Went for walk in the city today and arriving at Town Hall noticed a larger than usual police presence, a sound system been set up, and tables with communist newspapers displayed. Scattered around were stacks of placards at the ready: ‘system change not climate change’ – ’43 percent not enough’ – and something about capitalism. A young chap was trying to gather signatures on a petition, but didn’t appear to be having much success. The 43 percent refers to the current Australian federal government’s 43 percent reduction target by 2030.
I walked on, got a laughable quote on a full-frame camera body and in a major bookstore across the road from the camera store, discovered how ignorant its salespersons are of male authors and playwrights. Must have something to do with the current high-school curriculum.
Wandered back to Town Hall where the climate demo was getting underway with a woman screeching into a microphone that the land doesn’t belong to us. OK, I thought, but would that be relevant if Earth were about to get whacked by an asteroid of the size that blasted the dinosaurs out of existence?
I spotted a few familiar faces in the growing crowd of protesters, thought about saying hello, maybe break out the point-and-shoot, but decided to continue on to Central Station. On the train, gently in the ear buds an angelic voice sings Vivaldi’s “Cum Dederit”. Suburbs passing by my window, the backs of people immobile and silent, should I die of old age?
I mentioned plans to do some photography on my next bikepacking trip which will be south down to Snowy Mountains region and am currently reminding myself what all the buttons do on my DSLR. Not sure I’ll take the thing with me as it together with lens, etc is bulky and heavy but anyway, if I don’t then for sure I’ll spot a landscape worthy of the most tatty of chocolate box covers and regret not having it, or there will be a bunch of galloping wild horses, and I’ll kick myself for not having the 300 mm lens. But, there will also be those long climbs where slowly cracking along in a granny gear, you know exactly how full is the 5 liter water container.
I would never put a landscape photograph on my living room wall, if I had such a thing as a wall I could put a picture on, because landscapes I find are better when painted with oil paint on a canvas. There’s an inherent fault with most landscape photography and it’s that there is too much detail, most often too much color saturation, and too much pin sharp focus. It might surprise most people but even with 20/20 vision, only ten percent of what you see is in sharp focus. If presented with a vast landscape in perfect focus, the brain will immediately determine the image is unrealistic and more so if there is too much detail and again in perfect focus. To our brain anything that is perfectly still is dead, a fact known to 3D animators who apply a small amount of movement to anything living and that is still, cat, human, snake, etc, what they call a ‘moving hold’.
Artists where well aware of this in the past and if we look closely at a Caravaggio or Rembrandt, we see that what appears to be detailed is in fact painted loosely and with often fairly think brush strokes, creating an impression that an eye or lips smiling are in movement and not frozen in a dead expression. Photographers have managed this, I was recently looking at pictures shot by Helmut Newton and a young Stanley Kubrick trying to figure out why these two masters of visual communications managed to bring more life into their pictures than others? In the picture below you could assume a mistake of aperture made by a young and inexperienced photographer but no, it’s the work of someone exceptionally gifted.
The photographs are of a New York shoeshine boy called ‘Mickey’ with whom I read somewhere the then seventeen-year-old Kubrick spent the day documenting the boy’s life. Here we see Mickey busy shining a man’s shoes, something out of frame appears to have caught his attention, or is he simply day dreaming, looking into the empty space of the street? Movement is central to bringing this picture to life, and we see how Kubrick achieved this with shutter speed and depth of field. Only the man’s legs, his hand that could be saying ‘Hey – pay attention to what you’re doing sunny boy’ and Mickey’s shoeshine box are in focus. Mickey is slightly out of focus, his hands are motion blurred, and his right foot appears to to be not only out of focus but also has moved slightly during exposure.
Imagine the same picture if Mickey were in pin sharp focus, it simply wouldn’t work as well. What was Mickey thinking? Maybe he spotted a kid his age, in a posh school uniform, entering an expensive department store? The slight blur encourages us to rest our eyes on Mickey and think about him as a living human, one removed from our reality, but a child with emotions, of a lower socioeconomic condition, and we can wonder what his dreams might have been when the picture was taken in 1947, and what might have become of him?
Another Mickey picture below and in it we again see good use of depth of field and interestingly how Kubrick creates a picture photographers might today say, ‘tells a story’. I think ‘tells a story’ does not really apply to a still image, rather than ‘tell a story’ what this picture does is again give us the opportunity to think about, in this instance, the life of Mickey and his friend. Their story maybe, but it’s not told, we imagine it ourselves with the elements the photographer provides us.
The background is slightly out of focus but sufficiently clear to tell us a circus is in the neighborhood, which is something children in those days would have got excited about, and so these are average children. But how does Kubrick avoid this simply being a static picture of two children standing in front of a circus poster? Notice the second boy has his hand on Mickey’s and how the added dynamic created by what would have been cheeky to the point of near unacceptable at the time, is visible in the two boys’ expression. It humanizes them and creates a picture that goes beyond simply recording their likeness, and it allows us to connect emotionally with them.
OK – Newton, who when living in Melbourne was a friend of my Mum. There’s even a few shots he took of her in a shoebox in her attic. Go Mum.
The picture below would today be classified as ‘sexist’ and sent to the incinerator, it was taken in 1986 for the Pirelli calendar, but remained unpublished until… I think, 2014? Anyways, no argument Helmut was one of photography’s greats. And this picture is a good example of his mastery of the medium.
Now, now, drag your eyes away from the young woman’s bottom, it’s not what we are concerned with right now.
Newton is renowned for his advertising and fashion magazine pictures which often feature exceptionally beautiful young women, as my Mum was. I find the picture a great example of how he emphasizes class, wealth and sophistication by using contrasting elements within the picture, lighting, and subtle use of depth of field. He also, and like young Kubrick, gives us elements with which we can create our own imagined narrative, maybe if we like the young woman, how we might help her start the Vespa? She does look a bit girlishly lost, and that’s of course no accident. It’s in fact so cliched it’s near comical. As with the first picture of Mickey, she appears to be distracted or thinking of something, again this is a humanizing component that creates the possibility of connection.
We all know the stereotypical image of the brand new and shiny Italian supercar, Ferrari, Lamborghini, etc, in a Turin back alley, maybe parked in a dark and greasy garage you would at first glance, hesitate to allow working on your bicycle, but tunes the Ferrari with the passion of a lover. The image connotes all we consider Italian including a long history as an advanced civilization and excellence in the arts, architecture, technology and design. It includes that essential element required for a civilization to be considered truly advanced, and that is an element of decay and decadence. Newton captures all of that in this single image which only differs in that the Italian masterpiece of sophisticated design and engineering, is represented by the young woman.
This picture would not work if the Vespa rather than been old and battered, and probably difficult to start, was a new and top of range Ducati. The background is slightly out of focus and only tells us what we need to know about the location and nothing more that could distract. The Vespa is typical of what a working-class Italian of low socioeconomic status uses as main transport and that is reinforced by the dents, scratched paint, and the box on the luggage rack. As such it is in stark contrast with the young woman whose sunglasses are probably worth more than the scooter. The Harley Davidson next to the Vespa, which expensive, slow, chewing-gum Yankee, and near agricultural in technology, could not be less Italian and its presence enhances the feeling of Italian cultural and technological supremacy the image seeks to convey.
Lighting is also important in this image, it’s fairly standard key and fill lighting and there is no need to comment beyond what I believe is a mistake, and that is what appears to be excessive lifting of the highlights on the young woman’s bottom. It wasn’t necessary, I doubt Newton would have done this except under duress from a picture editor wanting more sexy. Newton’s images are often loud in their sexual aspect but I think in this case he would not have made buttocks so obviously ‘in your face’. It brings the picture closer to ‘Biker Chick on Custom Harley’ typically found in service center lunchrooms. Otherwise, great work.
Yep, back up. Book as I previously said, is work-in-progress. Otherwise, waiting for warmer weather ahead of another bikepacking trip and reminding myself what all the DSLR’s buttons do as planning on some dreadful cliched landscape photography as well.
Link below to a recent paper arguing for more research into what the authors call ‘Climate Endgame’. That being research into worse-case scenarios that could result for example in a ‘Hothouse Earth’ situation in which no life can survive.