Looking back on a lifetime of pictures shows how my photography has -- and hasn't -- changed.
Lacking an updated photo encyclopedia, I have found the next best thing is a library of back issues of photo magazines. I've collected 50 years' worth, all bound and indexed, and I often have my nose stuck within, searching for specific information.
|B&W, then COLOR: Musician, Petan, Nepal. Nikkormats with 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor on Plus-X Pan (top), 1/125 sec at f/8; 43-86mm f/3.5 Nikkor on Agfachrome 50, 1/60 sec at f/8 (bottom).|
Looking up facts this way has the same danger as using the internet: I find myself browsing in some fascinating detour that has nothing to do with what I'm looking for. Too often, I come across my own writing from years ago, which now seems completely foreign to me -- did I write that? I usually agree with myself, but the phrasing and grammar I used seem odd. Technically it says what I wanted to say, but not how I would say it today. Would I do it better now? Of course, I convince myself.
Recently I began to think about my photographs. Do I shoot differently now? Am I better or worse? I'll look back at my older work and compare.
Of course, equipment has played a part. In my earliest serious photographic days at Modern Photography magazine as an associate editor, post-World War II, new photo equipment was scarce. Having become enamored of Fritz Henle's beautifully composed, square pictures, always shot with Rolleiflexes, I bought a used 1939 Minolta Automat 120 twin-lens reflex and then, when it came available, a Rolleiflex with 75mm Schneider Xenar lens. But I soon grew disillusioned with it.
Rather than seeing the world at eye level, I was granted a bellybutton view of my human subjects, especially close ones, as a result of the cameras' waist-level, ground-glass finders. My Rollei, fine for shooting children straight on, looked upwards at the nostrils and jowly chins of adults. No wonder Henle's book covers always showed him using the Rollei's eye-level viewfinder!
Then came what can only be called f/1.4 madness. Photojournalists Carl Mydans and David Douglas Duncan discovered in Japan what they reported as the incredible quality of Japanese optics. We editors bought Nikon S 35mm rangefinder cameras with 50mm f/1.4 Nikkors and busied ourselves handholding in very low existing light for photos at f/1.4 and 1/8 sec on Kodak Super-XX film. Often, we got nothing much more than thin negatives which barely made prints on No. 5 contrast paper.
I was saved from this fruitless pursuit after a visit to the Exakta Camera Company. When I looked through the pentaprism of the 35mm Exakta VX with 58mm f/2 Zeiss Biotar, I was home at last with a single-lens reflex and its eye-level viewing. Unlike most of the cameras I'd had previously, which focused to about 3 feet, the Biotar close-focused to 18 inches. I often used that distance for portraiture following two edicts of a noted photo teacher and photographer, Sid Grossman:
1 Get as close as possible to subjects but don't leave anything essential out.
2 Examine every edge of the viewfinder and make it work for you.
These not only proved useful for portraiture, but became my general rules for all serious pictures.
|Get in tight, work the viewfinder: Cheyenne second-grader Warren Yellow Hair, Ashland, MT. Nikkormat with 105mm Nikkor on Tri-X Pan, 1/60 sec at f/2.5; existing light.|
When I was assigned by my editor to cover the making of an Alfred Hitchcock movie in Canada (I Confess, with Montgomery Clift and Anne Baxter), the director glanced at my Exakta and asked to look at it. Peering through the viewfinder at the image cast by my newly acquired 90mm f/1.8 Angenieux lens, Hitchcock was fascinated. "Very interesting," he said.
In Hitchcock's next movie, Rear Window, with James Stewart and Grace Kelly, Stewart watched the goings-on in a neighbor's apartment through an Exakta SLR with a telephoto lens!
Not too surprisingly, a few years later I fell under the spell of a Nikon F with a 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor lens. It became my principal lens, together with a 35mm f/2.8 Nikkor and a 43-86mm f/3.5 Nikkor zoom.
Noting that Alfred Eisenstaedt shot both color and black-and-white for Life magazine, I asked him how he decided which subjects needed color and which black-and-white. "First, I shoot with one, and then with the other," he replied.
For a long time afterward, until color became primary for me, I followed his example, shooting black-and-white with the 105mm lens and color with the zoom.
I will spare you this month a catalogue of all the film and digital camera systems and lenses I've used since. The whys and wherefores would take up at least another column. But I did carefully go over my photographs of the past 40 years or so, and have discovered that since finding that Exakta SLR, nothing has really changed in my pictures for better or worse. Grossman still rules.