January 20: It is a truism to say that when we view a photograph we are seeing the subject from same angle and elevation as the lens; but that fact is crucial to our comprehension of the image, even if only subconsciously registered.
Four photographers, Foncie Pulice (1914-2003), Manuel Carrillo (1906–1989), Esther Kroon (1966–1992), and Iwata Nakayama (1895–1949), whose lives relate to today’s date, provide vivid demonstrations.
Canadian Foncie Pulice was a street photographer of the older persuasion; one who took pictures of the passersby, handing them a ticket that he hoped would entice them to return for prints. Born sometime in 1914, he died on this date in 2003 after a lifetime standing on the same patch in Granville Street in Vancouver touting for custom, six days a week in heat or cold, and often at night.
In his teens he started out in the 1930s shooting for one of the number of street photographers then operating. He set up his own Foncie’s Fotos in 1946, making business from the fact that during wartime photographic supplies were rationed, while pictures of loved ones to send to enlisted soldiers were much sought; he provided his customers with treasured keepsakes, with family pictures for their otherwise scant albums and to post overseas.
His camera, now preserved in the Vancouver Museum, was an eccentric home-made Heath-Robinson device, designed to look high-tech and ‘space-age’, and fixed, with its electronic flash unit, on an army surplus aluminium box enhanced with a lit sign announcing ‘ELECTRIC PHOTOS’ in ‘moderne’ sans-serif italic neon style plastic capitals with the obligatory lightning-flash. This did signify the modern innovation connected to his camera; electronic flash. By 1940, the first electronic flash units available commercially were marketed for studio use. Shortly after the end of WWII, the first portable units came on the market and by 1948 they were being manufactured by 36 companies. Foncie, being frugal and having made his own camera, took advantage of the plans for d.i.y. units published in the popular and professional photo magazines to build a flash and its battery into the cabinet.
The camera was modified so that he could pack as many shots of the thousands who passed by onto a movie-length roll of 35mm film; each shot is a half-frame vertical that tightly accommodates a pedestrian figure. The back of the box had arm holes so that he could change the film quickly to make an estimated 15 million photographs over his 40-year career.
Each night in the basement of his Oak Street home he processed and made contact prints, then early the next day his wife Ann would let his customers select them and, whether locals and tourists, they could use the claim ticket he had smilingly handed them to buy their prints (three for 50 cents in the 1940s).
His camera was fixed at waist level and could only be tilted slightly to fit the full-length figure. The elevation is that favoured by fashion photographers because is emphases the costume, and that, and the tilt he used enhanced the subjects’ stature.
He was expert at catching subjects’ eye so that they would smile back at him, and would capture them in mid-step so that they looked energetic and slender. The fill-in flash assisted in freezing the action and separating the subject from the background; it can be seen harshly reflected by the man’s glasses above. Undercutting the smiles, the newspaper headline ‘…NEDY DE…’ in the same photo dates it to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, 6 June 1968. Pulice destroyed his negatives as a matter of course, having no reason nor space to preserve them, apart from those made between May and June of that year.
However, after public appeal hundreds have contributed their family’s Foncie’s Fotos to the museum for digitisation. The consistency of the series, with their homogenous subject matter and fixed perspective, makes these innocent street photographs an invaluable record of the demographics and evolving Vancouver urban fabric, changing fashion, attitudes and relationships.
By contrast, one might consider the mobility of framing in the work of Mexican Manuel Carrillo (*1906) who died on this date in 1989.The influence of American Modernist photographers and artists of his time, and of his better-known compatriot and contemporary Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002), is evident in this extreme point of view.
The aerial angle presents the tops of subjects’ heads, but with sufficient offset to allow a reading of the faces; the curiosity of the young boy and the protectiveness of the mother, both enclosed within a continuous ribbon of cloth and embraced by the square camera frame. The top-down view gives privileged entrée into that intense maternal relationship, encompassed by the geometry of the tiled background that contrasts with the cloth, set at an angle that enhances the figures’ complementary emotional impulses.
Aside from aesthetics, the politics of Carrillo’s photographic work is anchored to his own cultural identity as a Mexican by birth and as an American through his crossing into that country at the age of 16, when in 1922 he left Mexico for New York, becoming an Arthur Murray waltz and tango champion. When in 1930 he returned to Mexico City, he remained until his retirement. Taking up photography in 1955, he joined, at age 49, the Club Fotografico de Mexico and the Photographic Society of America, and within 5 years held his first international exhibition titled, Mi Pueblo (“My People”) in 1960 at the Chicago Public Library. Like influential writers, photographers, and artists, such as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Carrillo identified with Mexicanidad, a nationalist and anti-colonial cultural movement that emerged in the 1920s after Mexico’s Revolution. He was inducted as an honorary citizen of EL Paso, Texas in 1980 by the Photographic Society of America.
A fatal robbery at gunpoint in Guatamala on this date in 1992 ended, at just 25 years, the tragically short and promising life of the photographer Esther Kroon (*1966).
She left behind an archive of photographs of children she had taken in Barcelona in 1988 and in her native Amsterdam (1989-1990), and frequent throughout is the ants-eye angle of view that she favoured for her small subjects. This has the result above of foregrounding the prettily dressed friends with out-of-focus plant life, while in the background looms a crane attached to warehouse facade that it is in the process of demolishing.
This was a style that she began to develop in 1987 in the fun of photographing her fellow design students at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. Finding herself more interested in photography than graphics she then did a course in portrait photography in the Amsterdam Centre for Photography.
There she was taught by Rineke Dijkstra (*1959) who had just completed her studies (1981–86) at the Rietveld Academy in Amsterdam and to whom, after a year, she became personal assistant and friend. Together they traveled to the international photography festival in Arles. Dijkstra’s own use of fill-flash and a low angle is evident in this early image (right) that she made on a visit to Germany (Dijkstra’s distinctive beach portraits of teenagers were to come 5 years later).
From this work Kroon saved for a Rolleiflex camera (6×6) and spent three winter months in 1988 in Barcelona making street portraits of mainly Roma children. Dijkstra’s subject is also young, but is in her early teens, while Kroon devoted her attention to the world of children and settled on the monochrome print as the most appropriate depiction of the settings they inhabited.
In Barcelona she developed a formula that she was to refine; an at- or near-ground-level position with on-camera flash against the backdrop of children in their impoverished neighborhood, sometimes with mothers or family. The leaf shutter of the twin-lens camera enables her to expose for the flash but to underexpose the background.
Such an exposure setting was a hallmark of Diane Arbus (1923-1971), and a monograph on whom Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph (1972) accompanied an exhibition at Museum of Modern Art, New York disseminated and popularised her work as much in The Netherlands as elsewhere. Kroon’s imagery, while it may refer to Arbus, and though it has a similar forcefulness, is distinguished by her more benign attitude to her subjects.
When she submitted the Roma portraits to the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) she was awarded a stipend. With it she bought a Hasselblad and in the summer of 1989 was commissioned by the Municipal Archive (now City Archives) for a series Photos for / from the City; photographs of children playing in the Bijlmermeer, the Vondelpark or De Mirandabad. Here here flash emphases the lustre of water and perspiration on warm skin.
In August 1989 after she had resumed here studies, this time at the Rietveld Academy, and during the Vie et Lumière Festival in Spaarnwoude she approached traveling Roma and their large families.
In the same year the Cultureel Centrum de Moor, Amsterdam, showed Portretten van Esther Kroon, 24 March – 21 April 1989, announcing her arrival as a significant Dutch photographer. She put an alternative use of flash to use in engaging, contemplative portraits against the landscape in a High Renaissance style in which the artificial lighting is directed from the right and is more evenly balanced with the Arcadian backgrounds.
These she printed in Dijkstra’s darkroom, and they point the way to new developments in her work, a break with the Dijkstra influence, which becomes apparent in 1991, when Esther Kroon and fellow student Hatta Fokker were awarded a six-month exchange program with the Cooper Union in New York. Kroon recorded their double portraits in colour and New York serves as a backdrop. We see in them how important backgrounds are in her work, as they demonstrate that crucial triangulation between subject, lens and ground that formulates point-of-view, in her case one that is mature and so deeply empathetic in one so young.
Here the friends stand bookending a view of Niagara Falls. Their poses are identical and are not only a response to the cold but transform the couple into caryatids. The equalised exposure between the viewing enclosure in which they stand and the sky and the Falls presses space in upon itself and renders painterly the iconic landscape. The effect is achieved with just one flash head, a Metz 60CT1 that is seen protruding (detail below) into the right, and no doubt was intended to be cropped later to make a symmetrical, taller vertical.
In the context of subsequent events, a large clock face becomes a portent in another double portrait from the Cooper Union series below; on January 17, 1992 Esther flew alone from New York to Guatamala City to meet a portrait photographer Luis González Palma (*1957).
She stayed two nights and a day with Palma and his wife. Palma had been exhibited in Guatamala, then Mexico and Texas, in the same year as Kroon had shown her first solo in Amsterdam, and since then he had been exhibited in Maison de L’Amerique Latine, Paris, France (1990); in Spain and at Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles, France in 1991; and in the year of her visit his work was to hang in the Bienal de Sao Paulo in Brazil, the Fifth Fotobienal de Vigo, Spain and Fotobienal de Vigo, Spain.
The couple took Kroon to Antigua by car and the next day, 20 January, she fell victim to a robbery in broad daylight, shot by the men who took her camera and money.
The very first photograph in the book shows a nude self-portrait, and as she is so often compared to Francesca Woodman (1958–1981) who took her own life at 22, the question of what either might have achieved arises.
Kroon’s is an outward-looking portrait, carefully lit but matter-of-fact, where Woodman’s are self-absorbed. As in the New York double portraits her gaze is steadfast, appearing to appraise the unseen viewer out of a curiosity about human nature and relationships.
This is a long post which I hope does some justice to Kroon’s truncated career, but contemplate with me what might happen if several points of view were to overlap in one image. There is space here only to look at one example by Japanese photographer Iwata Nakayama (中山 岩太, born 1895) who died on this date, January 20, in 1949 and who well deserves these 2000 words to himself.
He experienced Western photography as an overseas student of California State University, sent there by the Japanese government in 1918 as a trainee for the Agricultural Ministry. He discontinued his studies to establish his own photography business, Laquan Studio, in New York. He traveled around Europe, staying in Paris where he came to know Man Ray (1890–1976) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) and returned to Japan in 1927.
A propagator of Shinko Shashin (New Photography), he was a master of photomontage and here employs multiple printings of ‘straight’ still-life of pipe and ashtray on one uptilted plane superimposed with an oblique negative photogram of a glass, a half-hidden portrait and distant theatre photograph. The effect of these combined, overlapping angles of view is deliberately unsettling.