Plugged In: ‘W’ is for weighty photographers in history

Illustration 1 — “The Critic (Opening Night at the Opera)” by Weegee.

Illustration 1 — “The Critic (Opening Night at the Opera)” by Weegee.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

We’ll conclude our admittedly idiosyncratic discussion of influential photographers with the “Ws,” a group that veers between the gritty and the sublime.

  • Weegee makes nearly everyone’s list of street-smart documentary photographers who somehow transcend the grittiness of daily urban life to create lasting images that speak volumes, both as journalism and as art. Weegee was not his real name, but rather a pseudonym stamped on his freelance news photos. Weegee tended to specialize in spectacular crime scene images — he had one of the first police band scanners and was so familiar among the New York Police Department that many rookies thought he was connected with the NYPD. One of his most famous photographs, though, is “The Critic (Opening Night at the Opera),” a public domain copy of which is this week’s Illustration 1. That starkly flash-lit photo shows two smug and overdressed women passing between some modestly dressed working people. The photo was taken during the desperate days of 1943 when World War II still hung in the balance. When questioned about their gaudy display, the women had just commented that they were sacrificing to help wartime morale by “wearing last year’s jewelry.” Weegee’s work is all of a piece with 1940s “Film Noir,” like Humphrey Bogart’s “The Maltese Falcon.”

  • Edward Weston was a paragon of American “straight” fine art photography during the 20th Century. As a founding member of the famous Group f/64, Weston promoted unmanipulated, highly realistic landscape photography, in the process moving American photography away from gauzy Pictorialism, whose photographs strived to imitate allegorical paintings. Weston’s influence was strongest among West Coast photographers, such as Ansel Adams, who turned high-definition photographs of nature and realistic objects into art. Weston was a technical perfectionist who constantly refined his images without succumbing to artificial artiness. Weston’s work included a wide variety of subjects shot with his favorite, large-format view cameras, everything from chaste nude images of his very attractive wife to sunny Point Lobos seascapes to darkly intense black-and-white photographs of vegetables. The vegetables are probably his most famous work, with a depth of meaning that belies the humble subjects ultimately destined for that evening’s meal. Do an Internet search for “Weston Pepper No. 30.” Yes, No. 30, as Weston considered the previous attempts unsatisfactory. You might also search for Weston’s cabbage leaf and other vegetable photos. Take some time to see and understand the perfection of the lighting, lines and tones that transcend these simple subjects and show what can be accomplished with a mundane subject when the photographer uses clear vision, careful lighting and technical perfection. Weston wrote a series of “Daybooks,” a sort of artistic and technical diary that provide excellent guidance to anyone who aspires to produce more than mere snapshots.
  • Brett Weston, the son of Edward Weston and later his assistant, was an important and famous photographer in his own right, producing lush, black-and-white landscape photos. Though his work does seem somewhat derivative of his more famous father.
  • Clarence White was the exemplar of gauzy Pictorialism, staging many photographs whose meaning was perhaps a bit too evident to our modern sensibilities. Despite that, White was friend and mentor to many famous photographers, particularly to later-prominent women like Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White. Their stringently realistic style, now remembered as more direct and powerful, was quite the opposite of their mentor Clarence White’s intentionally arty, staged images. But, he obviously taught and mentored his pupils well. Interestingly, White’s staged, intentionally “art” and meaning-laden style is making a strong comeback among academic photographers tired of the documentary styles of Weegee and Lange, and of the “straight photography” landscapes of Adams and Weston. There’s real truth in the old French adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
  • Minor White, a friend of Adams, headed and inspired the creative photography program at MIT when I was a college student and then graduate student at MIT. As a result, I’m probably a bit biased, as that’s where I got my own grounding in the fundamental technical concepts and techniques of serious photography. In addition to teaching, White founded Aperture, America’s world-leading journal of fine art photography, editing Aperture for 24 years until his death in 1976. White’s personal photographic approach had much in common with Weston, finding depth and meaning in everyday found objects, and an insistence on the highest achievable technical quality in the final print. White espoused two other concepts that make lasting good sense, the notion of a sequence of closely related images that, shown and observed together, have greater overall impact. You can think of a sequence as being like a thematic photo exhibit in miniature. White encouraged open-mindedness akin to meditation when approaching the world with a camera, believing that the open mind saw wonder and emotionally powerful images where others saw only the surface. Although that approach is now considered fundamental to serious photography, it was controversial when first advocated. White extended that meditative approach to a photograph’s later viewers, believing that there was just as much creativity in the slow, thoughtful “reading” of a photograph as in its making. I’ve come around to that approach myself after seeing some people breeze through a show of 40 or more good photos in less than three minutes. That’s about four seconds per photo, including time spent moving between each image.
  • Winogrand photographed the ordinary and mundane side of post-World War II American suburbia in a highly realistic manner, and instead found surrealism. His work is a more free form, highly American approach to the “decisive moment.”

As you might expect, those exotic name-letters X, Y and Z are sparsely populated, so we’ll end our series upon the high notes found among the Ws.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged In: ‘W’ is for weighty photographers in history

  1. jack

    IMOGEN CUNNINGHAM

    “Which of my photographs is my favorite? The one I’m going to take tomorrow “

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