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Update January 2019

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SNAP SHOTS   by Harry Flashman


Have you read your instruction manual?

After using many different cameras over far too many years, I have become a little blasť about instruction manuals. After all, the technical side of photography involves manipulating shutter speed, aperture of the lens and focusing. It really should not need much more than a few pages to cover that.

However, with the digital evolution and the advent of LCD’s and drop down menus and other electronic trickery, it has become necessary to once more study the instruction manuals (and I have to admit I have not read my new one from cover to cover)!

But instruction manuals are not new. A few years back now, I was given a book by Jan Olav Aamlid called How to make good pictures - a book for the amateur photographer. Published by Kodak Limited in London, the book had 170 glossy pages and the price was one shilling!

Unfortunately, there was no date in the book, but looking at the photographs printed in it, I would put the date at around 1920.

Things have changed photographically too. Before the world developed that wonderful little pop-up flash on your compact camera, that “knows” it has to come up when the light levels are low, Kodak were offering the Amateur Flashlight Outfit for those who would brave the dark. I quote from our one shilling book, “The procedure is simple. The powder is crushed and mixed as indicated, then the taper is fixed in position at one end of the tray. When ready to make the exposure, the taper is lit and the lamp slowly tilted until the powder falls on the flame.” The book goes on a couple of pages later, “When more than one flashlight picture is to be taken, the windows should be opened between each flash to free the room thoroughly from smoke, otherwise all the pictures after the first few are liable to have a slightly ‘foggy’ appearance.”

Further advice to the amateur with his flash powder and taper include, “If the room is darkened the sudden flash of light so strains the eyes of the sitters that it almost invariably gives them a staring look, but if the room is already illuminated by gas or electricity, the strain is not so great and the eyes will have a natural expression.” I would imagine that sitting in a closed room with some lunatic with crushed flash powder and a lit taper would make anyone stare a little! Yes, we certainly get it easy these days.

There is one complete chapter on photographing interiors, with exposure times quoted around the 10 minute mark. They do caution, “If time exposures are made with the camera held in the hands, the pictures will be blurred.” The mind boggles at a hand-held 10 minute time exposure!

However, it does have some very pertinent facts. With portrait photography, the book suggests, “As an example, take a young man with too prominent ears; it is obvious in this case that the full face would be displeasing, so turn the face slowly away from the light until the ear nearest the light disappears from the line of sight.” The book also says that if this still does not fix the problem, get the young man to rest his head on his hand and hide the appendages that way!

For me, the best part of the book was in the first few chapters where the basic principles of photography were explained in detail, even showing the differences between different manufacture of lenses. Exposure control is well documented, and the amateur photographer who followed this book through to the end would have no longer been a true “amateur”.

In those halcyon days, the budding photographer was also his own darkroom assistant and much of the book is devoted to D&P (Developing and Printing) and how to avoid the traps and pitfalls. For those of you who have dabbled (or rather dipped and dunked) you will agree that it does give another dimension to picture taking, one that has all but disappeared these days with the advent of the digital camera.

The ‘decisive moment’

Henri Cartier-Bresson, the originator of the phrase in photography, “The Decisive Moment”, died in 2004, aged 95. However, he will be remembered for his contributions to photography forever. However, despite his fame and notoriety, he was never one to look for personal publicity, and in fact hid from it.

He was born in France in 1908 and initially studied painting, following much of the Surrealist school of thought of the time. However, by the time he was 22 years old he had dropped art for photography, but began to apply the art concepts he had been exposed to towards photography.

One of the factors that allowed Cartier-Bresson to do this was the advent of the small portable cameras, such as the Leica fitted with a 50 mm lens, which was to become Cartier-Bresson’s favorite instrument. He believed that the photographer had to become part of what was going on, and after becoming ‘in tune’ with the subject, it was then possible to capture the essential moment, the very essence of the event. This was explained by Cartier-Bresson in the foreword to his book, published in 1952, Images a la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment). He called it “The simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as the precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.”

With this concept and the portable lightweight camera, Cartier-Bresson became one of the principal ‘street’ photographers. A true journalist with a camera - a photo-journalist. He would record not just a parade, but also the people watching the event, and their reactions to the event.

Take a look at the classic photo to illustrate the decisive moment. The shot was taken in 1932 at the Place de l’Europe, where the marooned man has finally realized that there is no way out, and having made the decision, launches himself off the ladder. That split second, that decisive moment caught by Cartier-Bresson in such a way the viewer can feel the moment still today, 72 years later. In his words, “There was a plank fence around some repairs behind the Gare Saint-Lazare train station. I happened to be peeking through a gap in the fence with my camera at the moment the man jumped.”

He recorded the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and then WW II, but was finally captured and he became a POW. He escaped three years later, and was there to record the liberation of Paris from the Germans.

Of course, he was by that stage becoming an icon, and in 1947 joined forces with two other ground-breaking photojournalists, Robert Capa and David Seymour to form the Magnum agency. However, for Cartier-Bresson, news was much more than the photo-journalists were showing. It was necessary to get behind the scenes.

Cartier-Bresson and his confreres forged a name for hard hitting news photography. Cartier-Bresson spent almost 20 years there, covering Mao Zedong’s victory in China and the death in India of nationalist movement leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Regarded as one of the pioneers of photojournalism, his pictures now hang in art galleries around the world, with a retrospective in Europe to be extended to allow more visitors the chance to view his work.

Friend and fellow photographer Lord Snowdon paid tribute to him saying, “He was brilliant. I will miss him very much. I don’t think he’d like his work to be called art, he would like to be remembered as an anonymous figure. His books record moments that can’t be captured again.” Again that concept of the ‘decisive moment’.

But by 1975 he gave up photography. “All I care about these days is painting - photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing.”

Ex-French President Jacques Chirac said Cartier-Bresson’s death was a major loss to his country. “France loses a genius photographer, a true master, and one of the most gifted artists of his generation and most respected in the world.”

In 2004, the world lost a photographer who had vision and the ability to record his vision in a way the world could understand. The decisive moment will always belong to Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Museum Pieces

Yesterday afternoon, I spent an entertaining hour rummaging through one of the drawers in my study desk, for no other reason that rummaging through a drawer is a pleasing, if a slightly time-wasting diversion. Drawers are often full of memories.

I found a rusting pair of scissors which belonged to my grandmother who once told me that she’d had the scissors since she was a teenager. She was born in 1878. Then I discovered a letter opener with a stainless steel blade and a wooden handle, which was made by my cousin at least sixty years ago as a birthday present for my mother.

Near the bottom of the drawer I found a white box with the word “Philatoscope” printed on the front. You may not have come across one of these, but it’s a large convex lens affixed to a small stand just high enough to slide a postage stamp underneath. It used to belong to my father who was an enthusiastic stamp collector. On the back of the box it says “ten shillings and sixpence” which must have been a lot of money in the 1950s. It’s in pristine condition and I tried it out on a two baht stamp. It still works perfectly.

But among all these priceless treasure, one item from the darkest recesses of the drawer captivated my attention and I’ve added a photograph of it. If you are a regular reader of this column, you’ll know what it is and you might even have one. It is of course an exposure meter, and a pretty famous one at that. It was named after its English inventor Edward Weston. His first photographic exposure meter appeared in the 1930s and didn’t look much different to the one in the photo, except that it was black. These meters have been used for years by professionals and serious amateurs and I bought mine in the late 1960s.

It looks a complicated thing but they were actually quite easy to use once you’d grasped the idea. Without becoming embroiled in too much technical detail the “exposure” is the amount of light that reaches the photographic film or the image sensor and it’s determined by the shutter speed, the lens aperture and the brightness of the image itself. Before the appearance of Mr. Weston’s exposure meter, it was largely guesswork. Some people became quite skilled at estimating the exposure but it could be an unreliable method especially in unfamiliar surroundings. And of course in the days of film, you couldn’t see your photograph until the film was processed and prints had been made. If your guess had been wrong, nothing much could be done about it. However, black-and-white photographic film was much less sensitive back in those days and rather more forgiving.

I suppose the vast majority of people who rely on their Smartphone for taking photographs have any idea of what the word “exposure” means. But their Smartphone does, and it attempts to work out the correct exposure for every photo they take, often with surprisingly accurate results. This confirms my lingering suspicion that Smartphones are often smarter than the people who use them. Anyway, if you don’t mind, I am going to spend a bit more time with my ancient Weston Master V and see if I can remember how it works.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Have you read your instruction manual?

The ‘decisive moment’

Museum Pieces