Friday, August 03, 2012

Flying In A Blue Dream

Greetings Shipmates.
Well that was a peculiar two weeks.
Me old Mog was soundly beaten in the 100 metre Kattomeat dash by a professional cat.
I thought Olympic sports were set up purely to demonstrate the beauty of amateurism? Certainly these days it seems far far away from the mores of olive eating, hair plaiting, naked men in the baking heat of the Med. For a cat of Mog's years, the competition was just too great and in the end he had no fun and came back to the ship with droopy whiskers and a sodden tail. Meanwhile the sleek, aerodynamic, lycra-clad cats took the prizes.
Mog feels scruffy and old and unloved, but as I said to him, there's no shame in it. If he hadn't held the torch for the Kattomeat dash for all these years, it would have slipped into the mire of bizarre and forgotten cat sports of yore. He felt consoled for a bit.
Then the sun shone and then it didn't and then it did, and we sat and chatted and he felt better.
He was particularly heartened by the massed chanting of:
"Mog-o! Mog-o! Mog-o! Mog-o!"
The Goode Shippe FB is now fully laden with new stores and to be honest yer Cap'n wants to be out and about, plying the seas of ether, discovering new lands for you to enjoy.
You need a break sometimes if only to consol a sad cat.


Sometimes things just happen.
I think they happen for a reason, and they can be strangely interlinked.
There I was at work a couple of weeks back handling some re-reissues of classic albums, when what jumps out at me but a photograph. Not just any photograph either. A wonderful, dreamy, gorgeous slice of colour and beauty. It was the cover of Flow Motion by Can and was made by their (now dead) guitarist Michael Karoli. 
Here it is and if this doesn't make yer jaw drop I don't know what will.

Mr. Karoli was not a professional photographer. He was an avid photography buff and above all, a highly influential and passionate musician from arguably one of the most important post-1960's German bands.
I dare you to try and research his photographs though - it is an impossible task.
So how has he got it so right?
I don't know, all I do know is that I would count myself proud to have produced such a work.
Remove the lettering and you have something that would (and should) grace any modern gallery in the world.

This shows an immense ability and an eye for a startling composition don't you think? It is so dreamy, and the use of colour is immensly calming and satisfying. 
It is a precursor of Lomography by some twenty years. I think it is fairly obviously either a double or treble exposure or a composite print as there appear to be three elements: the woman with her hand on her hip and the tree; the silhouette to the right; the overlay of flowing water.
However he made it, it is a masterful photograph and I just think it is incredible.
Isn't life wonderful when you have a serendipitous meeting . . .


Anyway, after mentally filing the above as a possible side excursion for a future FB, fast forward a couple of weeks. 
There I was minding my own business browsing the books in Waterstones on a very wet Monday when I encountered Ernst Haas. Not personally you understand as he too has been dead for a number of years. No it was a Thames & Hudson Photofile book.
I was aware of Haas's monochrome work, but not really his colour.
The cover of the book looked intriguing, so for want of something better to look at, I opened it and was punched straight in the face by one of the best colour photographs I had ever seen.

Western Skies Motel, Colorado 1978 - this may not look ideal on your monitor, but believe me, it is beautiful.

I don't know about you, but I am getting strangeness, intrigue and downright beauty off of it.
I am not a colour photographer. At all. It is just something I have never done, and yet now I find myself wanting to scratch that itch.
I've always had a sneaky admiration for some of the groundbreaking colour photographers like (the these days totally ignored) Eliot Porter and the highly regarded Stephen Shore. So why isn't Ernst Haas better known?
Although Kodachrome (slide film) had been around since 1935 and had been widely taken up by the photographer at large, it was difficult to reproduce, and was also virtually always reliant upon being returned to the manufacturer for processing.
The earliest possibilities of colour were pointed out in 1938 in a book called The Leica Book In Colour in which 72 photographs were reproduced, but it wasn't until the introduction in 1942 of Kodacolor (a chromogenic film - basically a mixture of silver halide and dye layers . . . colour negative film as we still know it) that things really started cooking. However, you have to remember that in 1942 the majority of the world was a theatre of War, and what with the privations afterwards, colour film and processing were costly. (Agfa had actually introduced the world's first chromogenic film in 1939, but there was a little matter of it being manufactured in a country trying to achieve world domination!)
Anyway, if you look at the situation thus (and interject the worst human conflict mankind has every known) it is easy to understand the delay in its uptake and what a huge impact affordable colour film and its processing and printing would have had back in the 1950's and 60's.
It wasn't just huge, it was genre changing.
(Just as an aside, even in the 1970's I remember large parts of London where there was nothing but craters surrounded by fencing. I would say it took roughly 30 years for a full state of recovery to occur in the metropolis).
When Mr.Haas started to make his mark, back in the 1950's, monochrome was pretty much the be-all and end-all. It was easy to reproduce and everyone did it, but a huge tidal shift occured (no doubt helped in part by Mr.Haas and other brave photographers [I'm thinking of the wonderous National Geographic guys]). The tidal shift was such that these days colour is the norm and monochrome photography is the unusual thing.
I mean, who takes pictures in black and white? It is as archaic as that black and white TV set your Gran dispensed with in the 1980's, and yet it is as vital and passionate art form as you could ever wish to encounter **
It was a natural shift though - it stands to reason - the world is a colourful place. Why not record it so?
For myself, the problem I find is that pretty much every image I view is colour. It is everything and everywhere. It is all-conquering and commonplace. And it can be (dare I say) a tad boring.
Now to me there is something wrong with that.
Certainly there are any number of colour practitioners out there who would no doubt beg to differ, but I think the problem is that colour has become so incredibly easy, and with that easiness has come familiarity, and we all know what the old saw says that breeds . . . .
Taking your film to be processed at the chemists or your local camera shop, or sending it away and waiting with anticipation for that stiff envelope to return, sort of broke down the mystique of colour, and in recent times, digital has taken away from that even further. You snap, you view on the tiny LCD or on a computer monitor, you delete, you save. Even the difficulty of making a colour print has vanished into the haze of pointless human activity - you can print your holiday snaps whilst yer Ma gets the shopping at Tescos for chrissakes!
Colour printing was difficult. Not only that, but go beyond what used to be 'amateur' additive printing into the heady world of dye transfer prints (which were the pinnacle of colour reproduction and were exhorbitantly prohibitive at the time and have virtually vanished now as Kodak [the only supplier of materials] ceased production of said materials back in the mid-90's) and you were looking at something that cost, not just in man hours but also a big hole in your wallet. With the advent of digital, most (if not all) workers in this time consuming and expensive process moved over to digital *** and the ubiquitous, bloody ink jet print. This being said the quality of colour IJ printing can be wonderful, and even advanced printers who used to practice the dark art of dye transfer now find themselves stating that their IJ prints are almost indistinguishable from the real thing - but they won't have the archival life, nor do they really have that rich other-worldly beauty that set a dye-transfer apart. I also think that the effort involved in DT printing must have embued itself into the final product somehow . . .
And it is now all gone; you just set your profile, load up your printer and click print.
There's as much craft skill as a chimp with a banana.
Everyone does it.
And familiar.


But all this is rather moving away from my original theme, namely a young Austrian man called Ernst Haas and his powerful vision.
Ernst's big break came when a photo-essay he made on a Rolleiflex was published in the magazine of the occupation forces, called Heute, in August of 1949.
It was entitled  Und Die Frauen Warten . . . (The Women Are Waiting) and was an incredibly moving essay on the repatriation of Austrian troops from the Russian front.
A large spread of 15 photographs over 8 pages culminated in the second photograph below.

It was obvious to all, there was only one way to go for someone with that sort of ability and it was up.
He was accepted that year by Magnum, the famous photographic agency, and moved to New York in 1951, quietly establishing himself as one of the world's foremost photographers. 
His work was widely published in LIFE, Vogue, Look, Esquire, Paris Match, Queen and Stern. 
LIFE printed their first ever colour spread (and a major Haas sequence) in Images Of A Magic City in 1953 - and one cannot underestimate the influence this would have had on the public at large.
Certainly colour had been used for covers and adverts and single images, but a spread like this was new.
Click this link:

The magic of Google books will take you to Part One. Page 108!
And the following edition too which continues it and also features a photo essay by my hero W.Eugene Smith:

Mr.Haas' work continues on Page 118, Eugene's on Page 165.
Now obviously the scans aren't great, but you'll get the idea.
As a small aside, Ernst pretty much only ever used Kodachrome for his colour work, and it shows - the colours the early versions of Kodachrome showed are to me the epitomy of good colour.
His book The Creation which was based upon his work with the director John Huston and the film The Bible, went on to sell 350 000 copies, which is an extraordinary number of books.
LIFE again, in 1958, devoted no less than 36 pages to a sequence of his work called Magic Color In Motion. (Notice too the use again of the word magic. It kind of shows how new and exciting colour was.)
Mr.Haas was the first person to exhibit colour photographs at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York in 1962 - a feat that would not be repeated until the William Egglestone exhibition some 14 years later.
Popular Photography Magazine listed him, in 1958, as one of the world's ten best photographers.
This isn't small potatoes, this is big stuff
Popular and populist, lauded by his peers, and yet now largely unknown (when I say that I mean just not spoken about in the same awed tones of the likes of the over-rated Egglestone). 
So how did this happen?
According to Haas was sidelined by Szarkowski, Steichen's successor as curator at MoMA.

"Though introducing Haas’ work to a large audience and a major milestone in the history of the medium it would not come to have the same effect on the development of the artist’s career. On the contrary: Haas' exhibition though planned by Edward Steichen (renowned photographer and curator of MoMA at the time) was in the end realised by his successor John Szarkowski. With this shift in curatorship, Szarkowski would enforce a different taste. Having the duty to complete Steichen’s idea, but keen to champion his own and dissimilar ideas, Szarkowski’s enthusiasm regarding the artist and the exhibition Ernst Haas - Color Photography was meek, the praise in his accompanying texts all but faint.

Steichen, once in favor of pictorialism, thus a subjective photography, valued Haas’ profound use of the camera, while Szarkowski on the other hand chose to favor a less embellished sentiment; a more hard edge modernist inspired American approach. It was this disregard and clashing of personal agendas that would ultimately and erroneously see Haas excluded from the canon of color photography; his indisputable talent became the victim of the cyclical debate of what art photography should be."

So there you go. An incredible photographer with a gifted vision, sidelined by art-speak and politics. Oh how the world never changes!
Repeatedly down-graded by the photo-cognoscenti, Mr.Haas became almost an after-thought in photographic history.
And yet the power moves on.
Steidl's book Ernst Haas - Color Correction and numerous bods like me on the net, are slowly trying to help his memory gain the reputation it deserves.
He should be uttered in the same breath as Adams and Weston, Steichen and Strand.
His almost surrealistic images and incredible sense of the use of simplicity and complexity in the same image, and above all his sense of colour, are profound.
I don't think I can look at colour photographs in the same light again without holding them up against this un-lauded Master.
Below are some images he made in New York, on Kodachrome, in the 1950's. 
The third of them takes me back to the start of this rather lengthy FB.

One can never know for sure, but if I were to bet on it, I would say that Mr.Karoli was incredibly influenced by Mr.Haas, and quite possibly by photograph number 3.
But who can say. All I know is that this all reads rather like Shooting the Past **** , and that it has been a pleasure to head off across country like this without anything being planned.
Colour photography can be rich and powerful, sensual and overwhelming, true and false. It can (if used carefully) be an enriching tool for the concerned photographer. You just have to be careful how you use it.
One day soon I will scratch that itch and load some colour film and see what happens, but all the time I will keep at the back of my mind Mr.Ernst Haas as the pinnacle of what you can do with it.
Don't you think he truly deserves to be more highly regarded?
Hope so.
Anyway, as usual, take care and stay dry.
Thanks for reading and as my friend Canadian Bob (who coincidentally grew up in 1950's New York) always says: Watch Out For The Signs.

** You have only to do a bit of a trawl on the 'net to discover that monochrome photography is not only alive and kicking, but is generally regarded as being the only serious form of photography

*** Hard. Damn hard!

**** About a photographic archive and starring Timothy Spall, it is one of the best dramas ever made by the BBC

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