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Visual Counterpoint #1 - The Road Test Edition

Photographer: Michael Tapes

Photographer's Statement
"I like to make pictures in places with lots of people around, all busy within their own little worlds, yet by my being there I have become a part of their worlds and they have become a part of mine (if they see me). It is like watching a ballet...the ballet of life as I refer to it. Sounds hokey, but that is how I feel. When I make pictures (or try to make pictures), I am trying to catch a slice of lifes ballet that might provide thought, interest, and emotion to the viewer of the picture. A lot of people wonder why I photograph complete strangers and expect others to care. Well, I do it because I enjoy it and because I love to see the work of others that do the same thing. With my submission to Visual Counterpoint, I hope that the esteemed reviewers can provide some additional insight into my pictures, and how and why I take them, so that I may improve in my ability to see and make better pictures."


Photo Review by Ben Lifson

Ben chose to review picture #8

A Scene from Family Life.

Although for this first Visual Counterpoint I am talking about a picture by Michael Tapes, whose work I have followed since 2002, I will write about it as I will about future Visual Counterpoint pictures by photographers whose names and pictures I will not know, so as to make this first review representative of what is to follow.

This is a lovely and only slightly flawed sketch of a moment in the midst of family life. This moment is not defined by the activity itself, about which the photograph shows little and explains nothing. Why are these three people together? What are their relationships to each other? We cannot tell. But the intimacy and close physical contact is certainly that of families. And so the moment is defined by the gestures, physical contact and emotions of three people occupying a small, shallow space of a house filled with soft even light that falls gently on pale yellow walls and is transformed in the background into small glowing spots of color on the glass over framed pictures and, contrapuntally, into glowing russet tones in the faintly shadowed swarthy face of the elderly man who holds an elderly woman's hand as she seems cautiously to make her way down what must be a few steps from the corridor where he stands to the bright room she and a younger man are entering.


Each character is more charged with his or her own emotion than engaged with another's. The woman looks down with apparent concern lest, we feel, she fall. Caught up in what seems, to her, a risky few steps from one level of the house to another, she doesn't acknowledge the man's assistance or notice his smile which, its affection not withstanding, betrays amusement. The young man to their right squeezes past them, intent on and amused by something outside the frame. And so the moment, too is occupied (as opposed to shared) by these three people whose states of being are so precisely differentiated one from the other as to force this detailed account.

What this picture's handling of time shows us is that we speak lazily and unthinkingly indeed when we say photographs "capture" or "freeze" moments in time. This one does nothing of the kind. It defines its own moment, defines it by the skillful distribution of three specific sharply perceived and distinctly different events in the stream of three peoples' emotional lives, which events are expressed not only in the faces but also by gestures and bodies. The frame is charged with their emotions, and each one is a moment, a world in itself. And so time is not stopped. Rather, the picture creates its own, imaginative, fictional sense of time. Moreover, the picture is about bodies in motion, and this impression of motion in turn gives the impression that each character's emotion is in time rather than at a moment. Each emotion, by virtue of its distinctness, enhances the others' specificity. Therefore as we continue to view the picture we linger progressively longer with each character before going on to another. Time does not stop here. Rather, it unfolds; if we look long enough and give our sensibilities and feelings free rein, time expands. The picture's reference is not to stillness but to the soul's journey towards eternity.

We call pictures whose reference is eternal stillness “monumental” and the things it represents often look sharply chiselled, like statuary. This picture, however, albeit precisely drawn, is slightly soft, with traces of blur (due, no doubt, to shallow depth of field and a slow shutter speed). It is as though drawn with a soft pencil. The woman’s left hand and the elderly man’s shirt and face are as if drawn and shaded by the pencil lead’s side instead of its point. This kind of drawing and representation of surfaces are within the visual vocabulary of the sketch, in whose long tradition the reference is to the unfolding of both the subject’s and the artists’ feelings in a moment of time. This picture, then, which enters amd moves along with the moment and re-creates it -- as an accomplished singer enters a familiar song and turns it into her own -- is lyrical. Now just as we know in advance that a song will end we know that the fictional world of a picture stops at the picture’s edges. But as we listen to the song or contemplate the picture’s imaginary world, the impression created by the singer’s or the photographer’s art is that this moment, this world, will go on forever, along with the pleasure it gives the eye and heart.

The artistry of this picture is obvious. Firmly drawn, highly specific figures and heads. Good subtle variation in the drapery. Lovely decoration along the edges of the frame in the folds of drapery along the elderly man’s right arm and the right side of his chest, in the topmost picture on the wall, and in the return of, and variation on the framed picture’s spots of red we see in the graceful small flower on the woman’s dress. Good variation everywhere, in fact, but especially in the arms, hands, necks and collars. The shadows beneath the couple’s arms start a brief, gentle abstract passage, a small counterpoint of painterly drawing in an over-all linear picture. Thus the shadows add a brief visual pleasure of their own, neither joining nor cancelling out the over-all pleasure afforded to the eye by the picture’s chief method of drawing the world. The handling of the planes is skillful. When the print is finished so that the faint pastel colors in the top left corner meet the eye at the same time as the pictures’ other forms and completes the decoration, there will be at least ten planes receeding from the woman’s hand in the bottom right corner to the wall over the elderly man’s right shoulder. It requires considerable skill to knit so many planes together so seamlessly, apparently so naturally. The space represented by this picture -- but which does not reside in the picture --rings true to our sense of space in life. When we sit in a room or walk down a street our sense of the place we occupy or move through is created in part by our sense of the coherence and continuance of the space in it, that everything has its place in that space, and that everything in that space is in relation to everything else and to ourselves.

And yet in this picture we have not the space of the room created by our perceptions of ourselves and others and things in it but a space created by the photographer and his sense of the relations of things both as things in a place and as forms within a space that exists in his imagination until he realizes these forms in pictorial terms. In other words, the space is created by the composition.

The composition here includes but is not limited to the photographer’s layering of the picture’s virtual planes. It is a remarkably solid composition. Very little seems haphazard. Move only one figure only a little and everything changes. If the woman were more to the left her figure would draw the man behind her quite differently. The form of his shirt would not be so narrow or plunge so steeply and swiftly to so sharp a point just above her left sleeve. And so his emotion would probably seem less intense, his movement seem slower. Also, the space between the two older figures would change and the shadows beneath the woman’s arm would be more stacatto. And so on. both the moment and the space would change together with the way these three people occupy them.

As for the the slight flaws: two bits of framing. The edges draw the two men’s heads indecisively, making making indifferent and somewhat awkward shapes. The steady energy that characterizes the picture over-all flags there. And I think a millimeter or two more of the young man’s left eye along the right edge would have made his face stronger. But as this might have put an undue emphasis on the bulb of his nose, and as millimeters gained at the right edge would have meant meant millimeters lost at the left... But I’m talking about a picture I can’t see and perhaps didn’t get made. I’m talking about nothing and so must stop. Besides, a few minor flaws are no reason to reject a picture that originated in a fine visual intelligence and compassionate moral imagination, is made with so much obvious skill and artistry, and creates a gently compelling space and a gently comic fictional world based on the way we live now and on the manners and mixed emotions of family life.

Photographer's Reply
Ben, your dissection (I mean that in a most positive way) of my #8 picture was so revealing to me. I was amazed that your discription of the scene (my mother, step-father, and newphew), was precisely what was going on there. Your description of my mother's fear of taking those steps (due to medical issues) and your insight into her relationship to her husband is astounding to me. Somewhat uncanny and quite impressive.

I would like to understand your comments about the framing of my step-fathers head. I understand what you say about my nephews eye and nose, and I agree; but as you said, that would make a different picture... So here is my main question. Obviously I did not think about all of the things that you pointed out in your review when I took this picture. Can you comment on how I might have been more concious of the edge framing, for example? How does one keep all of this thinking going on and still be observing the moment? I suppose it is the same way one gets to Carnaegie Hall, but I would appreciate your comments.

Ben's Counterpoint
Good questions. The cropping of your step-father's head is very, very slight, which gives the feeling that it wasn't intentional but, rather, accidental. But almost everything else in the picture looks intentional and highly deliberate. So that point along the edge gives the impression that the photographer's control of his instrument and of his composition slipped: an impression, if you will, that the clutch is slipping. And the result is unhappy with the respect to the shape of the man's head. It's so close to being complete that the short horizontal line across the crown of it draws a great deal of attention to itself. But the line is so very short that it's hardly a line at all. It doesn't operate as a line. In effect, you have strongly drawn attention to a piece of the photograph where there's almost nothing to pay attention to.

Your mother is the central, largest and brightest subject here, and her stepping down is the picture's pivotal action: it engages the eye first, she leads us in. As we go from her to other parts of the picture her gesture, and her hand in her husband's, naturally lead us to your stepfather. There's much to engage the eye as it travels from her figure to his face. As faces are magnetic, we linger on his. As we take it all in, enjoying all its visual properties, including the shape of his head, suddenly, at the very top of his head – at a key point in one of the picture's key elements -- there's nothing to look at. In other words, via one strong visual pleasure after another the picture leads us to a key human and structural part of it at the top of the frame only to disappoint us, suddenly, sharply, and strangely. In artistic terms, you've created anti-climax.

True, it's small. But because it comes after so much to look at and enjoy, it is disproportionately sharp and strong for its size, length, etc. etc.

Also, the cropping strangely affects the shape of the man's head. It's not the shape of a complete head but the fragment is so close to being a whole that one wonders why you made a head with such a short straight horizontal line across the crown, and just at the apex of the curve of the crown, to boot. Considered as a drawing of a head (as opposed to a cropping by a camera's field of vision) it looks highly deliberate. But the result is awkward. For what purpose? Consequently, the whole head is also an anti-climax.

You ask how one can become more aware of such matters of form while photographing life as it is unfolding before one's eyes (often, I might add, unfolding rather quickly).

The answer has many parts.

Practice, constant practice (see my comments on this in the May edition of Making Pictures).

Looking carefully at every frame you shoot, paying close attention to its visual excellence and to its flaws.

Avoid looking at a day's or a week's results in order to find the good pictures. This is the last thing one should do, and one should do it only periodically, like every two weeks, or every month. Instead, get into the habit of looking in order to find what, if anything is visually interesting in any frame you shoot, even if it's a small thing, even so small as ten square millimeters of visual interest or strength in an 8 x 10 inch print.

Make a paper work print (on at least 8 x 10 paper but preferably 11 x 14) of every frame or part of a frame that has something interesting in it and pin them up on your walls and live with them until you've absorbed them into your visual memory. A part of this picture I would crop in Photo Shop and make as big a paper print as I could before noise got in the way is the part showing the shadows under your mother's arm. I'd stare at the print of this cropping until I understood everything about how those shadows work. Another part to print just as a fragment is the top left corner – when the colors are in: it looks like a lovely little abstract passage. Another part is the area holding the images of the framed pictures on the passageway wall.

Becoming intimate with something visually interesting in an otherwise weak or even horrible picture will make you progressively more aware of similar things in future subjects and you will start consciously working these things into your pictures whereas before they got there by accident. And you'll work on them progressively faster all the time. Yes, expect to slow down a little from your usual pace at first. It always happens when one becomes conscious of what one was doing only unconsciously, and becomes aware of habitual mistakes that must be rectified. But fairly soon the pace picks up again and usually becomes faster than before.

It doesn't matter that you are not consciously aware of them at first, or didn't intentionally put them into your pictures or handle them that way. Something in you was unconsciously aware of them. Something in you intuitively worked them into your pictures in a certain way.

True, I'm begging the question, which is, "How do I know what's visually interesting? Or visually strong? Especially in the terms you're referring to? When I'm not aware of these things?"

One looks. One looks at pictures. At good pictures in all media: photography, painting, drawing, print making...

Here's a key set of photographers whose works you could look at to great advantage if you look very, very carefully. I list them roughly in chronological order, 1839-c. 1990. William Henry Fox Talbot, Hippolyte Bayard, Charles Negre, Gustave Le Gray, Henri Le Secq, Edouard-Denis Baldus, Roger Fenton, Julia Margaret Cameron, Edouard Durandelle, Tiimothy J. O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Lewis W. Hine, Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Andre Kertesz, Alexander Rodchenko, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Constantin Brancusi, Brassai, August Sander, Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Helen Levitt, Weegee, Giacomelli, Edouard Boubat, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, John Coplans.

Again, see my comments in Making Pictures.

You mentioned Carnegie Hall. I once saw Rudolph Serkin play there. I was sitting in row 8 and could see his hands on the keyboard. In fast movements his hands were moving so quickly I couldn't believe he was so much as touching a single key, much less striking so many of them at once, notes after notes – chords, lines, runs, arpeggios, trills and grace notes –in such perfect time, with such great expression. I have seen 35mm photographers who worked like that. They could raise the camera to their eye, focus, frame, cock the shutter, shoot and bring the camera back down in a tiny fraction of the time than it takes most of us to get the camera half way to the eye. And their pictures were consistently good. For both Serkin and the photographers, it was practice that led to virtuosity.

One of the skills you need – and it is a skill – for photographing in the kinds of public places where you like to work is the skill of photographing unobserved by others. In the summer of 1976 I was in a group of about 30 people watching muscle men work out on the beach in Venice California. It was in a small paved area enclosed by a waist-high chain link fence. Suddenly I heard the sound of a Leica shutter being released. (There's no other shutter that sounds like that.) "Ah!" I said to myself. “Maybe he's serious. I wonder who he is?” I looked toward where the sound came from. There was no one with a camera. The shutter went off again. I looked. No one. So I stepped back a little from the crowd to get an over view. For ten minutes I heard that shutter but never saw the photographer until he had to change film. I went up to him, introduced myself and asked his name. It was Leon Levinstein, a very well known and very good photographer since the 1940s. What I had observed by not being able to observe him was the degree of invisibility he had achieved by the time of what was then his fourth decade of constant practice at the skill.