New “Best of Street Portraits” Set

After having previously written about my experiences shooting street portraits (see here, here and here), I thought it was time to post a set on my website dedicated to portraits of strangers. I put together a selection that includes both the more recent digital portraits as well as older, analog ones. The images were shot all over the world, from Berlin to India, China and Mexico. 

Click to here to view the set.


Analog and Digital, or an Identity Crisis of Sorts

I was an early embracer of digital photography. I bought my first digital photo camera in the mid-90s, and a digital Sony video camera not long after. Around that time, the camera which I had been using for over a decade, a Canon AE-1, broke. I never replaced it with an equivalent. For years all I carried around with me was the video camera which I used both for video and for photographs (and it did take very good photos, even if the resolution is laughable by today’s standards). Then in 2004 I became aware of a cheap plastic medium format camera, a Holga, and the pictures I saw online and in print which had taken with that camera just blew me away. This was at a time when digital photography had really taken off, and the craze to put one’s each and every snapshot online, no matter what the quality, was already beginning. In the midst of exchangeable digital photographs, the square, imperfect Holga pics with their tell-tale vignettes and fuzzy edges stood out like a sore thumb (this was long before Instagram and the like began aping the ‘toy camera’ look with their filters). I got myself a Holga, and after a bit of a learning curve, learnt to produce the images I wanted and liked. I branched out, of sorts, by using other types of lo-tech cameras, such as the Diana+, an old Soviet-made Lubitel, as well as pinhole and panorama Holgas. For eight years I never looked back. Medium format film and manual automatic cameras had become ‘my thing’, my style. I participated in several exhibitions (with large format reproductions), had my work published in print and online, and of course kept feeding my web site. Although I favoured a type of cameras often called ‘toy cameras’, I decided to take them seriously, and in my (biased) view, managed to produce exceptional looking results that held their own in the company of photos taken with pro-level cameras – much as many other users of  lo-tech cameras also did.

In 2012 I took up Polaroid photography. Impossible Project were finally producing film stock that was usable – decent colours, great black and white. The Holgas took a back seat as I delved into instant photography, using a couple of second-hand Polaroid cameras and  the not quite cheap Impossible Project films. Again I had found a medium which suited my taste, producing images that were often imperfect but produced individual, and for me, great, results. Instant photography also offered the added advantage of producing physical images, and as such were a great medium for sharing with other people. And I found that approaching people to take their photograph with a Polaroid was a lot easier than with a regular camera, especially if you offered people to give them a copy as well – a trick I put to good use when travelling in India for example. I’ve been using Polaroid cameras now for three years, and again managed to produce a fair number of images I’m proud of.

However, there were shortcomings as well. Instant film is not cheap – 20 euros for 8 exposures is a lot of money. If I add up the money I spent on film during those three years, I come up with a sum that would have purchased me a pro camera. I also found other problems with the film, especially colour film. It doesn’t perform well when it’s too hot or too cold. It’s not a film to take on flights as the security x-ray machines at airports cause discolouration. And I also found that too often, the film was faulty and produced less than ideal results. It also seemed that the colour films got worse as new versions were released, while black and white film decidedly improved. 

Another shortcoming of the lo-tech cameras I was using, both the Holgas and Polaroids, is that they have a limited range in terms of the light conditions they are suited for. Berlin winters tend to be long and above all, grey, and I found myself unable to use either type of cameras for long stretches of those winter months. So in November of last year, for the first time in 20 years, I went out and bought a digital camera. When I started looking for a model that would suit my style and taste, I was aiming for an unobtrusive camera which is easy to use in manual, or semi-manual mode, and that produces great results out of the box, i.e. without any major tweaking required in a photo editor. I liked what I saw online of the Fujifilm cameras (both the look and feel of the cameras as well as the output, which had a decided analog mood to it), and for a while played with the idea of getting a X100 model, but then decided against a fixed lens model and bought a X30 instead. 

It took me a while to get back into digital photography. Actually, I’m not quite sure I’m there yet. I still very much use the approach I took with the analog cameras. I refuse to take series of hundreds of pics of the same motif in the hope that one image turns out right. I still want every take to be ‘the one’. If not on the first take, then at least on the second one… I also use the view finder rather than the display (another reason I chose the Fuji), and many of the photos I took in winter were in black and white.  I enjoy being able to shoot at night, indoors and on dark days. I enjoy not having to scan the images or the negatives (scanning negatives is really time consuming). The wide-angle end of the lens comes in handy for architectural photographs, and the zoom for street photography. I don’t have to worry beforehand which kind of film to load, I can switch between colour and b&w as I see fit. So, plenty of good reasons to like digital.

And yet…

There is a saying that it isn’t the camera that takes good pictures, but the photographer. That’s a statement I very much agree with. However, I also feel that the type of camera you use says as much about your style, and your identity as a photographer, as the motives you choose. My style had long been to incorporate the lo-tech cameras’ imperfections into my work. The blurry edges of the Holga cameras, the light leaks, the not-always-spot-on framing, the scratches and patches on the instant film photos, all added to what I was trying to convey. 

Susan Sontag once wrote that photography always attempts, but always fails, to capture reality. What I had liked about the kind of analog equipment which I had been using was that these cameras did not even bother to try capturing reality. They were all about producing a disjointed, unreal, sometimes surreal, reproduction of the world around us. That’s what I liked and that’s what I embraced. 

And now I’m using these digital cameras (I recently also purchased a used Leica X2 camera with, yes, a fixed lens), that produce technically great images. Yes, I could choose filters on the camera that ape the Holga and the Polaroids – but how daft would that be? In other words, faced with cameras that produce (technically) perfect results (or as perfect as you can get for the amount of money which I could afford to pay for them) and offer possibilities not present in a low-tech, I was thrown back to the question: how do I see myself as a photographer?

My work always had two foci. One was portrait and street photography, the other urban/architectural. As I mentioned above, the new cameras offered new possibilities in both these areas. My first real project with the Fujifilm involved shooting buildings and working out urban geometries. It is a motif I had already pursued with a Polaroid camera, but the Fuji allowed me to use a different approach and produced different results (read the blog entry here), and I’m very happy with that series. So far so good. 

It’s a bit of a different matter when it comes to street photography. Both the Holga and the Polaroids produce very iconoclastic images when using them for street photography, or indeed portrait photography, images which are not in the same vein as the iconic photographs we know from the likes of the Cartier-Bresson (Polaroid is not particularly well suited for street photography but is great for casual portraits with willing subjects, but the same applies to these kind of images). What the digital cameras (and smartphone apps) do well is to emulate the style of the classic street photography cameras, notably the Leica. All the cameras offer more or less convincing black and white filters and settings that offer a close approximation of classic analog b&w photography. Sometimes they even do the same with colour photography. Again, so far so good. But, as I mentioned earlier, my style had never been about classic photography. Nor is it about to become about high-tech, sophisticated digital photography – HDR for example is a no-go for me. If, as I mentioned above, my style has always been about imperfections, what am I doing using near perfect cameras…?

So why am I writing all this? Foremost, I guess, to explain where I am, now. When you look at my current output on flickr  this is what you see: photographs which are still very much of the type I like, but not necessarily in a style I consider mine. Some photos  I like a lot, others I find adequate. I find none of them outstanding (and in case you’re wondering, yes I think I shot a few outstanding photos, especially with the medium format  cameras).

So, in other words, I’m at a crossroads. I can chuck the digital cameras and go back to analog, or I can dig deeper into digital and find something that makes those photos mine. I can do both, of course, but not at the same time. A particular camera requires a particular frame of mind, and mixing these vastly different types of cameras hasn’t worked for me when I tried. 

At this point, I don’t know where the road takes me. For a while at least, I’ll keep using the digital cameras, taking advantage of the possibilities which digital cameras offer while trying to find something in digital photography that I can own. 

However, I also stocked up on Impossible Project’s new generation of instant films.
And I have a pile of Fujifilm 120 films lying around which I stocked up on before they went out of production last year.

So we shall see, shan’t we. Stay tuned. 

Holga Panoramas From India

For my last trip to India back in October, I packed a new camera, a Holga 120Pan, i.e. the panoramic version of the Holga camera which shoots 6×12, 180° images. I didn’t have a chance to try out the camera beforehand, so I didn’t know what to expect, especially after having had mixed results with my first attempts using my other panoramic camera, the Belair 6-12 (read the blog entry here). However, after having finally developed and scanned the films, I must say that the camera exceeded my expectations. Granted, the light conditions were pretty much excellent in India, but the results are technically very good: no vignette, only a bit of darkening towards the left and right border of the exposure, and with the Holga’s trademark blurring toward the edges, which adds to the magic of the images. 

I shot one black and white Ilford ISO 400 film and for the rest a mix of Kodak and Fuji ISO 160 colour films. I shot the black and white film at my initial destination, Mumbai, while I used the colour films for the rest of the trip, chiefly in and around the city of Bhubaneswar, which is in Odisha, a state on the East coast of India. Additionally there are a few images from Chandannagar, which is close to Kolkata and which used to be a French colony. 

I finally uploaded a selection of the photos to the Holga section of the site, click here to view.

Also, I put together a selection of the best portrait pictures from the trip, taken with the various cameras I had taken along – the Holga, the SX-70 and the iPhone. This set can be found in the People section under the banner Wonder If I Know Him Now.


Wide Angle Bucharest and London


I recently uploaded a series of photos from London and Bucharest (Romania), all of them taken with the Lomography Belair x 6-12 camera and using a 58mm lens. Contrary to the Berlin set posted earlier, I used the camera primarily to shoot buildings and vistas rather than the more intimate street scenes I captured in Berlin (see my earlier blog post here).
Here is the link: Wide Urban Angles
More of my Belair photos can be found [here].

Wide-Angle Urban Poetry

I recently uploaded the second batch of photographs taken with the new Lomography Belair x 6-12 camera. Unlike with the first batch, the Brighton pics, I had with these rolls figured out how to hold the camera to properly format the images, which, guess what, vastly improves the results.

All of the photos were taken in Berlin between January and April, 2014. My first approach to shooting with the camera was to take advantage of the camera’s ability to shoot panoramic 6x12mm and 6x8mm exposures, and the 58mm lens’ wide-angle capacity, to take wide panoramic cityscape pictures. Later, I changed tactics: rather than take more panorama shots, I went for close-ups, thus being able to take in complete scenes and/or objects from close proximity, which allows both for a certain intimacy while providing the ‘big picture’ at the same time. Coupled with both the camera’s and the lens’ inherent distortions, the results are to, for lack of a better word, poetic…

Overall I’m vey pleased with the Belair, despite some technical, or rather mechanical, issues. Of these I plan to write later as I’m yet to write up a review of the camera. 

Here then is the link: Wide-Angle Urban Poetry
See also Brighton Winter for more Belair shots. 

Brighton by Belair

I spent this New Year’s in Brighton in South England. I had just before gotten me a new camera, the Lomography Belair x 6-12 camera. It’s a medium format camera, using 120 film. It comes with exchangeable lenses and settings that allows one to shoot either 6×6, 6×8 or 6×12 exposures. I did not have a chance to test the camera before leaving for Brighton, so the films I shot there were pretty much my test run. I decided to use the 58mm lens and either the 6×8 or 6×12 mm size settings to take full advantage of the camera’s panorama abilities.

My experiences with the camera are mixed, and I will be posting a review later to explain. Suffice to say at this moment though is that overall I’m happy with the results, especially considering the less than perfect weather for most of my stay there. Some of the images are formatted not quite right as the shift between what you see in the visor and the result is quite considerable. Also a couple of rolls did not roll up properly, so there is some light leakage on the last exposures on those roll.

Having said all that, here then is a selection of the best Belair pics from a few moody, wintry days in Brighton: click here to view

Holga, Jaipur and Kolkata

A few days ago I finally got around to scanning in the remaining Holga photos which I shot in India on the recent trip. A selection of these is now up on the Holga page. [Click here to view]

I also created two new sets in the Travelogue section, one with shots from Jaipur and one with photos from Kolkata. The Kolkata section features shots taken in more unusual circumstances. For one, I was there for the last night of a religious festival, the Durga Pujas  So a number of the photos show the Durga altars that were set up for the festival, and which would be taken down the next day and sunk into the river. What made the night different was that at the same time the fringes of the cyclone Phailin, which struck the Bay of Bengal that day, raged through Kolkata. So while normal you’d have to queue for an hour to get into the makeshift temples to see the altars, now here was hardly a crowd (of course it also meant that you were soaking wet at the end of the night). 

Additionally, there are some photos taken in the two Jewish synagogues that exist in a Kolkatta. The city used to have a Jewish community of over 3,500, with most of the original Jewish settlers having come over from Iraq in the 18th century onwards. Today, that community has dwindled down to 26. Many thanks to Jael Silliman for showing us around the synagogues, the Beth El Synagogue, built in 1856, and the Magen David Synagogue built in 1884.

Rajasthan Revisited

In October I went on my 9th trip to India. The two-and-a-half-week journey took me back to familiar places – Mumbai and Udaipur – as well as a new place (Jaipur) and a city which I had last visited 26 years ago: Kolkata – or Calcutta, as it was still known then.

Jaipur was about sightseeing, but the rest of the trip was not – it was mostly about catching up with friends. As such, the journey turned out to be a study of contrasts: I went to villages in the mountains around Udaipair where at the best of time people subside on very little and where this year’s overlong rainy season destroyed the maize crops and thus the villagers’ income for the year. I visited a friend’s house whose family is living four people to a single room. In Kolkata I was shown around the (now empty) palace of the Maharaja of Burdwan. 

My stay in India coincided with a nine-day religious festival, Navratri, dedicated to the worship of the goddess Durga. In Kolkata, I spent a night visiting the Durga Pujas, and in Udaipur I was ‘coerced’ to participate in the traditional Garba dances which take place in honour if Durga

I also met two of the 26 remaining members of Kolkata’s Jewish community, which once numbered more than 3000, and visited the two synagogues there (I also visited a number of Hindu and Jain temples).
As for the touristy bits, there were a few: the Amber Fort and the Palace of the Winds in Jaipur, Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, the Monsoon Palace in the hills above Udaipur.

I’ve said this in previous blog entries, and I’m mentioning it here again: India for me has always been about the people. Which is why, this time around, most of the photos I brought back are portraits or street photographs, with few exceptions. I had with me again a Polaroid and a Holga camera. Unfortunately, just like last time, the Polaroid films were damaged by the airport x-ray machines (despite taking a film with lower ISO) and the prints have a noticeable red tint. I also took a fair number if photos with the iphone, mostly using the hipstamatic app and choosing a black & white ‘film’. 

I posted the following sets: