo that gave them a vie I could grasp on to, a nuisance interpolated onto the pages and the stories of the photos.
But what I remember being most impressed with was the tones. It was the same wonderment I experienced when turning on the lights in my makeshift darkroom after printing from one of my dad’s negatives, rather than my own overly contrast-y, dirty, pale, etc, negatives. Or the first time I used fiber paper. There was lavishness; a gradation in the grays, a richness in the blacks, a texture in the whites, a range that made the shapes roll onto the pages rather than insert themselves starkly and violently. There was a picture I liked, of nuns gathered to see the Pope, in flowing holy habits and wimples, and the blacks of the robes were defined, the folds full of body and essence. I felt reprehensively attracted to the photo.
I learned that this was kind of a norm in quality photography – properly produced negatives tend to yield a spectrum, a rolling gamut of grays that is subtle and supple. But though I’ve put in long hours looking at other photos since then, the awe of seeing a perfect print hasn’t faded.
A few days ago I went to see the Richard Avedon fashion retrospective at the ICP. I had seen most of the work featured at the museum previously, in books or on websites and magazines and factoring in familiarity, wasn’t really expecting to be blown away. Rather, I went to stand in its presence, to see it printed large and scrape some motivation from the ubiquity of it on the walls of a small space. But it blew me away and I spent minutes lingering, leaning into each photo and, again, staring (L. has asked me what I’m looking for when I lean in like that, sticking my nose in too close to see…I’m looking for the grays.) There was a darkened room with relatively small prints, 11x14 maybe, each separately lit by a small white bulb that further defined the tones, making the photos glow with a glassy sensuality burgeoning from within. There was an oversized print spanning floors and large prints, so many, too many for me to stare at for as long as I wanted.
A gay couple kept trailing behind me and comparing favorite dresses and accessories and another duo, aged denizens of the fashion business I guess, casually pointed out models and where they’d last seen them or worked with them. But for me, the quality of the images was distracting, taking away from the images themselves, from the compositions and the faces and the clothes and the striking, bird-like poses. I couldn’t concentrate and kept obsessing how perfectly he lit them, how crisp the folds of a black dress look, how well he back lit the smooth faces of the models, how intricate the backgrounds are, a shade darker than the foreground but immaculately defined.
During one of the few photo classes I took, I shot a then-roommate of mine playing guitar, lit by a single work lamp pointing at her from above. It had the full tones of a good black and white photo, the oddly placed lamp capturing her in a cone of light around which darkness enveloped gradually and slowly. During the critique the teacher dismissed it hurriedly. “It’s too perfect,” she said.
Though I’m tempted to think that she may have had a point – if I’m so distracted staring at the quality of the image that I can’t grasp it’s content, it’s not entirely the point of photography – I’m loathe to give that thought too much consideration. Though I make plenty of space for the non-Westonian photographers that let technical aspects of the craft go as they may, old habits die hard. Viva the well-crafted photo!