Foreshadowing

From the excellent Iconic Photos blog, describing a photo Duncan Cameron of a seal hunt.:

Photography as a medium is always at its most powerful when it deals with ‘anterior future’ — images which foreshadows a future event good or ill (but mostly ill), such as photos taken before executions, at firing squads, or in disaster zones. Cameron’s image is one such: the ice floes looked so spotless, the baby seal so innocent, and the longing look of its mother in the background so heartrending that the anterior future here was particularly cruel.

Elegy

I have a picture of a Catholic saint leaning on my computer as I write this. It was given to me by an Italian colleague, who rushed to get as I told her that my camera had disappeared – “It has always brought me luck”, she said.

This is the kind of reaction I have got when I told others about the disappearance of my camera: It prompted shock, then empathy, followed by the question how it could have happened. I don’t really know, I would say: I had stuffed the camera into coat my pocket, went to this bar, and when I left the building, the camera was gone. Was it stolen? Perhaps. Did I drop it into the snow before entering? Perhaps. Did the discovery make the blood in my veins freeze? Certainly.

When I was growing up, my father had his trademark way of mitigating the pain of breaking an object. “Es ist nur ein Gebrauchsgegenstand”, he would say – “just a thing you use”; implying that wear and tear would whittle down even the most prized possessions. It’s a healthy attitude that I reminded myself of on the subway ride home, fists clenched in my empty coat pockets, knowing that a camera could easily be replaced.

I’ve lost a number of things over the years: Keys, glasses, sunglasses. I’ve also dropped a camera lens down a ravine and shattered multiple iPhone displays. “You can’t have nice things”, my friend Beth once told me, with a mix of pity and amusement on her face. I had come to accept this, but the disappearance of the camera felt different: much more personal than the loss of any other object. I loved this tiny, powerful camera that felt not just like a marvel of engineering but also like an extension of my eye. I’ve never had anything that let me so perfectly capture what I was seeing – and thereby document what I was noticing or thinking about.

I am suddenly a photographer without a camera and I can’t help but wonder whether that paradox should mean something. It’s a forced reset that comes at a time when I was wondering how to take my photography to another level: How to elevate it from mere picture taking to the craft of stringing those pictures together.

The grand irony of this story is how I spent my time at that bar: I was killing an hour before meeting a friend, and so I wrote some emails and researched cameras on the internet. My quest to rethink photography had created the impulse to splurge money on an even fancier device. It’s a common trap to believe that you’ll be more creative with better gear, and certainly one that I’ve fallen into in the past. What I realize now is that there’s a flip side to my dad’s saying: “just a thing you use” doesn’t just mean using something until it breaks. But also means making the most of it – with a sense of purpose.

Weekend Reads

1. Far Away From Here
Teju Cole, about his half-year residency in Switzerland, which he spent traveling around the country, taking photos with a film camera, and pondering what makes one’s work good and a place home.

Along the way, I felt the constant company of doubt: my lack of talent, my impostor’s syndrome, my fear of boring others. Every once in a great while, there was finally a superb picture, but when I looked at it the following week, I would see that it actually wasn’t very good: too obvious, too derivative. Three thousand photographs and three thousand doubts.

Read in “Known and Strange Things”, and on the New York Times Magazine.

2. How I Got My Attention Back
Craig Mod writes about a struggle I am too familiar with: How to stay focused in an age of distraction. His strategy? Going away from the internet – or at least turning on Do Not Disturb.

There are a thousand beautiful ways to start the day that don’t begin with looking at your phone. And yet so few of us choose to do so.

Found on Backchannel.

“I guess I want to do the impossible and therefore I do nothing.”
– Tina Mondotti

The Empty Streets

Memories tend to blur, even after just a few days. In my head, our trip to Norway looks like one long sunrise and sunset, but thankfully I have the pictures to match those memories: Standing on Oslo’s windy opera building or down by its fjord, waking up to its empty streets on new year’s morning. Back in the grayness of Berlin’s winter, it’s very hard not to daydream about emigrating to Norway.

“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”
– Jorge Luis Borges

See also: Moments of 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.

The uncanny imagery of August Sander

Earlier this year, I stumbled upon a rather simply black and white image. It shows three young men, dressed in formal attire, and tilted hats, standing on an open field.

It’s a simple enough historic image, but it has a way of grabbing you: The white colors and the pale hands jump out at you, the dark suits hint at a lush velvet, and the facial expressions, solemn, doubtful, if slightly amused, are perfectly framed by the rim of the wide hats. If I didn’t know better, I’d consider it staged, taken with a modern camera before a painted backdrop, as the three gentlemen seem to hover on the sandy path they’re on, standing right at focal plane, with the background a delicious blur.

I saved the photo on my phone, but I had no idea who had taken it until a few days ago when I read an article by Teju Cole that briefly mentions the German photographer August Sander:

In the work Sander produced around and just following the First World War, he created a catalog of images that stood in for an entire generation in Weimar Germany. Farmers, cooks, stevedores, teachers, priests, and manual laborers were all represented in their full dignity, and Sander achieved something like a double-portraiture in each case, because each actual individual was at the same time a representative type.

I punched Sander’s name into Google and there the three gentlemen and their lopsided hats showed back up – theirs is a fairly iconic picture, it turned out. Sander took it in 1914 during that mammoth quest to portray his fellow countrymen and entitled it “Young Farmers”.

Ironically, the manner in which I stumbled upon this photo, more than a hundred years later, mirrored the words I quote above: The picture immediately seemed representative of something, if not of a compendium of work, then at least of the keen eye of a photographer who knew exactly what he was doing and how to work his camera.

I poked around for more of his pictures and found a surprising number of striking photos by Sander. Here’s his shot of “The Architect Hans Heinz Luttgen and his Wife Dora”:

I had gleaned this from looking at his photos, but I didn’t quite understand what caused that uncanny sensation in the first place – not until I read Katherine Tubb’s article for the Tate, which goes into the history of Sander’s project and the political surrounding it.

“(…) Sander sought to depict an old identity in a new world that could no longer accommodate it.”

Sander happened to take photos right as the world stood on the stoop of a new age. His Young Farmers were to walk right into an age of machines and industrial production, the architect’s wife stared right into a future that would roll back all the rights she had gained during the Weimar Republic. The world in Sander’s images is about to collapse, and maybe, just maybe, his subjects even had an inkling.