Searching for Vincent

Finally managed to get my butt out of Maury for a few days, motion triggered by an invitation from my friends Mike and Martha to join them for a few days among the swells of St. Tropez.

First stop, Arles, where I thought I’d catch a few photo exhibitions from the Rencontres and stalk the ghost of Van Gogh. Most of what I wanted to see at the Rencontres had already closed—especially disappointing to miss a show of early work from Joel Meyerowitz, a photographer I’ve long admired—but I did get to a survey of Latin American photography that was interesting but marred by a terrible installation with inadequate lighting.

Bridges Across the Seine at Astières

On to the search for Vincent. The Fondation Vincent Van Gogh Arles had a small exhibit of eight paintings of portraits of ordinary people and field workers from the Bührle collection that nicely traced the development of his modern style of short brushstrokes and saturated colors. Segue to Alice Neel, a “painter of modern life”, left wing New York from about 1940-1970. Mostly portraits, they are more artifice than documentary and led me out into the streets to resume the search for Vincent – with cocktails.

John Perrault, 1971 by Alice Neel
Andy Warhol by Alice Neel

Found both on the terrace of the Hotel Nord-Pinus: Cocteau, Picasso, bullfighters, and fashion designers in historical photos, a lovely Negroni in my glass, and Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night just across the Place du Forum. Tourists like me fill the streets, restaurant terraces cover the Place and overwhelm the statue of Frédéric Mistral, while the café at night offers an €18 Van Gogh salad, still this is a remarkably pleasant place to sit and sip and make notes for a new novel and plans to move to Paris.

Arles: Place du Forum

The streets of Arles are quiet on my way back to my hotel, the tourists have retired for the night and the ghost of Van Gogh is silent.

Arles

A drive north and east to the village of Grimaud, which was the seat of the Grimaldi family before they went off to Monaco and lured a movie star out of Hollywood to become a princess and live in a castle. The villa was almost as nice and the aesthetic shifted from Van Gogh to Hockney.

Villa in Grimaud

A couple of days of luxury with a group of accomplished and interesting people wasn’t hard to take.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Paris, 31 March

I can’t walk two blocks in this city without stumbling into someone’s photo- op.

Place des Vosges

Paris hasn’t changed very much. Armed soldiers on guard at major monuments but no one seems to be paying much attention to them. Parisians go about their daily business and populate the cafes after work as they always have. The crowds seem younger but that’s probably just my aging perspective.

Déjeuner au Seine

I’ve been looking at the ads in the windows of realty offices and while it’s hard to tell much about what’s really available, it appears that rents are just a little more than half as much as San Francisco apartments. I saw what looked like a lovely large studio on the Rue Jacob in the 6th for €1250 per month. If such places truly exist, I’ll seriously look at moving here. Always loved it, always felt at home here. Carried that a little too far yesterday when I gave some tourists very iffy directions to the Pompidou Center in my best French accent. They may have found it by now.

A few noticeable changes: there seems to be an alarming proliferation of bagel shops, and it appears Prius taxis now outnumber Mercedes. I haven’t found a connection yet, my investigation hindered by a preference for baguettes and the Metro, but I will continue independent observation and check in with David Lebovitz on the matter.

I take this picture every time I come to Paris. From the same spot on the Pont des Arts, different hours of the day, different times of the year. It always pleases me but always seems to lack a special quality of light that define the best images of Paris. Henri Cartier-Bresson has a version that’s really special. I’ll keep trying.

Ile de la Cité
Ile de la Cité

Paris, 29 March

A busy day at the Palais Royal, one of my favorite places in this lovely and still livable city.
Originally the home of Cardinal Richelieu, it housed royalty until the revolution, and many notables since, including Colette and Cocteau (not in the same apartment).
There are two distinct sections enclosed by offices, the Comedie Francaise, and apartments. The beautiful gardens, bursting with spring, bring out office workers, students, and box lunches. An art installation called Les Confidents by Michel Goulet with Francois Massut consists of linked chairs with fragments of poetry carved into their backs, adding art to lunch.


In the Cour d’Honneur is a site-specific artwork by Daniel Buren called Les Deux Plateaux which is a favorite location for tourists, fashion photo students, and me.

And of course, a place for pétanque:

©2017 Ron Scherl

Le Jour des Photos du Mariage

A beautiful day for a walk turned out to be a beautiful day for wedding photos. That wasn’t part of the original plan but how could I know? We must take advantage of the gifts that come our way. I was walking to the Metro at Hotel de Ville when I encountered the first couple of the day in the little park behind Notre Dame.

Notre Dame
Notre Dame

They moved on, and soon disappeared into the crowd around the cathedral, but I had the theme for the day.

I took the Metro to Pyrénées, planning to explore the Belleville neighborhood, which is showing some obvious signs of gentrification: lots of stroller-pushing young couples and artisan chocolate shops. Are all cities evolving in the same way?

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

I walked on to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, a beautiful place I’d never been before, with mountains, lakes, bridges, and autumn color, all in the midst of Paris. There are even places where it seems to be acceptable to sit on the grass, a rarity in Paris parks.

Came upon my second couple on a bridge over the lake. The groom is present but he knows his place.

Couple Number Two
Couple Number Two

The third group was the best: this was the real deal, a wedding, not just a photo call and suddenly, I was the photographer. I stopped to watch, I had a camera that doesn’t make phone calls, I smiled, they asked, I used their camera, and shot one more for me.

The Real Deal
The Real Deal
Number Three
Number Three

Encountered couple number two again in a different location as the light was fading.

One for the Groom
One for the Groom

Shooting weddings is hard work. I earned a glass and a petit repose at a café along the Canal St. Martin.

Cafe Sitting
Cafe Sitting

©2015 Ron Scherl

Reading Aloud

The hardest part of the transition from photographer to writer is mastering the difference in the creative process.

In many types of photography the creative act is instantaneous. To reduce it to its most basic Cartier-Bresson decisive moment: see it, shoot it. Of course, there’s a lot that must happen before that moment in order to be in position to capture it, but the act of creativity really does take place in an instant. This is true of almost any journalistic type of photography but also holds for portraiture, fashion, even landscapes; any time the subject is alive, or changing light is an element.

Even when there’s a great deal of pre-production preparation and post-production processing and elements of creativity are spread throughout the process, even then, the critical creative act is the instant of releasing the shutter.

Only still life photography is exempt from this and only when the lighting is fully controlled. Maybe that’s why the French call it nature morte.

The act of writing a novel is a very different process.

Larry Walker sent me a quote from William Faulkner on the subject:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

That was certainly true of my first novel – but then the work began and hasn’t yet been completed. The creative process evolves from writing to editing and the number of revisions mounts at an alarming rate. It amazed me how often I could revise the same text and still find absolute clunkers that had to go. I would repeat the process until I hated every word then take a break and ask a friend to read it, after which I could admit that not every word was worthless and revise yet again.

Now, I’ve revised my revision process. I found that when I had trouble with a passage, reading it aloud would often point to the problem. When I stumbled over the reading, it was because either the thought or the language was unclear. In dialogue, it showed mostly in the placement of the “he said, she said” attributions. But in expository passages, reading aloud revealed awkward structures or fuzzy thinking. Enough time and consideration would eventually lead me to an improvement, often after several iterations, and I learned that when the words flowed easily from my mouth they were just better written.

I mentioned this to my friend Jess, who said she’d love to hear my reading, so I recorded the first chapter and sent it to her. In doing so, I discovered a new process: record, then listen while reading the text, stop to revise where needed and record again. Repeat until the words sound right.

Not exactly ready for “This American Life,” but Jess now has a podcast for one, and I’ve discovered an editing tool that works well for me.

I don’t know if other writers work this way. I’d love to hear from anyone who does.

Creativity is Risk

The decision to de-medicate really began last year with a simple question from a very good friend: I was thinking last night that I’ve never seen you be aggressive. Have you always been like that? 

I was surprised by the question and it has haunted me ever since. To some extent I’ve always been more passive than was good for me, but I also think it’s become worse over the years. There are really two indivisible issues: passivity and timidity. They start with hesitation and develop into a rigid shell; together they create a kind of death of the soul.

Depression can be the precursor of both conditions; the usual medications can make them worse because the effects put a limit on your presence in the world. They allow you to accept what should be an unbearable way of life. The shell forms and within it there is never enough air or water to allow anything to grow. You begin to die inside: old relationships wither, new ones never have a chance.

The timid and passive don’t take risks and there is no creativity without risk.

It is an act of courage to walk out on a stage and play a sonata before an audience. Or sing an aria, or paint, write, or photograph. It’s not just the risk of failure and humiliation, although that can be a powerful stop sign, the bigger risk is in opening yourself and finding out what’s inside. And you do have to dig because anything of value emerges from the core of your being. Call it soul, or heart. It doesn’t matter. It’s the only thing you have to give and if you can’t open enough to tap into it, you can’t produce anything of value. I’m talking about works of art, but also about what you give in a relationship, the love you give to a friend, a lover, or a child. It’s all risky, but essential.

Here’s a bit from Angle of Reflection in which Ben acts against type and takes a risk because he just had to photograph that woman, in that place, at that time.

“They came out of the gallery into a small stone courtyard with indirect sunlight bouncing off the walls and up from the ground, creating a lovely portrait light. He asked Emma to pose for a moment and started shooting before she could say no. He was keenly aware of the crowd around them in a city full of photographers, but he had to do this. He shot and moved, asking her to turn to him sometimes, look away at others. He wanted to juxtapose her youthful skin against the ancient stone walls, but more than that he wanted to capture the light that made her glow with a beauty that made his heart ache. He had her bring one hand up to her face for a few frames but it didn’t work. Then he had her turn her back to him and made a few images of her hands and hair as she did that twirly chignon thing. After a few minutes, she became self-conscious, turned around and made a funny face at him, and he stopped. It was too late, he was in love and frightened by the intensity of the moment and his feel­ings for her. His hands were shaking and his heart was beating much too fast. She looked at him and seemed to understand. Very quietly she said “thank you,” and quickly squeezed his hand before they walked in silence to the next venue.”

Ben had to take the risk, the opportunity would never have come again. I missed too many moments. No more.

©2015 Ron Scherl

 

 

The Rhythm of Writing

After many years as a photographer, adapting to the process of writing novels is very much about adjusting the pace of creativity. Photographs record moments, miniscule fragments of time measured in fractions of a second. The creative process may be much longer and may involve such things as travel, research, rearranging the furniture, image processing, editing, sequencing, and printing. But the critical act of framing the subject and releasing the shutter is brief and fleeting. The expression of a portrait subject or the light on a landscape is a momentary thing and capturing that moment is the essence of photographic creativity.

The final product may take months or even years to complete, but that process is usually just a matter of repeating the critical moments of creativity in different circumstances.

Writing fiction is a whole different ballgame, one that involves retraining the brain to accommodate a much longer creative process. Think about stretching that fraction of a second out to the time it takes to write a three hundred page novel; it takes endurance, dedication, and discipline in the face of great odds against success, whether critical or commercial.

I write every day because that’s what it takes for me to maintain the creative process long enough to finish a book. Sure, there are days I accomplish little. I’ve learned to accept them and try to use those days for reading related to my current project. And I adjust my work schedule to accommodate other interests, especially when the Giants are playing.

I try to keep in mind that I may be an accomplished photographer but I’m a novice writer. I’m working on my second novel, while continuing to revise and rewrite the first. These incremental changes take time: some changes necessitate others, and flaws missed on the fifth draft may not be obvious until the tenth. The process makes me feel like a manuscript is never finished. It is, I guess, like a photographer’s portfolio: it may never be perfect, but at some point you have to go out and show it to the people you want to work for. Where I once called on magazine picture editors, now I’m searching for a literary agent. Every industry has its gatekeepers.

I like the task of learning something new, but I’m surprised that I seem to have lost interest in photography so quickly. Earlier this year I was in Paris, a city that has never failed to engage my eye, until now. I passed days at a time without shooting anything, although I did keep a journal. Last week I went to Lake Tahoe with my friend, Tom. It was beautiful. I shot little, more with an iPhone than a Nikon.

In this era of instant and constant communication, of disruption and sharing, I have taken up a practice that is slow, solitary, traditional, and personal. I like it.

IMG_0903

Capa Two

Just a few more thoughts on Capa before we move on. Larry Walker’s comment about belief and reality strikes home: “If I believe the Capa snap is a picture of a soldier just killed, lacking any evidence one way or the other, does it matter?”

Capa’s job was to report on the war in support of the Republican cause. He was employed by Vu magazine, and the photos appeared in a special issue supporting the Republicans. He was, in short, a propagandist. If he was shooting training exercises and an editor seeing the picture with the caption, The Falling Soldier chose to believe it was a picture of a man dying, what difference does it make? Either way it succeeds in its purpose, which was to create sympathy for the Republican cause.

I doubt Capa set out to deceive, but he gave at least three different versions of the circumstances of the photo. In one he said that he was ducking down beside the hill and holding the camera over his head when he released the shutter. The film was then sent off to France to be developed. If this is true, he didn’t know what he had captured. When the magazine claimed it was the moment of death, what could Capa do?

If he contradicted the editors, he would lose all credibility, probably forever, and certainly lose his job. He would also damage the cause he passionately supported. Capa was a gambler: sometimes poker, sometimes he put his life on the line. In this case, when everyone felt he held the winning hand, and it would have been foolish to fold, he went all in. Was it a bluff? Maybe. We’ll probably never know, but it makes for a very interesting story.

A fascinating and enigmatic man who hated war and was never happy when he was away from it, Capa spent his life surrounded by beautiful women, poker playing artists, and soldiers fighting for their cause, their country, or just their lives. He wasn’t a very good poker player – Huston would win back all the fees he paid him to shoot stills for his films – and he was never able to commit to any of the women he loved. He was a great war photographer and a dedicated anti-fascist who lost his life covering the ridiculously futile French colonial effort in Vietnam for the vehemently anti-communist Life magazine of Henry Luce. The final irony in a complex life.

Here’s a link to Magnum Photos, the cooperative of photojournalists founded by Capa and others where you can view The Falling Soldier and a whole lot of other great images.

http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=CMS3&VF=MAGO31_10_VForm&ERID=24KL535353

Robert Capa

I intend to use this blog to preview themes and develop ideas for a novel-in-progress. Your comments are welcome.

How do you know what to believe about a man who created a false identity, inhabited it with enthusiasm, and willed himself to actually become that person?

He was born Endre Erno Friedmann on 22 October 1913 in Budapest to middle class Jewish parents. Having trouble getting paid photo assignments in Paris in the early 30’s, he and his lover, Gerda Taro (née Gerta Pohorylle) invented Robert Capa, a brilliant but reclusive American photojournalist whose photos commanded very high fees. Editors never met this “Capa” but Gerda, acting as his agent, sold many photos and procured high profile assignments.

So Friedmann became Capa, and Capa became famous. Picture Post called him “The Greatest War Photographer in the World,” and Capa came to believe it. He was never a great technical photographer, but in the words of his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson: “Capa knew how to tell a story in pictures.”

He also knew how to promote himself, including writing and publishing a memoir that he freely admitted wasn’t always true, but was the way it should have been. The book, Slightly out of Focus, was always intended to be the basis for a film script and Capa followed it up by becoming friends with writers, actors and directors, such as John Huston, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn.

He was passionate about left-wing causes and his coverage of the Spanish Civil War is anything but objective journalism, but he was not alone. Writers, artists, and photographers from around the world enlisted in the cause of the Republican government. This was the first battle against fascism and when it was lost, WWII became inevitable.

Capa went on to cover the China-Japan war, WWII, and, finally, the French war in Indochina where he was killed by an anti-personnel mine in 1954.

The problem with Capa is not in his ability or his sympathies, it is in just one photograph, which Capa titled: The Falling Soldier. It’s also been labeled: Death of a Loyalist Militiaman and The Moment of Death. There are a number of questions about the validity of the photo, many stemming from the fact that Capa sent the undeveloped film to Paris, did not provide captions, and the negative has never been found. The name of the subject and the exact location are in dispute, and there is evidence that Capa’s statements on the location and circumstances are false. He claimed in an interview that the soldiers were on an exercise and not expecting combat when a sniper’s bullet hit his subject, but subsequent research has established that there was no combat and no snipers in that area at that time. Some accounts say the man was shot in the head, others in the stomach. Several researchers are convinced it was a machine gun. There is no blood in the photo. There is another photo of a different man apparently being shot in the exact same place. Is this possible, or is it the same scene staged with two different soldiers?

The 1997 discovery of a suitcase with 4500 negatives from the war shot by Capa, Taro and Chim (David Seymour) raised hopes that the controversy could be resolved, but The Falling Soldier was not in the case. Negatives on the same roll shot before and after the famous image are also missing. None of this is very surprising and all of it does not add up to an indictment. Capa was 23 years old in 1936 and still inexperienced as a combat photographer. Spain was in chaos, systems were broken, communication was difficult. There are many reasons why the negative could have been lost and why he might have been confused about the circumstances. And this is in no way meant to denigrate his accomplishments: Capa, Chim, and Taro defined combat photojournalism in Spain, and Capa’s WWII coverage is extraordinary.

But questions remain and that leaves an opening for interpretation. Is it the greatest war photograph ever made, or just an awkwardly composed, slightly out of focus snap of a man tripping on a slippery hillside?

Art lives outside the borders of certainty.

 

 

Old Guy Ranting

I just looked at my Facebook page and found that I was born, went to college, and then the next thing that happened to me was in 2009.  Now I understand this is only Facebook’s version of history but it bothered me enough to get me to sit down and write, which is how I try to work out things that are bothering me. And I am indeed bothered by the idea that our current obsession with the personal and the immediate will cause us to lose sight of others and of the past. It seems to be a natural extension of the democratization of criticism, which has made peer reviews far more powerful than those of professional critics, but has also enabled an overpowering solipsism that makes everyone the center of his own universe. If you are your world, you have no need of the knowledge that came before. I’m a bit uncomfortable with that.

Rain ©2012 Ron Scherl

I’ve been noodling around with Instagram lately and reading about the power of social media for photographers and I get much of it. I know it’s a new world out there and if I were pursuing a career in photography I would be taking advantage of all these tools. It’s different now than it was for me. Now you don’t build a portfolio piece by piece and haul it around to magazine editors and agency art directors; now you populate your various feeds, build your online audience and parlay that into assignments for which you might even be paid. Some of that really appeals to me.

When I was a young photographer, I would get physically ill (slight exaggeration) at the sight of the Time-Life Building, but would force myself to go there twice a year to visit picture editors and solicit assignments. I had moderate success, but there’s no doubt that my discomfort didn’t encourage people to want to work with me. I got work because I was well trained, skillful and respected the craft. Here’s a tip of the hat to Greg Peterson, who taught me almost everything I know about the craft of photography.

Digital has, of course, made the craft less important, which will no doubt appeal to the arbiters of art, but it’s also bringing the standards of commercial photography much closer to art photography, which has never been concerned with craft.

So now we get kids with iPhones covering large corporate events, posting the images to their Instagram and Twitter feeds and not really expecting to be paid. It’s a great deal for the sponsoring and distribution corporations who don’t have to pay for content, but here’s the kicker, it works because that’s where their target audience is.

In the old model, corporations and their agencies would hire photographers to create pictures promoting their products and services, and then buy space in the media to distribute the images. This would not only allow the commercial photographers to make a living, it would enable the media outlets to hire professional photojournalists to tell the world’s stories. This chain is breaking; it’s not totally gone but we’re headed that way. I remember when stock photo agencies started to introduce royalty-free images; the argument in opposition was that it would turn photographs into a commodity. That certainly proved to be true, but now we’re going beyond that and getting close to a world where all photography is free and, after that, other forms of content.

I understand the argument for free dissemination of information; I just don’t understand how the content creators will be able to put food on the table.

Time for lunch.