Feature Article

Florence and Dorothea

We don’t all enjoy the same types of music. Similarly, we have different tastes in food and find inspiration or solace in differing genres of literature, film, painting or sculpture. Photography is no different. It’s fair to say that there are ‘photographic club’ styles of photography although many club photographers are equally interested in the mediums wider field and history.

In a photographic club context, true Documentary Photography can be challenging. Perhaps it’s because images of the often dis-ordered state of people’s lives do not always meet the compositional standards often sought by many or, because those standards are met at the price of the emotion which the photographer was trying to convey ? There are photographers who bridge that gap. In January 2018 we welcomed Steven Cosh, a street photographer whose photographs communicate the plight of those living on the streets as opposed to simply being portraits of people living in dire circumstances. June 2020 brought Alan Harris B.Sc MA ( Photography ) and had it not been for this strange world in which we now live, we might never have met Alan.

Our club members last gathered together in the same place on 12th March, the week before lockdown. Like many membership organisations and within a few days of that last meeting, we had decided to suspend our season. That decision was made just before lockdown was announced and our Syllabus Secretary then moved at great speed to transfer our actual meetings to online gatherings and also to arrange alternative events for those which could not be done online. It quickly became apparent that there was a wish for these online meetings to continue beyond our usual season’s end so new events were designed and new lecturers sought. That brought us to Alan Harris, who on our online video conferencing platform, articulated and illustrated a wider field of photography. He introduced our members to documentary photographers who had operated in an often harsh and unforgiving world except, to the people occupying that world, harsh & unforgiving is normal.

Documentary photographers know about “normal”. Search online and you will find Migrant Mother. This Black & White photograph by Dorothea Lange ( 1895 – 1965 ) was taken in 1936 in California during the Great Depression in the U.S.A. Dorothea had been a photographer working in the more affluent areas of San Francisco but that was not where she envisaged her future. She understood that photography could be used to bring about change so went to work for the Resettlement Administration, later re-named the Farm Security Administration, documenting and photographing the strife of the rural population.

She was on her way back home after spending a month on assignment for the Resettlement Administration when she found herself in a camp of approximately 3,000 people in San Luis Obispo County, California. They were farm workers who had answered a call for pea-pickers but, the crop had since failed, there was no work, they had no money and they were now starving. Dorothea found a 32 year old mother with some of her children in a very, very basic tent. Florence Owens Thomson and her family had been travelling towards Santa Cruz County seeking work in lettuce fields when their car broke down. Even for the 1930’s, it was not a modern car. Her partner and two of her sons had gone off in search of parts to repair the vehicle so Florence, with very young children in her care, were waiting in the camp. Dorothea took some photographs of the family and sent them to a newspaper in San Francisco. Only afterwards, did she send them to the Resettlement Administration files. The newspaper published the story and within days food arrived from the federal government although, by then, Florence and her family had travelled to Santa Cruz County and found work. One of Dorothea’s photographs of Florence with a few of her children became, and remains, one of photography’s most iconic images.

Dorothea Lange continued as a highly successful documentary photographer, among other things, photographing the detainment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbour. Ansel Adams then invited her to teach Fine Art Photography at the California School Of Fine Arts and she later was one of the founders of the photography journal Aperture. She is regarded as one of the finest documentary photographers of our time and her photographs are still exhibited, analysed and published worldwide.

Search further online and you will find another photograph, taken around 1979. In the garden of a home sits a white haired lady. Three of her grown-up children are with her, clearly proud of their mother. They know that it has not always been like this and that their mother’s life never was, or would be, easy. The white haired lady is Florence, the now grown-up children were the ones with her in that 1936 photograph. Florence had the courage and determination to survive the Great Depression. She had the strength to raise a family during turbulent years. Florence, born in 1903, passed away in 1983 aged 80 years and the, then, President of the United States sent his condolences.

We might, conceivably, have read about Florence and there is more to the story. Thanks to a Documentary Photographer, we are privileged to know her a little better.

Jacques Henri Lartigue

Like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jacques Henri Lartique ( 1894 – 1986 ) was born into a successful and comfortable French family. For a short time he studied painting in Paris at the Académie Julian and remained a painter although, photography remained a part of his life after his father gave him his first camera when he was only 8 years of age. Photography has, since it’s inception, benefitted from the skills of many people who innovated and advanced the technical side of the medium and there are many photographers who introduce new techniques as technology evolves and makes those techniques possible. At the start of the 20th century J.H.L. photographed subjects in a way which no one else had thought of and at a time when technology was limited. He was not pushing the capabilities of technology because the limits were very narrow, without drama and without fuss he was expanding the concept of photography.

During J.H.L.’s early years the concept of Speed was a new feature of life although, the emergence of photography in the mid 19th century was one of a number of advances which increased expectations about how quickly things should happen. The motor car started to appear as the 19th century entered its final phase and in one of life’s great co-incidences brothers Joseph and Claude Niépce had been instrumental in developing the internal combustion engine earlier that century. Some years later Joseph took the first ever photograph !

Shortly after J.H.L. was presented with his first camera the Wright Brothers first powered flight took place so to him, perhaps photographing cars and aeroplanes was simply the natural thing to do. At this time, people were always stationary when photographed. Exposure times in the early 1840’s were measured in minutes, 10 years later exposure times dropped below 10 seconds and as the years progressed and as exposure times continued to fall it became possible for people to appear less serious when photographed. Try holding a smile during a 2 minutes exposure time. George Eastman was able to form Kodak in the 1880’s and popularise photography because exposure times could now be measured in fractions of a second but still, to have their photograph taken, people stood still.

J.H.L. did not have those preconceptions. He just knew how he wanted people to appear when photographed and people moved so, why not photograph them while they are moving ? Seems simple now but that was not the mindset of the time. Among many examples, in 1905 he photographed his cousin, Bichonnade, leaping off the steps leading to the family home in Paris. In 1906 he photographed M. Planteigne walking along the beach at Villerville dressed in a white suit and other people in the frame too are moving. He photographed aeroplanes and racing cars too. It’s perhaps easy to forget that people born during the late 19th century witnessed the appearance of the motor car, powered flight and air travel, then human beings landing on the moon. It could be argued that their means of self expression similarly developed. Advancements witnessed by people born during the late 20th century are entirely different so how will that effect their means of self expression ? Discuss 🙂

J.L.H.’s artist’s eye brought a sense of composition to his photographs, and while he later experimented with early colour film and later used it frequently, he used the contrast of Black & White imagery to add style to his prints. It was the early 1960’s before his photography became well known. Up until that point photography was something he practiced for the enjoyment of himself and his family but during his 7th decade that all changed. His earlier work became highly appreciated and he was invited to undertake some very high profile projects.

His photographs are inspirational. Many appear to be the work of someone who just went for a walk and happened to take a camera along, but the skill behind those photographs is unrivalled.

The official Donation Jacques Henri Lartigue website is just one location where you can learn more. Prepare to be inspired.

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Henri Cartier-Bresson ( 1908 – 2004 ) is regarded by many as one of the greatest photographers ever and often as the greatest ! Born into a comfortable family in Paris, he was educated at the Lycée Condorcet and spent some time studying Art at the Lhote Academy in Paris. with a year at the University of Cambridge in England. He was expected to enter the family textile business but, Henri had other ideas. During his period of conscription in the French Army he read Heart Of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. That led him to visit the Ivory Coast where, in order to survive, he hunted and although already a painter he perhaps did not realise where those hunting skills would lead.

Returning to France he recovered from illness and met artists of the, then, new Surrealist movement. He had developed as a painter but later maintained that while studying art André Lhote had taught him “photography without a camera”. During the 1930’s he worked with film director Jean Renoir who made him act in order that HC-B understand the experience of being the subject of the camera and not the film maker or photographer. In 1939 he joined the French Army and was captured during the summer of 1940. He escaped from a P.O.W. camp, got back to France and joined the underground movement. He also retrieved his Leica camera, which he had buried to keep it safe, and resumed photography to help the Allies.

After WWII and pursuing a career as a photo-journalist, HC-B changed the photographic world as one of the founders of the Magnum picture agency in 1947. He was not the only founding Magnum photographer with wartime experience. His colleague Robert Capa had photographed the Spanish Civil War and was one of the very, very, few photographers to have landed with allied troops in Normandy on D-Day, only to have his films largely destroyed in a darkroom in London. Only a few photographs could be rescued. He lost his life working for Life magazine in 1954 with French troops in Indochina and his story too is worthy of research. The website of Magnum Photos leads you to these ground breaking photographers.

HC-B travelled the globe photographing major events in history. He also became a specialist in candid photography. Photographing human interaction and activity yet with a style of shape and form almost unimaginable in what we now refer to as Street Photography. The term “decisive moment” is articulated from his philosophy, that instant in time where human behaviour is at its most expressive in conjunction with the surrounding topography the existence all of which the participants are completely unaware. They are unaware too that it is being photographed, which brings us back to those hunting skills. All done with a completely Manual 35mm film camera, the continuing wave of the new technology of the day. If you research no other photographer, research Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Pixel To Print

In this Digital Age of high resolution screens on computers, tablets and ‘phones we could be forgiven for thinking that the photographic Print is a thing of the past. After all, the convenience of these digital devices must be hard to beat ? Touch a few symbols, swipe left / right / up / down and we’re there, right ? Wrong ! A photographic Print has a life, a body and a soul. Even if, in this Digital Age etc etc., it has not been nursed through the fluid filled trays of Developer, Stop Bath and Fixer before being washed within an inch of its life those print characteristics of velvety blacks and pristine whites have a glow and an aesthetic unobtainable through the screens of electronic wizardry. Ink Jet prints, if you use a decent ink and paper, have that extra curricular waft of character. If you have a chemical Print then just remember, your great great great great grandchild could one day hold that same print.

In Falkirk C.C. the Print sections of our Monthly Competitions are as popular as ever. In these prints the photographer is seeking to communicate not just the subject matter of the image, but also the sense of wonder held within a sheet of paper. The image, perhaps a piece of sporting action, a landscape with a low sun highlighting the texture of the foliage or of a bird of prey feeding is in your hands. You can sense the tension, the serenity or the reality of nature. You can absorb how light, colour, shape and shadow combine to create a representation of life which you can hold, examine, and experience. Our club hold exhibitions in Falkirk Town Hall where others can visit and share that experience.

When William Henry Fox Talbot was formulating his Calotype process, which led to photographic film and then to digital imagery, the action of making the image permanent on the paper was a key challenge. It was probably Henry’s friend Sir John Herschel who suggested the chemical tweak that hastened the answer so perhaps, in some ways, it is JH whom we have to thank for our ability to examine photographs from the earliest days of photography but therein lies a conundrum. Photographs from every decade since the dawn of photography survive. You find them in Galleries, Museums and Collections as well as your own albums, cupboards and drawers. Conceivably, you might have photographs from the late 19th century, the breadth of the 20th century and perhaps even the early 21st century but, what then ? You might have photographs in the form of prints of your ancestors from Victorian times onwards but will your children and grandchildren have photographs of you ?

Think on it this way. There were several formats of Video Tape before we ended up with Betamax and VHS, did you lose any material as the devices to read them disappeared ? There have been umpteen different File formats and computer Operating Systems which continue to evolve at a blistering pace so, will your grandchildren and great grandchildren be able to read your files ? Perhaps it’s time to get some Prints made, on paper that will last !

60th Anniversary

On 23rd March 1889, an article in the Falkirk Herald reported the formation of the Falkirk Amateur Photographic Association, formed with the objective of advancing photographic art and science in the district. The group underwent various incarnations and name changes until 17th April 1958 when it became the Falkirk Camera Club which we know today.  The 2017 – 2018 series of meetings is therefore the 60th season of the group under that moniker and the hub of our activities although in celebrating that achievement we are also recognising the contribution of the many, often pioneering, photographers who led the group to that stage. During the 1890’s some of those photographers gathered at Callendar House to record, what are now,  the earliest surviving photographs of that first group. They are held in the local history archives at Callendar House. On Saturday 14th October 2017, a representation of Club members gathered at the same spot where those late 19th century photographs were taken. The photographs taken on that day will also go into the archives along with short biographies from some of the present day Club members.  We hope that this information will be of interest to the historians of future generations. In the meantime we wonder, will the technology of 23rd century photography be as different from todays technology, as ours is different from the 19th century ?

See History for more information

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