Because we had so many responses to last month’s FotoForum: The Indelible Image, we decided to run a second column this month. So for January, we are featuring the indelible image choice of noted Aperture editor Denise Wolff, who has worked with some of the world’s most widely acclaimed photographers, including Mary Ellen Mark, Stephen Shore, Martin Parr, and Eugene Richards. Originally a photographer herself, Denise is joined by six other photographers from five different countries around the world for this column, all of whom have chosen to write about a photograph that they responded to strongly as young photographers –– an indelible image that still lingers with them today. –– Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb
DENISE WOLFF ON SARA MOON: “Shooting Blind”
Sarah Moon, "The Clock, 1999," from her book, Coincidences
When I first learned to take pictures, I was struck that a photograph doesn’t look like what the eye sees in reality or even through the viewfinder. Technical decisions, such as depth of field and shutter speed, are made largely in anticipation of what the picture will look like. The camera freezes moments that the eye could only glimpse in the fluid nature of continuous time and motion. The mirror pops up to block the view on most 35mm SLR cameras at the moment the film is exposed; something similar happens with a view camera once the film holder is in place. Essentially, at the critical moment the photograph is taken, the photographer is at the height of not seeing. I have always been fascinated by this idea of shooting blind.
I bought Sarah Moon’s Coincidences the same summer I learned to shoot. To me, Moon’s photographs seem not so much guided by what she saw as by what she imagined. It is as if she was shooting with her eyes closed, dreaming rather than seeing. Indeed, in the book, she refers to the moment she takes the images as more of a recognition or calling than a function of the eye. “I believe in miracles when I hear an echo between me and what I see, a resonance … the eye hears before it sees.” Her pictures seem to play with this idea by consistently presenting what can only be seen in photographs. Though often highly staged, her images remain utterly open and dependent on chance. The Type 55 Polaroid film lends another layer of unpredictability to the process as the emulsion leaves traces of the photographic act on the images, highlighting their mediated existence as well as their dreamlike quality. Though the subjects of her images are never clearly defined, one, nonetheless, gets the sense that she captured a moment that can never be seen the same way again.
The Clock, 1999 is the image I remember most from my early days of photographing. The geometry of the circles and the arrows – always pointing ahead into the future – reference a kind of continuous time. The numbers, removed from the clock (as well as from the faint time line at the center) are near the floor, displaced by the beautiful architecture of the triangle dress. These elemental forms remain quite stationary, permanent, frozen. Amidst them, the motion of the woman/clock’s hands creates a visual impossibility as the circle and axis line appear drawn over her arms. Her dark fingers form a stunning band as they run together with the marks, tracing a new arc. Here, the woman is both time itself and timeless, outside of linear measurement and numbering systems (the basis of our knowledge) through embodying, and thus subsuming, such systems. She represents the physical experience of time that cannot be fully measured or suspended. Here, Moon touches upon a central problem of knowledge and science: how to divide/measure a continuous magnitude into discrete units, how to define something constantly and infinitely evolving. She seems to offer the photograph as almost a proof, acting not unlike the woman/clock. All of this is collapsed into one, discrete image, which acts somewhat like memory itself, lifted up out of the infinite fluidity of unbroken time and reality. At the same time, this photograph will outlast the moment and woman it captured, creating its own kind of continuity, one that also resists being revealed or easily quantified, remaining ultimately mysterious. I think this paradox is at the heart of human understanding, as well as photography.––Denise Wolff
A selection of Sarah Moon’s work at Howard Greenberg Gallery.
JUSTIN PARTYKA ON JOHN COHEN
John Cohen, Mr. and Mrs. John Sams, Combs, Kentucky, 1959
Music brought me to photography. After a few years of being immersed in the music of Bob Dylan, I wanted to know what came before. I discovered the raw authentic tones of bluegrass, early country and blues, and the strange sounding folksongs from what Greil Marcus called “The Old, Weird America” entombed in Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. I also encountered the work of John Cohen. A musician, sound recordist, photographer, filmmaker, and folklorist, Cohen literally linked all of my musical discoveries together, and his work showed me the way.
In 1998, I purchased Cohen’s CD, Mountain Music of Kentucky. This was a re-release of an LP originally released in 1960, and is a collection of field recordings he made in 1959 in the rural communities around the mining town of Hazard in eastern Kentucky. The haunting songs and tunes I heard pierced me with their melancholy and harsh metallic sounds. This was music out of the mountains from which the livelihoods of the people depended, music that became known as “the high lonesome sound.”
To accompany the recordings, Cohen included detailed notes about the music, people, and places he discovered, and he also included a series of photographs. The photographs show the people and the places, but they go further than that. As the image above reveals, Cohen suggests the sound of the music in these photographs, creating an intimate window into the world of eastern Kentucky.
Like the music, these images are haunting, mysterious and timeless; they embody the endurance of this rural culture, and left me wanting to know more about it. Through John Cohen’s work, I experienced for the first time the powerful impact that a photograph is capable of having.––Justin Partyka
Here is Justin’s website and a link to the trailer of Justin’s film, “My Friend Eric,” about a 99-year-old farmer from East Anglia, UK, and what remains of his traditional agrarian world.
ANIMESH RAY ON HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Athens, 1953
I grew up in India, in not a very affluent family. Though I did have an Agfa Isopan 120mm uncoupled rangefinder camera, which used to belong to my father, it was difficult to afford to shoot more than one roll of film in six months. Getting access to serious books of photography was even more difficult. When I was in college, in 1971 or 1972, I came across in a used bookstore a large hard-bound book of photographs by a man with a double-decker last name. I am quite sure that it must have had most of his famous photos, but there is one I remember distinctly. I suppose at that time I was too youthful to worry about time’s irony, yet somehow I found the photo profoundly moving. It is a rather simple photo, but for me it distills the essence of life’s evanescence.––Animesh Ray
Click here to see a selection of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work.
Click here to a selection of Animesh’s photographs.
ERICA MCDONALD ON WALKER EVANS
Walker Evans, "Negro Church," South Carolina, 1934
I’ll never forget seeing one of Walker Evans’ images, “Negro Church,” for the first time. I was in high school on a weekend field trip to New York. My class had a museum day, and I was just moving along looking at images and chatting with friends when somehow I came to this image. A surge of energy ran through me, and I felt my body rooted into place, while emotionally and intellectually, I felt transported away. I recall silently saying to myself over and over, “I get it, I understand what he is doing, I think I might be able to do that, too.” What I saw wasn’t just a building, or just a church, it was one man’s connection to a place and a time and a people, and his particular perspective also allowed space for my own experience.
I had been interested in photographing from the time I was very young, but seeing this image was an awakening and a calling to work towards using the medium to create relations amongst the viewer, the viewed, and myself as photographer.––Erica McDonald
Click here to see a selection of Walker Evans’s work.
RICHARD MARAZZI ON ERNST HAAS
Ernst Haas, Venice, 1955
Here is a shot that inspired me. Back when I was starting out as a photographer, my local library in Canada had few photography books, but one that I kept going back to was by Ernst Haas. I found his images to have a mood and ethereal quality to them, and I especially like the way he used color. This particular shot actually inspired me to begin a long-term project of Venice, a place of my family’s origins.––Richard Marazzi
Click here to see a selection of Ernst Haas’s work.
DAVID BACHER ON ELLIOTT ERWITT
Elliott Erwitt, New York, 1974
This iconic photo by Elliott Erwitt is one that lingers in my mind and never grows old. It suggests the simplicity of discovering one of life’s magical moments that can unfold on the sidewalk anywhere, even on the sidewalk in your own neighborhood. I have come to appreciate surprising photos like this one that evoke a sense of humor, two elements that embody much of Elliot’s work. I love this chihuahua and always find myself wondering what the rest of the large dog and the owner might look like.
Ahhh…like a nice bottle of red wine or a Mozart sonata, this photo is one of life’s simple pleasures.––David Bacher
Click here to see a selection of Elliott Erwitt’s work.
JOHN MASTERS ON HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brussels, 1932
I have been looking at Cartier-Bresson’s images for decades. Of all of them, this one has always intrigued me. There is a surreal quality to this image, and it can be seen as being abstract. It reminds me that when I remove the subject from its context (through the viewfinder) it becomes something else, something more expressive than the possibly banal event it had been before.––John Masters