Saturday, November 18, 2017

Remembering Arbus

I was browsing through the photo books recently at Barnes and Noble when I came across Arthur Lubow's biography of Diane Arbus.  There is a picture on the cover of Arbus made by Tod Papageorge.  It is one I recalled seeing in the past, perhaps many times.  What came as a surprise to me on this occasion was that I realized had never before recognized the camera Arbus has hanging on a strap in front of her.  It is a Mamiya twin-lens reflex, similar or identical to my own Mamiya C330.  Hers is fitted with large, square lens shades and a monster flash gun, as well has a case strung on the strap wich either contains another lens set or an an eye-level viewfinder.  Arbus also has a big camera bag hanging from her left shoulder, likely containing additional gear which possibly included a couple more lenses.

The cover picture got me to thinking about the fact that a small person like Arbus had chosen such a large and rather awkward-handling camera to lug around the streets of New York.  It seemed important to know something of how she came to the decision to choose that camera system, so I bought Lubow's book.

Lubow's biography told me a lot more about Arbus' personal life than I felt I needed to know, but it did also provide quite a lot of information about her photographic techniques and decisions.  She got started in photography working with her husband, Allan, doing studio fashion work.  He did most of the lightng and camera work while Diane took on more of a directorial role, selecting costumes and creating the story lines for the photo shoots.  Both of them disliked fashion work; it paid the bills, but Allan really wanted to be an actor, and Diane moved toward working out of the studio with smaller cameras.

Arbus early on used a Nikon F, probably when she was developing her own style under the guidance of Lisette Model.  She next got a wide-angle Rollei, but ultimately replaced that with the Mamiya tlr which could accept interchangeable lenses.  The big flash which she usually attached to the camera gave her the rather stark look she favored, and it also permitted shooting fine-grained film at small apertures to get the wide depth of field and ultra-sharp images which essentially duplicated the high-definition which she had gotten with the studio view cameras.  In most of the pictures of Arbus showing her with a camera, it is the Mamiya, and it seems likely that camera accounted for most of her well known images.  One thing I thought particularly interesting about those pictures of her was that the strap of the Mamiya is adjusted  to the last position, bringing the camera up close to her face so that she just had to lean her head forward to achieve the final fine focus using the flip-up magnifier in the viewfinder.  Arbus expressed great enthusiasm for a Pentax 6x7 acquired toward the end of her career, but I don't recall Lubow identifying the subjects it was used for.

Arbus only learned to process her own black and white film very late in her career, and then mostly because it offered a financial advantage to a life that was always beset by economic anxiety.  She did make her own prints in the darkroom and was meticulous in maintaining very high quality standards to produce the final prints for display or for reproduction.  Even with those high technical standards and her unique artistic talents, she never made a comfortable living from her chosen profession.  She did get a couple substantial grants to support her work, and her unique abilities as a photographer were praised by many of her contemporaries including such luminaries as Avedon and Szarkowski.  However, she rarely got more than a hundred dollars for a print, even from the great museums of Europe and the U.S. which sought to add her work to their collections.

In regard to recognition in her lifetime, a 1967 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art mounted by John Szarkowski was the high point for Arbus.  Szarkowski's aim was to introduce the museum-going public to an emerging trend in fine art photography which focused on highly personal, idiosyncratic portrayals of life as opposed to the agenda-driven work of earlier documentarians who marched to the tunes devised by mass media editors.  The New Documents show also featured the work of Lee Friedlander and Gary Winogrand, but it was Arbus' confrontational style that captured the attention of public and critics alike.

I was not at the opening, but I did get to view the New Documents, 1967 exhibit at MOMA.  I had just finished a course in commercial photography and I was taking a stab at getting started in the field.  I sold a few pictures to newspapers and a portrait session with the children of friends had earned me a membership to the Museum of Modern Art.  My memory of the exhibit is pretty dim all these years later, but I do recall being greatly impressed by the powerful, unique and large images in the gallery devoted to Arbus.  Lubow mentions that Arbus liked to lurk in the background at the exhibit, listening to comments on her pictures by the exhibit crowd.  So, I might have been elbow-to-elbow with the artist at some point.  Of course, I had no idea at the time what Arbus looked like, and I really did not have the preparation at that point to really appreciate the importance of her work.

A 2005 exhibit in Scottsdale many years after Arbus' death found me better prepared to appreciate her contributions to the art of photography.  The show was very nicely organized and mounted.  Arbus' big prints were placed high on the wall and their impact in that setting was extraordinary.  What came through very clearly was the fact that her images were the end product of a uniquely intense engagement with her subjects.  She always got very close to the people she photographed, and she made many pictures, often over a period of hours and sometimes in multiple sessions over years.  From the large number of exposures she made of each subject she chose to print just those few that seemed to extract the essential qualities of her subjects, many of whom resided in society's ragged margins.  I had been alerted to the Scottsdale show by the fine, Phoenix-based photographer Michael Ging.  Another on line friend, Jorn Ake, saw what I think was the same show at the Met in NYC and wrote a very nice little critical review of it in the classic cameras forum.

In an effort to refresh my memories of the 1967 MOMA exhibit I acquired the book about the show published by the museum just this year.  It turns out that a catalog was not produced at the time of the exhibit.  The MOMA book is therefore an effort to accomplish what I am trying to do -- to piece together a picture from a disparate collection of memories, halftone reproductions and old critical reviews.  One does get a sense of the times and personalities, but the pictures from the exhibit reproduced in the book fall unsurprisingly short of the effect of the originals seen as they hung on the gallery walls.  To get a little closer to that  I will look for a copies of the three volumes produced by Aperture Magazine on Arbus published after her death in 1971.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

El Tecolote

Tecolote Mesa is fifteen miles west of Grants, New Mexico.  The name is associated with a geological feature on the mesa's rim thought to resemble the eyes of an owl.  On the slopes below there are the thousand-year-old remains of Casamero Pueblo.   The site, administered by the BLM, is a few miles off of Highway 40.  We have been the only visitors during our two visits.

The main pueblo structure is said to have contained about twenty rooms and possibly a second story with a few more.  A nearby depression marks the site of a large unexcavated kiva.  Casamero is one of the southernmost outliers of the Chaco Canyon complex, which is about forty miles to the north.

The camera used to make these pictures was my FED 1g, fitted with the 35mm Jupiter 12 and an accessory viewfinder.  This Barnack-style bottom loader has made some nice pictures for me over the years, and also provided me with numerous opportunities to learn about camera maintenance and repair.  I have had the shutter crate out of the camera several times, the last to try to figure out how to keep it from chewing up film.  I've also had to adjust the shutter tension and seal up some pinholes in the shutter curtains.  I did manage to get through a whole roll of film on this occasion with no advance or framing problems, but I am seeing some evidence again of shutter capping in the form of dark edges on the images.  Judging by the near complete absence of paint on the camera's back it has had a long and productive life, so it is not surprising that some of the fixes are breaking down.  Luckily I have several other Soviet-era rangefinder cameras including a Zorki 2C which functions perfectly, so I am still able to easily put to use my fine FED, Jupiter and Industar lenses.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Parade's End

I had no better results processing Rerapan in Rodinal than I did with HC-110.  Also, the film jammed in the camera near the end of the roll; I had to cut it out in the dark bag and broke the plastic spool in the process.  Given the price-per-roll, that is likely the end of my experimentation with this product.   Still, I tend to like about anything I get out of the Foth Derby.  The camera seems to provide me a portal to a time and experience that would otherwise remain just out of reach.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

the color

The auto-exposure, auto-focusing and the wide-angle lens of the Olympus Infinity Stylus make it a good tool for photographing events like the Marigold Parade.  I got less than optimal performance from it because I was rushing around shooting rather indiscriminately as the parade got underway.  I was also surprised when I processed the roll to find a couple of unfocused shots and one that was very under-exposed.  I've been shooting the little Olympus for years, and I think the battery is likely in need of replacement.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Retratos de Muertos

I took three cameras to the 2017 Marigold Parade in Albuquerque's South Valley.  A roll of Tri-X in the Leica IIIa was used up in minutes.  Last year's parade had a big political component just before the election.  This year, it was just a lot of people having a great time.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017


My best, most-used cameras are in a glass front case.  One morning recently as I walked near the cabinet I heard a faint murmuring sound coming from the inside.  I could not see anything moving among the cameras, but the noise persisted.  I put my ear up against the side of the cabinet and I could then distinctly hear a chorus of small voices.  They were chanting "we need a Leica... we need a Leica...".
     I was astounded and, of course, one cannot ignore such a singular phenomenon.  I immediately went to my computer and began searching the big auction site.

I found a 1936  Leica IIIa body nearing the end of its listing with no bidders.  The asking price was about half what the model often commands.  The seller's description stated that the camera had been recently serviced and was working perfectly.

When the camera arrived I was pleased to see that its appearance supported the seller's assertions. There was a little brassing on the bottom plate, but the outer covering and the shutter curtains were new.  The shutter action was very smooth and sounded good at all speeds.  I mounted one of my Soviet M39 lenses, an Industar 22, then and shot and processed a quick 24 frames of TMAX to verify that the shutter was working fine and there was no unevenness in the frame spacing.

For the second roll through the IIIa I used my Jupiter 12 lens to shoot a roll of Kentmere 100, paying more attention this time to gaining familiarity with the camera's controls, and shooting a variety of subjects at different distances to achieve a sense of proper parallax allowances.  I processed the Kentmere in HC 110-B and was happy with the results.

The last shot of my cat is a tight crop of the image that was made with the Jupiter 12 wide open at f2.8, showing the good performance that lens can deliver.

Since I am using the same Leica Thread Mount lenses that I use with my Zorki and FED cameras I do not expect any significant differences in the quality of the images made with the Leica from those out of the Soviet cameras.  However, it is a real pleasure to handle and operate a camera that was made with the finest materials and best craftsmanship available in its day.