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Soft Focus / My Blog

 

               A  Marriage of Convenience

 

I am not particularly concerned with my camera equipment. I treat my gear well, handle it carefully and store it safely, but basically all I ever want from a camera is for it to function reliably and to let me produced the shot I wanted. And of course to do that regularly and consistantly  with no surprises.

Friends looking to buy a camera occasionally ask for equipment recommendations. I am clueless. When I was shooting film I essentially used the same Nikon system that I started with.  I picked Nikons because at the time, it was the only 35mm SLR that let me see the entire frame through the viewfinder with my eyeglasses on.  Later, I added a couple of Leicas rangefinder cameras Leitz lenses. That was my working outfit through the years. 

In time - and certainly not by choice - I made the switch to digital photography, I eventually sold the Nikon outfit, but I could not part with the Leicas. I loved the Leicas; they were and probably still are the absolute best cameras ever made. When the other film cameras went, they remained, stuck away in my safe. And yes, I do take them out  occasionally, just play with them.

Anyway, for my profesional work, I have been using Canon DSLR’s: big, heavy and very reliable. Canon also has great customer service folks for when I couldn’t figure out stuff.  

Recently at the big New York 'PhotoExpo' I got to play with a new line of smaller and lighter equipment from another company: I fell in love all over again.  OK, maybe not really ‘in love’ but I was impressed enough to invest in the beginning of a new working outfit. 

The new gear is kind of intimidating: the camera has 28 different control buttons and leavers and many of those open up screens and more settings.  To further complicate it, some of these controls can be reprogrammed or disabled all together.  

The good news is that in the end, it is still a camera and I do know a bit about cameras. A couple of weeks later, some hours spent watching on-line tutorials and grinding my way through the 200 page instruction book, I am finally in charge. At least the camera is no longer intimidating, only a bit mysterious at times. 

But here is the best news: it turns out that with a simple adapter, I can actually use my ‘vintage’ Leica lenses on this camera! For the photenthusiasts’ out there, this is no great revelation; for me, it is pure joy!

 A few days ago, the new lens adapter arrived: about $9 including shipping from China. It is surprisingly well made and fits both camera and lenses properly.  Best part: I spent the weekend playing with my new camera and my ‘old’ lenses. The Leica lenses have no electronics, so I am back to using manual controls: I get to actually focus and set exposure!

 

Here is a photo of the new match: 50mm Leitz f/2 Summicron (vintage 1960) happily coupled to my new camera.

 

 

(Not shown is the great smile on my face!)

 

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My Watch Guy

my watch guy

 

This is My Watch Guy. His shop is on a patch of sidewalk on Elizabeth Street, next to a vegetable stand. It is a perfectly designed work space and he probably made it himself. He is there whatever the weather. In the winter, he's got an electric heater at his feet. There is a stool next to him for customers to sit and wait. And watch him work. He has practiced his craft for over 40 years and he has been My Watch Guy for at least 20 of those years. He is the kind of craftsman who gives you the impression he could do just about anything. Like if he had decided to be a tailor, I am sure he could turn out the best suits in New York. If he was a doctor, he would be the guy I wanted when things went seriously south. I am sure he can repair just about any watch.

He replaced a watch battery for me this weekend. As always, it made for a good day.

 

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As Seen On My Block One Morning 

 

As seen passing in front of my building one morning. I have no idea of who these guys were or where they were going, but they were moving fast. I am glad the dog was there. He kind of proved that I wasn't imagining the whole thing. New York City. Indeed.

                                                        

My Mentor: Mike Kovak

 

I had just gotten my first “real” camera when I met Mike Kovac. It was a meeting that was to change my life. Mike was a freelance photographer. He had been a combat photographer, but now he was based in New York City. His assignments took him all over the world and his world was one exciting place, especially for a young teen kid in the Bronx. He was even occasionally asked by local police to help in cases. It seemed like everywhere Mike went, there were always beautiful women, guys with guns and one adventure after another. Right then seeds were planted.

My career path was set.

I got to watch Mike at work just about every week and learned a lot from him. I paid particularly close attention to his equipment. His main camera was 4x5 Super Speed Graphic. That was then the top of the line of Graphic Press Cameras. It used single sheets of film, loaded one at a time. Film was in cumbersome film holders, but Mike rarely needed more than one sheet to get the perfect shot. Sometimes he shot with a Rollliflex Twin Lens Reflex that used roll film. Occasionally he used a 35mm Leica M-4. When ever an assignment called for other equipment, he always had it right there. Mike also carried a tiny Minox subminiature “spy camera” and got some of his most dramatic shots with it.

 My camera was a Yashica “C” Twin Lens Reflex; it looked a bit like Mike’s Rolli. A few years later I got a press camera of my own, a Crown Graphic; not quite as fancy as Mike’s, but it also looked a lot like his and most people couldn’t tell the difference. I could never change those film holders quite as smoothly as Mike did – or get my perfect shot with a single sheet of film. Actually, that Crown Graphic turned out to be heavy, bulky and awkward to carry. It was not nearly as easy to use as Mike made it look, but I wasn’t about to admit any of that right then. I also never mastered Mike’s trick of carrying loose flashbulbs in his jacket pocket. The one time I tried this, static electricity set the flashbulb off and my jacket caught on fire. It was an embarrassing moment.

 

It was years later that I got my first Leica. I bought it used. It was made in the 1960’s, so it could well have been used by Mike. I still have that camera.

 Mike Kovac also had the greatest darkroom and it was right in his apartment. It was the neatest, best stocked and most orderly darkroom I have ever seen. It was a far cry from my first darkroom that I put together in a corner of my room and could only use after dark. And even though Mike’s darkroom was in his apartment, the chemical fumes were never a problem. My parents were convinced that the photo chemicals I used were deadly, so I not only had to wait until it was dark to make my prints, I also had to wait until they were out of the house or asleep. Mike of course never had such problems. And his prints were always perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately Mike Kovac, important as he was in my life and career, was not real. He was a character created by Charles Bronson on a TV show called “Man With A Camera.” The show began sometime around the time I used some of my Bar Mitzva loot to buy that first camera. Our timing was perfect! With Mike’s weekly guidance, I soon became photographer for my junior highschool newspaper. Empowered. I talked my way out of classes and into press conferences.  I photographed movie stars and our City's mayor.  I watched the show with religious zeal. Each week brought new insight into his (our!) profession, new equipment to dream about and, of course, a new adventure. Needless to say, I owe much professional success to the inspiration of Mike Kovac.

 

 

Recently I found some of those original shows on YouTube. That’s where I snatched some of these shots of Mike. It is great to see him still in action, looking trim and not a day older.

 Thanks Mike!!

Ps: One disturbing fact about Mike and those flashbulbs. Seems that early on, he used an electronic flash, one also made by Graflex. I got to carry one on a few jobs. It had a huge battery pack and was a pain to haul around. When Mike started using flashbulbs, it seemed like a good idea at the time. It was years later that I learned that this switch coincided with a new sponsor for his show: it was GE, the company that made those flashbulbs! Ah, well, I don’t blame Mike. After all, a buck’s a buck. Put I am still a bit pissed off about that jacket…………

 Ps: I have yet another blog. 

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Sunday Colors 

 

 

It was the Easter Sunday, that most solemn day in the Christian colander.Many of New York City's faithful mark that day by dressing up in silly outfits and walking along a stretch of Fifth  Avenue in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral hoping that photographers will take their pictures.

So I spent a few hours shooting snapshots of people ‘parading’ on 5th Avenue:

my contribution to their religious experience.

Anyway, I had heard about another celebration going on at the same time. Nothing unusual about that. After all, this is a town where you can get Pad Thai or almost anything else delivered at 4:00AM, where the subways run 24/7 and where 93 Broadway shows open every evening. OK, I made up the part about the Broadway shows, but having a couple of huge religious festivals taking place at the same time a few blocks apart is not all that noteworthy around  here.

So, after my fill of the Easter Parade and paraders, I wandered across town to where a bunch of other folks were celebrating Holi. Holi, for those of you who are wondering, is the Hindu “Festival of Color.” OK, I never knew much about it either before last Sunday. I quickly learned that the Holi celebration seems to consist of lots of happy people singing, dancing and covering each other with colored powder.

They don’t do that at the Easter Parade.

According to one web site “One of Holi’s biggest customs is the loosening strictness of social structures, which normally include age, sex, status, and caste. No one expects the decorum of normal life; as a result, the atmosphere is filled with excitement and joy.” And lots – really lots – of colored powder. They fling handfuls into the air and smear the stuff on each other’s faces and clothing. Everyone immerges looking like psychedelic flashbacks.

 

There’s probably a connection between Easter and Holi. I mean, Christians celebrate Easter by coloring eggs. Perhaps it happened that Hindus, coming from a poorer culture, didn’t want to waste the eggs, so they just color each other. Which seems like lots more fun than walking around Fifth Avenue waiting for someone to take your picture.

 

 

Finally, there was this fellow.

He seemed to be his own favorite religious festival.

 

 

 

 

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 On Snapshooting

 

I am fortunate enought to make my living with a camera.  Usually I shoot people.  I have been at it for a long time and truly love what I do. I am also a snapshooter. I shoot snapshots purely for the fun of shooting snapshots.  Which probably has lots to do with why I became a photographer in the first place.  I shoot sanpshots for purely for myself, not for clients, so my snapshots are usually personal moments. When snapshooting, I impose little in the way of technical constraints on myself and even less on my subjects.

 

          Astoria, Queens.  New York.  America.

My first snapshots were made with my family’s Kodak “Baby Brownie.” It used #127 roll film, was made of black plastic and had 2 controls: a shutter button and a film winding knob. It had no case, no accessories and did not need batteries. By contrast, my current ‘professional’ camera has 28 control buttons and knobs. Many of those buttons open ‘windows’ on the camera’s screen that in turn allow for other controls. The instruction manual is over 300 pages long. That camera is also subject to damage from moisture, vibration and impact; it is heavy and it eats expensive batteries. This is called progress.

Anyway, as a neophyte snapshooter, I carried this Baby Brownie all over. I brought it to school and on adventures in Bronx Park across the street from our apartment building. I anoyed relatives by shooting "candid" snapshots of them. The summer I turned 9, my parents sent me away to summer camp. I was not happy about their decision, but things turned out better than expected. It seems “Photography” was a camp activity I could sign up for. I did and a counselor named Larry (I still remember you, Larry!), taught me to actually develop the film I shot. I brought this skill home, along with a wallet and a pair of bookends I made in Arts & Crafts. It was one of my better summers.

 The wallet, the bookends and the Baby Brownie are long gone. Digital images have replaced film. I have made my living with a camera for decades,  but I still shoot snapshots.

This is my current favorite snapshooting camera. 

It is an older Point-And-Shoot camera with provision for a few "creative" adjustments.  It feels comfortable in my hand, weighs only a few ounces and uses plain AA batteries that I can replace most anywhere.

I have gone through a bunch of snapshooting cameras over the years. They stopped making this model a while back; I found it on eBay for about $25.00. I covered it with black masking tape which makes it look even cheaper (and less attractive to bad guys). This is the camera in my bag most of the time. Despite its homely appearance, it is a fine little  machine. I have printed 16”x20” display prints shot with this camera and several of the shots at other places in this web site were also made with it.  

 

 

 

 

Festival, Chiappas, Mexico

Snapshooting has been a way to make new friends when I travel.

Sometimes they turn out to be the most memorable part of the trip.

         New Friends, Santa Ana, El Salvador

 

  ...................and some more of my favorite snapshots:

 On The Ganges, Varanese, India

Buddhist New Year's Celebrant, Petan, Napal

 

Jake has been photographed so many times he's learned to mug for the camera

Finally, there is an added perk to shooting snapshots: On occasion I hand my snapshooting camera to someone and ask them to shoot a tourist souvenir photo of me.  Sometimes in an interesting place that I want to remember.  Or maybe with a new friend.  And for the first time in my professional career, I have shots of me:

 

 

 

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Self Portrait With Airplane

 

self portrat

A while back I spent several days on a Caribbean island photographing a resort. Among other things the client wanted some aerial shots of the golf course. The small plane provided was normally used to ferry in supplies. It had a single engine, a single seat and had clearly seen better days. The pilot had first claim to the seat. I sat behind him on a crate of motor oil cans. The crate did not have a seatbelt, so I was tied in with a piece of rope that ran through a hole in one of the cabin struts. We removed the door before taking off to give me a less obstructed view. In order to shoot I had to stand, bent over in the doorway. My ‘seat belt’ wasn’t very long, so once we were airborne, I had to untie it in order to get to the door.

 

 

At the time, this all seemed like a good idea.

 

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The Day I Shot Soupy Sales

 

 

 

“See, there were theses three jazz musicians who had a pet monkey.” This was Soupy Sales’ greeting as he walked into my studio. It also turned out to be the opening line of a slightly off color joke and the opening of a two hour performance for an audience of three: me, my assistant and the art director. A small house, but Soupy was on.

  Lots of people may have forgotten him, but in his time Soupy Sales was a cult star. He was also bonkers.  And I mean that in the best way anyone could be bonkers. His afternoon TV show had a near fanatical following. Now, considering that most of them were boys, pre-teen and maybe a bit older, it is safe to assume that most of them, by defination, were also bonkers. His show was broadcast live: no prerecorded tape, no digital effects. Everything you saw was really happening, often much to the consternation of studio executives, sponsors and censors. Especially censors. It was a time when television was still flexing its limits and Soupy Sales was a natural for the “new” medium.

  From today’s point of view it seems impossible, but this live show was totally improvised; nobody – including the station management – knew what he was going to do. Sometimes his stage crew pulled gags on him. One time they had a topless lady suddenly appear. She was actually out of camera range, but the crew had rigged his monitors so it looked to Soupy like she was on the air. He was convinced his career was over, but still went on with the show. Later he claimed he really just wanted to get her phone number.

 Another time Soupy held up a card with a large letter “K” on it. He announced (maybe in a style that Sesame Street would later mimic) “This is the letter F.” An off camera  voice said “No, it’s the letter K.” Soupy turned away, looked at the card again, then, looking straight into the camera with a fiendish grin said:

 “That’s funny: I see F you see K!”

  A pie in the face was an essential part of Soupy’s schtick. Guests on his show often got one, sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes a crew member threw one at him from someplace off camera. When Soupy was a guest on other shows he brought along his cream pies. Lots of famous people got pies in their faces.

 One stunt nearly did end his career. He asked younger viewers to go find Daddy’s wallet, take out all the green pieces of paper, the ones with pictures of guys with beards on them, and mail them to him. He promised a post card from Puerto Rico in return.

 Anyway, it was a bit later that our paths crossed. Syndicated sit-coms had pretty much replaced live TV and nobody was going to take the chance of putting Soupy on live, so he was mostly doing stand-up to a loyal following around the country. On that day, he was my model for magazine cover and some shots for the lead article. Soupy showed up at my studio alone, no entourage or assistants. He carried a paper shopping bag with the stuff to make his trademark “cream” pies. Actually they were made with shaving cream (“Looks better on TV and sticks lots better too!”). After all, the pies were not intended to be eaten, but to be thrown in people’s faces. The art director wanted some shots of him holding a pie; I backed off when ever he picked one up.

 Soupy was on throughout the shoot. He improvised bits around every piece of equipment and anything anybody said. It was a truly great stand-up performance, done for us because that is what Soupy did and he did it flawlessly.

 Soupy passed away several years ago. I recently came across some of the outtake from the session along with that original cover. That magazine article is long lost and the magazine is history, but looking over that sheet of 35mm slides was a wonderful reminder of why I love making my living the way I do.

 

Good times, Soupy!

 

ps: Check out this bit of Soupy History: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yWmJbmOtILY

 

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The Christmas Subway Train

 

 

It’s a subway train made up of vintage cars, some of ‘em dating back to the 1930’s and 40’s. None were running past the late 60’s. Every year, along with fare hikes and decreased service, the New York City Transit Authority puts this train together and runs it for a few days. No big fanfare, it just rolls out. Subway train buffs ride and discuss subway trivia and the characteristics of each car, and there are usually a few retired transit workers who will happily recount bits of subway lore. Tourists are afraid to get on and even New York subway regulars often hesitate as it pulls into the station.

 

 train 2a

 

 But if you were fortunate enough to have come of age in 1960's New York, you know this train is really a time machine. As a kid I rode the front car, nose glued to the window pretending to be the engineer and watching the tracks ahead.  Soon enough that subway became my magic carpet out of the Bronx. For 15 cents I could travel anywhere: Times Square at it’s raunchiest, midnight hot dogs at Nathan’s in Coney Island, Washington Square and the coffee houses on MacDougal Street, all there and all just a subway ride away. Heady destinations. The trains were noisy and air conditioning was unknown.  The cars rocked and bounced along the tracks, but the seats were wonderfully comfortable.  Late at night I could fall asleep, leaning against my guitar case – or my date – without a worry. And last week, it was all back. Very cool.

 

 train 33

 

                                                                                                   

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 A Family Photo

I came across this photo some years ago while cleaning out my father’s house after he passed away.

family wedding 

  The print is a copy so there are no original notes or imprinting on the back. What I do know for sure is that this is my grandmother’s family, her and her sister – my Great Aunt ‘ Tanta Tzril’ - at the wedding of a relative. My mother – who had yet to meet my father – is seated in the front row, second from the right. Being the oldest, nearly out of her teens and still un-married may account for that winsome look.  The little boy in the front row in the outlandish costume – I have no idea why they dressed him that way – was my uncle who would have been in his late 80’s today.  

So a bit of arithmetic dates this wedding at sometime in the early 1930’s.  

That is about all the factual information I have about this photograph.   

What follows here is my pure speculation about that day.

Hiring a wedding photographer – if indeed such a specialty had evolved - was an extravagance, especially in the midst of the Great Depression. So this photograph would have been shot at a local photographer’s studio, probably in Brooklyn on a Sunday afternoon. My family was not particularly observant, but in accordance with Jewish tradition, the wedding would probably not have been held during the day on Saturday, the Sabbath. Everyone worked 6 days a week so Sunday would be a good bet. After the ceremony, it would be off to the photographer’s studio.

I love to imagine that trip. I doubt that anyone here owned a car. Did they hire one for the newly wed couple? Maybe a horse drawn carriage? More lightly I think, they walked. There is something else to be said in favor this bit of speculation. Almost everyone in the photo was born in small towns, the Shtetles of Eastern Europe. Despite living in the middle of New York City, their community was still a Shtetle. What we’d call their ‘comfort zone’ was probably no more than a few square blocks. They lived close together, knew their neighbors and mistrusted strangers. They did not have television and radio was still new to this community, so entertainment was usually what they could provide for each other. This ‘wedding procession’ through the neighborhood streets was more than just a family event, it was entertainment!   Even though they probably only walked a few blocks, I can easily imagine the polite applause from neighbors on stoops and tenement windows. Passerby’s, even those who did not know the families, would have stopped to look and offer congratulations to the new couple. It was their moment.

The photographer used natural light, probably from a large window and skylight. The light is high, from the left; if you look carefully, it is just slightly brighter on that side of the photo. There is still detail visible in the shadows, so there was probably a white wall off to the other side that reflected what’s called a “fill” light. I once heard a portrait photographer refer to this as “Rembrandt Lighting.” Presumably Rembrandt’s studio also had a high window or a skylight and if you look his portraits, most were lit this way. One side was always darker than the other and the ‘key’ light, the brightest spot, always fell on the same part of the face. Maybe the photographer knew all that, but chances are he just knew how to work with the light he had. Whatever, this would mean that the time of day – that is, the position of the sun - would dictate just when the photo could be shot. This would also mean that the wedding ceremony had to be scheduled accordingly. The high angle of the light would put the time of day at either late morning or early afternoon. So, given the time it would take to get everyone ready, perform the ceremony then move to the photo studio, it would have been shot in the afternoon.

At the studio, the photographer had to work fairly quickly: there was only a limited ‘window’ of good light. There was also the challenge of composing the photo and getting everyone to look their best. Chances are nobody was comfortable in the clothes they had to wear.   Finally, if it was a particularly fortunate day, there might even be another wedding photo scheduled, so he also had to get them out as quickly as possible.

The studio backdrop looks like it was a commercial one, purchased from a professional supplier, but it could have been painted by a local artist. There were 3 sections. The center is an outdoor background. On the left is a part of a room set and off to the right is what looks like a floral design. Individuals and couples could have been posed in front of one part, while more of it was used for groups like this.

The photographer used a large studio camera, probably on a 5”x7” or 8”x10” piece of film and if he was like most others of the time, he would have taken no more than one or two shots.

Technical limitations at that time meant a longish exposure, so everyone would have had to hold still and stare into the lens. No blinking. This accounts in part of the lack of smiles in this shot and in many others from this era: this was serious business. The posing is perfect. Look closely at the positions of the seated ladies feet and hands. The back row is slightly staggered so nobody is standing in another’s shadow.

The size of the sheets of film made it easier to retouch the image. Retouching then was usually done directly on to the film, rather than on the individual prints. Sometimes color was applied to the finished prints. Either way, it was a skilled art and one that probably explains the flawless completions on the ladies. Lookin’ good, Mom!

I wonder if the “day” ended there. Did the reception resume? My guess here is that this was in fact the end of the celebration. There might be a quick toast, “ l’chim” – long life to the new couple. After that? Probably home to their newly rented apartment.  A honeymoon would have been a doubtful expense.

Finally, a strong childhood memory of my oldest relatives is that they did not particularly get along with each other. They argued about everything. There were feuds that spanned generations. Some relatives did not talk to other other relatives but could not explain just why that was. Maybe some of this carried over to me: I now remember that I did not speak to my Uncle Max.  I don't know why. 

I can only admire the social skills of this unknown photographer who not only managed to produce a fine portrait, but also got these folks to pose together long enough to do it!

The more I’ve looked at this photograph, the more I came to think of it as a bit of fine art. Any photo captures a single moment. I have always figured that a truly great photograph causes a response in the viewer that conjures up some speculation not only about the actual instant, but about what just happened there and what might have happened later on.

I think this photograph meets that definition.

 And now for something completely different! I have yet another blog called “Shooting From The Hip.” It is an irregularly updated completion of of shots, sometimes with bits of commentary, sometimes a story or two or some personal notes. If you have gotten this far, you might be interested in seeing it. The link is embedded in this text, so click anywhere along it and you will be there. Amazing, isn't it?