It is not by accident that often, the most compelling photographs of structures and objects are associated with people. Perhaps an extreme take on this idea was when the writer and photographer Wright Morris wanted an assignment with Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression and showed him a portfolio of his work. He presented beautiful pictures of barns, old houses, and weather-beaten doorways. Stryker looked at the photographs with interest but was bemused by the lack of people in them because the documentation of people was the essence of his project. Morris agreed wholeheartedly and explained that the presence of the people in his pictures was enhanced by their absence. Stryker was not amused. However, both men were correct depending on the intended purpose of the photographs. Stryker wanted to reveal the essence of the depressing times, while Morris’s intention was to show objects of feeling and emotions. His images emphasized the life enhancing rather than the life depressing.
One of my favorite books of travel portraits is ‘World’s in a Small Room” by Irving Penn. By any standard Penn, produced a wonderful series of portraits taken in Cuzco, Spain, New Guinea, Nepal, Morocco, Dahomey, Crete and the United States. The subjects were all photographed in a so-called portable ambulant studio using light from the north sky and, all had the same backgrounds. According to Penn, he did not fancy seeking out his subjects in their natural circumstances. He preferred to record their ‘physical presence’ under more controlled conditions, such as he would have experienced in his New York studio. He openly admitted that he enjoyed the artificial circumstances of the studio.
I never lost my appreciation for having been privy to enjoy the photographs of Irving Penn. However, something disturbed me. I realized that people photographed in their own environment often appear more natural and less staged. Indeed, this is not surprising as the subjects are breathing the air they are accustomed to. In essence, I developed a passion for photographing people in their own villages, their own homes or their own surroundings. I began to appreciate that different personalities required the natural environment’s lighting in which the subject lived. In essence, photographing people in their natural circumstances allowed my subjects to present themselves as themselves.
In many ways, when possible, I strive to incorporate an opposing vantage point to that of Wright Morris and Irving Penn and photograph people in their every day circumstances so that the environment enhances the character of the people, and the people enhance the character of the environment.
Up until my mid 20’s I had never entertained an interest in photography. However, while I was on a summer break at home, from my studies in Germany, my father gave me a semi-retired Minolta camera. At the time I really had no idea what purpose a camera would serve in my rather busy life. As the calendar years passed by I realized that more often than not it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain what is pre-ordained for us in life or what we have ordained for ourselves. Ultimately, the answers to the reasons behind the detours we experience over a lifetime are likely only to be found on the last page of the book of life.
During my following semester break I traveled with a couple of friends to Paris, Rome and Copenhagen. At the last moment before taking off for the airport, I remembered the existence of my Minolta camera. I tucked it in between a few items in my shoulder bag and at the airport purchased ten rolls of Agfachrome film. When we arrived in Paris I loaded my camera and for the next three weeks I snapped away at anything that remotely pricked the sides of my visual interest. By the time we reached Copenhagen I had to restock on film at a cost that had a serious weakening economic impact on any future culinary adventures I had wanted to engage in. As such I prioritized feeding my camera rather than myself. At the end of our trip we returned to Berlin and uppermost on my mind was to go to the camera store to have my films developed. Three days after having dropped them off I returned and greedily grabbed the envelope containing the filmstrips, paid, and set out to relive the trip through my photographs.
I will not even venture to describe the sickening feeling of my going through each and every roll and bearing witness to the revelation that there was not even a single image on any of the films. The ordeal was so devastating that I lost my appetite for two days and walked around with a numb sense of failure. The disappointment was so embarrassing that it was either going to make me bitter and never use a camera again or compel me to learn to use one. I opted for the latter and vowed that I would learn the ins and outs of photography.
On that same day I went to the university library and checked out every book pertaining to technical aspects of photography and afterwards hopped on the streetcar and went to one of the leading bookstores in town. To my delight there was a section devoted entirely to photography. A new world of photographic artistry was on page after page of delightful imagery from such masters as Ernst Haas, Erwin Fieger, Leni Rifenstahl, Rolof Beny and Eliot Porter to name just a few. All of these camera artists were working in color photography and I studied their work with an unusual intensity. Before long I was able to send off my now properly loaded films and images magically appeared on each and every frame. Although I never voiced it out to anyone, including myself, I had the occult feeling that photography was to take a prominent role in my life. I began to photograph with an intensity that bordered on mildly excessive but it helped me find a peace within myself as I was totally convinced that making photographs would always be a part of my life.
In the summer of 1975 I traveled to Iran, China, India, Thailand and Hong Kong and needless to say was accompanied by my Minolta camera that had become an extension of my arm and eyes. My friends praised many of the images, which I made on that sojourn, but I guess what else would friends say. They realized that photography had become my newfound baby and who would ever criticize the infant of a friend.
I studied my photographs but suffered no allusions of grandeur. Although they were interesting, primarily due to their exotic appeal, there was something fundamentally disturbing me. They lacked mood and a sense of drama. However, it was unclear to me what I could do to translate what I saw with my eyes to be in harmony with the emotional feelings I had when I was taking the photographs. During a dinner with several of my college friends we started a conversation about memorable films that we had seen during our lifetime. When I refreshed my memory bank one film stood out above all others; a film based on the life of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who became a well-known phenomenon during the late 1800s in England. This incredibly dramatic and touching film documented the life and struggles of a man born with a disease so obscure that it is still debated to this very day what the cause of his extraordinary deformities was. He was exhibited as a freak of nature and was assumed by many to be a subhuman oddity. During one scene in the film he was surrounded by an angry mob. I will never forget the silence in the movie theater when Merrick voiced for the first time the pent up emotions within him and declared, “I am not an elephant. I am a human being. I am a man.” Men, women and children around me fought to suppress their tears. The moment was so intensely portrayed by the actor John Hurt that a viewer of the film would have almost had to be non-human to not have been intensely moved by the proclamation of the Elephant Man. As the film progressed it was later revealed that he was not only a gentle soul but also was an extremely intelligent man. During the later episodes of the film he even had written correspondence with actors and royalty of the time. At the end of his letters he commonly signed off with the prose of the poet Isaac Watts.
Tis true my form is something odd,
But blaming me is blaming God.
Could I create myself anew,
I would not fail in pleasing you.
If I could reach from pole to pole,
Or grasp the ocean with a span.
I would be measured by the soul,
The mind’s the standard of the man.
This unbelievably moving film was entirely in black and white. The same film in color would still have been a remarkable story of an extraordinary man but in color it would not have imparted the same sense of drama. The film was immensely successful because the lack of color permitted the audience to concentrate entirely on the message that the producer, David Lynch, so skillfully portrayed. By the end of the film, as a result of the artful employment of chiaroscuro, the audience became so enraptured in the humanity of the Elephant Man that we no longer merely saw what he looked like but we were privy to what he was like.
The film of the Elephant Man perhaps planted the seeds in my subconscious mind to develop an appreciation for the black and white depiction of life around me. The work of a number of photographic masters added further stimuli of interest to this classical portrayal of image making, such as Joseph Sudek, Eduardo Masferre, Eugene Smith, Michiko Kon, Max Yavno and many others.
Over the last few years with the widespread use of digital photography photographers now have total control over how their imagery is edited and how colors relate to one another in a photograph. I find that the most successful color photographs are often those that are not inundated with many different colors fighting for the attention of the viewer but are ones that are rich in a more limited range of colors. This approach often permits the photographic artists to create a sense of drama and evoke a more compelling mood that breathes a similar artistic approach to photography as classical black and white image making.
At the end of the day however the use of black and white versus color photography is a personal decision. The only reason why we have horse races is because we all bet on different horses. Choose the approach that you feel will take you over the finish line.
One autumn day in 1974 I received a phone call from the local photography store where I had sent my film from a recent trip to the Far East for development. The store owner took me aside. Her words still linger to this very day in my memory bank. “You obviously have enormous talent, but why would you choose not to use it to show the beauty of the world rather than poverty and misery?” “Misery is everywhere,” said the woman. “Look a little harder and seek beauty.”
Sleep did not come to me that evening. I reflected for hours on the shopkeeper’s words. Little did I know that she had sent me on a journey that would take many turns, encounter many detours-A journey that I know within the deep confines of my heart will never end. I began a photographic pilgrimage in pursuit of beauty in the simplicity of life.
This photographic pilgrimage has taken me to the ancient ruins of Machu Pichu, to the Amazon jungle, through the ravages of the Liberian civil war, through the shifting sands of the Thar desert and over the highest roads in the Himalayan mountains. I spent an afternoon with a Sadhu in Nepal who sat for thirty-two years on a single rock to demonstrate his faith. His hair had grown to many times the length of his body and his fingernails resembled small daggers. I was offered the culinary delight of human flesh, so that I, like the holy man who had offered it to me, would partake of one of the most humbling experiences in order to set myself on the path of enlightenment. I have visited the room of the devil in a Brazilian house of condomble and experienced first hand how ‘evil magic’ can cause a man to go into a coma.
It has taken me over a half of my life to truly appreciate that those things that human beings share in common are in essence the most fascinating and meaningful. Mutual to all mankind is the necessity to eat, sleep, be shielded from the elements and the desire to propagate and stake one’s claim in the tides of succeeding generations. All men and women experience moments of joy, inevitable periods of sadness and grieve at the lost of loved ones. We all enter into this world naked, devoid of riches and have no control over when the final curtain will fall during our performance on earth’s stage. With a one-way ticket we pass through time and space, ultimately, all desiring to one day meet our Creator.
On my photographic pilgrimage, I have learned that when I not only looked at my photographic subjects but also listened to their life stories that I have been allowed to witness the grandest spectacle of all-beauty in the universal themes of humanity.