Archive for November, 2007

Photo Histories

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

Some months ago, Graham Harrison contacted me about a new on-line photography site he was setting up, looking at photography in an intelligent way, and invited me to have a look at the preview site. I was impressed, and offered to write something, though as yet I’ve not got around to it. Perhaps later…

Photo Histories is now up for all to read, and the content so far is impressive, with a great interview with Philip Jones Griffiths, who talks about “why the ideals of the thinking photojournalist forged in the 20th century should not be sacrificed for the dumbed down culture of the 21st.” His ‘Vietnam Inc’ (1971) was one of the most important books of the era, and one that moved me and others powerfully when it came out – and is still a fine example of why photojournalism is important. I also have a great deal of sympathy for his views on the current state of Magnum which you can read in the interview. While others – including myself – have written about his work and its significance, this interview does add some insights into the work and the man who produced it – and has a nice picture of him by Harrison.

Another photographer I’ve also written about previously is Homer Sykes, whose self-published books Hunting with Hounds and On the Road Again I reviewed at some length. (You can download a pdf file of the Autumn 2002 issue of the LIP Journal where my review of On the Road Again appeared in print – and both – along with features on photographers Berenice Abbot and Brassai mentioned below – are probably available on the ‘Wayback Machine‘ or its mirror from About Photography.)

In Photo Histories there is another detailed interview with Sykes, as well as a interesting set of pictures ‘Unknown Homer Sykes : The English 1968 – 78‘.

I met Homer again earlier this year, when he was back photographing Swan Upping on the Thames for the first time for many years. You can see some of my pictures from the event at My London Diary, but surprisingly I don’t seem to have mentioned him. The two of us were the only photographers who ran along the river bank to record the Dyers and Vintners men raising their oars to salute the Royal uppers at the end of the day. I hope he got the exposure better than I did in the wickedly contrasting light. I left the D200 to sort it out and it didn’t.

Other features on Photo Histories include some on key books from the history of photography, including Berenice Abbott‘s ‘Changing New York‘ and ‘Paris de Nuit‘ with pictures by Brassai. Perhaps these were a little disappointing in not really dealing with the images, more with biography and background matters, but still useful introductions. Perhaps it might be a useful addition to have features about key images or sets of images from them as well.

Graham Harrison has of course worked for some of the big names in British publishing, and at the centre of Photo Histories is a section called by that same title, which includes an article (originally published on EPUK) about the first Press Photographer’s Year Expo held this summer. At the end is a footnote:

After the success of the Press Photographer’s Year Expo it was sobering to see Stoddart’s stills used with effect throughout the C4 TV documentary The Rise and Fall of Tony Blair credited to Getty Images only.

Moral rights – including that of attribution – are something that photographers still have to fight for. The Photo Histories section also has a very nice insider story by Brian Harris about working with the late Don McPhee during the 1988 US Presidential campaign.

As well as his main site, you can also see more of Graham Harrison’s work in ‘The Oxford Year,’ though in the two years this has been going he seems so far to have missed those swan uppers!

Nikon D3 or D300?

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Yesterday I went along to the Nikon show at Olympia to play with their two new cameras, the D3 and D300. Both seem decent models, though I’m not sure if I will buy either. After all the D200 is still working pretty well. I only bothered to go there because I wanted to go to a London Bloggers meet in the evening, so it was sort of on the way.

There are some nice things about the D300, in particular the even better screen on the back, and the few images I took at high ISO perhaps seemed a little more usable than with the D200. I’d certainly be a little happier with shooting at ISO1600, though I’m not clear whether the difference is really anything more than more aggressive noise reduction in the D300. The test shots I’ve seen – unlike mine, taken under carefully controlled conditions – on Imaging Resource do seem to show less noise on the D300 image at 1600 than at 800, together with reduced noise and sharpness, suggesting a sharp ramp in noise reduction.

However I didn’t shoot on RAW, but only on fine jpeg, and also hadn’t made all the tweaks I would certainly want to do when using the camera. Detailed reviews may appear shortly, at the moment all we really have to go on is the published specs and some fairly ill-informed comment – including that on at least one site where the author has been using a camera for a few days.

Moving from a D200 to a D300 would be relatively simple, with many of the controls in similar places, and the camera has the same feeling of having controls in the right place. As well as the larger screen, I’d certainly welcome the improved focus system, which is the same as in the D3. Possibly the ability to record 14 bits instead of 12 may also help in high contrast situations.

I took a few frames on the D3 too, with the ISO set to 5000, again as jpegs (I wasn’t sure if my raw processing would work with the RAW files from the cameras.) Lousy subject matter, but – at least where I got the focus correct – technically very usable images. I really needed rather longer to get used to the camera, and the menus seemed rather confusing compared to the D200, though I’m sure I’d soon cope.

So would I like one? I’m not sure. It’s a great camera but I think too large and heavy for me. I’m often using a camera more or less all the time for perhaps 5 or 6 hours at a stretch, and I’m not sure my shoulders or right wrist would cope with the extra heft. The Nikon D200 and D300 both weight around 830g while the D3 is 1240g, half as much again. Of course the difference in practice is a little less obvious, as I’d normally have perhaps 600g of lens fitted to any of the bodies.

I’m not going to rush out and buy either – particularly as the D3 in particular is likely to be in very short supply for a while. Despite the cost and size issues, it’s still the one I’m more inclined to seriously consider. And it would cost. As well as D3 itself costing well over twice as much as the D300, I’d also need a new lens to replace the 18-200 which only covers the DX format, as well as possibly wanting to replace my current Sigma 12-24 (which does cover full frame) with the new Nikon 14-24 f2.8….

It might be easier to just go back to using film!

Paris Nudes

Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

I’ve written in the past about the history of nude photography, and Paris was certainly one of the major centres of production of ‘academies‘, those early nude figure studies, ostensibly made for the education of artists, but in fact gratifying a rather wider section of the middle-class male population.

The exhibition ‘Books of Nudes: an anthology‘ at the MEP until 6 Jan, 2008, shows work from the astonishing collection of Alessandro Bertolotti of published nudes gathered over 30 years (and those unable to visit the show may be interested in the catalogue or the book, Books of Nudes, published by Harry Abrams, which is the English version – and rather cheaper.)

It is a splendid collection, and a book that might well go on Christmas lists for photographers – and those with an interest in the subject. But although it is a great source of material – particularly work by lesser-known photographers – I found the organisation and exhibition text less than satisfying.

The work is organised on a chronological basis, and this allows for a reasonably sensible grouping and analysis of work in the early years, but begins to fall apart early in the twentieth century. When it came to the section covering work in the period immediately after 1945, it is clear that it breaks down completely, lumping together work such as Bill Brandt‘s with work that I would dismiss as ‘glamour’ rather than nude. And things can only get worse.

I’ve always refused to write about or feature ‘glamour’ photography. To me it is just a dishonest sibling of pornography. Of course porn covers a very wide range of material, some of which truly disgusts me – and I think it is more than a matter of taste. So-called ‘glamour’ merely saddens me to think that there are some who find it glamorous. It is the artificiality I object to, not any nudity.

We each have our boundaries, and our interests. I’d be quite happy never to see another picture of a ‘celebrity’, with or without clothing. Although there was nothing in the show I’d want to see banned there was certainly some material which I think the show would have been better without.

But there is plenty there of interest, including fine work I’d not seen before, for example by Germaine Krull, as well as much by photographers I’m familiar with and have written about, including Man Ray, (select ‘Nude‘ in the Themes drop-down), Willy Ronis, Jan Saudek, (but not Sara) and many more.

Peter Marshall

The Picture Lady – Martine Barrat

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Martine Barrat‘s show “Harlem In My Heart” is at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris until January 6th, 2008, and I spent quite a while looking at her warm record of her over 30 years in Harlem and the many friends she has photographed.

You can see some of the best of her pictures at Contact Press and more of her work at her own web site, which suffers from a rather odd flash interface (the kind of thing fortunately that seems very dated now, but is worth persisting with.

As well as her work from Harlem, there are also a number of other galleries on her web site, though I got too annoyed with the site to look at them all. There are some nice black and white images from the Goutte d’Or (Paris Voice describes it as “a tiny patch of Africa transported to Paris“) at the eastern edge of the 18e.

Barrat was born in Algeria but grew up in Paris. She moved to New York in 1968, at first to co-ordinate a theatre workshop working with a jazz group, later becoming a photographer and film-maker. One of her early films was on youth gangs in the South Bronx, and was shown at the Whitney Musuem in New York as a part of the exhibition with her still photos, “You Do the Crime, You Do the Time“, later winning a prize for best documentary in Milan.

She became well-known as “the Picture Lady” for the images she took around Harlem in the 1970s and later. Her first book, on young boxers, ‘Do or Die‘ (1993) had an introduction by Gordon Parks and a foreward by Martin Scorcese.

You can read a more detailed resume on her web site, in English or French.

It is certainly a body of work that shows her heart is in Harlem and warms the heart of the viewer. It’s work that comes from being very much a part of the community she is photographing, and includes some displays of pictures pasted up like those that she made on the walls of a Harlem community centre.

Peter Marshall

Streets of London & Paris

Monday, November 26th, 2007

Two rather different photographers whose work I’ve enjoyed on the web in the last few days.

Paul Muse was born in England but has lived in Paris for quite a while. On his site you can see a daily image along with a short text (in both English and French,) and the text for 20 Nov:

Paris rediscovers the fun of getting around on foot.”

certainly got a response from me as I was still recovering from walking around Paris courtesy of the striking transport workers.

Don’t miss some interesting work on the gallery pages, including ‘London Falling‘, street pictures taken during a short visit to the city in August 2006, and much more. If you are in Paris his work is on show at the Galerie du Lucernaire’ until 2 Dec – details on his site.

I met Paul when I was in Paris recently, but unfortunately didn’t get to see the pictures then. Next November I’ll book a longer stay, because there really is so much to see – and of course even more next year, when November will also be the ‘Mois de la Photo‘ along with its incredible ‘Off’ fringe.

Brian David Stevens is a photographer I’ve known for a while, and we sometimes find ourselves standing together at events in London, although the pictures we make are usually very different. He continues to work with black and white film in a Leica (he tells me the latest stuff is ‘digital Tri-X’ using a Ricoh GR-D) while I’ve moved to using digital colour (sometimes with an M8, but more often with a Nikon) but there are even more significant differences.

He describes his profession in his ‘Lightstalkers’ profile as “miserable sod” (I think it comes from the Welsh blood.) And although its a mode I can do pretty well myself (look, my middle name is Gwyn), I like to have fun when making pictures.

But his work is dark and powerful, with lots of empty blacks, and it works well, both with the images using reflections and the very direct images of people on the street, often viewed looking up from hip level. One of his images of two women in particular really jumps off from the screen with forceful menace.

It’s interesting to compare the pictures on Flickr where he now posts work, with those on his older personal web site. There are some of the same images, and clearly the same vision, but presented very differently.

Peter Marshall

Paris Strike – Manif, Walks, Party

Thursday, November 22nd, 2007

My diary of pictures from Paris is now on line, on ‘My London Diary‘ and includes pictures from several walks around Paris – thanks to the transport strike there I walked everywhere.

I also got to photograph a ‘manif‘ by the transport workers – where I met a and photographed an angel, as well as some of the union leaders and others there.

© L’Ange Blanc – see
Image used with permission.

There are also some pictures taken at an excellent party; the party was good, so I’ve no idea who took some of the pictures, though I do appear in them. I think we all had a good time.

To protect the guilty I deliberately haven’t included any names in the captions, though you might recognise some of us. The same is true of the photographers I’ve shown at Paris Photo.

Most of the pictures from Paris were taken on the Leica M8, a camera about which I still have mixed feelings. Working with it is almost like using a film Leica, but the shutter noise can be obtrusive. And there are still problems if you haven’t got the latest Leica lenses with 6 bit coding.

This would matter less if Leica actually made suitable lenses for use with this 1.3x camera, preferably by bringing out some relatively cheap 24mm, 21mm and wider optics (They have produced a 28mm f2.8, but I’d like wider.)

Voigtlander have the lenses (and I own several) but they don’t have the Leica coding. You can add this manually, but this doesn’t work with my 21mm as it has the incorrect lens adapter. The coding allows the camera to compensate for the lens vignetting – which when using the IR cut filter needed for decent colour gives your pictures cyan corners.

Mostly I worked with a Leica 35mm f1.4 (which Leica says won’t work with the camera) fitted with an IR cut filter and some appropriate black marks for 6 bit coding made with a genuine ‘Sharpie’ pen. This is fine, but basically a standard lens (1.3 x 35 = 45.5)

With the Voigtlander 21mm f4, every picture has to be run through software to remove the colour vignetting. It’s an extra chore and using PTCorrect as a Photoshop plugin doesn’t always do the job quite perfectly. I’m hoping I can do it better with CornerFix once I get to grips with it.

Leica could add a menu item as a firmware upgrade that allowed users to get suitable built-in support for non-coded lenses. It would make many users a lot happier with the camera.

Copycat Images?

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

Copying of images has been making the headlines again in recent weeks. The estate of Bob Carlos Clarke perhaps appears to be claiming rights on any close-up of lips and a tongue, and preparing to take Pepsi to court – you can judge for yourself the validity of their claim on the Amateur Photography web site.

For me, such originality as exists in Carlos Clarke’s image is in the biting down of the teeth on the lips, the particular upthrust of the curled tongue, the slight dynamic tilt and the grainy black and white tonalites, all absent from the Pepsi offering, which – as one might expect from the US giant – is bland, pink and ugly.

It is after all, subject matter we all have to hand (or at least mouth) and probably many of us are wondering if in turn we can sue the estate if Mr Carlos Clarke given that we’ve been photographing people with mouths since the 1960s (or whenever.)

Another case over a similar issue has been decided in the Paris courts, and you can read about it on EPUK (Editorial Photographers UK.) The court ruled that a picture used by the “French National Tourist Office Federation (FNOTSI) was a deliberate copy of a Getty Images stock photograph” by Ian Sanderson.

Here there seems to me little doubt about the visual similarity of the two images – and you can compare them in the EPUK feature, which lists the similarities. As Getty argued in court, you cannot copyright the idea of a couple kissing on a roundabout, but this was an obvious attempt to recreate the image, including the appearance of the models, clothing, pose, background and viewpoint.

Sanderson’s image is widely known, and the only surprising thing about the case appears to me that the agency concerned didn’t just put up their hands, say its a fair cop guv, apologise and then negotiate over the fee. I suspect they may well have tried to do so, but found that Getty were intransigent. The court settlement, including costs, is said to be well below the five times the normal fee that Getty demanded, and given that it took 4 years to reach a settlement one suspects the real costs involved, including all the time of the people concerned, may actually leave Getty out of pocket, though the photographer should be in the money.

FNOTSI have of course lost out – and deserve to on various counts. They had to scrap the campaign and replace it – at an estimated cost of 60,000 euros, as well as paying the fine and damages. And apart from the deliberate breach of copyright involved, they only paid the photographer concerned a miserly 1750 euros for the work, expenses and licencing – when getting the original legally from Getty would have cost around five times as much.

This pair of images is just one of those featured earlier in an earlier feature on Visual Plagiarism on EPUK, now updated, which I’ve written about previously elsewhere.

One vital point to make is that it isn’t sufficient for two images to be visually very similar to cry plagiarism. Your original has to really be original in the first place; there can be plagiarism in copying a cliché. And by my reckoning there are several images featured in the EPUK feature that would be disqualified by that test.

Another problem is that of coincidence. I wouldn’t for a single moment accuse Fay Godwin of either plagiarism or producing clichés, but when I opened one of her books some years ago, I recognised one of my pictures, taken at Chatsworth. One that had actually been hanging on my wall for several years at the time. I made my image in 1984, while hers, in the book ‘Landmarks‘ is dated 1988. (The two pictures are not quite identical, and hers is taken or cropped to a square format.) And although I knew Fay and on various occasions we enjoyed going around exhibitions together and sharing our often similar prejudices, I’m sure neither of us had seen the other’s image when we made our own.

There is a big difference between this case and that of the couple on the roundabout. Neither Fay nor myself arranged anything for the photograph, it was simply a matter of being in the same place within a few inches and using a lens with a similar angle of view (mine was I think a 35mm on an OM body) pointing in more or less the same direction in similar lighting.

I think this was my second picture of the sleepy lion and it was made in May 1984. I’ve put the two pieces of sculpture a little closer together, but the resemblance is fairly striking. (C) Peter Marshall, 1984

Strangely enough, looking through my contact sheets later, I found that I had actually made a very similar photograph on two occasions myself, although I’m fairly sure I didn’t remember the first when I was making the second image. Although I’ve generally got a pretty good memory for images, it is something that has happened to me on a number of occasions.

The Year in Pictures

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

James Danziger is a well known name in photographic circles, having opened a New York gallery in 1989 and now running Danziger Projects in New York’s Chelsea. So the start of a new blog, The Year In Pictures, in which he promises to write about pictures that have captured his imagination is welcome news. One to bookmark or add to your blog feeds.

My favourite among his postings so far is a piece on Milton Rogovin, entitled ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ where he publishes a great image from 1973 of Lower West Siders Johnny Lee Wines and Zeke Johnson, along with 4 unpublished and previously unseen shots of Johnny from the same day, and another of his “favorite pictures that blends happiness, romance, and a certain bashfulness” by Malick Sidibe.

Great, I thought, and wouldn’t it be nice to link to my feature on Milton Rogovin. Then I remembered that was no longer on line (or at least only in the Internet Archive), so I wrote a new and revised version, correcting a number of mistakes and adding some new material. Rogovin is a really fine documentary photographer, and incredibly only really started serious photography when he was in his late 40s. He finally retired in 2003, the year when his wife, comrade and muse Anna Rogovin died, and the family are now preparing to celebrate his 98th birthday next month.

This year marks a significant anniversary for Rogovin. It was 50 years ago, in 1957, at the height of the great American Cold War paranoia, that he refused to answer the questions of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and was pilloried by the Buffalo Evening News as “Buffalo’s Top Red”, and harassed by the FBI. 50 years in which he continued to live his courageous belief in the dignity of humanity and the inherent worth of people, channelling his efforts into photography. 50 years over which America changed from regarding him as a national enemy to accepting him as a national treasure, when in 1999 his negatives, contact sheets and around 1300 prints were archived by the Library of Congress, the first living photographer to be honoured in this way since the 1970s.

Milton Rogovin

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

For images by Rogovin, open a new window on the Rogovin website while reading this essay.

New York Origins

Milton Rogovin‘s parents, Jacob and Dora, were Lithuanian Jewish immigrants; Jacob had arrived in New York in 1904 and Dora came the following year with their year old baby Sam, and they set up a shop selling household goods on Park Avenue in New York’s Harlem. Their second son was born in 1907, followed in 1909 by Milton. His first language and that of his family was Yiddish.

Business started to get tough after the First World War ended in 1918, and in 1920 the family and shop moved to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, but Milton travelled in to Manhattan to attend Stuyvesant High School. From there he went on to Columbia University where he qualified as an optometrist in 1931.

By then the depression had hit, the family store had gone bust, and his father died of a heart attack four months before he graduated. Work as an optometrist in New York was hard to find and sporadic. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo to take a job there where there was more opportunity.


The depression and his own experiences, particularly the failure of the shop and his father’s death made him become politically active, and he helped to set up the Optical Workers Union in New York City. He continued his union activities after moving to Buffalo, losing his job there in 1939 when he picketed two of his boss’s offices.

He had met Anne Snetsky (later Setters) at a wedding in Buffalo in 1938, where they argued about the Spanish Civil War – he was highly concerned while she was then indifferent to the cause – and fell in love. They were to remain life-long lovers and comrades until her death in 2003.

With Anne’s encouragement and the support of the union, he decided to set up in practice as an optometrist on his own, on the edge of Buffalo’s deprived working-class Italian Lower West Side.

War Years

Anne and he got married in 1942, which was also the year Rogovin bought his first camera. Later in the year he volunteered to serve in the US armed forces, training as an X-ray technician before being assigned to serve as an optometrist. During his training he entered and won a photo contest at the training school with a picture of a waterfall taken on his new camera.

In 1944 he was posted to a hospital in Cirencester in the west of England, until the end of the war in Europe.

Back In Buffalo

After war service, he returned to Buffalo, where his brother (also an optometrist) had been keeping the practice running, and they worked as partners. He continued his political activities, becoming the librarian for the local communist party, as well as being active in the union, taking part in encouraging black voters to register and other political campaigns.

Rogovin and Anne made their first visit to Mexico in 1953, where they met a number of left-wing Mexican artists and then and in subsequent visits over the next four years he made a number of photographs there.

He was by this time developing a greater interest in photography, showing pictures in the annual Western New York Exhibition at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo in 1954 and 1958.

Red Scare: “The Top Red in Buffalo”

Cold-war hysteria in America was growing, and in 1957 Rogovin was summoned to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Rogovin invoked his constitutional right to refuse to testify rather than cooperate in any way, but became the subject of various newspaper headlines which labelled him as ‘Buffalo’s Top Red.’

In the following months his business fell off dramatically; some who thought of themselves as loyal Americans wanted nothing to do with ‘Commies’, while others felt that they too might suffer from similar smears if they continued to associate with him.

Many photographers and other artists also suffered from McCarthyism. The New York Photo League, the most important and vital photographic organisation of the era – one that changed the history of photography and had many leading photographers as members (and to their credit others joined to try and protect it after it had been named) – was forced to close. Paul Strand chose to leave America and live in France to avoid the persecution. Any American who dreamed there could be a better and more equal future was open to attack.

Store Front Churches

Rogovin was left with time on his hands as the business collapsed. William Tallmadge, a friend and professor of music at Buffalo State University, was recording music at one of Buffalo’s Afro-American Holiness Churches and invited him to come along and photograph.

The experience decided him to dedicate his life to photography. Progressive political activities had become virtually impossible in Buffalo and he felt his “voice was essentially silenced, so I decided to speak out through photographs.”

After working with Tallmadge for three months, he continued to photograph in Afro-American churches in Buffalo for the next three years, learning the skills that he needed. He went on a two week workshop with Minor White, who showed him how to use the bare-bulb flash technique that he continued to work with for the rest of his career, and worked out how to photograph black faces in a way that achieved proper gradation with their darker skin tones.

White also gave him advice on shutter speeds, suggesting that rather than use 1/125th which had the effect of freezing the movement of his subjects, he should use a slower speed, perhaps 1/25th, which would give a slightly more dynamic quality where there was some movement.

His approach when photographing people was simple and straightforward. He would ask permission to take their picture, set up his camera on its tripod and let them decide how to pose. The only thing he would ask them was to look at the camera – he liked to see their eyes – as was perhaps natural for an optometrist. The camera meets the gaze of the subjects, giving his work a powerful directness.

Minor White was a great supporter of his work, and published pictures from the project in his magazine, Aperture, getting W E B Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP (National Association of the Advancement of Colored People) to write an introduction.

Family of Miners

Rogovin was not making money from his pictures at this time. Fortunately Anne was still able to carry on with her teaching in special education and support the family and his work, as well as helping him in developing his projects.

In 1962, they read about the problems in the coal industry and in particular for Appalachian miners, with declining production as the car industry leading to lower demand for coal. As well as increasing unemployment there were also the health problems faced from working under appalling, dusty conditions underground, with most or all eventually succumbing to silicosis.

A letter to the mineworkers union president got them an introduction to the union office in West Virginia, and during Anne’s summer break they travelled there to see and photograph the workers. They were to return for the next eight summers to continue the work.

In 1981 he began a larger project which he called ‘Family of Miners’, starting again in the Appalachians. The following year there was a show of his work on the store front churches and working people in Paris, and he came and photographed miners in the north of France, then in 1983, support from the Scottish miners union enabled him to photograph miners in Scotland.

In 1983, he received the W Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography and was able to extend his work on miners to other countries, eventually including China, Cuba, Germany, Mexico, Spain and Zimbabwe

Neruda and Chile

On 1967, Rogovin sent a letter to the great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, requesting his help in producing a series of photographs of the people and the country with Neruda’s writing. Some of the pictures were published in the Czech Revue Fotografie in 1976 later the project was published as ‘Windows that Open Inward‘ including poems by Neruda.

Lower West Side

By 1970, Rogovin was deliberately cutting down his remaining work as an optimetrist to spend more time on photography. However it was not until many years later, around 1978, that he was able – with family support and his wife’s income – to give this up to be full time as a photographer.

His next major project began in 1972, when he decided to document the Lower West Side. The Italian population there when he moved to Buffalo had moved out to wealthier areas, and had been replaced by Puerto Rican and African-Americans. It was now an area with high levels of crime, drugs, alcoholism, prostitution and high unemployment.

At first people there were very suspicious of a white guy with a camera, regarding him as a spy sent by the police or other authorities. With the help of Anne, he slowly get to know people and gain their trust, enabling him to photograph them in their homes as well as in public.

When he took his Hasselblad and set it up on a tripod, he noticed that people came up to him and asked him how much it had cost. He took the hint and decided it would be more sensible to use his old Rolleiflex instead – and it was his preferred camera from then on, used for most of his best pictures.

The Rolleiflex – like the Hasselblad – has a focussing screen on the top of the camera, requiring the photographer to bow his head to look down at it. This reverent attitude towards the sitter contrasts with the more aggresive direct view, aiming at the person with an eye-level viewfinder. It reflected his attitude to those he photographed.

Three years of work in the Lower West side led to his first major exhibition, at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. He organised a smaller show in the Lower West Side itself with buses to the gallery so that those he had photographed and their friends would see the work.

He returned to photograph there in 1984-6, at Anne’s suggestion producing ‘Lower West Side Revisted‘ which pairs these pictures with the work a dozen or so years earlier in diptychs. He managed to locate over a hundred people he had photographed previously – and found many had the pictures he had made hanging proudly on their walls.

Following his recovery from surgery for a heart problem and prostate cancer, again prompted by his wife he returned again in 1992-4, again photographing the same people thus producing some outstanding triptychs taken over a 20 year period, showing them at radically different stages in their lives. These produced the book ‘Triptychs: Buffalo’s Lower West Side Revisited‘ (1994.)

By 1997, cataracts in both eyes and fading sight forced Rogovin to sell his camera and shut up his darkroom. But being unable to photograph was too frustrating and he had surgery in 1999, which restored his vision, and he bought back his camera.

In 2000, with Anne and broadcaster Dave Isay, he returned to photograph in the Lower West Side for a fourth time. They managed to find 18 of his original subjects and photograph them to produce a series of ‘Quartets’. Isay had worked with photographer Harvey Wang, who produced the award-winning documentary short film ‘Milton Rogovin, The Forgotten Ones‘ (2003.)


In 1976, inspired by a Bertolt Brecht poem, ‘A Worker Reads History‘ he began to photograph workers at the steel mills and car factories around Buffalo.

A picture of a steel worker and child feeding ducks outside their home published in the Illinois Historical Society journal led him to extend his work. When he had photographed someone at work, he would go back with a print and a request to photograph them at home with their families. His workers are not just workers, not just a small cog in the machine of production, but people, individuals with their own lives outside of work.

In 1987, he returned to photograph these people again, now out of work, as steel production had ended in the area.

In 1993, his book ‘Portraits in Steel‘ was published, with interviews of the subjects by Michael Frisch.

Working Methods

Working with 120 roll film, Rogovin could make 12 images on a roll, and to keep costs down he usually fitted three or four people or groups onto each roll, taking only 3 or 4 frames for each of them.

He did all his own darkroom work, developing the film and them contact printing it to choose which of the frames to enlarge. The Rolleiflex (and Hasselblad) produce 6×6 cm negatives (actually around 56mmx56mm) making the contacts easy to assess. Normally he would chose at least one image of each person and print it carefully, dodging and burning as required to bring out the most from the negative, to make sure that he had a good picture to give to the subject.

The bare bulb technique is a good method of getting fairly even light in small rooms. As its name suggests, it uses a bulb holder with a bulb but no reflector, so that light is given out in all directions more or less evenly. Shooting as he usually did in small rooms, this produced in a lot of light bouncing from walls and ceilings as well as some direct illumination.

Special flash guns or slaves can be bought for bare bulb use, or you can get bare bulb effects from an ordinary flashgun by using an attachment – a large translucent bulb on the front of the flash. You do however need a fairly powerful flash as the light, being spread out is considerably less intense than with a normal directional flash.

Rogovin worked almost entirely in black and white. He decided that colour was a distraction that took people’s attention away from the subject and into thinking about the colour of the clothes or surrounding objects.

Colour would of course have added considerably to his costs and to the complexity of the processing and printing. Black and white is very much more straightforward to process and print yourself, while colour is generally best handled by machine rather than hand processing.

Influences on his Work

Although Rogovin was aware of documentary photography and was a friend of Paul Strand, as well as having respect for the work of photographers such as Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White, he has said that his major influences came not from photography but painting, and in particular the work of Goya and Kâthe Kollwitz.

It is perhaps hard to understand this, looking at the very photographic quality of his work. Of course the paintings may interest him more and inspire him to get out an make images, but the forms that these take are rather more clearly based on the photographic sources.

One particular film by Luis Bunuel, ‘Los Olvidados‘ (1950) did have an important impact, and is reflected not just in the title of his book ‘The Forgotten Ones’ (he liked it so much that he actually used the title for two books, the first in 1985, and then in 2003), but in a devotion throughout his working life as a photographer to photograph ordinary people rather than the rich and famous. In its concern for ordinary people and their often forgotten lives his work obviously resembles Bunuel’s film, but it lacks the surreal symbolism which is central to Bunuel’s vision.

Peter Marshall, 2007

Other web links on Milton Rogovin, some of which provided information for this feature:

Milton Rogovin web site
Library of Congress: Milton Rogovin
Luminous Lint – Milton Rogovin
N Y Times A Sympathetic Lens on Ordinary People
NPR: Milton Rogovin
Afterimage: Robert Hirsch Interview with Milton Rogovin
The Forgotten Ones (book – with pictures on line

David Plowden – Vanishing Point?

Tuesday, November 20th, 2007

I’ve written before – elsewhere – about David Plowden. His ‘Small Town America‘, published in 1994 by Harry Abrams in NY (ISBN 0810938421) remains one of my favourite records of America – just one among around 20 of his books, and he was among the list of around 250 ‘Notable Photographers‘ I first put on-line around 2000.

He is also one of the photographers whose work is included on David Sapir’s Fixing Shadows, one of the earliest web sites to feature fine collections of ‘straight photography‘ (and on which I was proud to be included as the first UK photographer on the site.)

So it was a little surprising to read on The Online Photographer a review of his retrospective publication ‘Vanishing Point‘ starting “David Plowden may be the best photographer you never heard of.” Surely there can be few with a serious interest in photography who didn’t visit the old ‘About Photography‘ or ‘Fixing Shadows‘ – I ask tongue in cheek, although back in 2000, there really were not too many other serious games on the block.

But of course there are people with a serious interest in photography – even some photographers – who were hardly out of nappies in those primitive days of the web, and now we are overwhelmed with material. Then I had problems finding sites worth writing about because there was so little available; now I have problems finding sites worth writing about because there is so much.

Back to David Plowden, a fine and unassuming gentleman who I met a few years back, and a great photographer. Reviewer Geoffrey Wittig puts it well: “Walker Evans without the condescension.” His work is clear, precise statements, beautifully seen and presented. As the review also says, it is perhaps low on irony, but it is full of a kind of love and reverence for the subject.

Plowden’s lack of visibility in some circles largely resulted from a difference of opinion between him and curator John Szarkowski, and he never made it to the Czar’s pantheon. There seems to me to be a certain irony here, in that some of Szarkowski’s own photography has a very similar character; perhaps their failure to connect was some kind of turf war on the curator’s part.

Plowden of course kept on at the photography for some 50 years, and at 75 has a show – as Arthur Gross points out in a comment to the review (do read it) – at the Catherine Edelmann Gallery in Chicago (until Dec 29, 2007.) You can also find his work at the Lawrence Miller Gallery, but the definitive site is his own David Plowden website.

Vanishing Point (ISBN-10: 0393062546) is an expensively produced book and one that needs a strong table to rest it on, with some 350 pages. Fortunately it is heavily discounted from suppliers such as Amazon and would be a very acceptable Christmas present for many photographers, including myself!