Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all! Enjoy the day with your family, eat too much, and grab an interesting shot or two if you can. No pressure. And here’s hoping that whatever new bit of gear you’ve been lusting after has now migrated from under your tree to your itchy paws. But in case you find yourself at a loose end after all the gift-giving, and in danger of slipping into a food coma after too much turkey, here are a few factoids and stories about photographers that you might not have known.
- A young man wanted nothing more than to be a jazz drummer; but his chosen career didn’t work out, so he became a photographer instead, later specializing in photojournalism. Even in the ’40s, a photographer made so little money that he had to make ends meet by being a hustler at chess clubs, playing for quarter stakes; this despite landing large commissions for major magazines of the day such as Look. (It seems nothing much has changed in that regard.) His early images of New York City had a distinctive, rather cinematic look to them…Stanley Kubrick ultimately gave up photography to become a cutting-edge cinematographer.
- A young boy was such a restless hypochondriac that he was repeatedly expelled from various private schools, and by grade eight, his family pulled him out of formal schooling completely. He taught himself the piano at age 12, and his intense focus for the next 12 years with the intention of becoming a professional musician; what changed his career path was a visit to Yosemite in 1916 with a Box Brownie. That man went on to become one of the most famous landscape photographers of all time: Ansel Adams.
- A rebellious youth from a wealthy, bourgeois family left formal Catholic prep school to attend the private Lhote Academy, run by cubist painter Andre Lhote; he trained as an artist but grew bored of the stiffness and rules of the medium, gravitating towards both realism and surrealism – opposite ends of representation, but neither of which had the structure of classical art. He then attended Cambridge, served mandatory duty in the Army, got placed under house arrest for hunting without a license, then had an intense affair with his host’s wife before a nervous breakdown and escape to Africa. Here, he encountered the work of Martin Munkasci, whose images challenged him: before seeing them, he didn’t believe such spontaneous captures were possible with a camera. This was the birth of ‘the decisive moment’ – we are of course talking about Henri Cartier-Bresson.
- Kubrick, Adams, and HC-B all used Kodak Box Brownies at one point or other in their early careers. Ultimately, they each picked the best tool for their purpose – and their intended look – Kubrick switched to a Graflex, Adams went with his plate-cameras, and HC-B went Leica.
- Robert Capa’s famous photograph of The falling soldier during the Spanish Civil War was part of a much larger collection of images that was lost when he fled Europe in 1939, known as ‘the Mexican Suitcase'; it was subsequently returned in 2007 by its present-day owner, Benjamin Tarver. Inside were nearly 5,000 negatives by Capa, Chim and Gerda Taro.
- Although it’s popularly believed that Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings on the beaches at Normandy in 1944 were blurry because of a combination of the technical limitations of cameras of the day and simply the incredibly intense nature of the situation, the reality is that of the 106 images shot, only eleven survived some serious bungling during development by a lab technician at his agency in London, and even those were heavily damaged to the state that we see in prints today. Moral of the story: develop your own, and guard your negatives/ raw files.
- One of (in my opinion) the greatest photojournalists of all time is also possibly the most overqualified. He gained a Masters’ degree in Economics before working as an economist for the International Coffee Organization. After a stint with Sygma and Gamma, he joined Magnum; not finding that serious enough for his needs – by now developed into an intense humanitarian drive to both document culture and raise social awareness – he left and formed his own agency, together with his wife. Although he shoots digital now, he also has those files exposed to film and then rescanned/ reprinted from that source to create his signature tonal look; the irony of course is that this process probably takes longer and has more potential pitfalls than just shooting film to begin with. The man is of course Sebastiao Salgado; his current project, ‘Genesis’, started in 2004, will likely also be his last – he claims that he has so many images to go through that it will probably take him the rest of his life. Now that’s dedication.
- There seems to be something about photography, music and painting. Another painter-musician – who even did a stint at a kibbutz – eventually turned photographer, joining the newly-formed Rolling Stone magazine as staff shooter. Her career was built around celebrity, and turned her into a celebrity herself; she was unconventional, lesbian, gave birth at 51, (in)famously bad at financial management, and possibly the only photographer both to reach that level of wealth and also lose it. We are of course talking about Annie Leibowitz.
For every big-name photographer who’s made it – notice there are no real normal photographic superstars today, they all seem to be almost manufactured in the same way Hollywood manufactures the images of actors/ actresses – there are dozens who are doing fairly well, hundreds who are getting by, and thousands who believe in the dream enough to endure the suffering while trying to make it work. Having been in the last category, and just about surfacing into the second to last, I just want to say I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunities I’ve been given, and it’s the least I can do not to mess them up. If you’re still in that last category – don’t give up; it took me four tries to be able to make a sustainable living from photography and related activities. I know that if I hadn’t made one last push, I’d probably still be regretting it. Make a wish, people, and then work hard to make it happen. MT
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