Tag Archives: photography

as time goes by

In my youth, a classic education included the obligation to learn how to draw. It was part of the curriculum. There was no mention of creativity. That was a characteristic of god. But drawing was considered by some as learning to see; taking  notes as it were of what we saw. We started with a tree, a horse, or a flower. It was a pleasure watching someone as their eye traveled from the subject of their drawing to the paper in front of them and back again. We called it a study. In those days, it was common, especially for those who were not satisfied with their renditions on paper, to put a flower in a book and press it. Life did not start with the digital age. There were delights that disappeared at every stage of progress.

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the type of library I remember and love

For the young, change is exciting and enlivening. It’s a challenge, and healthy people enjoy challenges. And it’s an opportunity to see the world created anew within our own lifetime. I remember the words of a sage who said, ‘the creation of the world wasn’t finished in those famous six days; god continues to recreate the world every minute… and if that were to stop, our world wouldn’t exist’. I didn’t understand it at the time. It seemed a poetic phrase, an expression of the praise of god. But in old age, the phrase has returned with understanding. Change is an integral part of both our world and ourselves. To deny it or to fight it is to stop our inner world.

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As a student, I spent most of my time in the study hall of the seminary, where I was fascinated by history and philosophy in the holy books. I didn’t just sit and learn. I stood at times, with my book on a reading stand (a lectern), and took walks now and then to digest what I had read. It was an adventure for me to walk to the local library, which was my second home for many years. Many of the writers I read mentioned other books, either to agree or disagree with them, and so I always had notes in my pocket, reminding me of books I wanted to open. But sometimes while visiting the library, I would wander through the aisles and gaze at the stacks, picking up a book just because of its title or the way it looked.

My father was a scientist, which gave him access to a computer as early as the 50s of the previous century. In those days the computer was as large as a couple of rooms in a house, and belonged to the university. He used it for complicated mathematical computations. But as he explored the possible uses of this relatively new instrument, he managed to translate the image of my mother to a printout using the letters of the alphabet to provide the shadings of her face. The printout had the standard holes on both sides of the page, and the paper was cheap and discolored as it aged. Enthusiastic about the ‘human aesthetic’ captured by a machine, I hung the picture on one of my walls. And when it grew old and ugly in my eyes, I threw it away. I regret that now. As a matter of fact, I can’t understand how it happened that I, known to hold on to used shopping bags till they become an obstacle in the laundry room, could possibly throw such an article away. In any case, that mechanical portrait heralded the digital age for me.

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the newer libraries look like this… not too many books
and open for just a few hours

Now, as a photographer, I am often asked for my opinion regarding smartphone cameras. People often suspect that one still needs a ‘real’ camera to attain quality photographs. I don’t use my smartphone camera for a number of reasons. But I really like them; they’re wonderful. For the sort of work I used to do, every camera was a part of a set of working tools. For an enthusiast, the choice of one camera demands compromise. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I am one of those people who walk around with a Swiss pocket knife in their pants’ pocket. I’ll admit it can be bested by someone who carries two knives, two screwdrivers, a can opener and bottle opener around with him, plus scissors, a corkscrew, a punch and a few other items. I came to photography because I loved it, but it was a lot of hard work. Aside from taking the picture, there was the endless choice of possible emulsions, chemical processes, developing films, and printing on paper. Digital photography made most of the techniques I learned and mastered over the years irrelevant. It was cheaper and easier, and it soon became available to almost everyone, thus greatly reducing the need for professional photographers. And as amateurs began to take advantage of the new tools, they demonstrated that imagination and invention need no diploma. But still, easy isn’t enough. When things get a little easier, we unconsciously search out difficulty. For instance, I’ve noticed that with the digital camera, it’s so easy to take a picture that people amass an infinite number of them… and then go through the agonies of hell deciding which ones to show their friends.

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this basket of books was found on the street, asking for adoption
some folks just can’t bear to throw a beloved book away

After moving to my new home, I started taking long walks to get to know the neighborhood better. Found the public library, a beautiful new building with large windows and a very modern design. It was a little hard for me to visit, because it was only open from 2:00 to 7:00 pm. I usually rest from 2:00 to 4:00, but no matter… I finally got there when it was open, and looked around. It was very clean and orderly. They had computers there too. The isles were wide, and the rooms were brightly lit. But strangely enough, there seemed to be less books than I expected. I searched out subjects that interested me, and was disappointed to find the book choices few. It turned out that the library was relatively new. The head librarian with whom I spoke seemed a very congenial woman.

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this is the newest type of library here; run by volunteers and offering
free books to anyone who wants them

For the first time in my life, I started thinking of what would happen to my own sizable collection of books. It occurred to me that I could leave them to this library in my last will, and contribute something tangible to my neighbors after my death. But when I asked the librarian if the library would be interested in a gift of books, I saw embarrassment in her face. Well, she said, they were always pleased to receive a present but the library was only interested in new books. New Books? I asked for clarification. Surely people still read Tolstoy and Shalom Aleichem? Well, of course, people are welcome to read whatever they choose, she explained, but the library only accepts books that have been published or printed since the turn of the century. Yikes!

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cows in the rain

In last weeks post, I spoke of my discomfort in winter weather; the difficulty I have trying to find artistic inspiration in the rain. But as I told you, when looking for pictures I photographed in the cold, rain and snow, I came across a number of old images I thought worthy of sharing. The photographs shown here are part of a set, called ‘Bashan cows’, and were photographed some 30 years ago, on negative film, in northern Israel on a cold and rainy day.

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My readers are aware of my love of cats. I have lived with them almost all of my life. I have learned from them, and built lasting friendships with them; more than I could count. But there are other animals as well, that I have learned from and loved. And from early childhood, I have had a very special regard for the Bovinae family, commonly called cows or cattle. I enjoy watching them graze; enjoy their moderate temperament, and learned a bit of meditation in their company.

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I first met them on a dairy farm, and afterwards spent time in their company in Switzerland, where they chewed the mountain grasses in summer, without a care in the world, appreciating nature. The voices of cows and bulls have a timber that makes its way to our hearts. And humans who enjoy the company of cattle are known to sing to them. Both in Switzerland and on the grasslands of Texas, in the western US, you can hear cowboys yodeling to these massive four legged domestic animals. And it seems to me, that as much as their herders influence these fine animals, they are themselves influenced by the spirit and the character of the cattle they live with.

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Not so long ago, I had a dream in which I’d fallen in love with a cow, and she had come to live with me. Her behavior in my dream was much like that of Nechama my cat, in real life. And when I’d be eating or working at my table, she would jump up on the table, to sit by me. But her weight proved overwhelming for the table, and again and again, the table would be smashed to smithereens, ending flat on the floor as a pile of wood. I would try to explain to my cow that this wouldn’t work, but she would just nuzzle up against me, and assure me that she was motivated by love.

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At one point, the carpenter came to repair the table, and I pointed out a large pile of wood on the floor of the salon, telling him he could use any of the wood he found there… explaining that those boards were what remained of three previous tables. When I awoke, I was laughing.

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The cows depicted in this series accepted the weather conditions with equanimity. And because of the heavy fog, one sensed their presence more than the details of their features. In art, as in dreams, the message comes through by way of hints, more often than not. Though I have photographed cows many times, in a great variety of circumstances, this series is most loved, because it doesn’t go into the details. It just tells the story by way of impressions.

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If you’re interested in seeing the whole series, your welcome to check out the following link, where you’ll find the pictures in larger dimensions. You may enjoy a slide show by pressing the play button at the top of the Flickr page.
https://flic.kr/s/4dhc

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After the Sabbath

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a new chapter

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Those of my readers who follow me regularly have read of my odyssey from my old home, staying with a dear friend, and then in rented apartments, till I finally moved into my new home as described in last week’s blog post. I shared with you my agony and my bliss… sometimes the blues, and sometimes the wonder of a youngster who looks around him and is amazed by the beauty and the endless possibilities of the world around him. Being uprooted from my old world was painful. But coming face to face with new environments and conditions taught me to appreciate what I had taken for granted. And I discovered I was more flexible than I had thought. And that as long as I was alive, I could learn new things, and new ways of dealing with life. As rooted as I was in old habits, I discovered that even habits could change.

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Though I worked in a number of fields, most of my career was spent as a professional photographer. Towards the turn of the century, everything I had known about my profession changed, as we moved from film to digital photography. It wasn’t easy. I had to learn new skills and acquire new tools. But somehow I managed to learn the new system.

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Now, moving into my new home, I’ve had a similar experience. Not so much, in having to learn new skills and standards. For I, like everyone around me, have made many adjustments as our world changed over the years. But in moving into my new home, I came face to face with all that had changed over the years. I see those changes reflected in the physical reality of my living space.

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Two of my great passions have been the written word and music. The first recordings I bought were 78rpm records. After some years, the 33rpm records made their appearance, and then there were ‘long playing records’ and stereo. The quality of the recording improved in stages, and each time, I bought the latest devices so as to appreciate the added element in recorded music. I had a very fine record player which allowed for minute adjustments of the weight of the ‘needle’ on the groove of the record, so as to avoid excessive wear on the vinyl. Because after a while, one could always hear the sound of the needle in the groove, and sometimes there were bumps and scratches on the record that spoiled the purity of the sound. It was for that reason that I was so excited when the stereo reel to reel tape recorder became available in electronic stores, and backed up my favorite recordings with copies on tape. A few years later, the cassette player became the player of choice. Eventually, many of my favorite pieces were recorded again on to cassettes, joined by original recordings which were sold in cassette versions. This system was replaced by the CD, and over a number of years I bought several CD players as well as a sizable collection of discs.

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With the advent of the digital age, it became possible to transfer recorded music to digital files, and to play them on the computer or on an MP3 player. A few years ago, I started converting many of the records, and taped recordings to digital files. Today, I listen either to internet radio, or to recordings that have been converted to digital files. But in my old home, I still had an extensive collection of records, reel to reel tapes, and recorded music cassettes, as well as the instruments made for playing these old recordings. That old record player with diamond needle whose weight could be adjusted still stood on the top of a music chest in my old home, within which were stored musical recordings on a number of different media. No sign of any of that in my new home.

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The walls of my old living room used to be covered with book cases and shelves, bearing more books than I ever counted. It was a great pleasure for me to access many of my favorite books at a moment’s notice, and to reread a thought or piece of information. I remembered the place of each book on the many shelves around me. The books are still with me. They have been moved to my new library. But they are no longer as crucial as they once were. Because now I often read digital reproductions of books on my computer or Kindle, and when I want to review a quote or a poem, they are often available on the internet, and it’s even faster to find them on the computer than it is to locate the book and bring it to the table.

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This week, Chana and I visited an old barn in the northern negev, where books have been donated and collected from people in the area. We met two very charming people who are doing their best to organize these treasures of a previous generation. A visitor may buy any of the books for ten shekels, regardless of size or topic. The price is between one seventh to one thirtieth the original price of the books, but there are not that many customers. We heard the young man singing as he worked. The young woman, Adi is her name, offered to help us find any particular book we might be looking for. We told her we were just looking. I saw many books I have read and loved… and some I have never encountered. I didn’t expect to buy any. But as it happened, I did buy two: ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ which had impressed me greatly as a young man, and ‘Prey’, a delightful book by Michael Crichton, which I gave to Chana as a present. I was touched but not saddened by the great array of books. For though they told of the conclusion of an age, I knew they had been replaced by a fine new method of enjoying the written word.

the fountain of creativity

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all pictures on this post by Stefano Spinelli

My friend Bob mentioned the spark of creativity in his comment on last week’s post. Some see it as the muse. Some have described it as a gift from god. There have been many efforts to analyze and study what allows an artist to bring something out… sometimes from the depth of his soul… that at times, is greater than the artist himself. The illustration that I like of dipping one’s toes in the water, is the image of a person talking on the phone, or some such thing, and starting to doodle on a piece of paper. Sometimes that innocent doodle can become intricate and deep. I had a dear friend who sometimes started drawing on a piece of paper, and as the picture would grow, he would attach his first drawing to the wall with masking tape and then add a sheet of paper or more, and the drawing would grow far outside the original frame.

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There are two major stages in the life of an artist. In the first, as a student, it is beneficial to him or her to receive feedback and critique. He can learn from the comments of others. He or she can discover what reaches others; what is understood of his work; what works. But in the second stage, when he or she has matured as a creative artist, there is a need to discount many of the influences outside of himself. He has to dig deep into his soul, and find content that is an expression of his unique personality and awareness. It goes without saying, that the deepest understandings are often engraved as scars on the heart, forgotten memories in the subconscious, of great pain, embarrassment, guilt, and loss. But there is a process of elevating these primal experiences from the heartbroken depths to an enlightened awareness, and this process is called sublimation. It can be a deliverance, a great release, and a source of joy to the same person who once suffered inestimable pain and distress.

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There are many ways to deal with these primal wounds and scars. One can go to a psychologist and do the work of excavating the memories that have been buried or put away. The artist does the same work that a person might do with the help of a psychologist. But his work is not to resolve issues… but to take the raw bleeding truth in his arms and bear it as a mother would a new born child, bare to the world. You may ask, what does this have to do with a painter painting a landscape seen on the steps of a mountain, or a poet writing of the rain under dark clouds in autumn? It doesn’t really matter what the painter paints, or the poet sings. An artist has to be a human being too. The greater he is as a human being, the more sensitive he is… the more empathetic… the more he identifies with the world around him, and is aware of the subtleties of life… the more he distills the essence of what was once drowned in noise and conflicting emotions, and pain and misery, and then puts the rags and the torn bits of life in order, the more he grows and matures as an artist, the better he is able to whistle in the crisp air of the mountain top, and see to the horizon, and the air around him transparent, and the expression pure.

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For as we said earlier, each person is different… both the artist and the art appreciator. But the artist, in order to express himself with the clarity of art must eliminate the noise, the distractions, the defenses, and the rationalizations which so many of us use to survive what is too painful to think about or to remember. The lies we’ve invented to help us forgive ourselves, and the rationalizations, just get in the way. Those stories may win the compassion of a dear friend, but they aren’t really unique. They are tainted by sickly motivations. It is only when the expression is clean of all foreign influences, and true to the soul of the artist, having the reverberations of a string or a reed on a musical instrument, that the artistic voice can transcend the context of personal experience and join the tree and the wildflower in drinking from the roots and bathing in sunlight, releasing oxygen to the air around us.

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The secret of the artist’s fruitfulness is the immense pleasure he receives from the work itself. That is the antidote to writer’s block and the desolation of not knowing what to do. It is the sheer pleasure of work that motivates the artist. He, she, awakes and is stimulated at every step, by every sight and sound. The very experience of life is heard in the reverberations of his soul. He is happiest when he is in conversation with the world and all that surrounds him. And he brings to the conversation his bare soul. He can relate to good and bad. There are times when he confronts the terrible. But it is no longer as a frightened child or victim. He is as strong as a tree or as delicate as a wildflower, but he is secure in his presence as part of the entirety.

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The illustrations accompanying this post are the works of a dear friend of mine, Stefano Spinelli http://www.stefanospinelli.ch/welcome.php . These are photographs of Jerusalem, taken when he was living in our city. He is not Jewish, and came to our city not knowing any Hebrew. He had fallen in love with a woman who came from here. He photographed using a little single-use plastic camera. You usually would shoot one film with the camera, and then it would be thrown away. But he would reload it each time, and he developed the film and printed the pictures by himself. He is a true artist, and his photos are among my favorites of Jerusalem, my home town. I am moved and awestruck by the way he reveals the most intimate aspects of this city that I know as well as my mother’s face.

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a flower in black and white

This post is dedicated to my blog friend, George, who has taken a great interest in black and white photography recently. Personally, I love color. But there are some unique qualities to black and white photography too. And it doesn’t surprise me that in this digital age, there are some who wish to explore the possibilities of shooting monochrome.

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a very early photo of mine

This photograph was taken on my Horseman 4×5, a camera I’ve loved dearly for many years, but now hardly ever use since the switch to digital. I miss it. The camera, though a tool, became something like a friend to me. It was the second most reliable tool I ever had. The first being a Swiss army knife, that I carry to this day in my pants pocket. It was expensive when I first bought it. And I didn’t know if I could afford it. And then later, it was often too heavy and too slow. It was work just carrying it around with me. But it accompanied me through so many stages of my development, and I’ve never met a camera that was better than this one.

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I believe that an artist has to be pretty selfish or self centered in order to produce work. I have always been quite sensitive; sensitive to what’s going on inside other people… to moods, thoughts, feelings… and emotions. At some point, I discovered that it was difficult to show my work to certain people before I was finished with the production of that work. Because hearing the response of that person, would influence the way I worked. Often, I didn’t have to hear. It was enough to feel. Sometimes, it would cause me to stop working altogether. Others may have had similar experiences, and built a thick shell around themselves in order to protect themselves from too many influences. I felt that the sensitivity itself was a gift, and so rather than build walls around me, I kept learning how to be more sensitive.

However, in order to survive as an artist, I learned that privacy was necessary. And I built a back room in my mind, as a mental work place, where I wouldn’t be disturbed. In order to maintain my ability to work as a creative artist, I have maintained this back room all through life, and it now exists on my computer too. On the computer, it’s not a place of work, actually… it is a place for ideas.

Our holiday of Passover starts tomorrow evening. There were things I planned to write about on Friday. But because of the death of my friend, I have been in another mood for the last few days. I’m going with the flow. It is against the rules of our religion to mourn on a Sabbath or holiday. So I will make the most of these in-between days, and then make the most of the holy days, I hope. Best wishes to all.

Please Note: Some readers have made a connection between George, to whom this post was dedicated, and my friend David, who died last week. There is absolutely no connection. George is a blog friend (http://thefuzzyfoto.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/faux-ilford/), whom I’ve never met personally, who is interested in black and white photography, is a fine woman, and I wish her a long and healthy life. David is an old friend of mine for more than 40 years; never read one of my blogs, didn’t know English, and never used a computer in all his life.

the eye of the beholder

As a working photographer, I occasionally encountered subjects that I had known generally, but hadn’t gotten to know intimately. Sometimes, subjects that I had had reservations regarding them. I became something of an expert at photographing people who were considered non-photogenic. From time to time, I was contacted by a local paper or magazine to photograph a politician or VIP. On these occasions, I often found lovely and fascinating people, whom I’d known previously only by way of the media, and hadn’t seen past the public persona. The differences were striking.

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Miriam dancing

This problem of photogenics came up in my last post, and there were a couple of comments on the subject, so I thought I’d go back to it today. One of the problems of photographing a portrait, or a human face, is that the photograph is usually an exposure of a split second. To be specific, it is usually an impression taken in the space of one hundredth of a second, which is a very short time. When we talk to someone, or look at them, we see a number of expressions that are radiated from the face. These expressions are not a constant. They’re always changing. And what’s more, some time elapses between one expression and the next. It is as if the person was sending out messages from his face, and they come in pulses. Some people project such vibes ten or fifteen times a second. Others can send out their radiation a hundred times a second. If we manage to catch them just as they are broadcasting their vibe, we will get a picture that is very much like the face we know and admire. But if we catch them between expressions, we are liable to get a ‘dead face’ or an unpleasant one. What is most important to understand, is that being photogenic has nothing to do with beauty. I have known men and women who were beautiful to look at, but were not photogenic. And the reverse is true too.

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However, there is a parallel problem that one encounters, when photographing portraits, and that is people who are not pleased with their own appearance. It is quite common for a person to be critical about the way he looks… but sometimes this self criticism gets out of hand. Since I worked at times with professional models, I could tell you many stories of beautiful people who had a problem with the way they looked. Sometimes it’s the job of the photographer to help the person come to terms with his own appearance.

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Professionally, I had to relate, occasionally, to subjects that hadn’t interested me previous to the photography. But usually, while photographing, I would find much of interest that I hadn’t previously noticed. I always hoped that I would have the opportunity to photograph sports. But since I didn’t know much about that aspect of life, and since there were professional photographers who specialized in that sort of photography, I’ve never done that, up until now, at least. I suppose I could have taken the initiative, but I’ve always been so busy… one reason or another, I never got around to it.

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I do enjoy the theater, though. And enjoy on stage performances of music. I learned to see the theater differently though, after I started photographing stage performances. Seeing through the camera helped me get to know a reality, slightly different, from my impressions as a member of the audience, expecting to be entertained. There are always considerations, when doing commercial work, that are not present when creating an image for the sake of art. After I had been working for a number of years, I would be offered a job, from time to time, in which the customer would specifically ask me to do it ‘my way’. Such assignments were always especially exciting for me. These photographs of Miriam, a young dancer, were photographed in such circumstances. They are special to me because they belong to one of the first projects I undertook to photograph digitally.

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Most often, my customers had an idea of what they wanted before I went to work on the project. Often, they would show me pictures of what others had done. Or pictures of other performers, or performances, and say, I want something like this… or I don’t want that. Sometimes, it wasn’t at all easy to satisfy them. Because they already had an image in their mind, of what they wanted to see, and it was hard for me to guess this image. But there were also those that knew and liked my work. They were interested in seeing how they looked through my eyes. In such a case, it was a bit of a collaboration between the performer and myself, and usually turned out to be a great pleasure. There were also times, when I felt that I had missed something, or that the final results did not equal the impression I had when observing the performance live. In such cases, I would tell the person I was working for, that I would have to have another go at it. I was never willing to compromise, if I wasn’t satisfied with the work.