My Mentor: MIKE KOVAC
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 13 year old 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, bought second hand; not quite as fancy as Mike’s, but it did look 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 framkly a pain to carry. And 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, also bought 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 paper and published my first photos. I also discovered that I could get out of classes to shoot photos. Armed with a press card I bought from an ad in a camera magazine, I talked my way into press conferences and some other places that a 14 year old probably did not belong. And 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 of my 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.
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…………
My Watch Guy
This is my Watch Guy. His shop is a patch of sidewalk on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, next to a vegetable stand. Customers mostly come to have new batteries put in their watches, but he can also repair just about any watch. He works at a perfectly designed work space that he probably made it himself. If you don't know he's there you can easily miss him. I know he's there, and he's 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 been at his craft for over 40 years. He has been my watch guy for at least 20 of those years. He replaced a watch battery for me this weekend. Seeing him work is a joy. 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. Which makes me happy he is doing what he is doing on account of suits I don't need; my watch, I do. Hell, I figure if he was a doctor, he would be the guy I wanted there when things went seriously south.
As always, a visit to his stand made for a good day.
In Danger of Becoming a Pictorialist
I found this lens for sale on a table at a local flea market. I love flea markets, rummage sales, whatever; finding a lens like this is one reason. And I admit, the $5 price tag was definately another.
I have since learned lots about this particular lens from a good friend who is incredibly knowledgeable about such things. It was made in England and originally intended for 1 6mm movie cameras. It is a “Petzval Portrait” design that originally dates from the 1890's. And there really was a Dr. Petzval who came up with the design long before that. Anyway, an English company copied it and produced this 'new' version in the 1930's..... and this one wound up in my gear bag
Now, it also happens that around the beginning of this year I switched my professional digital gear to a relatively new line of cameras. They are smaller and lighter and have some spectacular technical capabilities. Oddly enough, because of some of these new features I can also use very simple optics – like this lens - on these cameras with a simple adapter.
My new lens is also simple: 3 glass elements mounted in a finely machined brass and steel housing. There are no automatic features, so it must be focused and set manually. The focusing gears probably had not been used in decades and needed some hours of care along with judicious applications of solvents and lubricant to get it into working condition. It was worth it because in the end, I found I had a genuine treasure.
What made this lens a treasure are the photos it produces. Modern lenses are designed to be extremely sharp and accurate in rendering color. This lens is the opposite; it suffers from a variety of 'optical ills' like lens flare, and odd bits of distortion. Photos tend to be sharper in the center and softer on the edges; colors can be rendered in a range of intensities from deep saturations to pastels. There is a beautiful overall softness and warmth to these images.
There was a style popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, photography's early days, called "Pictorialism." I never knew much about this until somebody looked at the photos I had shot with this lens and remarked on the 'pictorialist style.'
Whatever, I may well be in danger of becoming a Pictorialist. I get the feeling that there much I can learn from shooting with this lens and I am just beginning to explore the possibilities. It will take a while but I am having fun doing it. Lots of fun. Not a bad return on my $5 investment.
Meantime, some of my first "Pictorialist" snapshots:
And finally, My First Pictorialist Portrait, Jake:
I spent July 4th in a town in the middle of America. Each year they celebrate the day with a parade. The entire town is decorated for the occasion: streets, homes and people all get done up in red, white and blue. Picnic tables are set up in driveways and lawn chairs line the curbs to reserve favorite viewing spots. They have been holding this parade since 1911. Many residents trace their families there even longer. There was a bit of rain early on, but it turned sunny and everyone looked happy and happy to pose for my camra.
I had a hot dog at a church booth and I shot lots of photos. I hope I can get back next year. Somebody told me that they have another parade on St. Patrick's Day and invited me to come back and shoot more photos. I just might do that.
A wise man once told me that a truly great photograph invokes some speculation in the viewer 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.
The first time I saw this photo was some years ago while cleaning out our family's home after my Father passed away. 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. It would date from sometime in the early 1930’s. So much for the facts.
So now for the speculation. Start with the clothes. Buying that formal attire would have been beyond my family’s budget, and definitely not something they were going to wear often, so chances are that all the dresses and the children’s outfits were homemade. The men’s suits were surely rented maybe even borrowed.
Hireing a wedding photographer – if there was such a speciality at the time - was extravagance that would also have also been beyond the budget, especially in the shadow of the Great Depression. So this photograph would have been shot at a local photographer’s studio, probably in Brooklyn.
I would guess this was shot on a Sunday afternoon. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the wedding could not have been held during the day on Saturday, and everyone worked 6 days a week, a Sunday wedding would be a good bet.
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 herd 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. I suppose it is possible 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. I am guessing that 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.
The photo would have been shot after the ceremony. Somewhere along the line there had to have been some sort of reception. Even the poorest families set out food and drink for an occasion like this. Come to think of it, us Jews eat and drink at just about any occasion. My guess is that the photo came between the ceremony and that reception. Vows exchanged, a glass of wine shared and the groom breaking that glass (another tradition) and then off to the photographer's.
I love to imagine that trip. I doubt that any of these folks 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, in the Shtetles of Eastern Europe. Despite living in 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 block or two, I can easily imagine the polite applause from neighbors on stoops and tenement windows. Passerbies, even those who did not know the families, would have stopped to look and offer congratulations to the new couple. It was their moment.
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. 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. From what I can make out of it, there were at least 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 proper number of chairs would have been set up and arranged in advance.
The photographer used a large studio camera, probably on a 5”x7” or 8”x10” piece of film and he would have taken no more than one or two shots. 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!
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.
I wonder if the “day” ended there. Did the reception resume? I would like to think it continued. Perhaps a local musician was hired. Certainly there would have been tables laden with homemade dishes and many toasts of "Mazel Tov and L'Chiam" – Good Luck and To Life! - to the new couple. After that? Well, a honeymoon was unlightly, so it was probably home, if they were fortunate enough, to a newly rented apartment Otherwise home, for now, would be a room in the shared apartment of a relative and another working day to follow.
Mazel Tov! L'Chiam!