Tag Archives: photography

Book sniffing note: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963

Books – especially books that are not filled with trains of words meant to be ridden from end to end – can be like visiting a museum or gallery. You will find a route through, but it can be any of many routes. You can spend a long or short time. You can pause in some places, hurry past others. You can swim in them, letting it all flow past you as though you are a fish in an aquarium. And you can simply enter and let the smell tell you that you are where art is.

Yes, the smell. Museums and galleries have smells, some stronger than others. The gradual decay of paint, the aging of paper, the exhalations of exalted and exhausted visitors, the wandering aromas of the café in the basement. You could put me to sleep, blindfold me, and awaken me in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and I would say “Ah! The MFA! It’s been years since I was last here.” And books – art books in particular – are like that too.

Art books use different paper, often glossy paper with a clay content, and they use different amounts and kinds of ink, and they come from different printing plants. Opening an art book can be to your nose like revving an expensive car is to your ears: Yes, you are here, this is going to happen.

I have various art books. They don’t all smell the same, but most of them smell like art books, some more pointedly than others. I have just sat down with a not-too-thick clothbound dust-jacketed volume of one of my favourite photographers: André Kertész: Paris, Autumn 1963, printed by Flammarion. The photographs are what it says on the cover, pictures of people in a city at a time, captured by master of the camera. There is an essay at the start about the assembly and production of the book; it’s so interesting, I actually read it. But before I get to word one, before I can examine in detail the scenes in black ink and white paper, I open this book and my nose knows.

It knows that smell of a mixture of tangy ink, just a few shades off from oil paint in a gallery, and paper such as filled certain books languishing in a small-town library I visited when I was young, or lurking in the stacks of my university’s library in my first year, waiting for me to pull them off the shelf and open them and feel like a scholar. There are overtones of the fetid mushy smell of pulp mills in small mountain forestry towns, but only in the background, like wet newspaper you pass on a damp sidewalk. This pulp has been refined, pressed, dried, and educated. This is a smell of paper with glasses on and one eyebrow half raised. 

But with the ink, that arty ink in its arrangements, it is the smell of an old book of photographs, raising a beckoning finger, asking me to come and sit down on the floor of the stacks gazing at a page that has no words, bidding me bide a while looking at soft old images of people long since buried but here still young and alive. It is a smell of life that has stopped and flattened itself against a page like a shadow of a cat awaiting the passing of peril, and it will not move while death walks the earth. 

Come, come, sit down, stop, stay. Look at us, look at this, let the words end so that the world does not end. This is how life was once, when the world was black and white. And you have smelled it before, this smell that stalks galleries and art stores and the halls of your parents’ rich friends’ houses, and you know that you can come and abide with it, this autumn petrichor breathed through the open window of a paint-stained garret, this aroma that so often shades into coffee or wine, and then you can stand up and put it back on the shelf and return to the world of colour and movement and the odor of things that change.

solitude

Laurie Anderson said,

Paradise
Is exactly like
Where you are right now
Only much much
Better.

I have a similar thought about solitude: Solitude is exactly like loneliness, only much much better.

To put it another way, the difference between loneliness and solitude is that you hate the one and want the other.

I spent many years in corrosive loneliness, single, unattached, walking miles by myself hoping to find someone else but unable or unwilling or afraid to reach out. Now, I happily go for long walks or runs by myself, because I know there is someone there for me when I get back. I can be by myself because I know I have friends who will spend time with me. Being apart from others is no longer a subtraction; it is an addition.

Solitude, etymologically, means exactly the same thing as loneliness: sol- as in sole, solo, solivagant, plus -itude; lonely plus -ness, where lonely is lone plus -ly and lone in its turn is shortened from alone, which is from all one. (The difference between only and lonely, etymologically, is just that the latter has the last remnant of all.) Why have they gained different tones? I don’t know for certain, but I have a guess: poetry. Solitude comes from French, which took it (altered) from Latin, and poets for a long time, especially in the educated and courtly traditions, preferred the classically derived words. Lonely comes from base old English, the language of the commoners when, after the Norman conquest, the rich spoke French. Rich, well-educated people can afford solitude; poor peasants are stuck with being lonely.

There’s no shortage of poetry on solitude; just search “solitude” at poetryfoundation.org and see. You will also find enough entries for solitude in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Some of it is very much the kind of mood I like, when I like that kind of mood:

That inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude

—William Wordsworth

I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

—Henry David Thoreau

She would not exchange her solitude for anything. Never again to be forced to move to the rhythms of others.

—Tillie Olsen

For those of us who have been too much isolated, solitude is not available, only loneliness. But for those of us who are well supported and have as much social contact as we need – or perhaps even more – solitude can be a sweet gift, a refreshing time away.

And it doesn’t need to be in the far countryside. It can be in the middle of a city. If you can be alone in a crowd, you can have solitude in the heart of a city.

I wish you as much solitude as you desire, and as little loneliness as you want.

PAINT

I’ve made a book. It’s a book of photos, but it has words in it, because they’re photos of graffiti. Not clever or funny graffiti, just graffiti that I find very visually attractive: the colours and textures and patterns. The book is available at Lulu.com in softcover (a hardcover will be coming, but due to factors beyond my control, the list price will be excessive). But I’m also going to send a copy of it to everyone who is supporting me on Patreon for $5 or more per month as of December 31, 2020. Also, I’ve made a PDF of the book that’s available for free to all Patreon supporters regardless of level. (I have almost 20,000 subscribers to Sesquiotica, but right now I have only 16 – sixteen – patrons on Patreon, and most of them are at $1 or $2 a month. It barely covers the cost of running the website.)

And I’ve made a video of the book. Take a look! (Advance warning: there are some vulgar words in it, because of course there are, it’s graffiti.)

negative

Negative is a negative word. Right?

Are you positive? Continue reading

16 insights for photographers

I don’t earn much of my income through photography. People don’t pay me for advice on how to take pictures. However, I’ve been taking pictures – with proper full-control cameras in several film sizes – since I was about six years old.

I learned photography, including darkroom developing and printing, from my dad, who was a professional photographer at the time. I love photography, I look at a lot of photographs, I take a lot of photographs. I also love photographic equipment and I know a lot about it.

So, as a little cherry to put on top of my 12 days of gifts for writers, here – in one day – are 16 insights for photographers. If you’re a lifelong serious photographer, each of these is probably something you already either know or disagree with (or both). If you don’t care about photography, skip this. If, however, you like taking pictures but would like more thoughts and insights, here are some things I’ve observed that might be useful to you. (If you don’t like frank language, well, be forewarned.) Continue reading

50

I had a bit of a party yesterday to celebrate a bit of a birthday. For half a day (I mean 12 hours) I took over the party room on the 33rd floor of the building where I live, and a goodly number of friends joined me to celebrate my attainment of half a century – or, as my brother reminded me, a third of a sesquicentury. (And 50 is one and a half times 33, so there’s that too.)

A 50th anniversary is a golden one, but 50 is the atomic number of tin, not gold. As it happens, my hair used to be gold, or goldish anyway, but is now much more the colour of tin. If you see 50 on a tin in Canada, it may be a can of Labatt’s 50, which is a beer. I suppose I could have been clever and served Labatt’s 50 at my party, but it’s not the sort of beer I buy often. Anyway, I was more focused on the sparkling wine, of which I bought two cases to serve those present (along with two cases of still wine, which may not be sparkling but it’s still wine).

The word fifty is obvious enough in its parts: fif meaning ‘five’ (the v in five was established later – in Old English, [v] was just a possible pronunciation of /f/ between vowels) and -ty a suffix meaning ‘ten’ and coming from a word meaning ‘decade’. But there is another suffix -ty that is related to Latin -itas and makes nouns of quality, such as beautyroyalty, and plenty. If royalty is ‘royalness’, fifty could almost be ‘fiveness’. That might be nifty – but it’s not so.

Many things are 50 in number. The states of the USA, for instance – and Hawai‘i, being the fiftieth to join, wears the number. But 50 is not so often a number of completion; more usually, it’s halfway, or an equal share, although it doesn’t always seem so – a 50% grey looks quite dark to most eyes; for a shade to look halfway between white and black, it needs to be closer to 33% grey, i.e., just 1/3 black (so a third of the way, just as my party room is a third of the way to the 100th floor – if there were one – and I’m a third of the way to being a sesquicentenarian). But 50 can also be a standard. In Canada, for instance, 50 kilometres per hour is the speed limit on any street not otherwise specified. And in 35 mm photography – and its digital equivalent, “full-frame” sensors – the standard “normal” lens has a focal length of 50 millimetres. In truth, it’s a slightly narrower angle of view than would best match what your eye sees in the same image area, but the length was established by Leitz for their Leica cameras on the basis of what they could make best at that time.

As it happens, I was using a Leitz 50mm lens during the party – I had it on my Sony camera; I took a picture of nearly every friend and family member who came (I missed a few). After night fell, I swapped to a faster, glowier 50mm lens. So it was 50–50, but it was always 50, though not for the sake of cleverness; I just wanted the look those lenses have. And so here I present what getting to be 50 has meant to me more than anything else: people. My family and friends. Here are 50 pictures of them (among which is one of me). Continue reading

TORONTO: the book

After my tasting of Toronto with pictures, and its sequel Toronto, part 2, I decided it would be fun to make a photo book with five-and-a-half dozen photos of Toronto, mainly to give some to people such as my parents. I was going to publish it via Lulu, where I’ve done Songs of Love and Grammar, but it turned out that for printing photos at a decent quality on decent paper I would face a choice of using one of their (ghastly, trite) templates or making an overlarge, very expensive volume. So I used Blurb instead. As you can see, it is a reality:

Alas, Blurb is not so cheap either. As you will see on Blurb, this 72-page book, not much over six inches square, lists at $35 Canadian ($28.69 US right now), which is rather a lot given its size – but a larger format would cost proportionally more. However, as the creator, I can order quantities at a discount, and I ordered a few to give to family with a few left over. If you fancy buying one off me for $25 Canadian (plus postage if necessary), let me know – email james at harbeck dot ca.

(If, on the other hand, you’d like a PDF copy of it, that can be arranged in exchange for a drink or some similar consideration; just email me to ask.)

abstract

What’s the take-away on abstracts?

Ha. Abstracts are the take-away.

An abstract can be any of several things, of course. It can be a short statement at the beginning of a paper or dissertation saying what the gist of the effort is – the synopsis, the tl;dr, the elevator pitch, the take-away. It can be an epitome, a microcosm or essence or distillation of a thing – when you take away all the variable excrescences, it is what you still have. It can be a work of art with most or all representation taken away – or should I say it has bits of what you can perceive taken away from all the other bits and presented in a purified form. Continue reading

Toronto, part 2

Some of you have said that you like my photos of Toronto. Most of the photos I included in my Toronto post were of the place more than of the people. But of course what makes Toronto Toronto is the people. I’ve gone through my last several years of photos from Toronto and pulled out a bunch more, including many of people (and a few more of places). And all of them were taken in Toronto. This time they’re all just in more or less the order I took them. There are many more on my Flickr site. Or you can get the book.

Toronto

On July 10, 1997, I arrived in Toronto with a truck full of personal effects to take up residence. I had never lived in Toronto before, but I had visited, and it seemed like a good place to go. Just a month later, I met Aina Arro, to whom I have been married since 2000. Nearly every interesting, enjoyable, and profitable thing that has happened to me in the intervening 20 years has resulted directly or indirectly from decisions and connections I made in my first year in Toronto – in fact, to some extent, it was all in place by the end of that summer, though I didn’t know it yet. I sure wouldn’t be who I am now if I didn’t live in Toronto.

Toronto is like that kid in school who’s so popular nobody likes her. And then you happen to get to know her and you find out that she’s really interesting. And ridiculously insecure. Continue reading