Posts Tagged ‘Magic Realism’

TWO QUESTIONS: On Literature and Photography; On Editing and Double Spreads

January 18, 2010

For January, we are featuring TWO QUESTIONS from two photographers — Natalia Jimenez, a photographer and photo editor based in New York whose family is from Peru, and Toomas Kokovkin, a geographer and photographer born in Russia, but who lives and often documents in Estonia.  They both asked questions about photography’s relationship to literature as well as about the process of photo-editing and the use of double-spreads in the photographic book. You can read more about Natalia and Toomas below.––Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb

Alex Webb, Bombardopolis, Haiti, 1986

NATALIA JIMENEZ: Alex, how has literature helped influence and shape your vision as a photographer? Who are some writers that you have found the most influential to your work?

ALEX WEBB:  Deeply buried in the back of the photographer’s mind lie all kinds of influences –– what one has seen, read, heard, experienced –– a lifetime of influences, flotsam and jetsam, and baggage, personal and cultural –– and all these things conjoin, unbeknownst to the photographer, at the moment when one presses the shutter.

My father was a writer –– albeit a secretive one –– and I have always been interested in fiction.  Though I majored in college in literature, I realized fairly early on that the process of photography –– going out and confronting the world with the camera –– worked much better for me than confronting the blank page.  However, I have definitely been influenced by writers and their vision of the world, especially in how their writings have sparked my interest in certain places.

Because of the terrible tragedy in Haiti right now, a disaster that Haiti, of all countries, is least equipped to deal with, of course Haiti comes to mind. My first reading of Graham Greene’s The Comedians in 1975, a book that both fascinated and scared me, was key in my decision then to go to Haiti for the first time, a trip that transformed me as a photographer and as a human being. And my photographic explorations of Latin American have certainly been influenced by the writings of some of the “magic realist” novelists, in particular Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. Throughout my work in Latin America, the mundane is often transformed into the fantastical. Often people seem to morph into animals, and animals into people.  I look at some of my photographs from the Amazon or the Darien in Panama, and I think of the world of Vargas Llosa’s The Green House: steamy, isolated river towns where the military or the police swagger through, where the jungle is ever-present, always encroaching. Do I think of notions of “magic realism” when I walk the streets of little jungle towns?  Certainly not.  On the street I am in the moment. But, in hindsight –– which sometimes adds insight ––  I suspect that I am more attuned to such notions because of my readings.

N.J.: Rebecca, You are both a photographer and photo editor. How have you been able to maintain both a balance and separation between someone else’s work and your own, while contributing to another person’s vision?

REBECCA NORRIS WEBB: For me at least, photography and photo editing are two very different and distinct skills.  I feel fortunate that I can do both, since not all photographers can.  (I know some very noted and talented photographers, for instance, who never edit their own photographic books.)

The challenge, as you well know, Natalia, since you yourself are both a photo editor and photographer, is how to maintain some sort of balance in one’s life.  This is the crucial question, since both editing and teaching –– which I consider similar endeavors –– can sap one’s creative energy, and make it difficult to have enough left over to feed one’s own work.   So how does one do this?  Every person is different and has different creative rhythms.  For me to ensure a creative and emotional balance in my life, it’s essential that I dedicate a majority of my time to my own personal photographic projects, so that even though I may also be working on one of Alex’s books and/or another photographer’s projects, for instance, my personal projects continue to be my first priority and I see myself primarily as a photographer and author/bookmaker.  In addition, I’ve also learned over the years to be more detached while editing another’s person’s work.  I’ve come to realize that my chief job as a photo editor is to help another photographer see how to make his or her work as strong as it can be.  I am merely a facilitator –– and on my good days, sometimes even an illuminator –– but never the author.  It is always in the end their book, their project, their assignment.  Accepting that limitation allows me to feel good about my role as editor, to let go of the projects once they are done, and then turn my attention to what’s most important in my life –– my own books and projects.

Rebecca Norris Webb, Near White Owl, South Dakota, 2009

TOOMAS KOKOVKIN: Rebecca, do you see the photographic book rather like a novel or a collection of verses?

It’s difficult to compare different arts, but if I had to select a literary form that’s closest to the photographic book –– or, at least, to the way I’ve edited and sequenced them –– I would choose the poetry book, which I guess is not a surprise considering my background as a poet. One of the main reasons I consider poetry and photography sister arts is because the poetic image –– which is suggestive and resonant and sometimes mysterious –– lies at the heart of both forms.

If I were to look at my own photographic books, I would say that they specifically resemble a certain kind of poetry book, one that is a series of interrelated poems, such as The World Doesn’t End by Charles Simic, or Wild Iris by Louise Gluck.  In both of these examples, what pulls the reader through the book is the combination of the poet’s sensibility, the resonant and suggestive images, the topic/theme of the book, and the emotional tensions and contradictions that fuel the book’s poetic journey.  I say journey, but I don’t mean necessarily a linear journey through time and space.  Instead, it is more a poetic journey through a landscape of these suggestive and mysterious and sometimes contradictory images –– some of which may be resonant moments suspended in time like a photograph ––that allow the viewer/reader to accompany the poet on the journey yet have his/her own unique experience of that same poetic journey, which may be similar to –– yet simultaneously different from –– the poet’s experience.

T.K.: Alex, how do you envision a wholeness of a photographic book? Do you see it as a movie on paper, or perhaps closer to a collection of single, distinct images?  In addition, how much does the two-page spread influence a book’s sequence and  unity?

A.W.: I think that there are different kinds of photographic books, books that strike different notes –– in their structure, their sequencing, and their design.  Some books seem like pieces of music: a big book might be a kind of symphony, a small book a kind of sonata. Other books seem more cinematic in structure, relying on jump cuts and running sequences.  (Though one could also say that this corresponds to a kind of musical counterpoint.) Yet other books seem more didactic, more rigid, more essay-like.  So I think that there are multiple analogies that can be made to clarify the nature of photographic books.

For my own books, I tend to structure them emotionally and hence –– more or less –– musically.  I often think of the books in terms of movements, movements corresponding to emotional notes, which in turn may well correspond to hues of color, or modulation of light and dark.  My first book, Hot Light/Half-Made Worlds, moves from light to dark – both literally and emotionally –– passing through a whole host of interim emotional states on the way.   From the Sunshine State, my book on Florida, has a more unsettled structure –– maybe more like jazz improvisation –– to represent the cacophony of Florida.  And Rebecca’s and my recent book, Violet Isle, works like a duet, exploring the point/counterpoint of our respective and distinct visions. Each of these books has its own  distinct structure corresponding to a series of emotional notes that I or, in the instance of Violet Isle –– we –– felt made sense for the given body of work.

Regarding double spreads (two-page spreads):  Double spreads can give a sense of drama, a kind of visual explosion, which has a very specific impact on the viewer.  But using them results in a compromise: The image is split down the middle, so sections of the image may well be obscured by the book’s gutter.  There are double spreads in both Under A Grudging Sun and Crossings because these books called out for that kind of image size and drama.  Some of my other books, however, did not demand that same level of intensity, so I ended up using the double spread for a variety of other reasons.  With Violet Isle, for instance, Rebecca and I chose to use double spreads because we wanted the viewer to go back and forth from our distinct visions with each spread. We felt this was important to emphasize the uniqueness of our respective visions while simultaneously exploring their compatibility.  And with Violet Isle, our designer chose a paperback format with a Smythe binding, which lies flatter than other kinds of binding, obscuring less of the picture in the gutter.

In the end, books are always compromises of some sort or another –– whether in the design or in the printing.  One chooses the form that best represents what you need to say about that particular project –– which is often also what you feel about it.

NATALIA JIMENEZ

Natalia Jimenez, Nairobi, Kenya, 2006

Natalia is a photo editor and photographer in New York City. When she is not hunting down the best images for the The Star-Ledger, she enjoys photographing wherever her travels take her. She studied photography at S.I. Newhouse School at Syracuse University and ICP.

Natalia’s website: www.nataliajimenez.com

TOOMAS KOKOVKIN

Toomas Kokovkin, "The Flying Girl"

I was born in 1960 in St Petersburg (former Leningrad), but have lived mostly in Estonia. For nearly 20 years, I have been living on the island of Hiiumaa, which is in the Baltic sea. I have a PhD in geography, and have been involved in various programs that look at the relationship between people and nature, such as World Wide Fund for Nature and the UNESCO’s program, “Man and Biosphere.”

As a research geographer, I originally focused on travel and field-work photographs, but, with time, I began to realize that there was something important that I could not catch in my photographs. Whether it was a moment, an emotion, a gesture, a mood, or something else that I could not grasp, it was so elusive that I could not name it. Early on as a photographer, I found myself too attached to words and their meanings. Slowly I began to see that through the photographic language I could begin to explain the world in a different way, without having to rely so much on words.

Recently, I have photographed projects thoughout Europe, mostly in rural and coastal areas, projects which often depict the daily lives of people in their environments. I have edited and published several books, and my work has been in exhibitions in Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, Finland, and France.–T.K.

Toomas’s website:  http://toomas.fotokogu.com

TWO QUESTIONS: On Returning and On Street Photography; On Magic Realism and On Paradox

October 24, 2009

For October, we decided to include TWO QUESTIONS from two photographers, Magdalena Sole and John Masters (find out more about them below).  In this same vein, please feel free to leave TWO COMMENTS –– one about one of Rebecca’s responses, one about one of Alex’s –– after this posting. ––AW and RNW

MAGDALENA SOLE:  Rebecca, you talk about returning to a place like Cuba some eleven times. How do you keep that initial fresh eye –– that untainted first impression that helps one see the image? What changes when you return again and again to the same place?

RNW, Remedios, Cuba, 2008

RNW, Remedios, Cuba, 2008

RNW:  Good question, Magdalena.  You know, I’ve never really thought about it, but I think, for me at least, I tend to discover fresher and more unique images in a place the more trips I make.  It’s somewhat akin to love.  You can fall in love at first sight, but it takes considerably longer to understand the nuances, the strengths and weaknesses, and the uniqueness of that person you’re in love with.

So for me, I don’t tend to have the experience you mention my first trip to a place – the fresh and untainted impression you mention.  I find it’s only after at least two or three or perhaps more trips to a place that my vision tends to deepen and I begin to see the place in a more unique and complicated way, perhaps echoing my experience of getting better acquainted with a place.

MAGDALENA SOLE: Alex, you once told me that you walk for miles every day to find your pictures, but then you also remain put in one place for hours. When you stay in one place, do you start talking to the people and connecting with them, or do you remain on the periphery? Later, do you go back to people and places you know?

AW:  Every situation is different.  In some situations it works for me to just walk through the situation, photographing and rarely talking to anyone.  But in other situations, especially when I end up hanging out for extensive periods of time, I certainly will talk — as well as of course watch and wait.  If I sense the possibility of a picture, but it doesn’t happen that day, I may return another day — or even, occasionally, another week, another month, or another year.  I try to work with whatever the world gives me.

JOHN MASTERS: Alex, does the philosophy of magical realism allow you to see something through the viewfinder or in an image that perhaps others do not see or feel?

AW, Paratins, Brazil, 1993

AW, Parintins, Brazil, 1993

AW: When photographing in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon I sometimes felt as if I was stepping into the background of a magic realist novel.  In the Amazon, the fantastic often seems to encroach on the mundane:  at festivals people build immense floats depicting Amazonian creatures, children dress as huge fish for Earth Day, and monkeys and coatimundis are kept as household pets.  Would I have responded differently to such phenomenon if I had not read Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa?    I would guess the answer is both yes and no.  My fascination with such phenomenon may well be more attuned, more intense, because of my readings.  On the other hand, irrespective of any knowledge of magic realism, it’s pretty hard not to be taken in by the spectacle of fifteen-foot-high paper mache and plastic anacondas, tarantulas, and mermaids  at the Boi-Bumba Festival in Parintins.

JOHN MASTERS:  Rebecca, do you try to convey any specific emotion that you may have towards one of your images to the observer or would you rather they interpret the image in their own way?

RNW:  Like poetry, what I love about photography is its suggestiveness, how an image –– whether in poetry or photography –– will resonate in different ways for different people.

That said, I am especially intrigued with people’s complicated response to the natural world –– emotionally, politically, philosophically.  The challenge is how to visually convey the philosophical paradoxes and emotional tensions that define our experience of this complicated eco-political terrain.  Each project I’ve worked on is a variation on this theme.  For instance, in my current work-in-progress, My Dakota, my most personal project to date, I only recently realized that this project is about “looking for a contradiction to inhabit,” as the poet, Rilke, once wrote.  For me, that contradiction is trying to photograph South Dakota’s “geography of hope” (as Wallace Stegner once famously called the West) and “geography of loss,” my brother’s death and his eternity.  For me, the contradiction I’m trying to inhabit is My Dakota.

Magdalena Sole, Venice, 2008

Magdalena Sole, Venice, 2008

Magdalena Solé was born in Reus. When she was seven her family departed Franco’s Spain in the middle of the night. The why is an unrevealed family secret. Life in 1960’s Switzerland for émigré Spanish was like life in 1950s New York City for Puerto Ricans—fitting in was a full time job. By 20 she was long fluent in Swiss German, could pass as a native and graduated as one of only two Spaniards from a University with a degree in teaching.  As a teacher the pay was good and the future was bright, but the world beckoned. In the mid –1980s Magdalena arrived in New York City, illiterate in English and living in a walk-up on the lower East Side. She became married, had a son and found herself poor. Then life veered.

In 1989, when global branding was a little-known field, Magdalena founded and ran a graphic design business, TransImage, that specialized in translating visual and verbal images for different counties. By this time she spoke seven languages fluently and had lived in four different countries, so she understood how confusing cultural idiosyncrasies could be. The business, located in Tribeca with offices in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, thrived for twelve years until she sold it and attended Columbia Film school. She graduated with a Masters of Fine Art in 2002. Magdalena loved making film and wrote, directed and produced her own, A Zen Tale, which had a New York theatrical run. It was such a thrill to see her film’s name on a Manhattan marquee. Her last film, Man On Wire, on which she was the Unit Production Manager, won an Oscar in 2009. Despite her accomplishments, film was just too much business, with too many people, too big a budget and too little art. But she loved that camera and the images she could create. She still wanted to explore the world of image and story.

Photography was the perfect medium. No gaffers, gofers, best boys, script girls or craft services. Just her, the light and a subject. The Leica rangefinder became her partner in this exploration. For the past two years Magdalena has worked exclusively in photography. Her current project, Forgotten Places, is her road to the interior of the cities she loves. These urban environments exist at the edges, in immigrant and working class communities where beauty is found in displaced spirits and peeling paint.

Magdalena’s website: www.solepictures.com

John Masters, Roma family

John Masters, Roma family

John Masters was born in Europe to American parents in the mid-1960s.  For the first year of his life, he smelled the heat of Italy and southern France–limestone, lavender and rosemary bushes mixed with salt and diesel.   He answered to ‘Giovanni’ for several years.  His first camera was a Kodak Instamatic in 1972. Then there were a series of Polaroid devices, until 1990, when he purchased his first film SLR, the sturdy workhorse Canon AE-1. He used this one camera for almost ten years. It once fell a short distance off a balcony in Florence, bouncing off the marble stairs below, yet survived.  Four years later, after suffering from progressive shutter-ping, its internal workings ceased.  This was Bulgaria 1999, and Masters’ life had changed dramatically.

Through a series of fortuitous events, he found a pattern in the world-fabric worth following.  He fell in love again with travel, and those magical places we find ourselves when we go.  In mirrors and windows he discovered secret doorways leading to abstract realms; in bus stations he waited while time shifted around him. He found himself speaking foreign tongues, listening to wild sounds, and relishing the zest of unexplored philosophical cuisine, especially Macedonian charcuterie.  He developed a love of intellectual investigation which also fuels his eye.   Like Jean Cocteau, he believes that “The camera is but the third eye of the person using it.”  With his camera and notebook in hand, he is a visual cartographer; stopping to smell the roses, chat with a shop-keeper, have tea with a friend, and watch the river flow.

John Masters lives in upstate New York on an old farm. He uses several different cameras. He still uses a Canon AE-1.
John’s website: www.sidelit.com


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