April 13, 2010

A Change Is Not Necessarily An Improvement

People often ask me particulars about how I shoot, what film, what format, what cameras, lenses, etc I use, and why, and I thought it about time to answer some of these issues. I’ve addressed some, but definitely not all of these questions in previous blogs, and as they are intimately related to vision and life, I will probably address more as time marches on. But as I happened to be rereading the afterword to my first book, In the Land of Light, I thought that although there are some things I do differently today, (as an example, I now shoot mostly with a Hasselblad and a tripod, while before only on occasion), basically all that was true then remains true today. This afterword was written at least 30 years ago, but I feel it remains to me a basic manifesto for today:

Afterword from In the Land of Light

“It is by the bow of a man’s back, the way a woman moves her body, holds a cup, looks at me, by the way people dance and sing and laugh, that I understand them. I have a passion to get below the surface of things, to find an enduring essence. I want each of my photographs to express the underlying forces in life, each frame to be able to stand on its own. When a photograph succeeds for me, I feel that every inch of space is necessary. For these reasons, although I may spend hours in a place, I often shoot very little film.

I find I am always drawn to a subject: I may see something far away that excites me, even if it is only a sense of light or space. I run directly toward it and look through the viewfinder, I move closer or farther away in order to harmonize my relationship to the subject and to what I feel.

My passion for clarity is particularly manifest in the way I use a camera. Many photographers feel that, because the world is unclear, they have no obligation to make their photographs sharp. I agree that the world is unclear. Yet it is my compulsion to make the world as sharp as possible. By doing so, I try to expose more than is readily apparent. Thus I have some means of controlling chaos, if only by describing it. However, the acuity of a photograph does not always define life for me; detail sometimes reveals mystery.

I have spent years studying the technique of photography in search of a means to make a small-format 35mm camera achieve the technical clarity of a large-format camera. I am never satisfied with the results of my work: the detail is never sharp enough; the light is never articulate enough. Though I marvel at the mastery of some large-format photographers, only the unobtrusiveness, speed, and agility of a 35mm camera can achieve the closeness and intimacy I require in my portraits.

For me, the interaction between the photographer and the subject is crucial. In Israel, I often saw photographers cope with the difficulties of portraying people by standing at a distance and using a long-focal-length lens. I want a person to be aware of me, to deal with my presence, and am therefore always physically close to the person I photograph. For these reasons I use only a normal-focal-lenth lens.

There is something about being face to face with someone that is necessary for my life. There is much in the world that terrifies me, so I need to get close to people- to reach out.

When I feel I am close I get closer: to remove everything from the frame that is extraneous, and to scale down the photograph in hopes of achieving a simplicity that reveals only what I feel is in that person. I am so close that I cannot look the other way or hide behind anything. Then I am aware of an intensity of intimacy and understanding. I begin to sense who I am, and to perceive in others the small expressions that help to reveal a person’s unique and essential quality.

People give a great deal to me. They trust me even though I am a stranger. I love them for their strength and for their willingness to reveal themselves to me face to face.”

There is, though, one basic and fundamental issue I do wish to address. 45 years and thousands of rolls of film later, I still have this unwavering love for black-and-white film. Although, just as most who knew me thought I never would, I reconsidered, and started some 8 years ago to shoot color as well. It serves a different function for me, and I will talk about this later, but there is nothing to me like the blackness and luxuriant intensity of the black-and-white. It is an abstraction by addition. You see, there is more color in black-and-white than there is in color. All to be continued.

Lastly, I continue, and no doubt will until death, or until Kodak decides to stop me, to shoot film. I have shot Plus-X 120 film (my all-time favorite film), and Tri-X 120 for over 40 years, and I must thank Kodak for its long-term commitment to an age that is recorded in digital seconds. Unfortunately for me, without these films, my life would not be the same. As time goes on, I will explain why film fits the world as I see it.



  1. I think the intimacy in your portraits is what drew me to your work. The very fact that you don’t use a long lens and get up close with the intent to engage your subject is wonderful…I believe,also, that your subject’s expression, body language, etc will change when you converse with them (especially making them feel safe, like you seem to do). I love this in your images.

    Strange segue, but reading your post made me think about my rejection of cell phones and texting, et al…I crave face to face communication so much, that I really turn away from this new world of gadgets. Sigh..with my business, it’s a necessity, but my friends and family know that I want to be able to touch their arm when I speak with them.

    I’m a digital girl after shooting film for years…yet there are days I just want to feel the film advance in my hands. I like to shoot film at the beach-0h, those perfect non-blown-out whites!–and I relish my time with my old Minolta. Proud to say it doesn’t gather dust.

    I’m interested in hearing your opinion on the digital photography world.

    Comment by Lara Blair — April 17, 2010 @ 8:47 am

  2. I hope film doesn’t go away. It is a format that has such a long lineage, and can tie me to my heroes of yesteryear.

    Comment by john walker — April 20, 2010 @ 4:10 am

  3. [...] A Change Is Not Necessarily An Improvement [...]

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